‘Little children, love one another!’, or how to bore the pants off your audience

Old Man Praying (1661) — Rembrandt van Rijn 

[The podcast begins with its theme music and general introduction which fades into the following text . . .] 

‘Little children, love one another!’

[In the podcast this sentence is immediately followed by the regular outro music and concluding words. This then fades into the following text . . .] 

Were you disappointed at the moment you thought this podcast was over after only a couple of minutes instead of its usual length of between ten and twenty minutes? Did you feel short-changed in some fashion even though this podcast is made available completely free of charge?

If you did feel this, even just a little bit, then the following two intimately related, very short stories may be of interest to you. The first was told by St Jerome (c. 342/347-420) towards the end of the 4th century of the Common Era about the figure of the beloved disciple John who, in the Christian tradition, is believed to have been the author of the theologically and philosophically very complicated and allusive gospel which bears his name. St Jerome tells the story in his “Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians III:6” where he is commenting on a verse from Galatians (6:10) which reads as follows:

So, then, when the season is ours, let us work the good for all, and most particularly for the household of the faith.

One of the things St Jerome is worried about how we might best teach the good news to those belonging to his, and by extension, our own community. So, here’s the first story as Jerome tells it:

‘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, and it is sufficient if this alone is done.”’

I first came across this story whilst studying the work of a key figure of the Enlightenment period, namely, the German philosopher and dramatist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). Here is how Lessing tells and expands upon Jerome’s story in his 1777 work called “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.”’

Now why do I tell you these two related stories? Well, it’s because, in the end, like old John, when everything is said and done, apart from continuing always to recommend following Socrates’ method of inquiry, I have nothing of lasting worth to say to anyone (including myself) except ‘Little children, love one another!’ — after all, even the Socratic method works best when it’s engaged in in the spirit of showing love to one’s neighbour, one’s dialogue partner, and that includes one’s enemies. I say this because, again like old John, I believe ‘this alone, this alone, if it is done, is sufficient, quite sufficient.’ And I also say it, not simply because Jesus — whom John called ‘Lord’ — commanded it, but because I find all of the religious teachers whose teaching and actions I find persuasive, commanded or encouraged us to do the same thing. In short, with this teaching of Jesus (found in John 13:34) I hit bedrock and, to draw again on Wittgenstein’s image I explored with you in Episode 14, I find that at this teaching I must simply turn my spade without further justification and am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’ (§217 Philosophical Investigations). Or, at the very least, I’m inclined to say ‘This is simply what I am always striving better to do each and every day.’

But like old John, in my public-facing role as a minister of religion, I daily come face to face with the fact that humans have a deeply ingrained prejudice against the commonplace, and an associated insatiable desire for things perceived to be new, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, rare, unconventional; in short, they have a desire for anything that is excitingly different from the usual everyday fare. To borrow a line from Nirvana’s classic song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, over the past thirty or so years, and whether liberal or otherwise, modern religious audiences have shown a worrying tendency to be saying more and more to their ministers, ‘Here we are now, entertain us.’   

This consumerist, entertainment driven dynamic, in turn, creates a strange, disturbing and deeply uncomfortable state of affairs for any Socratically inclined liberal minister of religion who, in addition to trying to preach the importance of following the commonplace, simple message, ‘Little children, love one another’, also believes that, if there is to be a viable future for liberal religion, then it’s vital to encourage congregations to engage in the philosophically always challenging project of honing good, critical thinking skills which they can then bring to bear upon life’s many perennial and extremely stubborn questions. 

Let me unfold this thought a bit more.

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped me strongly feel where my ethical spade turns (or needs to turn) without further justification — and even though, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa I so often fail to turn it well or, sometimes, alas, even at all — I know that I could, perhaps should, have ended this podcast where you thought it had earlier on, with only the bald and simple command, ‘Little children, love one another.’ Not only that, but I perhaps should simply be reposting the same incredibly brief podcast every week. Why? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? As old John realised, none of us (me included), ever properly fulfils this simple command which, as he said, — if it is done — is alone sufficient, quite sufficient. But we don’t do it; I don’t do it. And so we clearly need to be reminded of it again, and again, and again.

