From time to time, typically while teaching Dante, a student objects to the entire Divine Comedy and claims, “Good works are symbolic, but they do not accomplish anything tangible. We perform good works to show that we love God. Good works are born out of a love of God, but are not synonymous with a love of God.”
Such comments invariably make me wonder what my students think love is. If a father abused his son, beat him, berated him, and starved him, I would not say, “This man clearly has a problem showing his son how much he loves him. I am quite sure he loves his son, but he does not clearly understand how to demonstrate that love.” I would simply say, “This man hates his son.” Any man who abuses, berates, and starves his son, yet claims a real, though hidden love for his son has deluded himself.
While the love of God is, in some sense, different from the love of man, Christ teaches that no man can claim to love God, Whom he cannot see, when he does not love his brother, whom he can see. The love of man tutors man in the love of God. We learn about the love of God through the love of man.
The idea that good works merely demonstrate a hidden love for God— which is nonetheless present, even apart from good works— suggests that man is, at his very essence, good. There is no goodness in man apart from the love of God. The love of God is the goodness of man, for the love of God is God Himself. God is love.