Loving Ourselves To Death? A Theological Reflection of Jesus, Self-Love and Modernity

quaker meeting house

[This is cross-posted from the BYM blog] In the context of talking about Quaker work, one of our sessions yesterday, something was said about loving ourselves before we can love others. In this dualistic perspective the inward comes before the outward and there is no room for a circular interplay between the two. Jesus was quoted as supporting this idea when he said in (Matt. 22:37-39) “He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And a second [command] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”Modern culture has made us turn toward ourselves in many ways. At the rise of science and rationalism of the Enlightenment, the idea of some kind of outer authority over people became very suspect (i.e. the reformation and radical reformation), where else does one turn if all outer authorities are disestablished? Him or herself. Therefore I become my own authority, and my religion and ethics derive from my own sense of right and wrong. In this view I legitimize myself. Another move towards the self comes in our own consumerism that arises out of capitalist economics. We cannot have a society run on capitalism unless we have a people who love to buy things for themselves.

Both these moves have lead not only religion, but all other aspects of life to become centered on the self, this is why sociologists talk about modernity’s individualism. How then has individualism invaded the religion? Christianity? Quakerism? When we talk of love of self, what do we mean by it? And is it really true that we must love ourselves before we can help others?

To be honest, I find the lack of dialogue within meetings a bit frustrating. I personally like to talk about issues, ask questions, and get clarifications. We must struggle as a community over questions that pervade all of society. I really wanted to dialogue about our notion of “love of self,” our culture’s notion (which heavily inform, our own thoughts about the subject), and of course then what Jesus meant by the statement above. Maybe I missed the point of what was said, but it seems to pervade our Quaker tradition in many areas. Jesus’ own culture was radically more communal, a close knit group of people struggling to live together in peace and survive, and Jesus himself was far more radical than telling people to love themselves.

In the words of Jesus one cannot understand love until one loves God. That is the foundation of Jesus’ ethics. I’ve come to learn that loving God can often turn out to look a lot like not loving oneself. Obedience to God, as we see in early Martyrs and even Quaker witnesses, calls us forth to witness to the world that can be very dangerous, harmful or even life-threatening to us. Our witness to the life of God, as Paul says, will look like complete foolishness to the world.

So the active engaging and wrestling with God to love God propels us forward into a transformative role within the world, that of loving others in radical ways. The bit about “loving your neighbor as yourself,” gets at two extremely radical points that have little to do with how we think of ourselves and much more about what we have to let go of in the process.

First, the question arises, “who are our neighbors?” And more importantly to the context of this Bible passage, “Who are the neighbors Jesus is talking about?” As we can easily recall another reference to neighbors by Jesus was directed towards the Samaritans (i.e. the parable of the good Samaritan). They were the ones the Jews dehumanized and rejected. ‘


in the New Testament often refers to those who are outsiders (those who are not loved, dehumanized, and outside our own communities). And yes, Quakers have many outsiders and often times those who are our outsiders are other Quakers from other parts of the tradition. Thus, we must give up the comfort to who is invited to our table of fellowship.

Secondly, the final part of the statement is meant to show how we tend to love ourselves and thus put ourselves before others. We see the total rejection of this kind of behaviour built into the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that is meant to shape the practices of the church. “Give us our daily bread,” declares complete reliance on God the father as provider over an above ourselves. If we are dependant on God for our bread, then we must be ready and willing to not be




. That is to say, other’s needs come before our own needs and wants. We eat less, drive less, use less water all so that there is enough to go around. But it doesn’t stop here, in our loving God and others, we ought to invite people in to our homes, and meetinghouses in order to share all that we have with them. This inter-dependence on God, and sharing with others is a mark of the reality of the Kingdom of God that early Quakers sought to live by. It bids us to give up our rights to ourselves and turn to the work and love of God.

It seems to me then that true transformation then doesn’t just begin inward but also outward, it happens at the same time. As we seek to love, we learn what it means to be loved and often rejected; as we seek to follow God outwardly (through social justice, etc) we are forced to change inwardly. It’s not a one way street, the world isn’t packaged that neatly, following Christ can be dirty business. We must not continue in the dualalities of the modern period because the rest of the world is busy loving themselves to death.