Human Condition Image
The Human Condition
The Human Condition
The Human Condition
Established 1996
Over 400 articles


Ontology of God - Religion Series









Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.


The things that we believe that God asks of us, as seen in historical religious literature, seem to me to be a window into what God is all about. In creating a construct of characteristics of God (an ontology of one particular kind of relationship) this would seem to me to be a key type of relationship to explore.


book cover Ontology of God is now a book:
Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients Dorian Scott Cole. Description. Available now on Scott's store.


  • Soft cover
  • ebook: Microsoft Reader download (coming)
  • ebook: MobiBook download (coming)
  • ebook: PDF download (coming)
Click window to dismiss X

Echoing through time are the voices of ancient people telling us about God. From Mesopotamia and Egypt 5000 years ago, often from even earlier oral traditions, every civilization has been inspired to tell us about God. Their voices vary widely and even conflict. Is there a common message that they thought was so important that they had to pass it on? In this book, the ancient voices speak.

This study follows the thread of the basic religious concepts of law, mercy, and love that are prominent in many religions. Major religions around the world are investigated up to the launch of the Common Era when most religions had been developed, including religions that later developed independently such as the Mayan.

These are messages refined by the fire of experience through the ages. The repeated messages collectively bear the tests of validity.

This study also looks at the many methods we use to try to understand God and religious literature. Is the nature of God reflected in what he asks of us? The premise is that it is.

By understanding the nature of God, perhaps we can filter out the many competing voices that tell us that God stands for such things as the murder of innocents and destruction.

The very nature of religion is illuminated in the light of the voices from the ages. But is ancient religion a path that we have lost, or does history hammer out newer voices to bear the truth of new experience as people try to understand their relationship with God?

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. Other books and publications: How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor,, and

Reading type: Mainstream Scholarly Specialist

Note: Paragraphs preceded by a ((())) are hidden, except for their heading. They may or may not be of interest to you, but they are germane to the topic. If you want to read them, click the heading to display their text. (Works in both IE and Firefox Dynamic Drive)

((())) What is this thing called love?

This series is an exploration. It isn't about "defining" things, but about "describing" them. Without getting too technical, defining puts things in a box. Defining helps us understand because it places limits - puts things in bite size chunks. Describing and defining impact how we view our world. How is describing different from defining? I'll define a couple of new words that deal with just this topic.

((())) Define a new word with several meanings: incratic.

incratic: adjective.
1. Characteristic of a closed system of thought that is turned inward. <Their incratic thought saw not the slightest wisp of sunshine.>
2. From those who are within, especially an idea from within a system that lacks new thinking. Uninformed. <An incratic idea.>
3. Relating to an idea that would fit well within the framework of partisan theory, particularly of those in control. <An incratic approach to the problem.> <The conservatives formulated an incratic approach to the problem.> <The Congress, locked in old ways of thinking, could not resist an incratic view of the issue.>
4. Characteristic of a system with people who are closed to fresh thinking, particularly self-imposed exclusion of outside thought, such as by an ideology maintained by the power elite. <An incratic system.>
5. Characteristic of thinking in a system that is stuck in a rut. <A system in incratic stagnation, mired in its own thought.>
6. Characteristic of a system that can't evolve, or reach beyond being a fresh mixture of stale ideas. <Hopelessly locked in incratic dispute.> <Incratic inbreeding.>

in: inner, within.
from the French, crat;
1 : advocate or partisan of a (specified) theory of government <theocrat>
2 : member of a (specified) dominant class <plutocrat>
ic: relating to, or characteristic of; having the character or form of; consisting of; of or relating to; related to; derived from, or containing; in the manner of; associated or dealing with; characterized by; exhibiting; caused by; tending to produce.
- in, crat, and ic etymology © Merriam Webster
French -crate, from Greek -krats, ruler, from kratos, strength, power.
- Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company, The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
Not to be confused with "encratic."

Note how in the previous example, there are multiple definitions, each similar to the others, but very specific. It is an incremental approach. Every nuance of the expression breaks the previous limits, so creates another definition 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Many things are easily categorized in this way. But could you define God? It seems like a highly improbable, if not impossible, task. Describing, on the other hand, lets understanding grow. Describing has no boundaries. This is a descriptive exploration of just one aspect of God: his relationship with man and what we know about it, which we can call the nature of God (an ontology).

