Editor’s Note: In our on-going series called The Preacher’s Bookshelf, we interview authors of books that might be of interest to pastors and preachers. In this installment, we ask Matthew Levering, a rising Catholic theologian, to reflect on his new book The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins That Sabotage Divine Love. (Learn more about this book at the Patheos Book Club here.)
Matthew Levering is Professor of Theology at the University of Dayton and a Distinguished Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. His most recent publications include Jewish-Christian Dialogue and the Life of Wisdom; Christ and the Catholic Priesthood; Participatory Biblical Exegesis; and Biblical Natural Law.
What’s the basic hunch of The Betrayal of Charity – it’s most essential claim — and why is it important?
The basic hunch is that the wedge between charity and doctrine is a false one; put another way, charity arises from within the embrace of faith. Since love is self-giving, it manifests itself interiorly in joy and peace, and exteriorly in mercy/almsgving and benevolence. We can know when we are sinning against charity (i.e. in the specific sense rather than in the broad sense in which all sins are against charity) when we find ourselves failing in interior joy and peace and in exterior mercy and benevolence. This is not just a matter of the will, but also of the intellect. For example, when we know Jesus as risen from the dead, the result is an interior joy that overcomes the spiritual sloth that we might otherwise fall into due to the difficulty of the spiritual life. When we find ourselves divided from other persons (including other believers), we can recognize that the solutions will not be solely or even primarily sociological or political ones, but rather the most important solutions will come from the urgent search for the interior peace that is holiness, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is not quietism, because God calls us to worship him as a people: liturgical mediation of Christ’s presence pushes us to learn receptivity and mutual dependence rather than to lay claim to God as self-sufficient individuals. Likewise, knowing the one God who is three Persons guides us to perceive our Creator to be infinite Love rather than infinite exclusivity. There is no scarcity in God’s love, no zero-sum game; relying on God, the Giver of good gifts, rather than on ourselves heals us of envy and enables us to show mercy.
It might seem that the more Christians enter into and proclaim Christian doctrine, the more exclusive and opposed to others Christianity becomes. If we know the truth, then others do not, etc. This view is increasingly common in our culture and it affects how pastors see themselves, and can even affect the very core of their spiritual life by generating a defensive, negative viewpoint or a one-sided emphasis on social justice in opposition to dogma. But in fact the truth that Christians know is a truth that draws us out of ourselves and into the joy, peace, benevolence, mercy, and almsgiving that establishes an ever-open communion. Falling in love with Love is real when our hearts are expanded. An expanded heart does not require an empty or relativistic mind, however, let alone a rejection of the institutional Church – the love of God revealed in Christ crucified and risen, and shared in the liturgical communion of the Church, shapes our intelligence so that we can truly love.
A sermon series could look like this: (1) Love of God and Love of Neighbor; (2) Why God Is Lovable; (3) Sloth and the Joy of the Resurrection; (4) Envy and God-Reliance; (5) Discord, Contention, and Ecclesial Peace; (6) Schism and Liturgical Mediation; (7) War and the Interpretation of Scripture; (8) Scandal and Scapegoating.
I like to recall that to love is really to rejoice in the existence of another. The lover rejoices that God is, and rejoices that our neighbors are. We are “made” of love, because God has freely loved us into existence: he loves us not because we are good but because he is. We don’t have to “measure up” — we simply have to learn how to rejoice in the existence of others, and to do so as creatures indebted for everything to God. This is easier said than done, and so love is not to be mistaken for “cheap grace” or for lack of holiness. It is the way on which that Christ’s truth leads us, and it is the pattern of the Church.
At the time, I was having particular trouble forgiving others who seemed to have cast aside my friendship. I found that looking at Jesus, crucified and risen, and at the triune God whom he reveals, provided real light into the superabundance of God’s infinitely personal love, joy, goodness, and mercy. The Church is not a place of exclusion because it is a place of sharing in this superabundance of love and thus is focused not on its own but on rejoicing that others are.