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René Breuel

Love your neighbour as your neighbour loves you

Freud paraphrases Jesus’ famous words with his own, rather peppery, twist.

CULTURE MAKING AUTHOR René Breuel 22 APRIL 2017 18:00 h GMT+1
love, freud, jesus Photo: Warren Wong (Unsplash, CC)

“Love your neighbour as your neighbour loves you.”[1] Freud paraphrases Jesus’ famous words with his own, rather peppery, twist.

Jesus taught that my love for others should be as boundless as my love for myself; in Freud’s account, however, my love for others should be proportional to how much they love me.

Like many others, Freud expressed incredulity before Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour. He could fully agree on love for friends, for those who deserve or reciprocate our affection in some way. Yet unmeasured, generous love of strangers sounded like an oxymoron. Don’t even get him started on love for enemies.

If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way… He deserves it if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him; and he deserves it if he is so much more perfect than myself that I can love my ideal of my own self in him.[2]

Freud articulates this love very interestingly: I love others when I love myself and my ideal self in them. It is a self-referential understanding of love, a love which is directed to me, and to me mirrored in others.

True love – moving out of myself to appreciate and dwell in someone else – is not possible; I can only love truly myself. At most, I can love myself in others, or love others insofar as I am cherished by them.

Nietzsche expresses a similar self-referential perspective in his Beyond Good and Evil:

“In the end one loves his own desire, rather than the desired object.”[3]

What I appreciate of Freud and Nietzsche’s perspectives is how they express clearly our self-centeredness. We can’t love others truly, unconditionally. We can only love fragments of ourselves. Actually, Luther affirms that the biblical description of humanity agrees with them: 

“[Scripture] describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only his physical but even his spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.”[4]

 In other words, the self is the object to which we are bent and to which we want to converge everything around us. We are self-centered.

This is not the end of the story for Jesus, however. When he asked us to love our neighbour as ourselves, he knew he was asking for something we cannot do. But he did not pronounce this teaching from a comfortable university chair. Instead, he practiced it himself. He loved us when we were still enemies, when we did not deserve his care. 

As a passage in the New Testament puts it, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5] A paraphrase of this passage puts this beautifully.

We can understand someone dying for a person worth dying for, and we can understand how someone good and noble could inspire us to selfless sacrifice. But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.[6]

The Christian love of neighbour and enemy is not naïve, therefore. Nor is it impossible. We can certainly not produce unconditional love by ourselves. But we can rechannel some of this radical love when we get a glimpse of Jesus’ generous love for us, of his undeserved, unearned sacrifice on our behalf. We need not treat enemies with equal violence; we can treat others in the way Jesus treated us.[7] 

We are called to love strangers and those who do harm to us, but someone already did that on our behalf, and wooed our hearts, and flooded us with gratitude, and helps us love the undeserving, like we did not deserve Jesus’ extravagant love in the first place.

[1]    Sigmund Freud, quoted in Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), 175

[2]    Ibid.

[3]    Friedrich Nietzsche, L’Amore Egoísta [Selfish Love], ed. Claudio Lamparelli (Milano: Mondatori, 2010), 44.

[4]    Martin Luther, quoted in Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on Homo Incurvatus In Se (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2006), 70. Blaise Pascal is another theologian who defines sin as being turned in on ourselves. “For if we were born reasonable and impartial, with a knowledge of ourselves and of others, we would not have this bias toward ourselves in our own wills. But we are born with it, and so we are born perverted. Everything tends toward itself, and this is contrary to order.” Blaise Pascal, The Mind on Fire: A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent, ed. James M. Houston (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1989), 66.

[5]     Romans 5:8 (ESV)

[6]     Romans 5:7-8 (The Message)

[7]    Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses the distinctiveness of Christian love in this way. “How then does love conquer? By asking nor how the enemy treats her but only how Jesus treated her. The love for our enemies takes us along the way of the cross and into fellowship with the Crucified… The cross is the differential in Christian religion, the power which enables the Christian to transcend the world and to win the victory.” Francis Collins, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 247, 249.




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