Love is the Highest Virtue

The Judeo-Christian worldview says that love (of God and of one another) is the highest virtue. 

 When a Jewish expert in the law asked Jesus, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?,” Jesus answered “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:36-40) 

 And the context makes it clear that these commands were not new or unique to Christianity.  The Jewish expert in the law addressed Jesus as “Teacher,” which can also be translated as “Rabbi,” and Jesus answered his question by quoting the two highest commandments from the Jewish scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18). 

 Jesus also specifically said that these two highest commands summarized all the teaching of the Jewish scriptures (the Law and the Prophets).  A slightly more detailed description of what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself, is provided in the Ten Commandments (which in turn are a summary of the Law of Moses[1]):

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  1.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below…
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work…
  5. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

 -          Exodus 20:2-17 (numbering added; see also the similar passage in Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

 As noted in the previous part of this First Principles section (on the natural law), many other religions, and also some secular systems of thought, also include the command to love one another as yourself.    

Secular humanism says that tolerance is the supreme virtue.  More specifically, the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto III says in its second and third paragraphs that “values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance,” and that the remainder of the Manifesto is presented not as a statement of “what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe.”  Thus, by implication, tolerance (which my dictionary defines as either “respecting the opinions, practices, or behavior of others,” or “leeway for variation, as from a standard” [2])  is the supreme virtue in the secular humanist system of thought.  Tolerance is an important virtue.  But which is really better as the supreme virtue:  tolerance or love?

 If I arbitrarily decide to punch someone in the face, is it reasonable to expect them to “tolerate” that?   If not, why not?   The Judeo-Christian worldview can answer this question easily (“do not assault your neighbor” is only a minor extension of “do not murder your neighbor”), but secular humanism struggles to come up with a clear and unchallengeable rationale for even such basic moral standards as these.

 In practice, love requires us to distinguish between right and wrong, which is something that all families do every day in the process of raising children (obey your parents, don’t hit your brother or sister, don’t play your music so loud that it annoys the neighbors, etc.)   If we say that tolerance is the supreme virtue, that amounts to a negation of all morality, which will lead to chaos and anarchy, and potentially to tyranny.  If we really believe that tolerance is the supreme virtue, then Mother Teresa’s morality is no better than Hitler’s.

In other words, tolerance is a limited and somewhat negative virtue.  At its best, tolerance involves genuinely respecting our neighbor’s right to disagree with us (i.e., our neighbor’s God-given and inalienable rights of conscience, or the idea that we each have an equal right to express, and advocate for, our own opinions.[3])    In practice, however, when the concept that tolerance is the supreme virtue is pushed towards its limit, at least two powerful negative consequences can easily result:

1)      Since proclaiming tolerance as the supreme virtue essentially means that there are no moral absolutes, proclaiming tolerance as the supreme virtue progressively robs us of the moral authority to object to even the most outrageous conduct on the part of our neighbors (including terrorism – as Winston Churchill once said, “Virtuous motives, trammeled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resolute wickedness.”)

2)      As more and more people come to believe more and more certainly that tolerance is the supreme virtue (or in other words, they start to become “absolutely certain that there are no moral absolutes,”) they can start to believe that they are genuinely doing society a service by forbidding anyone to disagree with them.  Thus, in practice, the secular humanist worldview can easily transform itself into a worldview of “intolerant tolerance,” which is tolerant of every kind of worldview except those that hold that there are moral absolutes.[4]  The illogic of being “absolutely certain that there are no moral absolutes” is a fundamental contradiction that is right at the heart of the secular humanist worldview.

In contrast to the limited and somewhat negative implications of proclaiming tolerance as the supreme virtue, love is a positive virtue that involves an ongoing and active concern for the welfare of one’s neighbor.  This is evident from two of the most famous scripture passages on the nature of love.  The first of these (from I Corinthians chapter 13) is frequently quoted at weddings.

“Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears….

Now we see but a poor reflection, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain:  faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”

-          I Corinthians 13:4-15


“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

 -          Galatians 5:22

 Another important characteristic of love is that, since love is a moral choice that must be made freely, and cannot be compelled, saying that love is the supreme virtue also implies a strong commitment to individual freedom.   (This is discussed in more detail in the following part of this First Principles section of the site, on “A Commitment to Individual Freedom.”)  In other words, a strong commitment to individual freedom is part of the very foundation of Judeo-Christian morality.  This is the fundamental reason why the societies that were either explicitly founded on the Judeo-Christian worldview (America[5] and Israel), or have been heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview (Europe) have generally tended to be freer and more prosperous than the rest of the world, and also to have a cultural and spiritual influence on the world that is disproportionate to their population.

