Recently I saw a comment on Titusonenine that mentioned a piece by Benedict XVI entitled “Europe and its Discontents” which appeared in the December issue of First Things (since I’ve apparently allowed my subscription to lapse, I missed it until now), in which the Pope argues that Europeans have given themselves over to a troubling sort of self-loathing. Here’s a selection:

The last element of the European identity is religion. I do not wish to enter into the complex discussion of recent years, but to highlight one issue that is fundamental to all cultures: respect for that which another group holds sacred, especially respect for the sacred in the highest sense, for God, which one can reasonably expect to find even among those who are not willing to believe in God. When this respect is violated in a society, something essential is lost. In European society today, thank goodness, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel, its image of God, or its great figures must pay a fine. The same holds true for anyone who dishonors the Koran and the convictions of Islam. But when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.

This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self-acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.

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I find this interesting because it resonates with something I noticed when preparing a sermon last year, during which I read John 15:12-17 in a new way. Consider the words of Our Lord:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (ESV)

As is often the case, the passage becomes more powerful when compounded by the polyphony of Holy Scripture. It is impossible for me to read this passage without thinking of the great commandment, as Christ interpreted it in Mark:

“The most important [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”(ESV)

The most profound irony of our times is perhaps that in a day when narcisim reigns, and people have refined selfishness to an artform, there is nothing to be found at the heart of all the self-absorbtion and adoration save self-loathing and nihilism. It just doesn’t seem to make sense. Why waste so much time pampering something or someone that you hate. Why buy all the nice clothes in the mall at 5:00 only to drink oneself into oblivion at 10:00, vomit on the new clothes at 4:00 and slit one’s wrists at 6:00. It’s an odd occurance that the amount we spend on clothes, toys, cars, plastic surgury etc… seems to be corelative to the amount we spend on Prozac and other help-me-get-up-in-the-morning-and-make-it-through-one-more-meaningless-day-pills (name brand and generic).

But… despite the seeming inconsistency of it all, I think I’ve found some insight. You see, most of the things we spend money on seem to be focused on making us feel better about ourselves, to help us be somebody or something other than what or who we are. You see, we’re not revealing or reveling in self-love when we do these things for ourselves… when we get plastic surgury, or buy the best make-up. In fact, I think we hate what and who we are because we’ve put ourselves in the wrong place. We’ve idolized outselves and without even realizing it we hate the pagan temple we’ve made of our lives. We know that our gods have no power because we live behind the curtain. The emperor has no clothes, the gig is up, our gods have no power because we have made ourselves gods and we know in our heart of hearts, we know that we are powerless, that we are at the mercy of… of something… of something greater and darker, and blacker than ourselves. We are nihilistic because we have staked our existence and hope upon ourselves and we recognize the hopelessness of that situation.

If this is the case, then no wonder the world is such a violent place… how can we even begin to love one another when we can’t even love ourselves, not like we’re supposed to?

You see, there are three parts to the great commandment, the road map Jesus gave us:

1. God is one.

2. Love God.

3. Love your neighbor as yourself.

and these three parts have to be interpreted through another lens, the fact that Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you.”

You see we have to adore and love God first–we have to know who God is (that’s part of knowing that God is one… that’s recognizing God’s character.) Once we love God and know him, then we recognize that he loves us–not that he loves our looks, our fashion, our cars etc… etc…, but that he really loves us, for who we are, for who he created us to be. Knowing that God loves us for who we are gives so much hope, so much joy… we no longer have to depend upon the fallible idol of self that we construct and who’s weakness we know all too well. Instead, we come to feel the strength of the rock, the presense and love and strength of God in our lives working that which is impossible for us. Once we truly see how God loves us–how he gave himself up for us in Christ Jesus–then we see that we are truly worth something to God, we are worth his Son.

And if we come to love ourselves as God loves us–that is fully, completely, unconditionally and sacrificially–then we will finally understand what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves… to die to self and to be ready to follow Christ, for “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.”

Amen and Amen.