Saturday, May 9, 2009

Unconditional Love

Dennis Prager is always worth reading and this recent column is no exception. In it he discusses the significance of the fact that English is the only major language that has the concept of "to earn":

One of the reasons for the ascendance of the English-speaking world has been that the English language is almost alone among major languages in having the word "earn." Those of us whose native language is English assume that the phrase "to earn a living" is universal. It isn't. It is almost unique to English. Few languages have the ability to say this.

In the Romance languages, for example - a list that includes such major languages as Spanish, French, and Italian -- the word used when saying someone "earns" money, is "ganar" in Spanish, "gagner" in French. The word literally means "to win." In Hebrew the word "marveach" means "profits." In German, the word "verdient" means "deserves."

Obviously, it is very different to "win" or to "deserve" or to "profit" than to "earn."

Since the 1960s-'70s, a concerted effort has been made to weed the word, and therefore the cultural value, of "earning" from American life. Increasingly little is earned. Instead of earning, we are increasingly owed, or we have more rights, or we are simply given.

Many American kids no longer earn awards or trophies for athletic success. They are given trophies and awards for showing up. These trophies are not earned, just granted -- essentially for breathing.

This is a good insight and I think there's a lot to it. Prager then builds on the idea of "earning something" by launching an interesting disquisition on the concept of unconditional love:

Another increasingly widespread concept that undermines the notion of earning is "unconditional love." The term, which was barely used prior to the 1960s, is now ubiquitous. It is a prominent goal, a human ideal to strive for. The idea of having to earn love is more than unheard of today; it would strike most moderns as morally suspect.

We expect unconditional love not only from parents to babies and toddlers, but to children of any age, no matter how they act. Parental unconditional love means that all people, no matter how disgracefully they act --- even toward a parent -- and no matter how old they are, must be shown infinite love from their parents. Parental love is never to be earned, always to be given.

We expect God to show unconditional love to all people, again no matter how they act. According to the doctrine of divine unconditional love, God loves sadists as much as He loves the kindest individuals. No one earns God's love; we receive it, like sports trophies, for breathing. Many fine people believe this about God, but I think it is religio-cultural-specific, and non-biblical. In 15 years of study in a yeshiva I had never heard the phrase, and it would have struck me, as it still does, as quite odd. It depicts God as a love machine who, like an air-conditioner that emits the same amount of cold air no matter how the inhabitants of a house act, emits the same amount of love no matter we act. It means that we in no way influence God's love for us. I don't find that comforting. And it is certainly no more likely to induce decent behavior in human beings than a God who does show conditional love based on human decency.

Here I think Prager slips. The Christian doctrine of the atonement is, I think, a paradigmatic example of unconditional love. It's predicated upon nothing that man deserves. God suffers and dies in Christ as a profound demonstration of his love for us and to pay the price for man's betrayal and infidelity. As a consequence each person is offered the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation to God. That seems to me to be an act of pure agape, or unconditional love. Of course, whether we accept that gift is up to us, and many people choose to reject it. God doesn't force it on them, but that He nevertheless makes it available to them is an act, I think, of pure unconditional love.

Prager has more to say about this, which you can read at the link, but the matter of forgiveness leads into the next part of his essay.

We also expect forgiveness to be given without being earned. Many people believe in what I call automatic forgiveness -- the obligation to forgive anyone any crime, committed against anyone, no matter how many victims and no matter how removed from my life. Thus the pastor of a church attended by then-President Bill Clinton told the president and all others at a Sunday service that all Christians were obligated to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist murderer of 168 people. Did McVeigh earn this forgiveness? Of course not. So where did the notion of unearned forgiveness come from, especially unearned forgiveness from people who were not the victims of the evil being forgiven? It is one thing for me to forgive those who have hurt me; it is quite another for others to forgive those who have hurt me. God Himself demands that we earn forgiveness. The term for that is repentance. No repentance, no forgiveness.

Here I think Prager is exactly right. Few things sound sillier to me than someone who lost nothing and no one in the 9/11 terror proclaiming that they forgive the terrorists. Who do such people think they are?

What does it mean to forgive someone who has done you no harm, anyway? To forgive a person does not mean to forget what they did, it means to not hold what they did against them - to not demand retribution. If someone murders another person's loved one it's simply absurd for a third individual, who had no connection to any of the people involved, to say that he forgives the murderer.

Finally, the increasingly powerful culture of entitlement and rights further undermines the value of earning anything. The more the state gives to its citizens, the less they have to earn. That is the basic concept of the welfare state -- you receive almost everything you need without having to earn any of it. About half of Americans now pay no federal income tax -- but they receive all government benefits just as if they had paid for, i.e., earned, them.

America became a great civilization thanks to a culture based on the value of having to earn almost everything an American got in life. As it abandons this value, it will become a mediocre civilization. And eventually it will not be America. It will be a large Sweden, and just as influential as the smaller one.

I think Prager is right about this, as well. We should be compassionate with those less fortunate, but it should be made clear to everyone involved that our largesse is the fruit of compassion and is not an entitlement. When people think they're entitled to the contents of your wallet the desire to help them dwindles as rapidly as resentment toward them rises.

It's a major difference between conservatives and liberals that conservatives see a sense of entitlement as a serious flaw in social welfare programs and liberals seem to be relatively unconcerned about it. Most liberals would be indifferent to your right to decide whether to keep and how to dispose of what you earned and they're much more inclined to think that those who have earned little are somehow entitled to have a share of what you have worked hard for.


About Time

An article at Foreign Policy by Christian Brose notes that Australia has gazed at the tea leaves and concluded that the United States, especially under the current administration, is no longer much inclined to use military force to protect its allies and that it's time for Australia to start building up its defenses.

After listing the upgrades Australia is undertaking (and under a very leftist prime minister, no less) Brose goes on to write:

But why is it a bad thing for our allies to strengthen their defenses? .... I see the Australian white paper as a reason to be optimistic that America's relative decline can be managed in a smart way that leaves us in a good strategic position. Westhawk puts his finger on one reason why:

"If the Australian defense ministry can reach these conclusions [that the U.S. is a declining power], why shouldn't the Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Indian, and Russian defense ministries also formulate these same planning assumptions?.... The greatest loser from such a chain reaction would be China."

I'd go even further. The United States should want the Indians, and the Japanese, and the South Koreans, and the Indonesians to reach the same conclusions. We should actively encourage them to reach the same conclusions. And that goes for our NATO allies as well. (The Russians, not so much.) We should work to get more and more of America's like-minded allies investing in the capabilities to shoulder a greater share of our collective defense. And to that end, the perception that the "unipolar moment" is passing can actually play in our favor, as will the fact that China's "peaceful rise" remains an open question at best.

Brose is right, I think. It is time our allies started carrying more of the burden of our common defense. Europe, for example, has evolved into a continent-wide welfare state largely because they've had the luxury of not having to spend large sums of money on their militaries as long as the U.S. was guaranteeing their safety. It's time, though, that Europe stopped acting like the guy who mooches off his parents well into his thirties and never moves out on his own. Let the Europeans follow Australia's example and provide for their own security. Except for Britain and Poland they haven't been much help to us when we needed them anyway.

HT: PostModern Conservative