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The Universal Pragmatism of Agape

5 November 2008

I recently read an article by Dr. Murray Gell-Mann (Santa Fe Institute, Cal Tech) about the self-conforming aspects of nature that he ended with the following observation:

When we human beings experience awe in the face of the splendors of nature, when we show love for one another, and when we care for our more distant relatives–the other organisms with which we share the biosphere–we are exhibiting aspects of the human condition that are no less wonderful for being emergent phenomena.

Let’s be clear:  Gell-Mann is an atheist and a humanist, as the last phrase of the quote amply demonstrates.  (He uses the term “emergent phenomena” to denote the evolutionary process by which complex, adaptive systems figure out how to persist and succeed, without reference to any sort of intelligent design.)  So where does he get his idea of ethics, and in particular, where does he come up with the primacy of “love for one another” if not from the world of spirit qua religion?  We are told that atheistic humanists have no moorings in universal truth, but it would appear that Gell-Mann finds it necessary to appeal to other-directed love as [one of] the universal truths that make human progress possible.  And it does not take a theologian to detect the echoes of Psalm 8, the creation mandate, and the teachings of Jesus in Gell-Mann’s words.


What if Jesus was simply stating the facts of the matter – and Paul, right behind him – when he pointed to the primacy of other-directed love, which the Greeks called “agape,” the perfect love that characterizes divinity?  What if the salvation of humanity – God’s project, rendered by the writer of Hebrews as “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10) – hinges, as a practical matter (as opposed to a merely religious matter), on regarding others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:1ff)?

qb is no universalist, not by a long shot.  But it would make sense, wouldn’t it, for God to make himself known to those who are eagerly seeking him, even if they don’t know that there is a “him” whom they are seeking?  Is that not somehow the underlying assumption at Mars Hill (Acts 17) and in the war oracle of Hanani the seer (II Chronicles 16:9)?

It may be time to revisit Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament alongside the Scriptures.  I wonder if there is biblical evidence to support the hypothesis that agape is the preeminent mechanism by which diverse societies are perfected (what we call “salvation”).  We have so many warnings against “biting and devouring one another” (Galatians 5:15)…what if other-directed love is simply (by divine design) indispensable to the salvation project?


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