This series about God, and in this topic about love, goes on and on. It is a description, and a very incomplete one. It is simply looking at the voices of history to see an aspect of God. The different aspects could be infinite.

This has practical implications. There is a view of religion that we have to get back to earlier times, as if early voices contained all wisdom, and wisdom is somehow lost through the ages. There is also the opposite view that people and civilization matures, and through experience, gains more wisdom. One is a closed system of thought (incratic); the other is an open system of thought (diasophic: open, incisive, perceptive, discerning, luminary, sound judgment).

((())) Define another new word: diasophic.

diasophic: adjective.
1. Characteristic of an open system of thought that cuts across available ideas. <Their diasophic thought let the sunshine through.>
2. Characteristic of thinking that is informed, incisive, perceptive, discerning, luminary, and resulting from sound judgment. <A diasophic idea.>
3. Relating to an idea that would productively expand the framework of sectional theory. <A diasophic approach to the problem.> <The conservatives, in consultation with others, formulated a diasophic approach to the problem.> <The Congress, cutting across party ideas and incisively adding new ones, hammered out a diasophic view of the issue.>
4. Characteristic of a system with people who are open to fresh thinking, and opposed to rigid ideologies. <A diasophic system.>
5. Characteristic of thinking in a system that is constantly improving. <A system in diasophic evolution, finding new effective solutions.>
6. Characteristic of a system that evolves, becoming fresh and relevant. <Hope emanating from diasophic discussions.> <Diasophic fertility.>

dia: across, through.
soph: from the Ancient Greek, sophia;
1 : skilled in handicraft and art;
2 : sound judgment, intelligence, practical wisdom;
3 : wisdom, philosophy;
from the Ancient Greek, sophos;
soph : from the Ancient Greek, sophia; skilled in the sciences, learned, profound, wise;
ic: relating to, or characteristic of; having the character or form of; consisting of; of or relating to; related to; derived from, or containing; in the manner of; associated or dealing with; characterized by; exhibiting; caused by; tending to produce.
- in, crat, and ic etymology © Merriam Webster
Ancient Greek -sophia, sophos - Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon.

Do we become more wise, as a civilization? Do we learn anything from history? In this exploration of love, I suggest that earlier views emphasized the "emptying out" of the vessel, and letting God fill them. There is that sense that all that we are is unimportant. In that situation, there is constant conflict with physical wants and material needs, as if neither has a place.

This has been a conflict through the ages. On one hand, material wealth has been considered by some as showing the favor of God; it is a blessing for having lived a good life. On the other hand, some Gnostics (a term representing several differing traditions) went completely in the other direction, considering the pursuit of spiritual knowledge (secret intuitive knowledge enlightening the person away from the illusions of the evil world) as highly important, and the material world, flesh and all, is irrelevant and even a hindrance. Even sexuality may be denied. The denial of self in favor of enlightenment and serving others, is often found in the Christian mystic traditions. The evil nature of the world is often a belief of fundamentalist religions. Both emphases - material blessings and material curses - can miss other important aspects of life.

While both emphases are OK for a few, we realize today that the individual is important. Talents and aptitudes are considered to be gifts from God, and pursuing and developing these requires a major commitment of time and material resources.

People have many needs. They need relaxation to refresh and rejuvenate themselves. This is recognized in many religious traditions as a weekly day of rest. (This often gets hijacked as a day of religious commitment, however, spiritual refreshment is often essential to becoming relaxed. We overemphasize with the Gnostics when we think that spiritual knowledge and commitment is all we need.) The diversion needed to relax often requires a commitment of resources - both time and money.

Each of us is a favored child of God. Each of us has a place at the table - we belong, we participate, we receive. Yes, receive as well as give.

Looking beyond the volcano - stepping outside the incratic approach

The ancients looked for an explanation of events in their lives. They looked for a purpose for their lives. They looked for control of their environment outside of their lives. For all of these things they looked to God.

In their early efforts, they probed the natural world around them for clues, and even looked inwardly at themselves, ascribing their own motivations to God, and ascribing natural acts of the universe to God. They looked for a God of power and human emotions such as hatred and revenge. To the Ancient Greeks, the gods were capricious semi-humans, probably reflecting the capricious nature of events in their own lives. Comedy and tragedy could come on the same day without warning.