All societies must somehow balance freedom and order.  Or in other words, the essential question that any system of morality must answer is:  “Where are the appropriate boundaries between freedom and order?”   In a free society, the essential question is how this can be done most efficiently (or in other words, how we can maintain the necessary minimum of order, while infringing as little as possible on individual liberty.)  I believe the Ten Commandments do a better job than any other system of morality of defining the appropriate boundaries between freedom and order in a way that is brief (and thus infringes on individual freedom as little as possible), but is also comprehensive and universal,[6] having stood the test of time for approximately 3,500 years. 

This is why both statements of the Ten Commandments (in Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5) begin with the statement that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”  These commandments are an expression of God’s love for us, and are intended for our good, so that we may experience the abundant life He has planned for us (see Jeremiah 29:11 and John 10:10.)   By contrast, proclaiming tolerance as the supreme virtue implies a much weaker and more changeable system of morality, in which moral boundaries of all kinds are highly subjective, and highly dependent on political trends.

In addition to giving us the necessary minimum of absolute standards in our relationships with one another, the Ten Commandments also make it clear that our highest loyalty should be to God (while leaving the exact form our devotion to God should take between each individual and God.)  I believe that (as many biblical passages indicate), a genuine and humble sense of accountability to God is the best way for each individual to develop a strong and personal sense of honor.  (Honor refers to “honesty, fairness, or integrity in one's beliefs and actions.”[7]

And unfortunately, as militant secularism has increasingly squeezed any form of religious expression (much less the actual “free exercise of religion,” which is supposed to be our Constitutionally guaranteed right) out of the public square in America, our leaders in all fields (including our political, business, academic, and media establishments, among others) increasingly lack honor.  As one prominent critic of Wall Street (who was formerly a trader himself) has put it, even the trainees on Wall Street are often unable to “conceive of anything much larger than ourselves.[8]”  And of course, that same caveat applies to many other categories of leaders as well. 

Many secularists would say that it is not necessary to love God (which they view as an outdated or even nonsensical concept[9]), but only to love one another.  However, when that concept is pushed to its limit, what you actually end up with is the motto of Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard (the Schutstaffel, or SS.)  The motto of the SS was “SS man, your honor is loyalty,” or in other words, that your highest loyalty should be to one another, regardless of any other moral considerations.  That might work (temporarily) as the motto for a criminal gang, but it is clearly an inadequate foundation for any sort of civilized society.

The Biblical concept of what one’s highest loyalties should be is quite different (to say the least), as the following two passages make clear:

“Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez[10], saying ‘because I bore him in pain.’  And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain.”

-           I Chron. 4:9-10, New King James Version (prayer of Jabez)

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses.  He must be from among your own brothers.  Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.  The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.  He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 

 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers or turn from the law to the right or to the left.  Then he and his descendents will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.”

-          Deuteronomy 17:14-20

Both of these passages make clear that, while how we treat one another is very important, the ultimate test (and ultimate foundation) of good character, honor, and integrity is that our first loyalty should always be to God.  (Note that all four of the requests contained in the prayer of Jabez, whom God singled out as an exceptionally honorable man, centered around Jabez’s loyalty to God, and his seeking of God’s blessing.)

 And (as will be discussed in much more detail in the section of this site on “The Role of Government) a nation that is governed based on a genuine sense of love for (and accountability to) God and one another, will obviously be governed much differently (and with much more concern for the rights, freedoms, and welfare of ordinary citizens), than a nation governed from a purely secular perspective.

Jesus’s second-greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”)  also contains several other principles or insights that are important to good governance.  This commandment assumes that we already love ourselves, and merely admonishes us not to let our natural and proper self-regard blind us to a proper concern for our neighbor’s welfare.  In other words, we are not told to “hate ourselves and love our neighbors more than ourselves,” but to love our neighbors as ourselves.  So a society that is governed by love should be a society in which  everyone is treated equally, not one in which certain groups or classes of society are favored at the expense of others.  This becomes even clearer when the principle that “Love is the Highest Virtue” is considered in combination with the additional First Principle of “A Commitment to Justice,” which is discussed separately later in the First Principles section of this site.  (Justice essentially means fairness and equality of treatment.)

