Love with all your mind

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by Stefan Höschele


Does Jesus’ statement, “Love God … with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37 NIV) support effective altruism? 

While Jesus was of course not directly talking about effective altruism, this key verse of the New Testament interprets “loving” as something that is not a feeling but an action done in a reasoned manner. The statement demands serious altruism, which supports the principle of effectiveness in altruism.

The passage as it appears in Matthew’s Gospel is part of Jesus’ answer to a question asked by the Pharisees. In its context, the verse says:

[37] “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [38] This is the first and greatest commandment. [39] And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ [40] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In this statement, Jesus quotes from the Old Testament – from Deuteronomy 6:5 (loving God; cf. also Joshua 22:5) and Leviticus 19:18 (loving the neighbour). The latter command adds the reminder, “I am the Lord [= Yhwh]” – so even in the Old Testament loving the neighbour and the reference to God are strongly linked. What’s more, a few verses afterwards, the same connection is made with reference to “aliens” (i.e. foreigners): “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34).

Interestingly, a slightly different wording appears in the parallel verses in Mark and Luke. Mark also reports Jesus’ answer, and Luke’s account contains analogous words spoken by a law teacher (Luke 10:27 in the context of the Good Samaritan story). This wording concerns precisely the word that is crucial here, “mind” (diánoia / διάνοια): in both cases “strength” is added after “mind.” Yet the original Hebrew text in Deuteronomy does not include a reference to “mind” at all; there are only three elements: heart (lēḇāḇ), soul (nep̄eš), and strength (me’ōḏ). Nor does the Septuagint, the earliest (Greek) translation have “mind” – it keeps “strength” (dúnamis / δύναμις).

What did Jesus say, then? And what did he want to express? We do not know the exact words that he spoke, for the Greek text is a translation of what he most probably spoke in Aramaic. He apparently added the word “mind,” which also appears in the Peshitta (a very early Aramaic translation of the New Testament; here the word ReEYaN or ReEYoN means mind/thought). By doing so, he actually emphasized an aspect of the word heart in the OT original, for “heart” (lēḇāḇ or lēḇ) actually means the centre of human thinking; decisions, plans, will, and even wisdom, conscience, and morality. Hebrew and Aramaic words tend to have many meanings, and in this case it is utterly clear that the text implies all the faculties of the human mind. Emotions may also be linked with “heart,” but much less than the “rational” part of the human mind; moreover, in Hebrew feelings tend to be associated with other part of the human body (such as the nose for anger and the kidneys for compassion, joy, grief, as well as the liver and the bowels for various emotions).

Now Jesus connects loving God with the mind; therefore, one could argue that this has little to do with the love of neighbour. However, agapic love to God and neighbour share common characteristics and are so closely connected here and from OT times that one cannot separate between “rational” love towards God and “emotional” love towards the neighbour. The intensity of loving God is supposed to be all-encompassing (thus several times “all”), but the quality of love is the same: agape love is commanded in verse 39 with the same word (agapēseis: thou shalt love). Agape love is something rational (mind), forceful (strength) and holistic (“soul”/nep̄eš actually means the entire person): hence by saying the words in verse 37, in a way Jesus merely explains what love is.

What does this mean for effective altruism? 

(1) Jesus did emphasize the rational aspect of love (in addition to its holistic character and its forceful nature). 

(2) These aspects are explicitly linked to the love of God, but the fact that the second command is added and pronounced “like the first” indicates that love of neighbour shares these qualities.

(3) The fact that even foreigners are included in the love command already in Leviticus 19 (as are enemies in Matthew 6:43–48) implies that the rational approach to altruism knew no boundaries for Jesus and the tradition on which he built.

Biblical texts primarily relate to the particular environment in which they were spoken; thus Jesus did not explain how this rationality can translate into societies of distant centuries. It is our task as Christians living today to do so. Yet the principles that Jesus uses imply that Effective Altruism is an outstanding paradigm of how we can apply the key command of the Gospel – the love command – to our time.

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