Differing notions of God make for differing notions of godlikeness (or perfection), and thereby the direction of those trying to become better. In other words, from one’s metaphysics arises his ethics, which together make for a philosophy of life.1
And two contrary philosophies of life we have, based on two contrary notions of God: The Beloved or The Lover.
For the ancient philosophers, God was not a lover because love presupposed weakness. In the words of Max Scheler, a 20th-century German philosopher:
Already Plato says:“We would not love if we were gods” (Resentment, Ch. III).
Plato will explicitly present love as the effect of imperfection or lack. In his words:
Now we have agreed that Love is love with what he lacks and does not possess (Plato, Symposium, 200e).
And for Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, God’s self-contemplation would prevent Him from even knowing us, let alone loving us.2 Standing aloof, this Unmoved Mover would move the world by attraction, while remaining disinterested in all but himself. Aristotle writes:
The final cause, then, produces motion as being loved…On such a principle, then, depend the heavens and the world of nature (Metaphysics, Bk. VII, Ch. VII).
For these ancient thinkers, God was not a lover but the beloved, who did not love. The unconcerned center (causally) of everything.
And from this particular idea of God followed corresponding ideas on greatness. If God moves the world by attraction, such is the essence of godlikeness or perfection. From here, a path is traced for what it means to become better. Max Scheler describes this beloved philosophy of life:
…a chain in which the lower always strives for and is attracted by the higher, which never turns back but aspires upward in its turn. This process continues up to the deity, which itself does not love, but represents the eternally unmoving and unifying goal of all these aspirations of love.
Too little attention has been given to the peculiar relation between this idea of love and the principle of the “agon,” the ambitious contest for the goal, which dominated Greek life in all its aspects—from the Gymnasium and the games to dialectics and the political life of the Greek city states. Even the objects try to surpass each other in a race for victory, in a cosmic “agon” for the deity (Scheler, Ibid.).
Scheler’s description conveys the image of a society of people stepping over one another in the pursuit of being most loved—like their deity.
Fast-Forward to Today
Granted, that was 2,000 years ago, and of course, contemporary man is not likely to be striving to imitate some Unmoved Mover. Yet, even if the ancient god has vanished, the ancient pursuit has not. We need only translate the terms.
Today, what would we call someone universally loved, universally influential, and simply by his or her existence? A celebrity. Twenty or thirty years ago, if you asked a child (the Millennials) what he wanted to be when he grew up, you might have heard “doctor” or maybe “engineer,” today…kids want to be famous. Aeromagazine provides the stats:
According to a 2010 Pew poll, only 1% of millennials longed to be famous. A recent poll has found that 78% of Gen Z teens would be willing to share personally identifiable data in pursuit of online fame (Aeromagazine, The Fame Trap: Gen Z, TikTok and Influencer Culture).
Fame can make someone the universal object of thought and affection, without one needing to take notice of it—like an Unmoved Mover. Such is the metaphysics and the ethical summum bonum (greatest good) characteristic of the beloved philosophy of life.
Now, let us look at its opposite.
We love because he first loved us…(1 Jn. 4:19).
The Judaeo-Christian God reveals Himself not as some disinterested, unmoved attractor, but as a father, as a lover. He says:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them (Hosea 11:1-4).
Here God reveals Himself, not as the allurer but the initiator of love, as it says in 1 John, “we love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19), and in the Gospel of John, “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (Jn. 15:16).
Instead of denoting lack, love is now considered a kind of perfection, even the Divine Essence, as it is written, “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8).
The true God, reveals true greatness to man which does not consist in fame or universal belovedness, but in loving. To be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48) means (as explained in the same passage):
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt. 5:44-45).
According to Jesus, to be like God means to be a perfect lover: to love unconditionally and especially to the most undeserving. He also gives us an example, who:
…emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-6).
Contrary to being universally acclaimed, Jesus died in infamy: abandoned, rejected, and condemned to a criminal’s death. Isaiah prophesied of Him:
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed…(Is. 53:5).
…he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Is. 53:2-3).
Here we found a completely opposite kind of God and consequently a completely opposite notion of perfection: not in being most beloved or adored, but in being most loving, most subservient. In Jesus’s words:
…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:43-45).
Such is the life—in this life—which is most Godlike.
Setting our Aim
Let us question our philosophy of life, our notion of God, and our great pursuit. Is it to be loved, or is it to be a lover?
The Greeks sought to be loved; 80% of Gen-Z wants to be loved and famous. Jesus came to die, to become a slave, to give himself as an unyielding lover.
What do we want to be?
1. A philosophy of life is defined as having, at a minimum, two components: a metaphysics and an ethics. A metaphysics is an account of how the world hangs together. An ethics is an account of how we should live in the world (IAI News, How and why you choose your philosophy of life).
2…it thinks of that which is most divine and precious, and it does not change; for change would be change for the worse…Therefore it must be of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking. (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Bk. VII, Ch. IX).