It also follows from the principle of “loving our neighbors as ourselves” that our greatest loyalties should be to those closest to us.  For example:  “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,”[11] or in other words husbands should potentially be prepared to die if necessary to protect their wives.  And “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”[12]   And “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”[13]

In other words, a faithful believer will feel a hierarchy of moral responsibilities, first to God, then to immediate family, then to more distant relatives, then to friends and/or the local community, and then to the wider community, the nation, and the world.  This is shown explicitly in a number of Biblical passages:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[14]  And:  “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:  first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”[15]  While it is true that one of the highest manifestations of love is to genuinely love those who are most distant from and different than oneself, it is also true that a genuine, Biblical love never forgets the family and the community from which it has come.  This is the Biblical reason why it is a good thing to be a patriot, and also a loyal member of whatever more local community we come from.  If we are not loyal to our own community, then who or what are we really loyal to?

This idea of a hierarchy of moral responsibilities is an important part of the entire perspective from which I have written this site.  I view the United States as being similar in many ways to an extended family.  Although we may disagree vehemently at times (and great freedom of discussion is to be encouraged), ultimately we have an obligation to stick together and work out our problems.

[1] The complete Law of Moses is given in the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)

[2] Definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, paperback edition, Dell Publishing, 1979.

[3] Ironically, as discussed further in the section of this site on Rights of Conscience, many proponents of the secular humanist worldview have very little respect for the right of people of faith to disagree with secular humanism.  By contrast, since both the Jewish and Christian scriptures acknowledge that faith is an individual matter that is between each individual and God, a certain degree of tolerance for different points of view (and for different expressions of faith or the lack thereof), is implicit in the entire concept of faith. 

[4] This is why there is so little genuine academic freedom on today’s college campuses, which have become strongholds of the secular humanist worldview.  Both the Judeo-Christian worldview (which holds that love is the supreme virtue) and the libertarian worldview (which holds that individual freedom is the supreme virtue) contain built-in safeguards against limiting rights of conscience, or individual freedom of expression.  But under the secular humanist worldview, in which there are no moral absolutes, it can be very tempting to prohibit dissent simply because those in power view the prohibition of dissent as a convenient or expedient thing to do.  As an example of what I am talking about here, I encourage anyone to subscribe to Hillsdale College’s newsletter, Imprimis, so that they can see for themselves the vastly greater level of academic freedom that has resulted from Hillsdale College’s decision to forego federal funding (and the secular humanist strings that now come attached to federal funding for education.)  See http://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/

[5] My answer to the question of whether America is “a Christian nation” is that I believe America was founded on Judeo-Christian moral principles, by men who were primarily Christians and Deists.  Thus, although America’s founding assumptions are not exclusively Christian, the Judeo-Christian worldview is a very important part of our founding assumptions.  Both the many parallels between the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, and the strong influence of the Judeo-Christian worldview on our spiritual heritage in general (each of which are discussed in detail in separate sections of this site) make that very clear.

[6] The universality of the Ten Commandments can most easily be seen in the last six commandments (which focus on how we should treat one another.)  Although we may disagree to some extent on exactly how to define murder (or other violent crimes), or lying, or stealing, and on what the appropriate legal consequences for each of these offenses should be, no one would seriously try to argue that any of these offenses are somehow a “good” thing.

[7] Definition from dictionary.com

[8] This quotation is from chapter 4 of  Liar’s Poker, a book that Michael Lewis wrote about Wall Street before he became famous for writing Moneyball and The Blind Side.  I was required to read Liar’s Poker in business school, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what really happened on Wall Street during the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

[9] For a discussion of the evidence for the existence of God, see the final section of this site, on “Evidence for the Authority of the Bible.”

[10] The name Jabez means “one who causes pain.”  So Jabez’s prayer was in part a prayer for deliverance from the unjust name that society had given him, and the unjust negative expectations that resulted.  Jabez’s prayer was also a declaration of faith that God would help him not to live down to society’s unjust expectations or stereotypes, but to live up to the higher calling or purpose God places on all of our lives.

[11] Ephesians 5:25.

[12] I Timothy 5:8

[13] John 15:13

[14] Acts 1:8

[15] Romans 1:16

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