When the volcanoes exploded, they felt that God was angry. They tried their best to appease an angry God. They made sacrifices, even the lives of their own families. The floods came and ruined their crops and swept away their villages. They interpreted these acts as their lesson to do better. The droughts brought famine, and again God was angry. They hoped that pleasing God would bring them better weather for crops. Diseases brought life and love to a sudden horrible end. Natural disasters and their enemies wiped out their cities. Again, God's anger was the explanation.

The ancients organized religion, and established priests to make certain that the religious duties were performed and God was appeased, so that they wouldn't feel his anger. Religious sites were identified where people had communed with God, and shrines were established at these places so that they would know where to go to appease God.

As nature drove them to look for God, they began to find God in unexpected places, and they found unexpected things about God. With understanding, a different view of God began to emerge. By 200 CE, even those of the Roman world who worshiped countless gods, had concluded that God was neither capricious nor filled with human motivation. People had found a gentle God in the still small voice of the wind. They found a God who loves to forgive. They found a God of mercy.

They found a God who expects them to treat others fairly, and treat others with love. Instead of the terrible God of wrath and vengeance personified in nature's calamities and people's wicked deeds, they found a God who transforms the hearts and minds of people. He was not the God of control who works brute force miracle after miracle in the physical world, protecting them from this or that. They found the God who brings people together to accomplish those same tasks - miracles are exceptions, not the daily rule. He was a God who works in the hearts and minds of people to accomplish tremendous things in all realms, a feat greater than miracles.

Through willing people working together for good, everyone could be fed and sheltered, diseases could be conquered, fear and oppression from wicked leaders could be ended, guilt could be nullified with forgiveness, and people could recover from natural disasters. People looked for the power of God in the awesome displays of nature's power that destroyed their lives, but they found his power was in their lives to transform themselves and the world. Repeatedly they wrote that God asks justice and mercy from us.

It was a learning experience. But the incratic people said the revelation (revealing of God) stopped - all was known about God that could be known. They continued to try to appease God through sacrifices of their time, effort, and goods. Those who were open learned important lessons about God. And then there was at least one more thing. Love.

In this article on love, I am narrowing the scope to just two ancient religions, instead of the many religions already covered with early voices, whether ancient or pre-modern era. These two are Buddhism and Christianity, since they represent various traditions and a stage of development near the beginning of the common era (~600 BCE to ~100 CE [or AD]), and are well developed.

Buddhism and love

What are the most important concepts in Buddhism? Buddha (~500 BCE) called them the Four Immeasurables, and they began with love. "...practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.... I call these the four immeasurables. Practice them and you will become a refreshing source of vitality and happiness for others." For more information on the For Immeasurables, see: A View on Buddhism.

Buddha looked at life from an interesting perspective. He looked at attachments. What are we attached to? It is similar to Christ's statement, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Buddha saw that our attachments are illusory. We delude ourselves into thinking that life is about the attachments that we make. Wealth, glamour, fame, possessions, name brands, respect... there is an endless parade of things that we believe will make us into "something." And once we get that thing, we quickly move on to the next thing in line, because none of these ever really makes us "something," and we're never satisfied.

I can't get no satisfaction...
'cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can't get no, I can't get no.
When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm signing that
And I'm tryin' to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back later next week
'cause you see I'm on losing streak.
I can't get no, oh no no no.
Hey hey hey, that's what I say.
I can't get no, I can't get no,
I can't get no satisfaction,
- Satisfaction © Rolling Stones

In our quest for these things, we are caught in an endless preoccupation with things that mean nothing and we become more and more dissatisfied, while going to greater and greater extremes to find satisfaction. Often we harm others in our quest for something satisfying. As spiritual beings, our growth is stopped, and we create large debts to others from hurting them.

Buddha saw disaster in attachments merging with love. Our attachments crowd right into the area of love. So love becomes a "what can you do for me?" proposition. When love is influenced by the need for attachments, it is a very self-oriented type of love, and often becomes very conditional. Love is simply a vehicle to satisfying personal needs, and if the other person doesn't satisfy those needs, then love may be withheld.

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. You don't scratch my back, I won't scratch yours. You make me feel wanted and needed, I'll make you feel wanted and needed. You make me feel like a princess, I'll make you feel like a king. You don't do these things... neither will I. Buddha saw the disaster in that and stated that love must be detached.

