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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Meszaros, Julia T.
Selfless Love and Human Flourishing in Paul Tillich and Iris Murdoch.
Oxford u. a.: Oxford Univer-sity Press 2016. 248 S. = Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs. Geb. US$ 110,00. ISBN 978-0-19-876586-8.
Deidre Nicole Green
In her well-written and clearly argued book, Julia T. Meszaros offers an incisive and constructive analysis of what is needed for contemporary accounts of selfless love that foster human flourishing. She contrasts the dynamics of selfless love and human flourishing in the work of Paul Tillich and Iris Murdoch, illuminating their thought through comparisons with that of Jean-Paul Sartre and Søren Kierkegaard. Centered around Murdoch’s reliance on the other three, M.’s work offers a unique and helpful contribution for thinking through the value and efficacy of selfless love in contemporary thought. Hers is a much-needed contribution in light of current worries about the ways in which selfless love leaves one vulnerable to exploitation, often voiced on behalf of those on the margins. Concerned that the »modern turn to the individual human self has […] created a stale-mate between selfless love and human flourishing« (203), M. explores the question of whether human goods such as love, friendship, creativity, and meaningful self-engagement can be understood to rest on selfless love to a greater extent than on self-assertion or purely erotic love. She maintains that selfless love only has a place in Christian life if it can be shown to build up rather than undermine the self. For this reason, Christianity calls for both selfless love and the »liberation, affirmation, and empowerment – in short, for the well-being – of the individual human subject« (4.7). Since Christian ideals normatively inform post-Christian life, understanding the relationship of selfless love to human flourishing has consequences extending beyond the tradition. M. contends that conceptual clarity about the nature, significance, and foundations of selfless love, rather than lived ex-perience, is the decisive issue for coming to accept its validity.
As shifting valuations of selfless love correlate to changing conceptions of the nature of the self, her study analyzes late modern deconstructions of the self. M. engages Sartre’s interrelated concepts of self and self-lessness, which he views as a shortcoming wherein one’s relation to the Other inescapably remains a matter of threat as much as desire. Taking this perspective to be paradigmatic of how the modern self imperils selfless love, M. shows that Tillich and Murdoch are sympathetic to the problem of selfhood and oppose Sartre in remedying it by turning to selfless love as the means to authentic selfhood. Both Tillich and Murdoch, on M.’s reading, seek to rees-tablish a balance between selfless love and human flourishing, and do so by attempting to create a new link between an other-centered notion of love and a high estimation of the human being’s »individuality, freedom for self-creation, and desire for fulfillment« (13–14). Both combine existentialist and ontological perspectives on love, holding to the notion of selfless love as constituting a sort of corrective that breaks through false, or naïve, depictions of who we are and how we flourish« (21). M. shows that Murdoch and Tillich offer accounts of love and the self that provide valuable insights for constructing a contemporary and sustainable notion of selfless love, which she makes by critically engaging with them.
Adept at revealing the dangers and pitfalls of views of selfless love overlooked by more facile readings, M. demonstrates how Murdoch’s excessive notion of selflessness fails to do justice to the needs, desires, and potential of both lover and beloved. Such love, she notes, resists reciprocity and intimacy, and risks a fostering of asymmetrical relationships and dangerous ethics. M.’s emphasis on the need for receptivity toward love prior to its selfless exten-sion, as well as the appropriate orientation of one who loves towards reciprocity, are critical aspects of a contemporary construc-tion of selfless love in light of feminist concerns. These considera-tions lead her to the correct conclusion that »human flourishing is therefore ultimately tied to a cooperative effort between lovers« (187). Moreover, making the case for particularity, mutuality, reciprocity, and intimacy within selfless love, M. holds that a personal God is needed to enable such love. In such ways, she identifies crucial – if counterintuitive – aspects of selfless love that must be included and emphasized if it is to contribute to human flourishing.
Asserting that Tillich and Murdoch improve on Kierkegaard’s views of love and the self and move beyond »post-Kierkegaardian impasses« between self-love and neighbor-love, individuality and relationality (177), M. overlooks ways Kierkegaard could assist in her aims. Her overview of contemporary attempts to refute claims that Kierkegaard’s perspectives on love are asocial, otherworldly, nonmutual, and constitute an unlivable ethic gives too little consideration to Kierkegaard’s possible contributions to her project. Kierkegaard’s attempt to conjoin the impulses toward embracing the concrete individual and shaping her in the image of a God who loves selflessly justifies setting him as an interlocutor with Tillich and Murdoch, yet M. deems his attempt a failure. She claims that for Kierkegaard, an individual must »undo« herself in order to love the neighbor against preference although his view that one be-comes oneself and comes into right relation to God through the selfless love of neighbor actually resonates with the book’s objec-tive. Making the case for loving relations as dialogical, M. cites Buber to bolster her argument, yet expresses concern that his view implies that »where the other does not respond to my love, I have failed in meeting them as a Thou« (192). Kierkegaard’s formulation of dialogical love resolves M.’s concern about Buber, through presupposing love in the other and loving forth love from the other. Moreover, his contention that God remains the middle-term in all human relationships and remembers one who loves while she forgets herself makes possible a sort of divinely guaranteed mutual-ity. Finally, the fact that for Kierkegaard love abolishes distinctions between what is yours and mine allows for mutual benefit in a way that protects against Murdoch’s excessively selfless view of love and its reliance on the idea that the other’s good rules out any gains for the self.
M. concludes that Tillich and Murdoch are more successful than Kierkegaard in integrating selfless love and human flourishing, and eros and agape. Addressing the weaknesses and unresolved problems in Tillich and Murdoch, she claims that both fail to ade-quately acknowledge and foster the personal dimension of the human being. Although both recognize that the call to selfless love is conditional upon a relational anthropology, neither one fully develops this potential. This failure keeps them from sufficiently distinguishing true selfless love from harmful and self-destructive relationships. Ultimately, by configuring selfless love with notions of mutuality and reciprocity embedded within it, M. goes beyond Tillich and Murdoch to offer a more robust notion of selfless love that proves more promising for human flourishing in a contemporary context.