As you would probably expect form a Christian festival, the theme of the final week of advent is love. Love, after all, is the central teaching of Christianity. As St Paul famously wrote to the Corinthians, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Christmas is ultimately a celebration of love. Specifically, it is a celebration of the love of God for humanity, which caused Him to empty Himself of His power and majesty and become an ordinary man so that He could at once share in our suffering and show us how to overcome it.
One of the problems that students have when they encounter Jesus’ teachings on love, is that it sounds very much like he is asking us to do what is actually completely impossible, but this is really nothing more than a simple problem of translation. Of course, none of the Gospels were written in English. The English language did not even exist when the Gospels were written. The Gospels were written in Koine Greek, a type of ancient Greek that was widely used in the Middle East during the time of the Roman Empire.
In the Gospels Christ repeatedly taught his disciples that it was not enough to love their own families and friends, that anyone – even wicked people – tend to love their own. Instead, Christ commanded that we must love everyone, even those who hate us and do bad things to us.
To someone who thinks in English this command sounds totally unrealistic and even a bit mad. It sounds as if Christ is asking us to walk around going ‘I am in love with everyone’ or, even more strangely, to react to someone who upsets, hurts or attacks us by saying, ‘Thank you for insulting me, I love you so much.’ No-one can, or should, feel like this. If one of my own children has an accident and breaks their leg, this upsets me more than a picture on the TV of a starving child in Africa. If someone insults or upsets me, I am not inclined to shower them with affection. I naturally warm to and like some people more than I do others. All these things are true of me, as they are of everyone else, and a teaching that ignored them would be neither wise nor helpful.
But, this is where it important to be aware of the problem of translation. In Koine Greek there were actually four different words, all of which are translated into English as love: Eros; philia; storge and agape. And, each word has a very different meaning.
Eros means sexual love, or desire. You feel eros towards someone that you are sexually attracted to, but you can also feel eros for something that fills you with passion and desire – like a desire for philosophical truth, or a desire for beauty. Or, indeed, a desire to know God.
Philia means friendship, affection or enjoyment. You feel philia towards your friends, but you can also feel a philial love for something you really enjoy, like Indian takeaway, or tennis or your favourite music.
Storge means love of family, tribe or community. It is the kind of love you feel for your own children, but it can also be used to mean something like loyalty. So, you can also feel storge towards your school or your nation.
But, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies as we love ourselves, and to love others as god loves us, the word he uses is agape. Agape is a difficult word to translate. It can be translated as love, but it can also be translated as charity or compassion. Christianity teaches that agape is the highest form of love, and the command to develop agape and make it the heart of your being is the central moral teaching of the Christian faith.
Agape does not mean being in love with someone, or feeling a strong natural friendship, affection or loyalty towards them. What it means is struggling to understand them, to put yourself in their place and see the world through their eyes. Agape is about exercising our patience and our imagination when dealing with all people, so that we learn not be prejudiced, dismissive, patronising, quick to anger or simply thoughtless in our dealings with others.
The other types of love are very natural and instinctive. We cannot help but love our children. Friendship is natural and instinctive and, of course, sexual attraction is experienced as a natural force almost completely beyond our control. Agape is a little different. To an extent, it is natural. When you see another person in pain and you feel a sense of pity then you are feeling agape. However, agape is also, like intelligence and patience, something that we have to build and develop through habit, just like exercising a muscle.
It can be difficult to develop agape, but without agape, we are condemned to live in a world of darkness and conflict. Without agape, racism, sexism, distrust of the alien or the strange, impatience, anger and revenge all flourish. Without agape, there can be no real democracy, no real peace, no real justice and no real civilisation.
So, how do we develop agape? Well, largely, through the daily practice of prayer, charity, patience, kindness and humility. But any human discipline, if practised diligently and pursued with vigour and honesty, can be a vehicle for the growth of agape within us. That is why, in a Christian school, we should consciously think of every subject – not just Religious Education – as an opportunity to nurture agape.
In English literature and Drama, you get to share in deepest thoughts and feelings of people from other times and places. In History, you try to imagine what it would have been like to live in worlds that are very different to our own. In Geography, you gain a deeper understanding of the forces and patterns that shape how different societies live and organise themselves. When studying French or German or Spanish you are also gaining an appreciation of these different cultures and ways of thinking. In Art, you study and practise the technique of connecting with other people at a level beyond language through the representation of private vision. In Science you are pushing your imagination beyond the human world, to study the deeper forces that shape all life in our universe and thereby express the mind of its Creator. And, finally, in Music and Mathematics you are experiencing timeless languages that transcend everything else and, perhaps, come closest to being like the speech of God Himself.
In short, at its best, all education has agape at its heart. Every subject is an exercise in patience, self-discipline, empathy and imagination. Every discipline on the curriculum – when taught and learned well – powerfully reminds you of the exhilarating truth you that you are, after all, only a tiny single thread in the vast tapestry of reality. Every subject lifts you beyond your own perspectives and desires and reminds you that your truth is not the whole truth, that your way of feeling and seeing things is not the whole picture, and that – therefore – you should always walk through this life in a state of wonder, curiosity and humility. By doing this, you are – every day – learning to love as God loves.