I don't interpret the idea of being detached as "not caring." On the contrary, I see being detached as very great caring about what happens to the other person, but not caring in a selfish way. In other words, instead of, "I want you to be happy so you will make me happy," it is, "I want you to be happy, even if I'm not."

Buddha taught his son that loving kindness brings happiness to others, and expects nothing in return. He should look at everything openly and equally - this is a "not-attached" way of looking at things. He should take joy in other's happiness. Note the focus on the other person, instead of on one's self.

Love is not selfless. But the emphasis is on what you can contribute, not what you get.

We are all born with a basic need for love in our lives... at least something that can be interpreted as love by behavioral scientists who observe infants in various settings. It seems to be a continuum, with some people (commonly called anti-social, or sociopathic) who seem unable to love, or be motivated by love, or to give love much of a place in their lives. At the other extreme are those who seem driven by some need to completely deny theirselves and only serve others. They are the ones with the "Savior Complex," or are ridden with guilt and are endlessly looking for a way to pay their debt.

More importantly than this basic need that all of us have, is how we interpret this need into action in our lives. Like putting on rose colored glasses and all of the world looks rosy, many things in our lives influences us to interpret our need in different ways. Perhaps it is the society around us with an influence on materialism (get all the goods you can get and you will be satisfied). Perhaps it is parents and siblings who have a similar materialistic attitude that they pass on to us. Perhaps it is peers or business associates who have this same attitude. The way that we interpret our need determines what actions we take to try to find love.

The need for love can be interpreted as ordering the universe around you so that you get what you want. Wanting and getting are illusory things - they seldom satisfy. The need for love can also be interpreted as giving (whatever you can give) to others. Each of us has the capacity to love and to give. Sometimes it gets hidden by illusion. The more the illusion we have strived for, the more difficult it is to change. (Christ talked about his message as seeds, some planted in rich soil, some planted among the weeds. If it is planted in weeds, it is difficult to take root.)

Buddha challenged his son to "practice" loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and non-attachment. In studying attitude change, one thing you find is that people become (in attitude) what they do. Doing is life changing. If you can believe that loving is the best way, then set your feet in that direction and let your heart (emotions) become where mind and feet take you. It is one (very good) way of becoming not just a better person, but becoming happy.

To be satisfying, love needs to be primarily interpreted in our lives as what we can do for others.

...ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what
together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same
high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience
our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to
lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on
earth God's work must truly be our own.
      - John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961

Christianity and love

What is the most important concept in Christianity? Christ was asked, "...which is the greatest commandment in the law?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." In this statement, Jesus quotes the book of Leviticus (19:18) - contained in the Jewish and Muslim "Law," the Pentateuch - thought to have been put in writing around 950 BCE. It is a foundational concept of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Love is a common word in the Bible, but what does it mean? One passage in which Christ uses the word is very enlightening since he uses it as a specific charge to a specific person, his disciple, Peter. It is one of the rare places, in the Greek version, in which the Greek word "philos" is used instead of "agape," for "love" - actually interspersed - you'll see. It is at the end of Christ's ministry, and he knows that he is leaving this earth. We can look at the text from the English translation, a very early version in Aramaic, and from historic Greek text.

((())) Love - a collision of languages

Studying Christ's words presents us with a collision of languages. To understand the meaning of the word love, it might help to poke around in the languages in use.

The language that Christ and the Apostles spoke was probably Aramaic/Chaldean. There were many languages spoken in the area (North Africa and South West Asia - the Orient) that originated from the Semitic root, and these included Hebrew and Aramaic. The people of the Old Israelite Northern Kingdom, which later belonged to Syria, spoke Aramaic. Aramaic supplanted Hebrew as the common language in the area (spread by merchants) while Hebrew remained the language of government - more the "official" language. Some of the Biblical books (Old Testament) were written in Aramaic, some in Hebrew.

The Romans triumphed over the area militarily, and with them brought Greek culture in large measure. They brought their language as well. So many people would have known Greek as well as Aramaic, and possibly even Hebrew. Each of these languages also had its own peculiar way of writing.

