Exercise in Love

The present Western culture is largely ‘post-Christian’, fed up with the tired dogmas of the past.  One common mistake made by the Christian community is to try to revamp the relevance of Christianity through massive immersion.  The thought is (in an admittedly crudely-reduced form) that if we flood the world with Bibles and ‘the Gospel message’ the Christian community will finally end up back on top, like the idyllic golden age during which God was the ruler of the world.  Unfortunately the Christian ideal has never been a part of reality.  People may look back at post-war America in the 1950s and conclude, “That was a good time.  People were decent.  It was the 1960s that brought about our current distress.  Abortion, homosexuality and the utter moral corruption of Western society.”

It is not my attempt to provide a thorough analysis of Western society since World War II, but I will point out that the heart of Christianity has never been about this set of morals, morals defined and packaged for Evangelical Christians by the Religious Right in the 1980s.  The principal response of the Christian community seems to be pointing the finger.  In his book, The Post-Christian Mind, Harry Blamires tends to point out that the problems facing the Christian community during this time are not the fault of the Christian community itself.  He writes,

If we are to examine from the inside the machinery of contemporary error, we must step outside of our theological skins.  Everything that gives shape and meaning to our conception of the span of human life derives from a system of beliefs that the post-Christian mind rejects.  The Christian finds the ultimate meaning of things outside time, outside the boundaries of our earthly human career.

(Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind [London: SPCK, 2001], 3.)

I’m afraid that Mr Blamires is mistaken on several counts.  As the rest of his book points out, he generally defines “Everything that gives shape and meaning to our conception of the span of human life” as a set of morals based upon family values.  For instance, he harps on the attack against the sanctity of marriage.  While I agree that the value of marriage has been greatly reduced in Western society, I believe that the Christian community is largely at fault.  By this, I mean that the Christian community has not demonstrated a great apologetic for marriage, giving no standard by which to critique the ‘secular’ tendency to divorce.  My second main issue with Mr Blamires’ words has to do with a general presupposition concerning the utter ‘otherness’ of the Christian life, one in which we find “the ultimate meaning of things outside time, outside the boundaries of our earthly human career.”  While God is most certainly greater than our realm, he is also very present and committed to time and space, which is most fully demonstrated in the Incarnation, the giving of the Holy Spirit, the advent of the Church and the rapid expansion of his universal kingdom.

Still, this tendency toward perceiving ourselves so fully identified with this ‘otherness’ helps the Christian community to embrace a false sense of exile.  In such a way, the Christian can justify societal rejection based upon the life of Christ.  Michael Frost in his book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, writes,

I suspect that the increasing marginalization of the Christian movement in the West is the very thing that will wake us up to the marvellously exciting, dangerous, and confronting message of Jesus.

(Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006], 9.)

This is very close to what I think we need to hear, but the language of ‘exile’ is too heavy-handed.  Frost is very glad to leave what he considers the “Christendom era”.  To set ourselves apart from the Christian tradition and to adopt what we consider to be ‘the message of Christ’ is dangerous.  This is a mistake primarily because ‘the message of Christ’ is convoluted, and if we limit this message solely to the Scripture (as is by-and-large the practice of Protestantism) we undermine the very nature of Scripture.  Scripture was not given to the Christian community as a tool by which we can live without the Church.  That old Lutheran ideal, Sola Scriptura simply does not account for the robustness of the Christian presence throughout history.  We are dealing with a living God and a living Church.

While Christianity is something very contrarian, we cannot accept that we are so holy and counter-cultural that exile is a result of our ‘doing things right’.  The Christian community could do well by listening to the culture in a self-critical way.  Unfortunately, I believe that this can be done wrong.  In fact, I believe that the Christian community is experiencing its present dilemma because it has been taking the things of God, the way we rehearse the Gospel, the way we understand our role in this world, and severely altering it based upon our preconceived notions of how things should be.  For instance, during the time of the Reformation, Calvinists began to wear black, not initially to express modesty, but to align the clergy with academia, showing that the Reformed priests were educated, unlike the Catholic priests who wore colourful vestments based upon the seasons within the Church year.

