Is Jesus’ Radical Love Ethic Impossible to Live Out?

by Greg Mackie

I recently attended a fascinating workshop by Jesus scholar Roy Hoover. Hoover presented evidence that Jesus' original message, stripped of the later theological agendas of the gospel writers, was truly radical: a "perfectionist" ethic of unconditional love and generosity rooted in trust in an extravagantly loving and generous God. But then, drawing upon the work of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Hoover qualified Jesus' extreme message. He suggested that Jesus' radical love ethic could not possibly be lived out in history: It could be approximated, but the unalterable limitations of human nature would forever make its ultimate accomplishment impossible. Is this so? A Course in Miracles says no, because our true nature and ultimate potential are not as limited as we think.

Hoover is a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars dedicated to using modern methods of historical-critical scholarship to "excavate" the gospels in order to arrive at the earliest layers of the tradition — the layers that most likely describe what the historical Jesus really said and did. Hoover's own portrait of Jesus and his message is rooted in two well-known passages from what is now called the Sermon on the Mount:

Don't react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when someone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you; and don't turn away from the one who tries to borrow from you….

Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. You'll then become children of your Father in the heavens. <God> causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that? Even the toll collectors do as much, don't they? So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:39-42; 44-48, Scholars Version)

No one can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can't be enslaved to both God and a bank account! That's why I tell you: Don't fret about your life — what you're going to eat and drink – or about your body – what you're going to wear. There is more to living than food and clothing, isn't there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don't plant or harvest, or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You're worth more than they, aren't you? Can any of you add one hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow; they don't slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into an oven, won't <God care for> you even more, you who trust God for so little? (Matthew 6:24-30, Scholars Version)

According to Hoover, based on the results of meticulous historical scholarship, "in these sayings we come as close to hearing the voice of the Jesus of history as in anything preserved in our sources." And what does this voice tell us? We are to love everyone as God loves them — even our enemies. We are to give extravagantly to everyone as God does when He sends the sun and the rain to all indiscriminately. We are to give lavishly not only to the beggars and borrowers, but to the oppressors who slap us and steal our clothes and force us to carry burdens for them. We are to love all and give to all and bless all without limit, no matter what they do to us.

What is the basis for doing this? Our complete trust in our loving and generous Father, who will provide for us just as He does the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Because we completely trust God's boundless love and generosity, we can be carefree, setting aside our usual anxious concern for ourselves and instead giving the bounty we have received from God to others. We are children of God, and to fully realize His Kingdom, we are to be shining representatives of His perfect love on earth: "So be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." This is what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.

But how can we actually do this in day-to-day life? It seems like such an impossible goal. To address this crucial practical issue, it was here that Hoover brought in the perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential Christian theologian of the twentieth century. In Niebuhr's view, Jesus' radical, perfectionist ethic of love really is an impossible goal, an ethic that can never be totally lived out in human life. Yes, we can and should strive to approximate this love ethic as fully as possible. But because of the inherent and unchangeable limitations that are part of being human, we must do so with the understanding that we will never actually reach the perfection Jesus calls for:

His Kingdom of God is….an impossibility in history and always beyond every historical achievement. Men living in nature and in the body will never be capable of the sublimation of egoism and the attainment of the sacrificial passion, the complete disinterestedness which the ethic of Jesus demands….It transcends the possible and historical. (Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics)

Thus Niebuhr, in characteristically paradoxical fashion, described Jesus' radical love ethic as an "impossible possibility." It is always a possibility that we can come closer and closer to realizing this ideal, and indeed we should endeavor to do so. But because human nature cannot completely transcend nature, the body, egoism, and the need for prudent self-defense, the complete attainment of this ideal is an impossibility in human history. Looking at things from a realistic point of view, we will always fall short of the Kingdom of God.

This perspective elicited much discussion in the workshop. One participant questioned whether reaching this ideal was truly impossible, given the genuine progress we have made so far. Can we not continue to progress until we do in fact reach the goal? Other people went the other direction entirely. One participant asked, "What if Jesus was wrong?" What if Jesus' ideal of love rooted in trust in an extravagantly loving and generous God was simply misplaced, a relic of a bygone, naïve, unscientific age? Hoover acknowledged that this was a genuine possibility. And though he said that Niebuhr himself did not find this perspective depressing, I certainly did. What a sad state of affairs if it is true: Jesus offers us a sublime ideal of love, but we are doomed never to reach it. It feels like one of those cruel punishments in Greek mythology, like that of Tantalos, who was condemned to stand in water up to his neck for eternity without ever being able to drink it.