The Biblical New Testament books were originally written in... Greek. In the First Century, they were translated into other languages as well. What survives today are fragments of texts, some of which date back to around 300 CE. (The finds at Nag Hammadi are a notable exception, and seem to arise from a tradition that was suppressed or lost.) Most actual complete texts date from copies made many centuries later.

There are two very interesting exceptions, which can be found in Aramaic or Arabic. One is the Diatessaron, and the other is the Peshitta. The Diatessaron was believed "written" in about 170 CE, and the oldest preserved copy, which is in Greek, dates from the Third Century. It isn't known what language it was originally written in, but it is thought that the individual source books were in Greek, but some may have been in Aramaic and Hebrew. Tatian supposedly compiled the Diatessaron, bringing the four Gospels together into one text.

Was Tatian a "heretic," or influenced by the Third Century movements, or did he write with an agenda? The Third Century Diatessaron is a version that was probably not influenced by the Churches of the Second and Third Centuries. The Church leaders of the Third Century came together under Roman influence to create the canon of books known as the Biblical New Testament - a group that is viewed with jaundiced eye by those who believe they rewrote the Bible - not that scribes didn't monkey with the text to suppress heresies and shift power to favored groups - they clearly did.*1 Whether Tatian actually even compiled the Diatessaron isn't known for certain. Scholars tend to believe that Tatian translated them from Greek To Syriac and changed nothing. See Early Christian Writings at Also see Diatessaron manuscripts at

The latest preserved copy of the the Peshitta, in Aramaic/Syriac, dates from the Fifth Century. Rabbula was a reforming Bishop of Edessa in the Fifth Century, who took positions against the Gnostics and other "heresies." It is claimed that he wrote a Syriac version of the Gospels to replace the Diatessaron. He regarded Tatian as a heretic.

What we can feel confident about is that if Rabbula considered the Diatessaron a heretical writing, and the copies were in such wide circulation and favor that he couldn't suppress them, then copies that predate him probably were not influenced. So the Peshitta and Diatessaron give us two versions to compare to the Egyptian Church (Alexandrian), the Latin (Catholic) versions, as well as the Greek Orthodox versions. (The Greek Orthodox did participate in the early councils.)

On the passages that I look at below (John 23:16-19), the Diatessaron and the Peshitta have similar text. The Greek version is a little different, using different words.

Note that I am not looking at these texts as a linguist (which I'm not), but using the languages as an exegetical tool, since the language in this case is important.

((())) Diatessaron - earliest recorded version of Christ questioning Peter, (probably translated into Aramaic from Greek ~170)

Diatessaron: Attributed to Tatian, but possibly existed as a translation. It largely follows the Gospel of Matthew, with notes from the other Gospels. It is held to have been written around 170 AD, probably in Syriac (an Aramaic dialect), and was widely distributed. It was translated into Greek. Later it was translated into Latin. It is one of the earliest references we have prior to the Third Century. Tatian was later branded a heretic because he was opposed to marriage, but there is little evidence that he tampered any with his translation. The following is the English translation.

39 "And when they had breakfasted, Jesus said to Simon Cephas, Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou me more than these? He said unto him, Yea, my Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus said unto him, Feed for me my lambs. He said unto him again a second time, Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou me? He said unto him, Yea, my Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He said unto him, Feed for me my sheep. He said unto him again the third time, Simon, son of Jonah, lovest thou me? And it grieved Cephas that he said unto him three times, Lovest thou me? He said unto him, My Lord, thou knowest everything; thou knowest that I love thee."

- Aramaic: Diatessaron
Also see: Early Christian Writings: Tatian

In the following Aramaic passage from the Peshitta, the word used for love, RaKHeM, is a verb meaning mercy, compassion, or love, depending on usage. In this dialogue between Simon Peter (Shimon) and Jesus (Yeshua), RaKHeM is translated "love."

((())) Peshitta - a later version of Christ questioning Peter, in Aramaic

After they had dined Yeshua Shimon said, "Shimon son of Yonah do you love me (love [RaKHeM]) more than these?

He said to him, "Yes, my Lord, you know that I love you." (love [RaKHeM])

"Tend my lambs for me."

He said to him again a second time, "Shimon son of Yonah do you love me?" (love [RaKHeM])

He said to him, "Yes, you know that I love you." (love[RaKHeM])

Yeshua said to him, "Tend my sheep for me."

