Loving God for no reason

Why does a devotee love God? Because He is good, merciful, omniscient…? Or just out of love?

This seems to be one of the moot issues between the two currents within the form of Vaiṣṇavism later to be known as Śrīvaiṣṇavism, since Piḷḷai Lokācārya (13th c.) stresses that loving without reason is superior to loving with a reason, just like Sītā’s ungrounded love for Rāma is superior to that of Lakṣmaṇa, who loves Rāma for his good qualities (see Mumme 1988, p. 150).

Rāma between Lakṣmaṇa and Sītā (r.)

In fact, one might add, Lakṣmaṇa would stop loving Rāma if he were no longer good, or might even start loving someone else, if that other person had better qualities than Rāma. Thus, one who loves with reasons is like a mercenary who is ready to serve a new warlord. Similarly, one might further speculate, one who loves God for His qualities is in fact in love with the qualities, not with God as a person. By contrast, when one loves a person, even her defects seem attractive to one.

This all makes sense, perhaps even a lot of sense. Yet… this means that there is no intrinsic reason to say that loving God is better than loving a demonic being who demands from us that we kill and torture living beings. If we love the latter, we will encounter consequences among human beings, such as jail, and possibily also in the after-life, since God is more powerful than demonic beings and will punish the people whe are not His devotees. Yet, there is no reason whence loving God should in itself be a reason for distinguishing better people. In fact, theoretically there might even be people who love a saintly being who is even ‘better’ (more compassionate, for instance) than God. And yet, they would not be compensated for choosing the more morally perfect being, since God would only compensate His devotees…

What is then the alternative to mercenary love and indiscriminate love for whomsoever? (I guess Amod (or Justin) could say “not loving any god”…).

(cross-posted, with minor modifications, on my personal blog).

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

8 thoughts on “Loving God for no reason

  1. This seems a bhakti-centric instance of the Euthyphro dilemma. . .

    At first, I wondered if it even makes sense to love God (or anyone else) for no reason at all. You know Ramanuja’s old principle that a negation always has an underlying positive corollary. I wondered if it could be applied here to make sense of this claim. So to say that there is no motivation in pure theological love means that there is no mundane or upAdhi-driven motivation. But the example of Lakshmana seems to undercut that line of reasoning.

    What about one in line with a reading of classical daoism: one who is acting in harmony with the dao doesn’t act “for reasons” and is yet neither a lunatic nor unreasonable in her actions? There is a motivation of sorts, but it is not “head” motivation, but rather “gut” motivation that need not be analyzed as flowing from conceptual awareness or a decision.

    The Gita at least says that bhakti starts with a sense of recognition of God’s creatorship over all (10.8) and also, as a kind of gratitude (my reading of chapters 3/4). Here, one develops a kind of love, but one that is clearly a response to things like the metaphysical asymmetry between Ishvara and individual persons. And the Srivaishnavas sure spend much time reflecting on such greatness. . .

    To start from the scene “down here”: when we love other people, we start with something about them that draws us. In the apex of loving, however, we lose awareness or care regarding such things. Hell, we may not even be aware of the basic distinction between them and ourselves: “Love you? I am you.” (Charles Williams)

    Theologically, this unity need not be that of static obliteration of Advaita Vedanta, but the love of absolute harmony. In their madness the Gopikas think they are Bhagavan himself right? So perhaps such qualities may be said to be forgotten when the theological love is at its apex; as below, so above. The powerful emotional influx of such loving is not constant however, and falls back to plain old love, which has its reasons. And as David Bowie–the most important authority I will cite in this comment– reminds us, “love is not loving”.

  2. More seriously, and back to the Euthyphro: I worry that theological love for no reasons is not dissimilar from a view that morality is God’s dictate with no room for ordinary common-sense morality to constrain the limits of decency. IMHO, we shouldn’t love an evil God for reasons that are similar to why torturing babies wouldn’t be morally appropriate if God told us to do it.

  3. This reminds me of a debate in Reformed Protestant theology dating back (at least) to the Puritans on whether love for God ought to be disinterested or not (this debate is probably elsewhere in Christianity, too, but I’m most familiar with this version).

