In the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

“Pleasing; agreeable; 
amiable, pleasant and kind,

No, these are not actually words from the Gospel, nor are they a definition of love, but nonetheless, on hearing them I am sure we all recognised at once a portrait of….

The words are in fact the definition of the word “nice” and I can say we recognise ourselves in them, not merely because we are who we are, but because we are Episcopal or Anglican and we know that for us there are two commandments of which the first and great Commandment is that Thou shalt be nice, while the second is not like unto it for it declares, Thou shalt have good taste. [1]

Unfortunately neither of these is among the actual Ten Commandments but that minor detail seems to have proved no impediment to their general approbation – a point on which there is a contrast with the originals which seem nowadays to have been widely reduced to the status of Ten Suggestions –but I must not digress.

So clear is this presumption about Episcopal niceness that, in a spirit of historical enquiry (dangerous as that can often prove I know and the occasion of subsequent regret) I became curious as to just when our niceness as Anglicans set in?

After all, niceness is not the most obvious term one might use, in seeking to capture the general tenor the Reformation for example — at least if there is an account of it that opens with the phrase “the Reformation began with a superfluity  of niceness” I have yet to read it…..closer to the mark would be that other possibility which does have textual precedent (from the Authorised King James Bible – namely a “Superfluity of naughtiness” (spoken of in the Epistle of James)

Certainly as the likes of Steven Pinker has pointed out (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined), if one looks across a very broad sweep of history it would seem true that by and large people nowadays are less inclined to embrace:

  • “cruelty as entertainment, [outside Reality Television]
  • human sacrifice’ in response to “superstition, or
  • pogroms as outlets for frustration, [and] homicide as the major form of conflict resolution”, (outside at least the specific context of war and it has to be said recent terrible events in the Middle East),

so there is perhaps some basis for supposing that we moderns in the West are nicer than we once were – although I am a touch suspicious that this may reflect too ready an embrace of the charming if deeply problematic belief in the inevitability of progress which so many seem to uphold since the Enlightenment.

But none of this would seem to generate anything that is an Anglican/Episcopal “distinctive”.

Happily though, someone has taken the trouble to write an engaging history of American niceness.

And one of the points there made is that Americans self-identify as nice to a degree that is only exceeded, as a national characteristic, by Canadians.[2]  

What is even more interesting is that in her book American Niceness A Cultural History, Carrie Tirado Bramen argues that the concept was reformulated here and is thus quintessentially North American in its origin:

For, as she writes, the word itself,  

“changed as it crossed the pond: it had meant “precise”, but we Americans recast it as “pleasing”, valuing pleasantry over exactitude; such slang was quintessentially American, rejecting precise (but outdated) English compulsions and manners.” 

So it seems Anglicanism became nice as it came to America as part of the process whereby the word nice lost its original meaning of being able to make “nice” (which is to say precise) distinctions (which does have a certain interest in regard to the way the American Church thinks about itself!)

But there is another thread brought out in the book which is the implicit regulative role the concept has. For, being nice, it turns out, has never really been a neutral term, it always carries an implicit social agenda.

For whoever determines the contents and boundaries of niceness and reasonableness and moderation, as a group distinctive, corals  a force that can in fact privilege some and be coercive of others.

Those who are identified as falling outside this cosy and agreeable domain are what in the Ancient world the Romans would have immediately recognised, namely barbarians.

This means that much of this rhetoric, while seemingly being about what we might in contemporary language call inclusion and embrace is actually just as much about: exclusion and rejection with attendant dangers that need to be acknowledged.[3]

Moreover the coercive aspect of the cognate virtue of moderation is well brought out by how central this was as an instrument of state policy in Britain after the Reformation. It could certainly become a pretty ruthless principle in application – as can be seen from the fact that when Henry VIII executed in one month both three protestants and three Roman Catholics….. it was done in the quest for moderation! Indeed, it can be argued that the louder the rhetoric of moderation became the more intolerant did the State become in practice.[4]

But now I have to bring more bad news for being nice is not merely NOT a commandment but classically speaking it is not even a virtue of itself at all.

Indeed if I wanted a slogan for the day it would be ‘Love is not Nice!’

I say this because the quest for the applicable virtue in this domain brings us firmly to the concept of love, which is precisely what we find in the Epistle and Gospel where it is conjoined with that idea again of commandment.

Thus do we read:

“He who has my commandments and keeps them,
he it is who loves me;
and he who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21)

This may at first seem an odd linkage but in fact it is a very natural one.

