Why is the simple command to "love one another" so boring?

A Philosophy of Boredom - Lars Svendsen

1 John 3:11-24

From St Jerome's Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians III:6 (on Galatians 6:10)

‘The blessed John the Evangelist, who remained in Ephesus to an advanced age and could scarcely be carried to the church with the help of his disciples. At each assembly, he used to say no more than this: “Little children, love one another!” Eventually, the disciples and brethren who were present grew tired of always hearing the same thing, and said, “Master, why do you keep on saying this?” He replied with a sentiment worthy of John: “Because it is a precept of the Lord [i.e. Jesus], and it is sufficient if this alone is done.’

From G. E. Lessing's The Testament of John (Brunswick, 1777)

‘. . . one so quickly tires of the good, and even of the best, once it starts to become commonplace! - At the first assembly at which John *could* no longer say anything but, “Little Children, love one another!”, these words were extremely well-received. They were still well received on the second, third, and fourth occasions, for it was said that the old man *couldn’t* say any more. But when the old man now and then had good and cheerful days again and still said nothing more, but simply concluded the daily assembly with his “Little children, love one another!” when they saw that the old man was not just *unable* to say more, but had *no intention* of doing so, the “Little children, love one another!” became flat, empty, and meaningless. Brethren and disciples could scarcely listen to it any longer without becoming sick of hearing it, and they finally asked the good old man: “But Master, why do you keep saying the same thing?” . . . John replied: “Because the Lord commanded it. Because this alone, this alone, if it is done, is sufficient, quite sufficient.”‘

From A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

The concept of meaning I am referring to has a further perspective, because we are talking about a meaning that is inextricably linked to being meaning for someone. Peter Wessel Zapffe attempted to articulate a concept of meaning:

That an action or some other fragment of life has meaning means that it gives us a quite specific feeling that is not easy to translate into thought. It would have to be something like the action having a good enough intention, so that when the intention is fulfilled, the action is ‘justified’, settled, confirmed – and the subject calms down.

This is an odd sort of definition, but it contains the vital element – that this meaning is related to a person’s goal-orientated use of the world. At this point, I would just mention that an important difference between Zapffe’s and my concept of meaning is that he justifies it biologically, while I justify it more historically. As Zapffe also indicates, these actions also point forward to something more – to life as a whole. I do not intend to pursue Zapffe’s considerations here, but will content myself with stating that the meaning we are looking for – or even demand – is ultimately an existential or metaphysical meaning. This existential meaning can be sought in various ways and exists in various forms. It can be conceived as something already given in which one can participate (e.g. in a religious community) or something that has to be realised (e.g. a classless society). It is conceived as something collective or something individual. [. . .]
     Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem: Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a meaning. Meaningless is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. Boredom can be understood as a discomfort which communicates that the need for meaning is not being satisfied. In order to remove this discomfort, we attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all kinds of meaning-surrogates (pp.29–30).


I have long delighted in the story told by Jerome (347-420) about St John and expanded upon some thirteen hundred years later by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) because it humourously reveals one of the dilemmas we have to be alert to in the religious life - especially the religious life of a church such as ours which is deeply rooted in the skeptical, always questioning intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment (one which has, of course, traditionally centred on the sermon).

Remember that St John was believed to have written the most complex, speculative and philosophically oriented of all the Gospels - the Gospel of John. It's a work that represents a high point in early Christian metaphysics and is full of signs, miracles, mystical insights and many other things all of which are designed to keep people intellectually interested and committed to believing in Jesus. In John's mind, and in the mind of the community he led, Jesus was understood as "the Word", the supernatural meaning giving intellectual abstract philosophical principle that had come into our world from God’s realm. A text like the Gospel of John is concerned to persaude a person that they can only truly secure this meaning by believing in the right things about Jesus, the very Word of God. The meaning of life (i.e. Jesus the Word) becomes something extra which is added to our lives from outside rather like salt is added to a dish to bring out its fullest flavour.

But abstract, speculative theories about the meaning of Jesus, because they can only be theories and cannot be shown to be self-evidently true, always generate other rival speculative theories about the meaning of Jesus and that is precisely what was going on at the time John was writing his gospel. We now know, thanks to the discoveries of other early Christian texts that have been wrongly, but sensationally (by publishers mostly) described as "hidden" or "secret" gospels, that John was embroiled in a fierce intellectual debate about the true meaning of Jesus with many other rival theorists. This heated debate mattered to them all because they had come to believe that if you didn’t believe the right things about Jesus, then you were lost and your life had no real meaning. But such complex technical debates always threatened to set the church apart from the everyday concerns of most people - the people to whom, after all, Jesus had come. How true this remains even unto today.

Jerome’s story, and we have (of course) no way of knowing whether it is in any way an historically true one, suggests that towards the end of his life John saw that his complex philosophising was helping to create and exacerbate this worrying problem. So he decides to abandon all that complicated stuff and simply preach what he thought was the heart of Jesus’ gospel, the simple message to "Love one another!" He seems to have understood that the real meaning of his and the community’s life was only going to be truly found by them in so far as they were actually *doing* Jesus’ gospel rather than theorising about Jesus person. This suggest (perhaps) that John had realised that the best his philosophising about the person of Jesus the Word could ever hope to achieve was to interest and intellectually persuade people they must *do* the kind of practical loving Jesus demanded and that his own gospel was not, itself, the gospel of Jesus. But the tenor of the story suggests that John felt that he had failed in this as his community simply wasn't doing the gospel of Jesus but only listen to the gospel of John. Since, in the end, it seems he felt that loving one another was alone sufficient he had to cut to the chase and, in the twinkling of an eye, St John moved from centring his preaching upon a highly abstract orthodoxy (which means right belief) to a very grounded and simple orthopraxy (which means right doing).

