Servants and Stewards and Unconditional Love

We just don’t have the stuff for unconditional love.    The “we” I had in mind in that sentence is us humans and that’s the conclusion I came to at the end of Adam and Eve and Unconditional Love.  I’d like to pursue that dilemma a little further this time.  Let’s see what happens.

The point Genesis wants to make in telling the Adam and Eve story is that we are their children, in a sense, and share  with them the dilemma of their choices.  Here’s the way I see that dilemma.[1]  Our decision to be morally autonomous made us responsible for choices we are really not competent to make.  We are “thrown into history” (Heidegger’s phrase) and responsible to decide.  Deciding—linking immediate choices to ultimate outcomes—is fundamental to our nature and we aren’t smart enough to do it.  We aren’t loving enough either, but that’s a difficulty I will postpone briefly.

The names Kaufman gives to our condition are “alienation” and “anxiety.”  By “alienation,” he means that we are cut off from a relationship of trust and obedience, which is the context within which we were built to operate.  He means by “anxiety” what any of us would mean, but he thinks of it as operating at a fundamental level of our being.  The need to decide, hampered as we are by our alienation from God and our consequent anxiety, drives us absolutely nuts.  It drives us into the two kinds of sins we commit: idolatry (the ultimate worship of lesser values) and sloth (the withdrawal from the world of responsible choice).

This is a difficulty we all face.  It is a human difficulty and it hamstrings us without regard to race, color, creed, sexual preference, or any of the other variables on the ever-growing list of conditions protected by the 5th and 14th Amendments.  The two common approaches to this dilemma, as I see them, are commitments to live at the strategic or the tactical level.  The tacticians—I have been calling them Servants for some years now—think they can escape the trap by choosing their behavior from a list of approved actions.  The strategists—I have been calling them Stewards for some years now—think they know what actions will produce what outcomes and they are free to choose their actions accordingly.

A lot of times, the Servants look stupid.  That’s their liability.  They choose their actions from the approved list—“turning the other cheek” was a big one in my youth—without regard to what the effects of that choice are.  Indeed, Servants will tell you there is no way of knowing what the effects.  “Effects” are God’s job, they say, and people who think they do know are guilty of the sin of pride.  They got that right, at least.

A lot of times, the Stewards look arrogant.[2]   That’s their liability.  They commit themselves—and, if they are in positions of authority, they commit us as well—to praiseworthy ends and choose as means to achieve those ends, actions that fail.  And fail.  And fail.  Why do they fail?  Because the Stewards don’t know enough to choose the right means.  Remember the silent little codicil to the serpent’s pitch to Eve?  The serpent promised that she would be like a god in the sense of knowing good from evil; he didn’t say that not being smart enough to choose effective means to the chosen outcomes was going to turn out to be an ugly reality.  So the Stewards flail away, choosing now this means and now that one.[3]  They know how dumb it is to choose means apart from ends.  They don’t know they aren’t smart enough to choose the ends that will achieve the means they intend.  It isn’t pretty.

So instead of the few, the proud, the Marines, we get the many, the stupid and the arrogant.  It makes the Marines sound pretty good by comparison although I realize it isn’t quite fair to compare a marketing slogan with an existential reality.

We return now to the question of unconditional love.  It doesn’t look so promising any more, does it?  The Servants will identify certain acts as “loving,” regardless of the outcomes they produce.  The Stewards will claim unimpeachable goals and sort vainly through the grab-bag of available actions for means that will achieve those goals.  Let’s imagine a Servant who thinks that his ability to attend to others is unlimited and that all others have a legitimate claim on his attention.  He will be a very nice person as long as he lasts, but anyone outside that box can see the end approaching.  He will run out of attention even in the short term.[4]  He will begin to prioritize the claimants although the core commitment of “unconditional love”  requires unconditional love for all claimants.  This denial of “valid claims” will be painful, so he will begin to ignore (case by case) or withdraw from (a life choice) all those hard and painful choices.

When we love at all, we love conditionally.  We love these but not those; now but not then.  Really, it’s the best we can do.  And it’s better than not loving at all and it’s a lot better than not loving at all if you can find a way to get the “conditions” right.  Although…let’s face it…it’s hard to get the conditions right so long as you are laboring under the belief that there really shouldn’t be conditions at all.  I’ll come back to that in a post or two.

You would think that being a Steward is better and it is better in the limited sense that you don’t make the same mistakes that Servants make.  But Stewards don’t solve the problem either.  They are willing to adjust their workloads, so that the burden of “unconditional love” doesn’t exhaust them.  They might even affirm the duty of unconditional love, provided that they can define just what is “loving” in every circumstance.  Having trouble with a rebellious kid?  It’s time for “tough love.”  The means chosen might be undistinguishable from failure or indifference, but the Steward knows it is just another form of love.    Having trouble with a friend who is terrified of success and so sabotages his career at the crucial moment and calls you to lament his fate?  No problem.  You have only so much sympathy to offer—less at each successive iteration—but you can always help him come to grips with the reality of his self-sabotage.  Telling him a couple of times ought to do the trick.  Maybe this unconditional love thing isn’t as hard as people say.  Having trouble with a philandering husband—I notice I have made the Steward (ess?) a woman—and wonder what unconditional love means here?  Well, not loving him is out and so its establishing the conditions under which you will offer him anything he would recognize as love.  But withdrawing from him, physically and/or emotionally, is only husbanding (no pun intended) your resources in this difficult time so you will be able to be fully participatory in his recovery later on.

I hate to make Stewards sound that bad, partly because I am a Steward myself, but being a Steward and hanging onto the norm of unconditional love requires self-deception on a truly massive scale.  Nearly anything you want to do or feel you must do can be redefined as “the loving thing to do” even if the effect of each choice is to reduce the cost of the “loving act.”

Servants have to lie to themselves about the effects of their actions.  They don’t see the effects clearly, so choosing actions is all they have.  Stewards have to lie to themselves about the meaning of their actions.  They define whatever actions they decide on as “appropriate” to the goal, because the goal itself is all they have.

This seems to me a fundamental dilemma.  Just as we aspire to be “like the gods” but don’t have the equipment, so we aspire to love unconditionally, but don’t have the equipment.  Servants bury their talents and call the result “prudence.”  Stewards invest their talents haphazardly in the market and call whatever the outcome is “progress.”

I’m thinking that giving up the norm of unconditional love might be a step in the right direction.  For Christians, that’s a little dicey from a theological standpoint because the God we worship loves unconditionally.  Doesn’t He?  Or is he just so smart that the only conditions are the conditions necessary to His character and to our welfare.  And how would we know?

All this makes me wish that the serpent has been a little more candid.


[1] I will be borrowing, in this section, from Gordon Kaufman again.  Possibly I should remember to say that this is the 1968 Gordon Kaufman, the Kaufman of Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective.  The actual Gordon Kaufman went on thinking and came, later, to somewhat different conclusions.  I, myself, am still attracted to the old conclusions.

[2] Catchy word.  Stewards “arrogate” to themselves abilities they do not have and make a lot of trouble for us all.  The Latin is ad- plus rogare, “to ask.”  Arrogate is a verb; the related adjective is arrogant.

[3] This is the reality of our lives, not only at the individual level, but at every collective level as well.  It characterizes our politics, our economic relations, our social relations, our religious relations, our intellectual relations, and our aesthetic appreciations.

[4] We get attention from the Latin ad- + tendere = “to stretch,” so “to stretch toward.”  I move that over, just slightly, to “to strain toward” to catch more of the flavor of what “attention” costs.  The strain cannot be borne indefinitely.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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