As Aquinas puts it, love is the soul or life (“forma”)  of every virtue where his meaning is perhaps clearer if we reverse the word order and say every genuine virtue is a form of love.

Indeed this point can become a powerful marker for true virtue.

For example, chastity without love is not true chastity at all but a dead echo of it and like a dead body in Aristotelian terms it is not even a body at all but rather a heap of chemicals mistaken for a body soon to become corrupted and decayed

One of our distinctives as human beings is our use of language, and our use of signs.  And this is something which in an important sense constitutes our coming together as part of the human community, just as within the church, sacraments constitute the ecclesial community.

To echo Wittgenstein, to have a mind is not essentially to have a means of withdrawing from the public world as we may be tempted to suppose — into a secret world of our own, rather it is to have a special way of belonging to the public world, it is to belong to a community.

An important part of what characterizes human beings is our particular way of being together: for our relations with each other are not just those of things with things, but of persons with persons and as such communicative.

Indeed all human activity is “significant,” just as all of the Christian life is “sacramental” a point that made clearer by (and is arguably consequent upon) the perspective that comes with seeing ourselves as part of God’s creation. But even aside from that, merely by being language-using creatures, there is an aspect of moral meaning to our actions objective to ourselves. as the late Herbert McCabe, O.P., once put it,

“Human acts have significance not the way stones have temperature but the way words have meaning. I cannot change the temperature of the stone just by taking thought, but neither can I change the meaning of a word just by taking thought, for it belongs to the language not to me.

Nor can I change the value of my behavior, by taking thought, for its value is its meaning in the total system of communications which is the human world.” 

“The Validity of Absolutes”, Commonweal, January, 1966

So to speak again in the language of Aquinas, human life is the substantial form of the body, that which makes it what it is, or, as Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.”

Thus, as there are human bodies so there is a world of communication and it is by our being incarnate that we belong to this world. Without a body one is absent from the world —which is precisely what happens to those who are dead and why the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ asserts so deeply that He is present.

From all this it also follows that in order to apprehend the meaning of “love” you have to describe bodily activities: feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and all the other practical ways of giving it effect.

While it is true that we speak of God as loving although He is not a body, when we say this what we are doing is taking a word whose meaning we understand in a bodily context and extending it (by analogy) into a realm which we do not understand.

(in other words, when we say that God is loving, as when we say anything else about God, we do not fully know the meaning of what is said –paradoxical as that may sound).

Accordingly when we consider the words: “In this the love of God was made manifest amongst us, that God sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” We get at the meaning from the fact that we know the love of God in the bodily life of Christ, and even now through our sacramental sharing in the bodily life of the risen Christ.

This means then that “Love” has meaning by reference to embodied human beings in their various complex relations of communication, but it is NOT reducible (as a behaviourist would say) to a particular set of bodily activities (since in that case we could prescribe love by prescribing the “correct” activity in each situation which would be a legalist position).

This entails that loving, like thinking, is an open-ended concept which can be exemplified in an indefinite number of ways not reducible to some sort of formula or method. Though one corollary of love being a meaningful word is that we can identify behaviour that is unloving and exemplary of muddled thinking. And when we can capture such behaviour by description, we can set out absolute prohibitions, identifying what is always wrong.  Conversely to allow that any behaviour could be loving would be to empty the word of its content and meaning– a significant peril it would seem in current times. [5]

Within this framework, to speak of “absolute” moral demands (as we do in speaking of the absolute nature of love) is to speak of the demands of the total human situation as far as we can see them—and as Christians we can give thanks that it is part of the fact of divine revelation that we are helped to see them (even if giving expression to the particulars specific to the Christian view is challenging not only of itself but in an increasingly secular social environment).

Such demands may seem to conflict with the demands of a particular smaller situation into which we have entered, but the absolutist character of morality is based on the priority of the ultimate situation into which we enter by being born into this world.

The particularity of how this engages with the world of our every day experience is precisely what the story of the good Samaritan illustrates: where what defined the neighbour and what it means to love the neighbour as oneself was not the historical background or issues of identity or ethnicity, it was his need. It was that need which called forth the practical response of love.

But what is ultimately distinctive of the Christian moral vision is its framing by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead –which vindicates the created order a world view which is unique but which can still be expressed in ways intelligible to the non-believer.