He said to him the third time, "Shimon son of Yonah do you love me?" (love [RaKHeM])

He was sad that he said to him the third time, do you love me, and he said to him, "My Lord, you understand everything. You know that I love you. (love [RaKHeM)]

Yeshua said to him, "Tend my ewes for me."

- Aramaic: Peshitta.Org

The Greek version used for the King James Authorized version.

Did Christ and Peter say some of their words in Greek? In the Greek version, we see significant differences in wording, using words that are only used in Greek.

When they had breakfasted, Jesus says to Simon Peter, "Simon (son) of John, do you love [agapas] me?"

He says to him, "Yes, Lord, you know I love [philo] you."

He says to him, "Feed my lambs for me." He says to him a second time, "Simon of John, do you love [agapas] me?"

He says to him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love [philo] you."

He says to him, "Shepherd my little sheep." He says to him a third time, "Simon of John, do you love [phileis] me?"

Peter was grieved that he said to him a third time, "Do you love [phileis] me," and he said to him, "Lord, you know all things. You know that I love [philo} you."

Jesus said to him, "Feed my little sheep."

The Greek word "agape," translated love, means brotherly love or charity. So either the words were spoken, or later translated to be more specific about the meaning. He basically asked, do you feel charitable or benevolent toward me?

Peter's reply used the word "philos" which means "dear to me in the sense of a family relationship or a friendship." (English "dear" means greatly cherished or loved.) Peter's reply basically meant that he would do for Christ what he would do for a dear friend or a family member.

In Aramaic, the emphasis of the action is on tending lambs, sheep, ewes - metaphorically, I suppose, the young, the adults {old?}, and the women... those in need, everyone, using an affectionate image of young and female sheep.

In Greek, the emphasis of action is, treat my flock as you would your family: feed lambs, shepherd sheep, feed little sheep, using an affectionate image of lambs.

In both the Aramaic and Greek, despite their differences, the request has the same intent. The spirit of both passages is the same. The word love is used in its theological sense: a willingness to do for others. On the surface (just looking at the words) Christ asked Peter to treat his followers (and by extension, the extended church family) charitably.

In the passage, in both languages, the effect of the visual images (lambs) and words (family relationships), indicate strong affection, leadership, and preferred treatment. So Christ's imagery goes beyond simple charity and mercy.

So, seeing this in context, here is Christ, who has followers all over the area. Many of his disciples, who learn from him, follow him from place to place. Other people come because they have needs. He has attracted the suffering - those whose physical problems are bad, there situations are bad, those whose spirits are low, or whose friends and relatives are in bad shape. It mattered not whether they were mighty or low, rich or poor. They came and he ministered to them. Christ accepted all of those who came to him, in whatever condition and situation they were in, fixed their suffering, whatever it was from, and offered them hope for a better future. They were a flock of helpless and needy sheep. They mattered most to him. He loved them.

As he said these words to Peter, he knew that he was about to leave. He was about to be taken by men who opposed him and be killed by them. In parting, his mind was on his flock - the helpless lambs, the women, the low in spirit, the powerless in the face of life's tragedies, the suffering. Someone must fill this role. So he asked Peter not once, but three times to be sure of him. Did he love him enough to feed his sheep.

Apparently Christ knew that Peter's dedication wasn't quite where it needed to be, or possibly after he was dead, Peter's faith and dedication would be damaged. In asking these three times, he made certain for both Peter and himself of Peter's level of commitment. He made sure that Peter was not just mouthing the right words, was not just echoing a sentiment, not just giving a pledge that would die with Christ's death, but that he was clear on what was expected: that this was a long term commitment that he couldn't back out of. It was not a call to be sentimental. It was not a call to be appointed to high position. It was not a call to continue for only as long as Christ was among them.

Peter was troubled. His commitment had recently failed (when he denied to the authorities that he knew Christ), and was now being called into question by Christ, who could peer into his soul and know everything. Yes, Christ was dear to him. But Christ would not play word games, and he was looking for commitment. He switched from agape to Peter's words. "If you really do love me (phileis, like a family member), Peter, promise me you will feed my sheep after I am gone." It was a call to action, a call to serve, a call for a lasting commitment.

In this context, the way Christ used the Greek words meaning love, or the Aramaic word for love, clearly cast love in the strongest terms - the family relationship in which one would do anything for the other, and the charitable relationship. The meaning was clearly a call for dedication to action and service.

