Many thanks to Tony for hosting this great series, a series I follow every week. Many of the questions that haunt Tony’s readers haunt me as well. So it’s a great honor to get a chance to participate in this way. And blessings on Tony during his time away from his blog as he focuses on other writing projects.
Our question this week: What does it mean to love God more than anyone else and is this even a possibility?
Many of you follow Experimental Theology so you know I’ve been thinking about this question for a very long time. I’ve been mainly preoccupied with how love of God can become tragically dislocated and decoupled from loving others. My book Unclean is one attempt at unpacking the psychology driving that sad outcome, how it so often happens that Christians end up loving God against their neighbors.
To start, let’s tackle a bit of the question: “What does it mean to love God?”
Actually, I don’t think most people are talking about love when it comes to God. They are talking about obedience. The basic frame is this: If I love God I will obey and keep God’s commandments. To be sure, people do have affective experiences related to God, feelings we’d label as love or affection, but for the most part when people are talking about “loving God” they are talking about “obeying God.”
I’m about to follow this bit—“loving God is obeying God”—but some readers might be more curious about the affective experience of love and how this relates to a supernatural agent such as God. That is, if God isn’t physically present how do our affections “attach” to God? That really depends upon you experience of God. If God is experienced as close, personal friend then I think the research of Tanya Luhrmann in her book When God Talks Back is a great description of how God becomes “real” and “personal” to the believer in a way that allows our affections to attach to the God experience. If, however, God is experienced as vast and unknowable there is a mystical experience of transcendence—reported by mystics across all of the world religions, and even by non-theists contemplating the Cosmos—that can be described a feeling of benevolent at-one-ness, as an experience of love. The classic description of this sort of love experience with the transcendent is the chapter on mysticism from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.]
Let me return now to the issue of “loving God” as an act of obedience.
Let’s cut to the case. Whenever people say “I love God more than human beings” something bad is about to happen.
My general rule of thumb: When you hear a person say that they love God more than people they are preparing to hurt someone.
The reason there is so much religious intolerance and violence—verbal (face to face or online), political, interpersonal, and physical violence—is that “love of God” is being pursued independently from “love of others.” When people assert that they must and do love God more than you they are making a theological move, asserting a radical independence between loving God and loving others. This is a radical independence that allows the one dimension—loving God—to turn against the other dimension—human beings. This turn creates the religious justification for violence against others. To love God more is a way to use God to hurt people.
Question: Why are we hurting or excluding these people?
Answer: Because we love God more than people.
To be sure, there are responses to be made. A common one is this. If people are under, say, God’s wrath and judgment then the most loving thing you can do for them is to inform them of this fact. By this logic Westboro Baptist Church is the most loving bunch of Christians in the world.
Now, some might object that this is an unfair comparison. But many Christians agree with the theology of Westboro. Everybody Westboro is damning to hell is the consensus view among most conservative Christians. There is agreement that these people are going to hell. So the quibble with Westboro from conservative Christian isn’t doctrinal or theological. It’s about their social skills. Westboro is rude, but they aren’t wrong. The solution is to tell people that God hates them in more socially skilled ways.
What worries me about all this isn’t the soteriology or the eschatology per se. Bad ideas can just be bad ideas. My worry is, rather, how certain theologies dehumanize people. When we start loving God against our neighbors some deep affectional bond becomes cold and frozen. Our capacities for empathy and perspective-taking become eroded and sluggish. We lose what Miroslav Volf calls “the will to embrace.”And this brings me to the heart of my answer regarding our question that haunts.
I don’t think it is possible to separate our love of God from our love of others. To love God is to love flesh and blood. Over and over in the New Testament we see this conflation.
For example, in the Gospels, Jesus does something pretty radical. Specifically, Jesus amends the Shema, the great confession of Israel to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. To this command Jesus attaches Leviticus19.18: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I think this conflation—and I’d argue it’s a complete identification—of the Shema with Leviticus 19.18 is the foundation and heart of Jesus’s Kingdom ethic. Basically, Leviticus 19.18 is Jesus’s hermeneutic, how Jesus reads the Torah. Loving God means loving others. Matthew 25 rushes to mind along with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As does 1 John 4.20: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
Loving the seen is the only way to love the unseen. You love the unseen through loving the seen.
But if this is so, the oft-repeated criticism quickly comes: If loving God just means loving people aren’t we just settling for a wishy-washy liberal tolerance?
Progressive Christians face this criticism all the time. It’s here where the call to “love God above others” raises its ugly head once again. Christians, it is argued, aren’t just called to love others. We are called to love and obey God and that commitment will cause us to rub people the wrong way, ways that don’t look very “loving” to tolerant, liberal folk. But liberal humanists be damned, right? Our call is to love God and not man!
Such are the battlelines in the old and longstanding debate between conservative and progressive Christians. And personally, I’m sort of bored with the conversation. So a few thoughts as I draw to a close.
First, it is true that many progressive Christians are basically liberal humanists. Guilty as charged.
Second, let me be found among the guilty. Is the great sin of progressive Christianity that it respects and protects the humanity and dignity of every human soul? That’s the great worry here? If that’s the greatest worry, sign me up.
(I guess the greatest worry, it might be argued, is going to hell. But if my choices are respecting and protecting the humanity and dignity of every human soul versus going to heaven I’m going with the former. Yeah, I might go to hell for that. But I’m willing to roll the dice on this one.)
Sure, there are worries and challenges in progressive Christianity that need to be addressed, temptations and obstacles to overcome. Foremost amongst these: Why keep all the Christian mumbo-jumbo—the church, the bible, and stuff like that—if all you need is the liberalism?
But the tradeoffs and struggles here seem worth it given the options on offer. Progressive Christians will opt for these problems rather than opting for Christian theologies that are inherently dehumanizing to outgroup members. And progressive Christians have—critics be damned (pun? You be the judge…)—good biblical, theological and distinctively Christian reasons for making these choices.
And finally, let me get to my real point. Because I think Christian love for others is much more than political correctness and pluralistic tolerance. And thus we get to the root of the matter. I do think we are called to love God more than others.
And here’s what I mean by that.
There is a problem in equating loving God with loving others. But it’s not the problem the conservatives raise (“You’re a bunch of liberal humanists!”).
The problem is this: Some people aren’t very lovable. And many people are easy to hate, and perhaps deserving of hate.
When we equate loving God with loving others—which I think is what we are called to do—we are tempted, day in and day out, to love only those who are easy to love. But Christian love is more than being a tolerant liberal or a loving friend. Christian love is cruciform. Christian love is love for the despised, the ugly, the unlovable, the hateful. Love even, yes, for the enemy.
Few of us, left to our own devices, seek out the homeless or visit the prisoner or extend the olive branch. So when I think about loving God more than loving others what I hear in this call is that there is something more than my default understanding of what love is and should be. Learning to love God more in this way isn’t pulling me away from others, as is often seen in conservative Christian circles where loving God more creates a warrant for loving others less. Rather, loving God in this manner is expanding the circle of those I’m called to love. Rather than loving less people less, loving God means loving more people more.
I’d summarize it all this way. Loving God more is the prophetic edge that leads my love into places it doesn’t want to go, places where I will give my life away in order to give life to others.
So when I talk about love I’m not talking about tolerance, political correctness, or liberalism. I’m talking about practicing the Works of Mercy and using the Sermon on the Mount as a rule of life. I’m talking about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and asking us to do the same. I’m talking about “taking the last place” and being the slave of all. I’m talking about loving enemies, and returning blessings for curses.
Dammit, I’m not talking about tolerance and political correctness.
I’m talking about the Way of the Cross.
I’m talking about being a Christian.