It was a brave and admirable thing for such a complex and subtle thinker as John to do. But what reward did he get for this? Well, as you heard it was nothing less than a congregation who could scarcely listen to his message any longer without becoming sick of hearing it. They quickly became bored of his message and their life in the religious community led by John, we may presume, began to feel to them meaningless.

This point allows me to return to another of our readings, that taken from "A Philosophy of Boredom" by the contemporary Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, who noted that:

"Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem: Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a meaning. Meaningless is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. Boredom can be understood as a discomfort which communicates that the need for meaning is not being satisfied. In order to remove this discomfort, we attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all kinds of meaning-surrogates" (p. 30).

We can see that in Jerome and Lessing’s story the community around St John were clearly addicted to meaning and upon John's change of preaching from the complex and "interesting" to the simple and "boring" they began to experience the discomforting pangs of meaning withdrawal.

But, as John’s decision to preach what he thought was the simple heart of the gospel reveals, he seems to have understood that his own interesting and complex philosophy (the gospel of John) had in this context simply become a meaning-substitute (for the practical gospel of Jesus).

So John decides to help them experience real meaning by centring on the need to do the straightforward, unglamorous work of loving one another - work they weren't doing because they were spending so much time seeking meaning from outside by engaging in complex philosophising. As we heard they were charmed by St John’s simple message for a short while but they became bored by it very quickly. It was for them not at all an intellectually stimulating message, it didn't seem to them to be enough to provide from the pulpit the kind of meaning that seemed to be promised via the entertaining excitement of philosophy.

And here we run into the dilemma I want us to notice.

On the one hand a simple call to love one another which would, if we were actually to do it, be sufficient to fill our life with meaning, seems in the mere telling from the pulpit to be a very boring, dull and even prosaic message. To preach this every week would be to risk boring any congregation to death and slowly put everybody off from coming. After all, you'd know exactly what the preacher was going to say every time you came.

We cannot kid ourselves that if we, if I, were only to offer up this simple message then people would quickly get very bored and wouldn't bother coming to church any more. Whether we (I) like it or not today we are in some kind of competition with the countless very attractive and entertaining meaning-surrogates with which our present day culture is worryingly awash. We (I) have to find ways of being at least as interesting as, if not shopping then, say, a good non-fiction programme on Radio 4 or BBC 2. If we (I) were to offer less than this well, why would anyone bother getting up out of bed on a Sunday morning when they could simply flip open their laptop, fire up iPlayer, and stay entertainingly and educationally put beneath the warm sheets?

Hosea Ballou
But for all this it remains true that our basic message must be that the meaning of life is only genuinely to be found in the deeply boring and often unrewardingly hard work of simply "loving one another"; a love that Jesus reminds us is also to be offered to God and, rather more challengingly, also to our enemies. The meaning of life is not to be found in formulaic theorising, no matter how interesting or eloquent it is. As the great early nineteenth-century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou (1771–1852) said:

We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human invention. We must look for it in the honest, the pious, the devotional heart; in the heart which truly loves God, loves its [sister and] brother also. The principle of love to God and goodwill to all is true religion.

De Benneville Window, First UU Church, Reading, PA
We also need clearly to express to the world something which another of the great Universalists, George de Benneville said in the eighteenth-century, that "God judges men by their deeds and not their creeds. The language of eternal love is expressed in actions. These speak more than words..." (Bell 1953). He also said:

The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language, and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and female of all species. We do not find those differences to be obstacles to love (Bell 1953).

Our goal in life as a community (and remember that Svendson reminds us that meaning is found in our goal-oriented use of the world) is to play a real and effective part in creating a world where this loves actually comes to reign everywhere. These simple words from Ballou and de Benneville, words based, of course, on Jesus plain teaching and example are, in truth, the only thing that we have to preach. If we, if I, ever forget to remind people of this fundamental simple, and somewhat "boring" message then we are in trouble.

But even as we acknowledge this simple message we must also remember that many intelligent liberal-minded people in our culture are, today, deeply resistant to committing fully and publicly to Jesus' simple, "boring" call. The reasons for this are many and various and I hope that my own more challenging and, perhaps, even occasionally interesting and entertaining addresses are simply aimed at showing in various ways why liberal inquiring, skeptical, thoughtful people can and should commit unashamedly to following the example of Jesus and why, in the end, enacting his most boring religious message is the only way they will truly find the meaning of life they are seeking. But, in the end, even the best and most entertaining address can itself only be a meaning-surrogate in relation to Jesus basic teaching. Every address in the church must always be in the service of the simplest message of all, that we must love one another and that this alone is sufficient to fill our lives with meaning.

To remove from our lives, and the lives of others, the highly prevalent and discomforting feeling of meaninglessness we must, as Svendson notes, learn to attack the disease itself and not merely the symptoms. We attack the disease by admitting to ourselves that from the point of view of today's average meaning-junky we have a bounden duty to preach what will appear a very boring message indeed:

"Little children, love one another."


Anonymous said…
When we were little children, we were by nature loving and generous. Then we learned the word, "Mine."
Yewtree said…
I once came across the idea that every preacher has one underlying message and all his or her sermons are expressions of it. I immediatly said that mine is "Only connect" (in all the senses that EM Forster meant it).

But the message is not enough on its own - people need to know HOW to be a more loving person - how to deal with anger, resentment, jealousy, etc. We need stories that illustrate loving (the Good Samaritan, for example).