February 26, 2017 by Worship, Community, Formation
We talk about Christian things – but we don’t often talk like Christians.
Ian Paul wrote on his blog the other day about whether you could boil down all Jesus’ teachings to love. A pretty interesting post, in fact. You can have a look – when you’ve finished reading this one.
In the blog, Ian quoted Augustine to demonstrate that ‘all our attempts at love are disordered’:
But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally. (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
In other words, you need to be right first, in order to love correctly.
It’s a widespread assumption among Christians.
By the way, Ian’s blog and Facebook page are two of the liveliest places on the internet where Christians with different convictions meet together. That means they’re as good a place as any to observe how Christians talk, debate and sometimes argue with each other. And indeed, Augustine’s words mirror how those conversations do take place. Those discussions prioritise rightness over love. They share the assumption that if you cannot evaluate things correctly, you cannot love correctly.
That’s sensible in worldly terms. But we Christians take our lead from elsewhere. Does being right first make Christian sense? It’s not clear that it does.
Love is the profound heart of the Christian faith. Some of the strongest moments in the New Testament make this clear. Jesus’ summary of the law in Mark 12.28-31, Matthew 22 and Luke 10 is that the two greatest commandments, on which hang all the law and the prophets, are ‘love God’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. Alongside that, our emphasis on love also comes from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great account of love which gave us the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love as a guide for distinctively Christian conduct. It comes, too, from 1 John 4.8 (‘God is love’); and perhaps above all, it comes from the overall disposition of Jesus towards all his people, and his willingness to surrender life and suffer the cross on their behalf. Love is not incidental in the New Testament: it is there at the centre. It would be easy to make the claim that love is the thing, as Christians over the ages have (Ubi caritas, anyone?)
Does God call us to be correct in the same way? It’s at best questionable. When Jesus wants to test Peter’s fitness to lead the church, he does not ask ‘do you know what’s going on?’; he asks ‘do you love me?’. In case we do not get the point, he asks again. And again. He knows that Peter has been more wrong than right so far, and he probably knows that Peter has got a lot more to learn as the story continues to unfold: it’s not being right that fits him to run a church (the church in fact), it’s loving Jesus.
Peter does not come to love through knowing what is right. He comes to rightness – in as much as he does at all – through love. God’s not scared of using people who are often wrong, he can even use those who are convinced they are right: Saul the persecutor of Christians being the great example.
Being a Christian is being given permission to put love over rightness. Can we imagine such grace? Often not: we live out our days in a secular world, and so easily get locked into a limited and secular imagination. Before we know it, we come at love by permission of rightness. When we do, we stop being Christian and start being functionally secular.
The suggestion that you have to be right before you can be loving is fair enough if you’re a secular person, because secular poeple don’t have God to know what’s right for them; they have to work it out for theselves. For them, it is wise to be right before you are loving. As for us, it’s not that we automatically know or are told what is right; but that we are simply let off worrying about it. We have a God who can see exactly what is going on; and who we can therefore trust to be our guide. Paul describes our vision as partial (1 Corinthians 13):
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
In other words, it is our attempts at knowing that are disordered. (In passing, it’s worth wondering what Augustine’s argument does for people with learning disabilities, people with dementia, or those excluded from an education). Even knowing ourselves is not fully possible. What advice does Paul draw from such an observation? He suggests that we use the way of love instead.
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
A full picture may indeed come ‘then’, but for now we cannot see clearly enough to know, and we are invited instead to rest in these three great Christian virtues, above all, love.
It is not only in love that we fail, when we insist on rightness. It is also faith and hope. If we had faith that Jesus is as serious about love as he claims; if we hoped that his vision was true, then why shouldn’t we trust that we can get to rightness through love, rather than insisting with the rest of the world that it can only be the other way round?
God is love, says John. Let us rest in him and see where he takes us. Love doesn’t always give us fixed answers, but it does give us life. This is why Jesus sparkles through the gospels so unpredictably, and why we love stories by him and about him: because they surprise and counfound our expectations through his extraordinary shows of love. His is the love that lets Peter and the disciples make so many mistakes; the love that lets outcasts come for healing; the love that surrenders its own life to prevent the revolution becoming a bloodbath.
I started with blogging and social media as a place where Christians talk to each other, and observed those discussions were characterised by rightness not love. What would Tertullian say? He wrote that the pagans were moved to ‘see how these Christians love one another’ – such love was an open form of evangelism at the time. Is our online conversation a form of evangelism? Or a shocking squabble over what is right?
Partly I think people either don’t know how to be loving online. Partly I think that they don’t feel they can be loving when there are urgent wrongs to be righted. Yet as the arguments swirl on interminably, so love must wait for ever, until rightness can be established. The Kingdom of God is on permanent pause.
Christians cannot end such conversation, but they can redeem it. Love is the surrender of control, in order to give life.
How do you enter into such a conversation with love? Here are my three tips for changing the quality of a conversation:
(1) speak with your own testimony. We may see in a glass darkly – objective vision beyond us – but to speak faithfully of who we are and what we experience gives a chance to clear our own vision and invite interest from others. We may fear baring our souls on social media, and it can be wise to share just a little. But fear is not a Christian virtue: hope is, and a little offering of oneself helps others give something to love.
(2) assume the best. Do you really think that person on the other side is trying to bring the church down? Sideline the Bible? Trash gay people’s lives? I doubt it. Of course, if you are right then their wrongness must come from either stupidity or wickedness, so it’s nearly impossible to be right and assume the best of others… you just might have to give up on that rightness for a little while.
(3) take risks. Once a ‘debate’ or an ‘argument’ has started, people even on opposing sides copy each other’s conduct. It’s like two blokes squaring up outside the pub. They may be facing opposite directions, but the finger poking, the shouting, the posturing will be highly mimetic. A change of tone, a quick joke, an apology, a question – there are many ways of making space, whether you find yourself in a scrap, or just watching as it unfolds.
These are just three ways. There are others, many others, when you bring your own talents to bear. There are no right ways to love because each way of loving calls on who God has made you, in the context of who God has made the others you find yourself with at that moment.
Love is action; faithful rather than right. Those who intervene in loving ways will be misunderstood sometimes – it’s risky stuff. But it grows. You learn from the failures as well as the successes. You learn to see others, and yourself, a little more clearly. And always you will be glad. Because the one who calls you to love will not abandon you.