Why Jesus’ commandment that we “love one another” is always already new

Loving intra-actions between humans, a dog, and some fish swimming in the River Cam   

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 


Last week, I had reason to cite Jesus’ so-called “new commandment” found in the Gospel of John (13:34) that we “love one another.”

Whilst I have never had an issue with the commandment itself — indeed, it remains absolutely central to my own religious faith, phenomenally hard though it always is to fulfil — I was, for many years, baffled, put-off even, by the claim made, perhaps by the gospel’s author rather than by Jesus himself, that it was a “new” commandment. After all, we know that in Jesus’ own Jewish circles it was first uttered between three to five hundred years earlier; just take a look at Leviticus 19:18. At first sight, then, it seems there is really nothing new about this commandment at all.

But does its newness or age really matter? No, I don’t think so because I can’t really see the point of any religion that doesn’t insist we love one another and, to quote a legendary story about the writer of John’s Gospel, it has always seemed to me that “this [commandment] alone, this alone, if it is done, is sufficient, quite sufficient.”

However — whenever and from whomsoever one receives it — the newness of the commandment becomes clear when one is able to hear it understanding that there has never been, is not, and never will be, any such “thing” as love. Yes, you heard that correctly, there is no such “thing” as love. However, despite this surprising fact, what there most certainly always is, are networks, acts or incarnations of love.

The point to grasp here is that, were there any such “thing” as love, then this “thing” would already be old, very old indeed, because love is something that has been present in one way or another in every human culture known to us and, probably, in many animal cultures as well.

The clue to what I want to say today is found in my unavoidable use of the verb “to show,” this is because love must always be “shown” anew, love must always “emerge” anew, love must always be “expressed” anew in every one of the countless complex, contingent intra-actions we have with each other and the world. 

I hope you can see that this is an understanding of love that seems to echo the understanding of a contemporary physicist like Carlo Rovelli who states quite clearly that “Reality is not a collection of things, it’s a network of processes”, and that “quantum physics may just be the realisation that this ubiquitous relational structure of reality continues all the way down to the elementary physical level.” A fundamental particle, like love, is always defined not as a thing but by its intra-actions with the rest of the world. And, just as one cannot find and point to fundamental particles as discrete things that we can walk around and examine as we might examine pieces of fruit, we cannot walk around and examine an existent thing called love. But what we can find, always and everywhere, are the fruits of love in this and now that network, act or incarnation of love.

For the physicist, Carlo Rovelli, this way of thinking means that a good modern scientific theory “should not be about how things ‘are’, or what they ‘do’: it should be about how they affect one another.” This is an idea that he feels “pushes us to rethink reality in terms of relations instead of objects, entities or substances.”

Resonating with Rovelli’s words I want to say that a good modern philosophical or theological theory about love must articulate something analogous. We should not seek to find out what love is or what it does but, instead, always be paying attention to how love affects our world. When we do so reflect, we will begin to see that love is always new because it, too, is always pushing us to rethink reality in terms of ongoing, ever-moving relations instead of fixed objects, entities or substances.  

So, to repeat, love is not a thing. Instead, it’s a living relation which must be made new every morning and this is why Jesus’ commandment to love one another, when understood properly, is always-already new.