Love, love, love

The ancient Greeks used many words to talk about love. They were (or could be) very specific. Eros was the love that we would identify as infatuation and sexual lust. It drew people together. Eros was the name of the god of love, also to become known as Cupid. Eros is pure attraction. (Aphrodite - to be thorough - was also a god of love, and very seductive.)

The word love, translated from the word agape, means "affection, benevolence, charity, brotherly love," as opposed to philos - meaning "affection as for a friend, spouse, or family member, things, events, and approval." Agape especially meant the type of love between man and God.

The words used by Christ indicate that he was talking not about sexual attraction, or about affection. The basic meaning of love, in a religious sense, is a commitment to take care of others in benevolent way - even the same way you would your family. In other places, Christ asks us to love others as we love ourselves. Love is a call to action, a call to serve. Almost all Biblical New Testament words translated love come from one Greek word: agape.

A friend of mine, Linda M., said that love allows us to see Christ in each and every one of us. God makes the sun to shine on us all. Even the difficult to love. Often we are called on to be the sun that shines on others.

The continuum of love

Love is a continuum. As we get further from close personal relationships, the intensity of feelings lessens: family - friends - neighbors - enemies. Yet we are still asked to "agape" them. By that is meant to wish for and do what is in their best interests, rather than acting on hateful feelings or ignoring them.

Probably none of us are going partying with our enemies, but neither should we let them starve, or go without housing or medicine. If they were drowning, we should throw them a life preserver. Even in a war, soldiers assist wounded enemy soldiers.

Our "feelings" for others depend on the amount of acceptance, and more is invested in family and friends, which creates more deep emotional bonds. Emotional distance and investment are factors in how we treat others. Empathy is more a factor with neighbors, and humanitarian concerns more with an enemy.

We associate strong feelings with love, but in agape, feelings are in the background. Christ didn't ask Peter to have strong feelings toward him. He knew that Peter did. He asked Peter if he could love in a way that was open to others - even the unlovable - with a strong commitment.


Like most complex issues, nothing is ever purely one thing or another. It's possible for eros to confound our feelings in our personal relationships, toward strangers, and even toward our enemies. Eros and enemies are the stuff of spy stories. We particularly want eros to spice up our relationship with our spouse. Agape, hopefully, is our primary basis of our relationships, especially friendships - yet we depend on attraction to first bring us together as lovers.

The ancient voices tell us about love. They tell us that if you strip away all of the trimmings, at its core love is not a self-rewarding act or an emotion. Love is first a strong willingness to invest yourself for the benefit of another person.

When love is done to fulfill one's own needs, expecting something in return, it lacks the power in the life of the giver and receiver. Love is a foundation to build on. It is a unifying principle from which grows strong family love, friendships, neighborly (or brotherly) love, and can even bring enemies together as friends.

You can win a battle with a sword, but conquering leads to bitterness and endless war. To win a victory, it takes kindness. Christ came to a needy people. Many expected a military conqueror. They expected to show their faithfulness through their continuous religious rituals and their sacrifices. But Christ said that he wanted mercy, not sacrifice. And he rejected their pleas for military action and instead turned their world upside down. Christ never swung the sword, but he accomplished more than any other military commander in history, teaching us to end the divisions between people by loving your neighbor and even your enemy.

Love in marriage

Today people seem fixated on one aspect of love - sexuality - eros. All of their energy goes into attracting the opposite sex. People do tend to oversimplify things and fixate on some desirable aspect of them. Even scholars who try to understand from a biological developmental point of view become fixated on the role of sex in human development, as if sex was the primary basis of human relationships. We get a steady drizzle of "Just So..." stories that try to simplify human development to terms of primal sexual relations.

Love is complex. Eros and Agape love stand at two extreme ends of the spectrum of love, with philos somewhere in the middle. Marital love is a combination of the three. None of the three answers all of life's questions, not in the past human development, not today, and not in the future. One word, love, can represent both, but we need to understand that neither eros nor agape can individually take the place of the word love. Neither can define love by itself.

Love has two aspects. It is giving. But if all of us gave and no one was willing to receive, how would we give? Love is also receiving. But if we are only willing to receive, who is to give?

