Can personalism be Christian

Christian moralists have been much influenced, indeed too much, by Anders Nygren's magisterial and profound book Agape and Eros. True Christian love is supposed to be 'unmotivated'. Modelled on the love of God, agape must not expect its beloved to be lovable or deserving. This orthodoxy would make the personalist emphasis on the value and the flourishing of human beings too selfish to be part of Christianity. Nygren said many fine and important things about agape; but in so far as he belitted eros, the love that wants, neglected philia, the love that appreciates, and cast doubt upon whether human beings could be said to love God, it is as well that a reaction has set in (Oppenheimer 1973:184-7; 1983:104-10; 1986:153). It is time to bring the hope of fulfilment back into human and divine love.

The LORD GOD of Israel from all eternity wanted like a GOD. He wanted the Communication of His Divine essence, and Persons to enjoy it. He wanted Worlds, He wanted Spectators, He wanted Joys, He wanted Treasures. He wanted, yet he wanted not, for he had them.

(Traherne 1958 I: para. 41)

Fulfilment rightly understood is not selfishly individualistic, because what fulfils people is loving and being loved. So agape can make room for eros: eros, of course, not just in its limited sense of erotic love, but as desire in its widest and deepest meaning. People are not lone atoms but need one another to be themselves. Their relatedness is not extra but fundamental. There is nothing unworthy about needing and wanting, when what people need and want is the company and attention of one another.

The selfish/unselfish dichotomy is too simple. Liking is supposed to be selfish, benevolence unselfish: yet most people would rather be naturally liked than made the object of disinterested philanthropy or even 'respect for persons'. There is more hope in liking more people than in 'loving' people one dislikes (Oppenheimer 1983:124-31).

Nygren treated the emphasis on friendship in the Fourth Gospel with a certain anxiety, as a decline from agape; but Christian personalism need not be so nervous. To make friends is to find out each other's value, to enjoy each other's company and to want each other's fulfilment. Finite as we are, we are limited in our friendships. Nobody but God can appreciate the endless variety of human beings; the attention span of each of us is tiny and our days are short; but friendship is not intrinsically exclusive. Friendship is not an excuse for turning one's back upon most of the world, but can be a model for the way any human being might be appreciated. Rather than a rival to agape, the appreciative love which is philia is like a pattern sum ready worked out, a picture of possibilities (Oppenheimer 1973:188-92, 1983:118-21, 132-9).

If people may be valued, they should be valued in their individual distinctiveness. Instead of being afraid of the notion of partiality, personalists could almost define agape as partiality extended to infinity, on the pattern of the infinite love of God who ascribes special and unlimited value to each human being, not generalized but particular for every one. As Milton said,

Then long eternity shall greet our bliss With an individual kiss.

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