    Here’s one analysis of the famous Puritan Jonathan Edwards: “Disinterested love to God is impossible because the desire for happiness is intrinsic to all willing or loving whatsoever, and God is the necessary end of the search for happiness. Logically one cannot be disinterested about the source or basis of all interest.” (Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought in its British Context, p.161) However, as I understand it, the aim is to love God’s intrinsic qualities, not their effects. There was a debate over whether that meant that one ought, for instance, to be willing to be damned to hell by God if one loved God (since such condemnation would be a result of perfect justice). That was the view of Thomas Hooker and some others, which Edwards opposed. In contemporary American Protestant evangelism, Edwards’ view (or, at least one take on it) is represented by so-called “Christian Hedonism” espoused by John Piper.

    • First of all, many thanks for the interesting comments. I apologise for the delay in answering them —I just came back from Bangkok.

      @Camillo, what if there is no Urtext? Would not we continue discussing about it, for the intellectual sake of identifying the rational consequences of a given argument?

      @Malcolm, thanks for your input. I did not know about the debate and its last point (whether one should accept —out of love to God— to be damned if this were God’s will) seems to me to be directly relevant. If we ought to love God NOT for His good qualities, we might end up loving a God who might well be unjust and whimsical (just like children happen to love abusive parents). Thus, He could also decide, for His own pleasure, to send us again and again to lower rebirths or to hell.
      I understand that part of my dissatisfaction with this hypothesis is that I am not taking seriously enough the immensity of our blameworthiness (perhaps because I have been lucky enough to meet so many praiseworthy human beings). If one took it more seriously, one would probably say that we are all worthy to go to hell and that God is, on the contrary, selecting some lucky few whom He rescues. Thus, we cannot complain for the fact that we will get what we deserve and can only rejoice in case we are saved, notwithstanding our unworthiness.

      @Matthew, the example of the gopīs seems to point to a love based on no reason. After all, they love Him while Kṛṣṇa is hardly more than a cowherd Himself, and although He hides their cloths and teases them again and again. They appear to be the ideal paradigm of love and in this sense your point of view (and mine), namely that it would be irrational and undesirable to love God in this way would have to be considered blameworthy. I imagine that from this point of view, people speaking of God’s morality would be considered as putting something, namely morality, over God (and, thus, not having God at the apex).
      The only way out I can imagine is that one could hope that God Himself gave her the capacity to discern His will for the world and that this capacity has the form of her unborn awareness of morality (as in the Euthyphro).

      • I’m no authority on Love, but I feel it sometimes. Let me say that if Krishna were unattractive (in the broadest sense of the term), I’d guess that the Gopis wouldn’t feel the same way that they do. To say that they love him despite being mistreated or neglected is not the same thing as to say they love him for no reason.

        Again, trying to make sense of the original claim, God may be attractive (in the broadest sense of the term, including the mystical drive for unity, etc.), and a bhakta may love God because of such attraction but not because of reflective awareness of some attractive qualities that inspire them in a self conscious way.

        To your last point: Some philosophers of religion solve the problem of morality this way: moral truths are rooted in God’s *being*, as are mathematics and the like, and not in God’s *decision* that such and such be so. They don’t stand above God and constrain him nor are they simply by fiat without any internal substance so to speak. Maybe there’s a link here somewhere.

      • “If one took it more seriously, one would probably say that we are all worthy to go to hell and that God is, on the contrary, selecting some lucky few whom He rescues. Thus, we cannot complain for the fact that we will get what we deserve and can only rejoice in case we are saved, notwithstanding our unworthiness.”

        That’s a line that the Calvinists take for sure. Funny that you mention luck, too, since on their view, those who are predestined to heaven are predestined arbitrarily, since there is no reason for God to choose one person over another. No one person is more or less deserving of hell on this view, and God isn’t recognizing anything in the person. Maybe one could argue that the reason is that inscrutable and due to God’s plan for the saints. Saving person X over Y will lead to the salvation of person Z, for example. But since God is all-powerful, certainly he could will it that saving person Y will lead to the salvation of person Z.

        I’m sure there must be comparative work in religious studies or somewhere about these trains of thought, but I haven’t taken the time to look them up myself, though perhaps I will now, since this post is making me curious.

        • Buchta’s article on Madhva in Ed Bryant and my Agency volume touches on many of these issues in an Indian context. Buchta critiques some of the recent Madhva scholar-apologists’ attempts to argue that this works as a theodicy.

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