In studying ancient philosophy (the very thoughts that shaped the course of later ideas, culture, and history to come) it is impossible to really understand what you read without setting aside the modern day connotations of the words used. Many of the words like ‘spirit’, ‘gods’, ‘soul’, have been Christianized and taken on meanings that are subtly but significantly different. Instead, to get inside the minds and perspectives of early thinkers you must do as one little green Jedi master suggested, “unlearn what you have learned”. When we do this, a fascinating picture of how some ancient people conceived the universe begins to emerge – one that is perhaps far more compatible with our modern scientific and naturalistic understanding than is often appreciated.
I find John 4:8 highly interesting, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” I’ve looked at 18 different translations of this verse, and though the first portion is translated slightly different in all of them, they all phrase it exactly as “God IS love” – not “God is loving“, “God is the source of love”, “God loves“, and so on.
The 18th Century cleric and theologian John Wesley noted that God is often called holy, righteous, and wise in the Bible, but he isn’t called “holiness”, “righteousness”, or “wisdom” in the abstract, as he is here with Love. The Jamiseson-Fausset-Brown biblical commentary says of this verse, “God is love – There is no Greek article to love, but to God; therefore we cannot translate, Love is God. God is fundamentally and essentially LOVE; not merely is loving…”
So then, looking at the original Greek, the word used was ἀγάπη or “agapē”. This sets it apart from Philia (brotherly friendship love) and Eros (romantic love). Agapē referred to a response to promote well being even when the other has done ill. Thus, it is sometimes translated as “charity”. This indicates an intention to refer to a kind of ‘motherly’ love that is unconditional; that is not dependent upon circumstances or the actions of the recipient (‘charity’ being the broader concept of giving something you don’t ‘owe’ to the person due to surrounding events or conditions). Agapē is the kind of selfless universal loving-kindness (“Metta”) Buddhists, for example, also seek to cultivate.
This is what the book of John says God IS – not what God does, or a separate quality that God possesses. A=B and B=A, the two are synonymous according to John.
This makes more sense when you consider some of the ancient Greek philosophy that greatly influenced Christianity from its earliest incarnations. The Stoics’ concept of Zeus was somewhat illusive as far as his/its personal vs impersonal nature. The Stoics also used the concept of the Logos, which originated as a philosophic concept in Heraclitus around the 5th Century BCE.
By Heraclitus’ use, the Logos was the underlying rational principle or order by which the universe operated. It also meant “word”, as in ‘description’ or perhaps ‘logic’. Later Stoics would consider the Logos to be the divine animating principle pervading the universe; some prominent Stoics’ having more of a personal interpretation than others. Today we might consider Logos in these senses as something like ‘the laws of physics’ or the logic of how nature functions – though with a much more sacred tone. In my own spirituality, I often refer to the Logos, which I find a more effective phrase than speaking of the laws of physics (Society members can read more about the use of Sacred Tongue in our member archives). The self-described atheist Albert Einstein comes close to this approach by referring to the subject of his work as seeking to know the mind of God. Nevertheless, in both Einstein’s case and Heraclitus’ the terms seem quite impersonal.
The philosopher Philo would adopt the Logos term into Jewish philosophy*. By the time of the Gospel of John (late 1st Century CE), Logos is defined as divine and: that through which all things are made (the Word of God). John 1:1 doesn’t merely refer to God speaking words, but says “…and the Word (Logos) was God”. This would seem to indicate an impersonal description of God as the laws of nature. However personal or impersonal Logos has become by this time, it becomes fully personal when Jesus is described in the book of John as the Logos incarnate (the Word made Flesh).
This is not the only example of something that would seem personal, but which the Greeks would use in a broader impersonal sense. “Eros” is commonly described as romantic or sexual love. But philosophically the term was used as a universal law of attraction. That is, all attraction that occurred in nature, be it between atoms or between lovers, were manifestations of the general principle of attraction (Eros). This illuminates just how naturalistic the ancient Greeks were in conception, even if the details of their exact theories have been refined or replaced since. As modern day naturalists, when we really conceive of all of Nature as One interconnected whole, operating by the same laws – including the workings of our minds – then the logic of referring to general concepts which cross the boundary between that with and without human agency begins to make more sense. In integrating the implications of complex systems theory into my own spirituality, I have found such generalized concepts a helpful tool.
It would be no wonder, then, if Agape – like Eros – was also a kind of general natural force. If God is the Logos (natural law), and God is Agape (universal love), then both of these kinds of statements could be seen as descriptions of the kinds of natural forces or principles which the writers of the bible may have been associating with the term “God”. The more one looks into the lineage of these terms from ancient Greek to early Christianity, the more unoriginal 17th Century Baruch Spinoza’s impersonal natural God sounds**.
Early thinkers thought of God as ‘the underlying rational order’ – the laws of Nature. If love was also described as the principle of the binding of things to one another, this indicates interconnectedness and interdependence. In the 20th Century, Christian philosopher and monk Thomas Merton described Compassion as the “keen awareness of the interdependence of all things”. Thus is the bridge between how God can be both physics and love. Spiritual Naturalists will vary on whether they find use of the G-word helpful; some of our members use it and others do not. But this more naturalistic and impersonal interpretation of God is not a new convention. We have good reason to think, in many cases, this may have been the original or earliest philosophic thought of what was meant when the word ‘God’ was used – and that should be interesting to anyone practicing a naturalistic spirituality.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Many thanks to Dr. Marian Hillar, Religious History professor at Texas Southern University, for reviewing a draft of this article for historic and academic accuracy.
* Dr. Marian Hillar has contributed papers on Philo’s use of ‘Logos’, available in our member archives.
**In fairness to Spinoza, his own take was more appropriately claimed to be a proper interpretation of original concepts, rather than intended to be ‘original’.