The resurrection does not merely vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus, for then he would be little more than a heroic figure who has been rewarded by God. Rather, since Jesus is the incarnate Word, the “whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man [who was also divine] at this particular point of history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all” . Easter culminates what the Incarnation affirms, namely, that creation has not been forsaken by its Creator; it remains God’s good gift.

Although the created order has been vindicated it is not yet fully redeemed. The resurrection also anticipates creation’s destiny of its redemption in Christ. Consequently, the task of moral ordering is neither simply to preserve creation as it is, nor is it to restore a lost, pristine ‘golden age’. Rather, the goal is to align the temporal unfolding of the created order with its destiny in the resurrected and exalted Christ, directing it toward the promise of a new heaven and earth, and not a rebuilt Garden of Eden.

This eschatological orientation in turn demarcates the temporal tasks of moral, social, and political ordering which, though very important, are not ultimate, for the true destiny of creation does not depend upon any particular family, organization, or nation, but upon the reign of Jesus Christ, while the law of Christ is one that empowers evangelical freedom. (By which is meant the freedom that comes with being fully what we are called to be – not in the maximization of choice, as modern consumerist notions of freedom mistakenly invite us to suppose.)

In this vision, the church is called and “authorised by the ascended Christ”[6] to be a community that bears witness to how life should be lived within a vindicated creation being drawn toward its destiny in Christ; a life of obedient freedom under God in the love of God.

In the words of the Antiphon of Maundy Thursday which we are about to hear:

Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est
Where charity and love are – there is God.


[1] (and one is tempted to add: Upon these two commandments hang much of our draw and the profits…..) 

[2] On the subject of differences between Britain and America in terms of national stereotypes London and New York Review(s) of Books, reporter Sarah Lyall notes that personal ads present “an unusual opportunity [for] cultural comparison”; British personal ads,she observes, embrace “droll understatement and deep self-deprecation,” whereas Americans go in for “self-promotion and sappy romanticism.” Compare thus:   “Petite, pretty, blond professional seeks relationship built around laughter, love and a view that life should continue to be an adventure which was in case you had not already guessed American, while the following: “Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle-aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible” had to be British.

[3] The relationship between being moderate and coercion is something at least hinted at also when we recall the two quite different uses of the cognate words moderate and moderator – for the latter is someone whom we expect will not be merely passive but take an active role in managing how things unfold and that gives one a very good clue into how the concept of “being moderate” has actually worked as an engine of control.

[4] There is certainly an interesting argument developed in extenso by by Ethan Shagan in his relatively recent book The rule of moderation (Cambridge 2011) where he traces the enormous power of what became a legitimating via media from the reign of Henry VIII onwards, with complex and fluid boundaries between moderation as a social norm and as an interior disposition — an ordering of the soul. Thus the ideal of moderation becomes central to a key part of English history and identity and a profoundly coercive tool of social, religious and political power which peaked at times when the State was at its most intolerant.

[5] A much misunderstood and misused phrase from Augustine notwithstanding(!): namely, “Love and do what you will” which derives from St. Augustine’s Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John. The perspective is one where God is love, and when we love truly and selflessly, we love with God’s own love. There is a Trinitarian hinterland also in that God allows us to participate in the same spirit of love that exists eternally between the Father, Son, and Spirit. God thus gives us what Aquinas calls “the New Law,” the “law of grace,” by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.” (Rom 5:5). The “New Law” is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27: (echoed in the opening liturgical action today to the words Vidi aquam when the congregation is sprinkled with Holy Water) “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” Love thus helps us to fulfill the law –and do so freely as we then desire to do God’s will, not merely what love as a passion might tempt us to do. (A larger discussion would be needed fully to set out the contrast between love as virtue and as passion aside from other senses as in union, and in relation to the recognition and bestowal of value as well as more widely the relation to emotion and sentiment, quite aside from issues of vocabulary as in ἔρως, φιλία ἀγάπη and στοργή or caritas and amor.

A further mistake to avoid and note here is a dualistic view of man, in which moral values attach to events in an “interior” invisible life, which runs alongside one’s public physical life. Such a view can lead to the idea that activities in the public visible world are in themselves morally neutral; while we merely speak of them as virtuous or bad according to whether they are accompanied or not by an act of loving in the interior life. To think in such a way leads to a view of two lives being lived in some sort of parallel but which are not intrinsically connected; with the consequence that we can only make rough empirical generalizations about which public acts are usually accompanied by love, while such rules of thumb have no sort of necessity.

[6] Cf., O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment, p. 240

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