But is Niebuhr right? I have read him before, and admire his work; his commitment to a realistic idealism has inspired many great people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. My response to his perspective is twofold. On the one hand, I do think he has a legitimate point about our current capabilities as a species. I think it's reasonable to acknowledge that we are a long way from reaching that pure love ethic of Jesus. Looking at the world without blinders, it is easy to see that we are drenched in egoism, and that truly selfless love is rare indeed. Those who come even close to it are regarded as saints, beautiful exceptions to the usual rule of human life. Given that, it makes sense to be realistic about short-term possibilities for humanity as a whole.

On the other hand, how can Niebuhr be so certain about our ultimate human potential? How do we know that the limits we see in human beings now are unalterable? How do we know that egoism can never be transcended? After all, we have progressed, even if very slowly. To cite just one example, we have progressed from slavery in the American South — which was once thought by many to be unalterable — to electing an African-American president. How do we know what the upper limits of this progress are? How do we know beforehand just how far human potential can go? In the long run, isn't the attainment of Jesus' love ethic at least a possibility?

This naturally leads me to A Course in Miracles, which claims to be written by Jesus himself. The Course presents its own version of Jesus' radical love ideal — a version so similar that in my mind it lends credence to the idea that Jesus really did write the Course. It is striking to me that Jesus scholars, most of whom have probably never heard of the Course and who certainly aren't in the business of trying to prove Jesus wrote it, have independently come up with a portrait of him that is so stunningly Course-like.

There are so many parallels in the Course with the message of those passages from Matthew. It tells us to "pray truly for your enemies, for herein lies your own salvation" (S-1.II.6:7). Indeed, it makes explicit what is implicit in the gospel injunction: Loving my enemies means "I have no enemies" (T-21.VII.5:13). Our goal is to love as God loves – totally and universally. Until we do that, we will not even understand what love really is:

You cannot enter into real relationships with any of God's Sons unless you love them all and equally….You can love only as God loves. Seek not to love unlike Him, for there is no love apart from His. Until you recognize that this is true, you will have no idea what love is like. (T-13.X.11:1, 4-6)

The Course reiterates Jesus' gospel injunction to "go with a brother twice as far as he asks," adding that "it can only lead to mutual progress" (T-4.In.1:1, 4). As in those passages in Matthew, we are to love all and give to all and bless all without limit, no matter what they do to us. According to the Course, Jesus' forgiving response to his crucifixion was a demonstration of his willingness to bless his persecutors, an expression of his commitment to love in the face of the "most outrageous assault" (T-6.I.9:1). The message of the crucifixion, he says, is "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2).

The basis given for this love and generosity is the same as Jesus gives in the gospels: complete trust in our loving and generous Father, a trust which is "the foundation on which [God's teachers'] ability to fulfill their function rests" (M-4.I.1:1). This trust is well founded, for God's Love is so great that "there is nothing on earth with which it can compare, and nothing you have ever felt apart from Him resembles it ever so faintly" (T-14.IV.8:5). His generosity is so great that He is described as "One Who gives forever, and Who knows of nothing except giving" (T-14.IV.8:7). We need not fret about our lives, no matter what troubles seem to befall us, because God cares for us just as He does the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field:

You need be neither careful nor careless; you need merely cast your cares upon Him because He careth for you. You are His care because He loves you. His Voice reminds you always that all hope is yours because of His care. (T-5.VII.1:4-6)

Because God cares for us with such infinite love and generosity, "You need take thought for nothing, careless of everything except the only purpose that you would fulfill" (T-20.IV.8:8). That purpose is to love our brothers and sisters with God's Love, to give generously to them the bounty we have received from Him. Giving completely to everyone without limit or exception is what God calls each and every one of us to do:

To give without limit is God's Will for you, because only this can bring you the joy that is His and that He wills to share with you. Your love is as boundless as His because it is His.

Could any part of God be without His Love, and could any part of His Love be contained?…How can you give except like Him if you would know His gift to you? Give, then, without limit and without end, to learn how much He has given you. (T-11.I.6:7; 7:1, 3-4)

This is the Course's own radical love ideal. "The Bible enjoins you to be perfect" (T-8.IX.7:1), and so does A Course in Miracles. Loving with the perfect love of God is how we recognize that we are children of our Father in Heaven, heirs to His Kingdom.

But is this really possible? The Course, characteristically, turns Niebuhr's "realistic" point of view completely upside down. In the Course's view, ordinary human life rooted in nature, the body, egoism, and the "need" for prudent self-defense is actually the "impossible situation" (T-6.IV.8:7). Of course, it looks not only possible but actual; it seems that this view of human nature simply describes the way things really are. If this is how things really are, then Niebuhr's view would be a reasonable conclusion. Jesus' radical love ethic really would indeed be impossible to live out fully.

