Approaching Love through the Back Door: A Review of "The Betrayal of Charity"

Most theological works seem trapped in either speaking completely of contemporary issues and thus lose any lasting value or tilt toward an opposite extreme of blandly relating historical data that lack any contemporary significance. Matthew Levering has the extraordinary ability to relate timeless truths within a contemporary dialogue with a diverse group of interlocutors.

His recent work, The Betrayal of Charity, serves as an excellent example of this style. One might immediately ask with Levering: "Is there an advantage to contemplating charity in light of its opposites?" (10). While the inclination might arise to push aside a treatment of sins against charity in favor of a more positive account of the virtue in itself, this book proves its worth by providing an intriguing examination of charity in light of attacks against it.

Levering's methodology consists in providing an overview of charity itself and then going through the traditional vices opposed to it as enumerated by St. Paul and expounded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas: sloth, envy, discord, contention, war, strife, scandal, schism, and sedition. Each of the eight chapters engages at least one contemporary thinker (including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and non-believers), placing him or her in dialogue with Aquinas.

One poignant example of his methodology comes in chapter three, in which Timothy Jackson's assertion that charity is only earthly centered is refuted by linking it to Aquinas' articulation of sloth, particularly in its aversion to the spiritual good of eternal life. In a moving passage Levering describes how "sloth is a real temptation because it may often seem that sin and death, not love, ultimately conquer. To learn the joy of charity in the midst of suffering entails not simply relating to God and neighbor here and now. Rather, experiencing joy and avoiding sloth involves an apprenticeship or formation in God's steadfast love" (59). As Levering engages other vices, interesting topics emerge such as the Eucharist, the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, and liturgical worship.

As mentioned above, there is a lot to learn from Levering's theological style. He exemplifies the dialogue needed with contemporary culture, while drawing upon classical wisdom. He shows Aquinas to be extremely relevant in contemporary discourse, while also drawing insight from the thinkers he criticizes.

In addition to providing this theological model, Levering also leads the reader through an important spiritual reflection. I found myself contemplating how vices against charity have found their way into my own life. One can see this element of the book in the following: "When we suppose that charity is not difficult for fallen people in a fallen world, we can slip into the signs against charity almost unconsciously, out of concern for our lives and for our families" (145).

In the end, it is not Levering's elucidation of the sins against charity, but the light that he sheds upon love, and its source in God, that make this work so important. Levering states that those who read the book have "in a roundabout way been studying this God of self-outpouring love" (147).

Levering's approach toward love through the back door is intriguing and compelling. It has a vividness, which he describes through the need "to exposit love in a pastorally compelling manner" through "concrete examples of love's opposite" (11). Focusing on sin may be just the angle needed at this time to awaken minds to the need for charity.

8/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
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