(2) LOVE: Jesus the Beloved (Agapetos) and Secular Theology

Last time:

LOVE: One of the “True” Human Prejudices

Now, the Conclusion

What I try to do is take content rich theological ideas and reimagine them in a secular context without the superstition. One concept is that Jesus is the incarnation. Let’s think about that in the context of the Greek notion of “theos” or God (like the word theological), and see if we can find any secular meat left on these ancient religious bones.

Jesus is the agapetos, the love of God incarnate, and the gospel is this allegory of self-sacrificial love, like Plato’s allegory of the cave is a story of knowledge.  But what is “incarnate” and “theology.”  What is a “God” or “Theos?”  We read from Robert Calasso:

  • Yet there was a time when the gods were not just a literary clich?, but an event, a sudden apparition, an encounter with bandits perhaps, or the sighting of a ship. And it didn’t even have to be a vision of the whole. Ajax Oileus recognized Poseidon disguised as Calchas from his gait. He saw him walking from behind and knew it was Poseidon “from his feet, his legs.”

    Since for us everything begins with Homer, we can ask ourselves: which words did he use for such events? By the time the Trojan War broke out, the gods were already coming to earth less frequently than in an earlier age. Only a generation before, Zeus had fathered Sarpedon on a mortal woman. All the gods had turned up for the marriage of Peleus and Thetis. But now Zeus no longer showed himself to men; he sent other Olympians along to do his exploring for him: Hermes, Athena, Apollo. And it was getting harder to see them. Odysseus admits as much to Athena: “Arduous it is, oh goddess, to recognize you, even for one who knows much.” The Hymn to Demeter offers the plainest comment: “Difficult are the gods for men to see.” Every primordial age is one in which it is said that the gods have almost disappeared. Only to the select few, chosen by divine will, do they show themselves: “The gods do not appear to everyone in all their fullness [enargeis],” the Odyssey tells us. Enargeis is the terminus technicus for divine epiphany: an adjective that contains the dazzle of “white,” argos, but which ultimately comes to designate a pure and unquestionable “conspicuousness.” It’s the kind of “conspicuousness” that will later be inherited by poetry, thus becoming perhaps the characteristic that distinguishes poetry from every other form.

    But how does a god make himself manifest? In the Greek language the word theos, “god,” has no vocative case, observed the illustrious linguist Jakob Wackernagel. Theos has a predicative function: it designates something that happens. There is a wonderful example of this in Euripides’ Helen: “O theoi. theos gar kai to gigno’ skein philous”–“O gods: recognizing the beloved is god.” Kerenyi thought that the distinguishing quality of the Greek world was this habit of “saying of an event: ‘It is theos.'” And an event referred to as being theos could easily become Zeus, the most vast and all-inclusive of gods, the god who is the background noise of the divine. So when Aratus set out to describe the phenomena of the cosmos, he began his poem thus: “From Zeus let our beginning be, from he whom men never leave unnamed. Full of Zeus are the paths and the places where men meet, full of Zeus the sea and the seaports. Every one of us and in every way has need of Zeus. Indeed we are his offspring.”

    “Iovis omnia plena,” Virgil would later write, and in these words we hear his assurance that this was a presence to be found everywhere in the world, in the multiplicity of its events, in the intertwining of its forms. And we also hear a great familiarity, almost a recklessness, in the way the divine is mentioned, as though to encounter divinity was hardly unusual, but rather something that could be expected, or provoked. The word atheos, on the other hand, was only rarely used to refer to those who didn’t believe in the gods. More often it meant to be abandoned by the gods, meant that they had chosen to withdraw from all commerce with men. Aratus was writing in the third century b.c., but what became of this experience that for him was so obvious and all-pervasive in the centuries that followed? (Literature and the Gods by Roberto Calasso)

Naas cites an instructive passage from Heidegger’s untranslated Zur Frage nach der Bestimmung der Sache des Denkens, “Heidegger recalls a passage from the Odyssey (16. 161) in which Athene appears as a young woman to Odysseus and his son Telemachus though only Odysseus can see that she is Athene, for as the poet says … ‘it is not to all that the gods appear enargeis. Odysseus and his son Telemachus both see the young woman before them but only Odysseus apprehends the presencing of the goddess.’ Athena as a goddess was the very definition of youth, beauty, grace, wisdom, indeed these things incarnate, so we can glean the difference between what Odysseus saw and what Telemachus saw.

The castle may appear as “houseness incarnate” to the tourist for instance: “Now that’s a house!”  Similarly, a cottage may be conspicuous in its quaintness. It need not be anything major that causes everything to fall in place (to use Anaximander’s imagery of jointure), maybe a romantic crush tossing her hair, or a child giving part of her allowance to a homeless person: “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world (Robert Browning and Lucy Maude Montgomery fictionalized this idea).”

It is in this way the Jesus story is to be understood, that God sacrificed his most beloved to un-hide (a-letheia) or make conspicuous man’s hidden sinfulness.  It is the image of this dis-closing self-sacrifice that is the incarnation of sacrificial love in the bleeding Jesus for the pagan soldier at the cross who experiences a change of heart.  It was the encounter of the pagan soldier with Jewish hesed of loving more than yourself widow, orphan, alien, and God, and Christian agape love of nonviolence, non-resistance, and loving enemy more than yourself. We can see then, Jesus transfiguring the soldier at the cross (“truly this was the son of God/an innocent man”) without any need to rely on religion or superstition. It is a purely ethical move, like Socrates giving thanks for the poison or the impaled, just man in Plato’s Republic.