God is the biggest giver of all.

Love is the law?

Christ actually quoted a law, in his response about the greatest commandments. It is a requirement that people love (agape) each other. Can you make and enforce such a law?

How do you codify love? How do you write it down as a prescription or group of rules? Love is an action required in every circumstance throughout every aspect and moment of life, so how do you write that into being?

With people looking for defined limits, self-serving restrictions, escape clauses, and lists of do's and don'ts, is making a list of do's something helpful? There could never be enough rules or laws put in place to control our behavior. Laws and rules, even when looking for the spirit (intent) of the law, tend to be incratic - just a series of restrictions. Defined limits. Love is more diasophic. Love is expansive - it looks for opportunity, not restriction. Love is a voluntary thing. It is a way of being. It is a prescription that can't be enforced through law.

The Apostle Paul didn't define love, but described some characteristics of it in the following:

New International Version Bible book: 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 -
1. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only
a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
3. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,
but have not love, I gain nothing.
4. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast,
it is not proud.
5. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
6. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8. Love never fails.
13. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.

Summary Paragraphs (these aren't in a green box - too many green boxes can give you a headache)

Everyone needs love. It is up to each of us to learn what that means, through experience. We learn that love is something that we need from others. Yet it is also something that we need to give to others, but expecting nothing in return. How we interpret our need for love into desires and actions brings vastly different results. Some of the outward signs (behavior, actions) of love are affection, sharing our lives with others, and doing things for others. Not all people get the same inward feeling or outward signs from us. Love varies in both feelings and actions.

Love is like communications - it is one of the ways in which we connect, relate to, and interact with people. If we interpret the need in a very self-serving way, it probably won't be satisfying, productive, or empowering. If we interpret the need for love in a totally selfless way for everyone, the drain is just as likely to tear us down as build us up.

If we try to make sex and attraction the basis of love, it probably will be neither satisfying nor enduring. Sex alone is a flimsy basis for anything.

If we set as our primary citeria for love, that we give as well as receive, love can blossom into a rich experience that is rewarding, develops us as people, and produces benefits for both the giver and receiver.

It is often giving love that creates a transforming response in the other person. Love needs to give first so that it can be understood through experience. Remember, it was your mother who loved you first, and for many years gave so much. It is God who gives first, often through others and through noble ideas, giving life, sustenance, talents, love, forgiveness.... In marriage, in studies of how people fall in love, we typically fall in love with those who first love us. Each must give, for the other to understand. Love builds strong families, friendships, neighbors, and even helps resolve differences between enemies.

Love is both a noun (something that is) and a verb (something that does). It is something that is expressed in our deeds. If we can aspire to love others, our best efforts would be to emulate the examples of Buddha and Christ.

From Buddha:

And the Buddha breathed forth this solemn utterance:
"Do not deceive, do not despise
Each other, anywhere.
Do not be angry, and do not
Secret resentment bear;
For as a mother risks her life
And watches over her child,
So boundless be your love to all,
So tender, kind and mild.
"Yea, cherish good-will right and left,
For all, both soon and late,
And with no hindrance, with no stint,
From envy free and hate;
While standing, walking, sitting down,
Forever keep in mind:
The rule of life that's always best
Is to be loving-kind. -

From Christ:

Matthew 5:43-48 (NIV)
"You have heard that it was said,
`Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
But I tell you: Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.
He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
If you love those who love you,
what reward will you get?
Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
And if you greet only your brothers,
what are you doing more than others?
Do not even pagans do that?
Be perfect, therefore,
as your heavenly Father is perfect.
John 13: 34,35 (NIV)
"A new command I give you: Love one another.
As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this all men will know that you are my disciples,
if you love one another."

So say the ancient voices, that this is what God is about. Is there still more?

- Scott

Next: True religion


Related item, the Pope (early 2006) prepared an encyclical on love. See: Deus Caritas Est (On Christian Love - God is Love) at

The quoting of various sources in this series, from early Christian writings to various religions, is intended to reveal that despite the diversity of thought, there is unity in the overall message. To this day, religion fragments into movements that focus on various aspects of God. God is a God of variety, and we are all individuals, yet our needs are all very related.

*1 Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus - the Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, 2005.

Other distribution restrictions: None

Expanding Text script compliments of Dynamic Drive

Return to main page

Page URL: