To Love God Is To Love Flesh and Blood [Questions That Haunt]

 

I’m away from the blog this week, so I have the great honor of introducing one of my favorite theobloggers and authors, Richard Beck, to answer this week’s Question That Haunts:

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.”

[Interlude:

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.

  • Craig

    “My worry is, rather, how certain theologies dehumanize people.”

    That’s also my concern. It might be helpful to address Abraham’s supposedly exemplary act of faith in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac out of obedience. It might also be good to address the peculiar way in which evangelical Christians “love” gay people. More generally, it might be good to address how putative concern for the eternal welfare of another person’s soul, or the other person’s “relationship with God,” tends to dehumanize the love of Christians.

  • http://www.watershedcharlotte.com Matt

    Wow! I just came out of my chair. This beautiful rant continues to inspire me to have “Third Way” type conversations in our community. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

    re: “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.” …. reminds me of how the GOPers are interpreting their defeat at the nation’s voting booths this past fall. the sound of missing the point happening.

    • http://www.progressivechristianitybook.com rogerwolsey

      Yep, I’m also throwing my lot in with progressive Christianity. Those are a better set of problems to deal with by far. That said, re: ” 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?” Here’s how I attempt to answer that in a recent blog:
      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2013/03/spiritual-but-not-giving-a-damn/

  • http://www.facebook.com/scot.miller.547 Scot Miller

    Fantastic. I now have a new blog to follow….

    • http://gravatar.com/rollieb RollieB

      I do as well!

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  • AJG

    Thank you, Richard. I agree with almost everything you wrote here. Let me state that when I asked this question originally, it wasn’t because I was necessarily confused about the answer; it was because I disagree with the premise of the question completely. I agree with you that most evangelicals (and I think they are the group that is primarily responsible for putting forth the fallacy that one can love God more than people) that they actually mean that love=obedience. Of course, one can obey an authority figure without loving it (no one really loves the police officer that pulls them over). The problem is that most conservatives are so obsessed with the idea of God’s wrath and holiness that it becomes the most important characteristic of God for them. In order to please a judgemental God, we must be obedient to Him, even at the expense of expressing love towards others.

    Thanks for your contribution this week. Even though I no longer consider myself a Christian, I think you exemplify that which is best about Christianity. And if there really is a God, may He have mercy on me and on all of us.

  • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    I almost passed on reading this one because the question was not something that I ponder. Glad I did. I’m often frustrated by the response to Westboro, it is usually a “that’s not us” generic response, but you answer exactly which part of “us” they are not. This removes the divide between us and them and gives something to discuss. We can talk about what exactly we believe and how we should act based on that.

    Many Christians are risking not making it into heaven these days by simply confronting the issues that you raise here. It’s a risk Christians have to take. There is more than just the personal factor. If not confronted, the Westboro type Christianity can bring down the rest. I think you have modernized Pascal’s wager here.

    • http://gravatar.com/rollieb RollieB

      “Many Christians are risking not making it into heaven…”

      Really!?! I don’t believe the kingdom is a place, the kingdom is here and now, within each one of us – our view of of life and how we live it – following Jesus’ teachings, whom “the church” calls the Christ.

      • http://winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

        Exactly, given the choices of “follow some doctrine and get rewarded later” and “do something here and now”, they are choosing the latter.

  • Ric Shewell

    Christian love is cruciform.

    great response, thank you!

  • spinkham

    Good stuff.

    I don’t have anything substantial to add, but I will point out that William James’s “Varieties” is out of copyright and can be found on project Gutenberg or manybooks.net in many easy to use formats.

    http://manybooks.net/titles/jameswiletext96varre10.html

    So no excuses for not reading it. ;-)

  • mary

    Wow … powerful … agreed …’I’m talking about “taking the last place” and being the slave of all.’

  • http://www.facebook.com/sonja.lund Sonja Faith Lund

    This addresses really well something that I was thinking about after an exchange I had on one of Tony Jones’ posts.