But the Course claims that human nature is not at all what we think it is. The Course takes a dramatic metaphysical leap, and from its lofty perch, it sees things quite differently. From its standpoint, human nature as we know it is nothing but an illusion. The physical world, the body, the ego, and all that seems to need constant defense are nothing more than nightmares dreamed up by minds that have fallen asleep. In truth, we are limitless spiritual beings residing in a boundless Heaven right now, beings of pure, limitless love just as God is. If this is true, then Jesus' radical love ethic is not only possible, but the only thing that is possible in the truest sense. It is the only thing that is ultimately real, the only thing that fits our true nature.

Therefore, the Course tells us again and again that, though from our current limited point of view it certainly seems that what God and Jesus ask of us is too perfectionistic to be possible, in truth it is not only possible but inevitable. We can do it:

If the ego's goal of autonomy could be accomplished God's purpose could be defeated, and this is impossible.…According to the ego's teaching, its goal can be accomplished and God's purpose can not. According to the Holy Spirit's teaching, only God's purpose can be accomplished, and it is accomplished already. (T-11.V.11:1, 3-4)

You have surely begun to realize that this is a very practical course, and one that means exactly what it says. I would not ask you to do things you cannot do, and it is impossible that I could do things you cannot do. Given this, and given this quite literally, nothing can prevent you from doing exactly what I ask, and everything argues for your doing it. I give you no limits because God lays none upon you. (T-8.IX.8:1-4)

You can do anything I ask. I have asked you to perform miracles, and have made it clear that miracles are natural, corrective, healing and universal. (T-2.II.1:1-2)

Do as God's Voice directs. And if It asks a thing of you which seems impossible, remember Who it is that asks, and who would make denial. Then consider this; which is more likely to be right? The Voice that speaks for the Creator of all things, Who knows all things exactly as they are, or a distorted image of yourself, confused, bewildered, inconsistent and unsure of everything? Let not its voice direct you. Hear instead a certain Voice, which tells you of a function given you by your Creator Who remembers you, and urges that you now remember Him. (W-pI.186.12:1-6)

The message is clear: at least in the Course, Jesus' injunctions to love and give extravagantly are not simply hyperbolic language, impossible ideals that we are meant to strive for but never attain. Instead, he really means it. We can literally do everything he asks, and this is exactly what he wants us to do. In fact, our "realistic" appraisal of our limitations, in the Course's view, is actually an arrogant refusal to accept the loving function in God's plan for salvation that God Himself says we are fully capable of doing perfectly:

Let us not fight our function. We did not establish it. It is not our idea. The means are given us by which it will be perfectly accomplished. All that we are asked to do is to accept our part in genuine humility, and not deny with self-deceiving arrogance that we are worthy. What is given us to do, we have the strength to do. Our minds are suited perfectly to take the part assigned to us by One Who knows us well. (W-pI.186.2:1-7)

That being said, Jesus does have a more tempered appraisal of what we as human beings are realistically ready to do right now. He notes that "The world has not yet experienced any comprehensive reawakening or rebirth" (T-2.I.3:7). To truly love in the unlimited way he is calling for, we must purify our minds to such an extent that we hear only the Holy Spirit's Voice. And, Jesus says, while "It is possible even in this world to hear only that Voice and no other," it is not easy: "It takes effort and great willingness to learn. It is the final lesson that I learned" (T-5.II.3:9-11). Indeed, the state of perfect trust required to perfectly fulfill this love ethic requires us to "attain a state that may remain impossible to reach for a long, long time" (M-4.I.A.7:7). So, there is a sense of realism about our current condition that I think Niebuhr would appreciate.

But in my mind, it is a very different kind of realism. Niebuhr says we should strive to approximate Jesus' love ethic, but realistically we should realize that we will never attain it. The Course says we should strive to attain Jesus' love ethic, and realistically we should realize that though it will likely take a long time, we will attain it. What a difference! Speaking personally, it gives my striving to love a much-needed shot of hope and inspiration. We're not doomed to failure. We may have a long road ahead of us, but by progressing down that road one step at a time, we will reach our destination.

Of course, we don't know with any certainty that A Course in Miracles is correct. Many people will find its extreme point of view very hard to swallow. Maybe Niebuhr's more sober view of human potential really is the truth of the matter. But my response to those who are committed to such a view is simply this: Why not keep our minds open on the question of ultimate human potential? Given that there's so much we don't know about our nature, why not ask, "What if Jesus was right?" Why not be open to the possibility that Jesus' radical love ethic really is not only possible to live out, but inevitable?

One Comment

  1. Rick Baker
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Greg, another excellent and relevant article. On an individual level, as opposed to a collective one, I need reminders that my efforts to be the human model presented by Jesus must be framed within the belief that "success" is certain because all else is unreal. Without that foundation, it is just too discouraging along the way as the gap between the goal and temporal state of being seems to decrease so slowly, and at times open wider. I can both curse the Course for setting such a standard, seemingly unreachable, and at the same time bless it for its reassurance that the endpoint is certain (already here, if fact). Thanks for the reminder.
    Rick

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