Changing our faith based upon preconceived notions has had far more adverse effects than the clerical wear of the Reformers, the most tragic of which I believe is the castration of the Gospel.  What I mean by this is that the far-reaching effects of the Gospel have been greatly minimised in order to attend to the desires of Western culture.  The culmination of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection has moved from an incredible cosmic event in which the transformation of the universe was initiated and the Church created and redeemed into a hyper-individualistic ticket to a spiritual heaven paradise.  Was not the God of the Nicene Creed the God who created all things, visible and invisible?

Christianity is not a set of morals, it is not a set of mental suppositions and it is not a social programme – it is God’s transformative initiative in the universe, the Gospel.  The Gospel is therefore the heart of Christianity and the heart of the Gospel is love.  Perhaps the primary reason why Christianity has experienced such a drop in public sentiment is because love, and consequently the Gospel, has been corrupted and void of much of its usefulness.  Now I will neither deny the sincerity of the entirety of the Christian community nor the power of God as demonstrated through even the most meagre of Gospel proclamations.  We are fortunate that God is far more powerful and mysterious than our systems of belief, no matter how informed or refined.

What I am going to propose will not change the fact that God is far more than we comprehend on a daily basis, but I do hope that, as should be the case in any theological endeavour, this exercise will serve to draw us as the Christian community closer to the heart of God and his mission to the world.  His mission is not one of ‘add-ons’.  Being a Christian is not an ‘app’ one can purchase for their iPhone.  Being a Christian is neither a new t-shirt nor a whole new wardrobe.  Being a Christian is a radical transformation and orientation toward the will of God.

Love is the central tenet of the Gospel – God loves the universe he created.  The existence of anything is contingent upon the grace and love of God and for us God demonstrated this love most tangibly through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Throughout the whole of Scripture God demonstrates his love, and Christ, when asked by a Pharisee, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV)

In theory, the Christian community accepts most of these things with open arms, but the magnitude of what ‘love’ means is where the real weakness of the present Gospel takes shape.  Perhaps a more revealing passage is found in the Sermon on the Mount,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

(Matthew 5:43-48)

A pious Christian might call out an “Amen!” without thinking twice about this passage, but I believe a more honest response might be, “Oh shit, we’re doing it wrong.”

Indeed, the love of Christ is not some half-hearted commitment not to hate.  The Christian community has a propensity to take the positive commands of God and turn them into negative commands.  Instead of this radical calling ‘to love everyone’ we turn it into a meagre calling ‘not to hate anyone’.  Even then we must weaken our definition of hate and say, “Well I don’t hate anyone, I simply dislike some people.”  Whether we define our lack of love as ‘hate’ or ‘dislike’, we are still missing the point – we are called to love.

But we must also understand that the love of Christ is a very complex thing.  God does not suspect that we will master his greatest commandment with relative ease.  To love in the way that the Christian community is called to love involves a daily dependence on God’s strength and guidance by way of his Holy Spirit.  We can hardly even begin to imagine what it is to love in the way that God demonstrated through Christ.  Even on the Cross in the midst of his persecutors tradition maintains that Jesus requests of his heavenly Father, “forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 24:34)  Jesus’ love is a radical love, and it was a love that brought about massive transformation: reconciliation between God and people (‘love your God’), reconciliation between people and other people (‘love your neighbour’; ‘love your enemy’), reconciliation within individuals toward themselves and reconciliation between people and the creation.  The greatest commandments can summarise this grand reconciliation.  If we love God in the freedom granted by the work of Christ we will love the entirety of his creation because he has created, loved and redeemed it.  This holistic reconciliation in the Gospel can be used to counter the neo-Gnostic trajectory of contemporary Christianity.

When considering the implications of these reconciliatory principles, the unfathomable depth of the love God has for us and the love that God has called the Christian community to, I believe that a it is a good exercise to seek to see it all from the perspective of the Cross.

Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516), Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

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When your parents have failed you miserably

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a friend betrays you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a co-worker spreads a rumour about you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When a stranger cuts you off on the road

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When you see the homeless person on the street

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When someone succeeds as you fail

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When your significant other does not see your point of view

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When your child disobeys you

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

When you give into the temptation yet another time

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

In all things

Remember Christ’s love on the Cross.

Be transformed by Christ’s love on the Cross.

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Exploring and employing the implications of God’s love is an eternal task, but I end this post with these thoughts: To be a Christian is to be a subject in God’s kingdom and to be a subject in God’s kingdom requires one thing: robust obedient love.  This world can only ever benefit from more love.  Nothing in this world ever went bad nor will anything ever go bad because there was ‘just too much love’.