    A commenter was criticizing Emergents for being indistinguishable from the surrounding culture, saying “So much for being the light of the world.” I responded with my own experiences, which were simply that being more like the surrounding culture (more palatable to a secular world, or something) meant I could better stand out as a positive example of Christianity. I described how I’d changed the minds of several people about what Christianity is like, because I accepted them for who they were. I didn’t mention this in my comment, but it probably helped that I’m openly gay.

    The commenter responded by saying that they preferred to follow and obey God, and alienate people, rather than practice something more acceptable to people and alienate God. After reading that, I thought, “What happened to being the light of the world?” Alienating people because of your beliefs and practices doesn’t sound much like spreading the Gospel to me. It seemed odd that the same person calling out folks like me for not being the “light of the world” was also content to not help anyone’s opinions of Christianity by saying and doing things that they knew would drive some folks away.

    Like you, I’d much rather help people and give them friendship and a better understanding of the good Christianity can do, than alienate them in the name of being good at following doctrine.

  • Darren

    I read this blog for the first time. Some nice thoughts. I was raised in very conservative Christianity- do it our way or go to hell type! Since then I like to think I’ve matured a lot and now lead much more to the progressive side. I guess I do since those on the conservative side tell me I’m going to hell! I prefer to think of just being ‘Christian’ instead of progressive or conservative, but for practical purposes it is hard not to label oneself. On a side note- and to my point. I have 4 young children (all under 9) my 2 daughters (8 and 6) were asking us the other day how much we loved them and who we loved the most. My wife gave the typical ‘we love God the most’ then you guys! Well I was taught the same thing. It is good intentioned, to show the importance of loving God. Then I thought about it! I try to love God, but ultimately, who do I spend more time with? Who would I sacrifice more for? My children! I do love them more than God! If that is a sin, then so be it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/justin.hanvey Justin Hanvey

    I like a lot of what you say here. I believe loving God results in loving others. As I asked God to show me how he saw others, I began to realize that there was an inherent beauty in just being a created thing, the art of God, outside of actions/beliefs, etc. It’s really the reason I’ve come to embrace universalism, or universal reconciliation to be specific, as truth.

    But there’s a part of loving God, which you sort of referred to as “person relationship” that I find so important. A relationship involves actual communication, actual acknowledgement and reaction to the other’s existence. This stands outside of our personal interactions with others. Perhaps you were getting at that and I missed it, but it just seemed like you had almost written off any kind of love of God other than loving others.

    When I think of that line, loving God more than anything else, I think not of how I act in that love towards existing things, or obeying God in hurting others (since to me God would never ask that), but of the simple fact that if I lost everything, I would still have hope, because I’d still have God. I think of Job’s statement “Though he slay me, still will I follow (love) Him” If God allowed everything else to fall away, would I still have something/Someone to hold on to? I think that’s what it means to me. It means that all else is seen in light of God, and not apart from God. There is nothing that God could allow to be taken away that would make me hate Him. Even my own life.

    And God takes things away, he allows trials and tribulations to grow us, and if we have our anchor in Him, we can weather those storms. Really I think it just means that, where is our lifeline connected to? God, or humanity? Humanity for all it’s beauty (and I’m quite the humanist myself), can even at its best still do horrible things. So no, I deny that my saying “I love God more than man,” means I want to hurt man, because at my deepest core I believe that God loves man more than Himself. So if I am to love God more than man, it results in me being able to love man more than I would be able to if I put them above or at equality with God. That might not make sense, but it’s at least what it all means to me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/justin.hanvey Justin Hanvey

      I now realize my post presumes a non-Tillichian view of God, with Tillichian view being more in line with your post. Now I’ll go shut up lol.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kimgerlyknight Kimberly Knight

    Yes this! Thank you – fav part…

    “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.”

  • janet engeman

    We are in God and God is in us. So our love is all or nothing at all.

  • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.com Lara

    This is my favorite thing I’ve ever read on the internet.


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