Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Theology of Love

"A theology of love." This post has been cooking for a long time. I've had that title in mind for months now. I've tried to start this post several times - I have drafts from ten months ago, four months ago, and a few in between. And as I look back, I think I've tried to make it too complicated. So here goes.

My theology is this: God is Love.

There's a lot packed in that sentence - firstly, for me to have a theology that I can actually believe in is a big step. It's been a long process. See my prelude for the "quick" version, and the rest of this blog for the long version. And as for the theology, it's more than just three words. But it can be summed up in those three words.

To elaborate a little, I believe that the very essence of God is Love. And I mean essence in the most literal sense possible: containing God's characteristic properties in concentrated form. An extract that has the fundamental properties of a substance in concentrated form. Looking at the various definitions, essence is actually an excellent word. The most important ingredient; the crucial element. The inherent, unchanging nature of a thing. The basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features. All of these definitions get at the relationship between God and Love. Basically, they are one and the same. Now, this isn't anything too radical - I'm pretty sure I'm on fairly solid theological ground so far. But where this begins to differ from a lot of theology is that I believe that Love is everything. I saved one of the definitions to illustrate this: Love is the intrinsic or indispensable properties that serve to characterize or identify God. I like that one. How do you characterize or identify God? Love. Take anything, and ask of it - is there Love? If not, I seriously question if it is of God, or represents God faithfully. I intend on taking this to its fullest extent possible - which has some interesting implications that I'll outline below. But I think I still have pretty good support. After all, a great man once said:

"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
-Jesus (John 13:35)

But first, how did this come about? Well, during my deconstruction phase, I was looking at the things that are wrong with the Church (and this country, and society in general) - of which there are many - I kept coming back to what I call the "summing up" passages. There are several places in scripture "sums up" the Bible, the nature of Christianity, into a short space. They are arguably some of the most famous passages in the Bible. The Golden Rule. The Greatest Commandment. For example:

"This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."
-Jesus (John 15:12-13)

"And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], "What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?"
And [the lawyer] answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.' And He said to him, 'You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.'"
-Jesus and the Lawyer (Luke 10:25-37)

"If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing."
-Paul (1 Corinthians 13:2-3)

"But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love." -Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13)

"The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:8)

"God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."
-John the Apostle (1 John 4:16)
Half the beatitudes are about loving your enemies. And so I thought about it, and when it came time to form some kind of positive theology, I realized this was it. Love. But when it comes to forming a whole theology, most people add more to it. And indeed, I'm sure most reactions to my theology thus far are something along the lines of "That's all well and good, but it's simplistic. It sounds nice, but what about sin? What about the hard stuff? You can't just go around just believing in love. It's more complicated than that."

And with that, I tentatively and respectively disagree. And not just flippantly. Because I've thought about this. Because Christians tend to focus on either sin or love, neglecting the other. Neither is correct. God doesn't wander around the universe, looking for things people are doing wrong, punishing them for it, making sure they stay in line. Neither does he traipse around the heavens, throwing out platitudes and packets of happy, telling everyone that it's okay, he loves them anyway, just do better next time. I know this. But after some consideration, I realized that the important concept of sin actually fits right into my theology of love - with a little bit of a perspective shift.

For that, I'll take a little sidetrip. The Law. All good Christians know that God came to fulfill it, not abolish it. But do we really understand what that means? I didn't. The way I used it, and heard it used, it basically meant that Christians could still use the Old Testament to back up their opinions if the New Testament wasn't good enough. But I think I actually get it now. And that, by the way, is not what it means.

When Jesus showed up, the religious leaders of the time had taken the Law of the Old Testament, codified it, and written up hundreds upon hundreds of very specific rules that dictated exactly what you could and could not do, when. From what I've read of the New Testament, Jesus wasn't a huge fan of these Lawkeepers. Many of his strongest words were reserved for the Pharisees and Sadducees (he called them "vipers" and "white-washed tombs" for example). The intention of these groups was to make sure that the Law was followed down to the letter, and no one stepped outside of the lines defined by their interpretation of the Law. Their intentions were noble enough - they wanted people to follow God's Law. But Jesus did not like what they were doing. He didn't like them checking up on everyone, making sure that people were doing it right, punishing the slightest deviation from their rules. Of course this isn't because was an anarchist. The lawkeepers were doing it wrong. They focused on the letter of the law, counting steps on Sabbaths. Jesus deliberately disobeyed their precepts! He healed on the Sabbath just to see what they would do. He had his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus wanted to show people that the letter of the law is not what mattered. What matters is the spirit of the law. God is hardly offended that Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is to relax, take a day off from the ever-increasing distractions of our world, and focus on God. Rigidifying the spirit of the law kills it. Cementing God's will into a set of precepts renders it useless. My point is, the lawkeepers had it so backwards! I believe this is true in a very large, very overarching sense, and have written a whole post on just this. In fact, read that post, you'll get a better idea of where I'm coming from. But to sum up: humans like rules because they're easy, clear cut, don't require thought, and most significantly, are easy to find people breaking. God doesn't like rules, and just wants us to follow his will. Unfortunately, humans aren't very good at that, and he reluctantly set forth precepts to help us figure it out. They're imperfect, which is why he sent Jesus to fix things. To fulfill the law. To quote my other post, God basically said, "These rules are annoying, and not really what I want. I'm going to send Jesus down to fulfill the law so we don't have all these obnoxious rules. The humans will figure it out, and be much happier. They'll see." Unfortunately, we didn't get it, killed Jesus, and resumed telling each other exactly what rules we were breaking.

So that said, I believe that the idea of a simple precept, a single concept, being the core and source of all divine law, is pretty valid. And from what I remember, the simplest, most commonly-agreed upon definition of sin is "going against the nature of God." The nature of God, of course, is Love. If sin is going against Love, what more is sin than an absence of perfect love? And this is a beautifully unifying idea. We wouldn't have to worry about loving too much, or failing to call people on sin. Telling people that their sinning would just be admonishing them to more perfectly love God, others, or themselves. Loving people would, in and of itself, be striving to not sin. This sounds like a cop-out, but in reality, it is extremely, even impossibly, difficult. Rules are way easier. We have to love completely and truly. Oftentimes, this means calling out people when they are being unloving towards our fellow human beings. That's called sin. And that is my theology of sin.

And that is my Theology of Love. Love. Always. Period. Which doesn't just mean being nice. It means putting all the six billion other people in the world before yourself, defending them from injustice, hate, and corruption, and being absolutely loving to those around you - even those that annoy you and hurt you and are wrong. That's hard. But no one said Christianity was easy. In fact, Christ often said it was downright hard.

Before I end, a quick note on salvation. I will take a whole note to explain it more fully, but briefly: the evangelical movement seems to be preoccupied with Romans 10:9-10 and Acts 16:31. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." and "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved". It is where the "saved" language comes from - you "become a Christian" when you are "saved" by saying your salvation prayer. This doesn't really follow from my Theology of Love - it doesn't contradict it, but it's kind if anticlimactic, to say the least. Instead, I focus on two different passages. The end of Matthew 25, and the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In these, Jesus says that those who do "the will of [His] Father" and those who care for "the least of these" will inherit eternal life, and those who do not will be rejected and cast into the eternal fire. That is my standard for salvation - faith is a necessary component, but without love, without caring for others, without doing the will of the Father, it is nothing. It is dead, as James put it. Does a dead faith still get you a golden ticket into heaven? I don't have an answer to that - but it doesn't matter, because I intend to follow Jesus' mandate of love.

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