Now, were I to do this each week, this would fulfil in spades (pun intended) the demand often made of me and ministers like me to keep things ‘simple’ and ‘easily understandable.’ But, as our two earlier stories reveal, were I to do this I’d also very quickly bore the pants off you. Like old John, the basic, and one needful, command ‘to love one another’ would quickly become for you flat, empty, and meaningless to which you could scarcely listen to any longer without becoming sick of hearing it.

Given this, I and many of my colleagues, are forced to do one of two things; one reasonably positive but with its problems, the other problematically deceptive. There is, of course, a third option which is simply to bore the pants off you but I set that possibility aside today in the hope that I am avoiding this option right at the moment . . .    

So, the positive, but challenging and often complicated task (and it’s what I imperfectly try to do in my own writing, and am trying to do right now), is to write things which are attempts, entertainingly enough, to clear liberal religion’s decks of the many, perennial, complex and stubborn philosophical, theological, cultural, social, political, economic stumbling blocks that get in the way of us reaching bedrock and being able, finally, to turn our spade and coming to love one another just as Jesus taught we should because we know that this is simply what we must be doing, and doing it without further justification. 

But please don’t underestimate how complicated and real these stumbling blocks are. Consider, for example, the stubborn unclarity that exists concerning how best to discern in what truly consists loving one another in different contexts. What is the difference between ‘loving one another’ when the love we are talking about is familial love (storge), friendly love or platonic love (philia), romantic love (eros), self-love (philautia), guest love — love of the other — (xenia) and divine love (agape). Suddenly following Jesus’ simple command becomes, well, far from simple, and given that we’ve noticed this we’d be ethically irresponsible and stupid were we not Socratically to enquire much further into this puzzling and, frankly, complicated state of affairs. 

It’s important to recall that what we are doing in our complex and challenging but, hopefully, entertaining Socratic enquiries is to engage in a practice somewhat like that seen in the marshal arts. In the marshall arts one practices many different kinds of moves over and over and over again so that, when an actual encounter with an opponent occurs, you don’t have to run through all the justifications for making this move or that move before acting — before you turn your spade so to speak — but, instead, you are simply able to make without further justification, instantly, the move that needs to be made. As with the marshal arts, so with love and other things, when the moment comes lovingly to turn you spade in the encounter with some other person, you have a real chance of being able simply to follow the command to ‘love one another’ without further justification — you know the move you need to make. Later on, of course, in a further round of Socratic enquiry, you may well want to reflect upon what occurred and revise your practice accordingly so that during your next encounter your simple act of loving one another without further justification may be better or more appropriately nuanced and effective.      

Anyway, as Wittgenstein said, in adopting this kind of approach in most of my addresses, all I can ever hope to do is ‘To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’ (§309 Philosophical Investigations) so you can better simply do, in this or that moment, what what it is that needs to be done without further justification. But showing flies out of fly bottles is, believe you me, rarely an easy, simple or straightforward task.

The problematically deceptive way to proceed (which I hope I mostly avoid) is to succumb to the temptation to place the call to entertainment above the basic message to ‘love one another’ and then to try to write pieces which make it appear everything about this message is, not only simple and clear, straightforward, but also something new, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, rare, unconventional and excitingly different from the usual fare. Alas, pieces like this tend, in the end, only to hide the important commonplace, naked message behind what turn out to be versions of the Emperor’s new clothes — and we all know how poorly and embarrassingly that approach ended up.      

So what’s a minister to do if they want to gain and keep an audience entertained and gripped, adoringly reading their exciting blog posts, listening to their shiny podcasts and ratcheting ever-upwards their audience stats and general popularity as well as their all-round grooviness? Well, trust me, it sure as hell isn’t to do what old John did, namely only to be saying again and again and again, ad infinitum, ‘Little children, love one another’ because ‘only this, if it is done, is sufficient.’

There might be many more things I could say at this point but I think I should stop here and I hope that you can see why, despite my last paragraph and at the risk of boring the pants off you and losing you forever, I can only end this episode by saying to you something very commonplace indeed:

‘Little children, love one another!’ 


If you would like to join a conversation about this podcast then please note our next Wednesday Evening Zoom meeting will take place on 27th January at 19.30 GMT.  Link below.

Topic: Cambridge Unitarian Church, Evening Conversation

Time: Jan 27, 2021 19:30 Greenwich Mean Time

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19.15-19.30: Arrivals/login

19.30 - 21.00: Questions to, and conversations with, Andrew James Brown moderated by Courtney Whalen Van de Weyer

21:00: Event ends