Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Love Got to Do With It?

The book club at my church just reviewed the book "Evolving in Monkey Town" by Rachel Held Evans. Several of you have read and recommended the book and I see why. It was a nice change of pace from the more technical reading I've been doing. Evans is a gifted story teller who brings honesty, levity and poignancy to the discussion of doubting one's faith. If I had the nerve to be more open about my doubts with my family, I think I'd start by recommending this book to them. It mirrors both my very conservative background as well as my unraveling belief system. She manages to maintain her Christianity, but holds her beliefs with greater tentativeness. She has attempted to let go of "false fundamentals" and maintains that Christianity basically boils down to love.

I have to say, I can accept "Love others" as the primary principle to live by. I think that's a principle one can live by without ever hearing the name of Jesus. In fact, strictly adhering to the doctrines of a Christian denomination sometimes leads one to behave in very unloving ways. It doesn't have to be that way, of course. I am blessed to know many loving Christian folks whose religious beliefs lead them to treat others with a great deal of care. However, this all leads me to ask a couple of questions:

1. If we say that it's really all about love, then can't we dispense with Christianity, maybe like Unitarian Universalists, who elevate love as their primary value without connecting it to Christianity?

2. Is it fair to accept Jesus' teaching on loving others while dispensing with much of his Sermon on the Mount? I ask, because many people do. If you read it, you will find many references to hell, destruction, and judgement (Matt 5:22, 5:30, 7:13, 7:23). In fact, we are told that only a few find the road that leads to life. Jesus preaches love, but he also preaches judgement and condemnation. He also preaches against divorce, which many who approve of his teaching on love may reject. He also made it clear in Matt 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. In fact, He says they won't disappear until heaven and earth disappear. Those who practice the commandments of the Law will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was an observant Jew who taught that others following Jewish Law would be in the kingdom of heaven. This is certainly not how I was taught to interpret Matt 5, but it doesn't appear that Jesus meant for his followers to stop following Jewish Law.


  1. Upon deconverting, I found it easier to love others. I might consider it odd, but for the number of other deconverts who shared similar results.

    I can accept the humanity of humans. Including the ability—even the propensity—to make mistakes. It isn’t something “bad” needing to be rooted out; something against an all-moral God’s original plan. It isn’t something the divine moral-maker is clutching his head and beating his breast over, damning less-deserving souls to eternal torment.

    It is being human. This doesn’t remove the responsibility, nor does it render morals obsolete—not at all! What it does do is make it something I can accept in others (recognizing my own ability to violate my own moral code), and work with them to either improve, or modify their moral code as necessary.

    I would take it a step further. Not only does one not need Jesus to love others…Jesus can be quite a hindrance. Just like you pointed out.

  2. Lots of things I could say here.

    1. The gospels don't give us an undiluted Jesus. Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience and tends to Emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and his teachings. He's the only gospel author to throw this qualification about not abolishing the Law into the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' teachings. As such...I don't think that we can confidently say that Jesus felt this way about the law.....because he sure as heck does a lot of other things in other gospels that directly contradict this saying.

    2. I think that it is hard to live out "loving" others without some sort of shape to our understanding about what it means to love others. We need some guidance or boundaries to sort of set us on our in that way....I think Christianity can be quite useful.

    It gives us a notion of forgiveness of others and not hating our enemies and trying to serve others.

    Those are general themes. That's not to say that other religions or philosophies can't teach the same concepts of love.

  3. DagoodS,
    I haven't really heard many deconverts talk about this subject. However, your experience does make sense to me. It sounds like deconverting took the need/desire to judge others out of your relationships.


    1. I was too lazy to notice that Matthew is the only one with this quote. Now, I know Jesus reinterprets Jewish Law, but, what indicates to you that he, in fact, meant for followers to stop following it? I was wondering about this very point even as I was making it, so I'd be interested in what you're thinking.

    2. I was actually wondering if anyone would bring up the need in this discussion to define the concept of love or to operationalize it. You come close by saying we need help knowing what it means to love others. I do agree that people can mean a great many things when they say they are showing love to others. Does it mean feeding our family, withholding revenge to enemies, scaring children with messages of hell so that their souls are saved from torment, sacrificing children to show devotion to God, committing genocide to keep God's people from the impurity of sinful nations? That being said, it sounds like you are arguing that retaining Christianity is useful for contextualizing love, but not that it is the only way to do so. I had mentioned the UU church, which places love in a humanistic framework. And this does make a difference. Some behaviors deemed loving by a humanist, might be deemed immoral by a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim.

  4. Hi,

    On point #2, I think it's important to look at Acts 15:6-21 in regard to the Jewish law. Jews in that time (and even today, actually) did not teach that a person needed to convert to Judaism in order to please God. According to the Jewish law at least as I understand it, there are 613 laws that are binding on the Jewish people; but Gentiles, if they were to live lives pleasing to God were only responsible for seven(also known as the "Noahide laws" from the instructions given to Noah after the flood). In the passage in Acts they were trying to figure out, as a Jewish sect, whether Gentiles who wanted to be part of it needed to convert to Judaism first. So, I think the case can be made that Jews who believed in Jesus would be required to keep up the 613 laws, but Gentiles who believed would not be required to keep the whole law of the Torah. As a Jewish man I tend to think Jesus would have been on board with this- but who knows. I realize what I'm saying here may be a bit "heretical"....

    Regarding point #1... The more difficult of the 2 in my mind... I don't know. I think we can ask questions of the Scripture and use a little logic in attempting to apply it. I think part of this process involves putting the words of the Bible in historical context to determine what is applicable. Genocide is not OK, I don't care who you are. The questions aren't easy- I know this calls into question the "inerrancy" of the Bible (also heretical here) but if we look at it as a human book (maybe inspired in some ways as people tried to figure out how to explain the universe) it may be possible to tease out the good and to say we've developed as a species beyond the need to scare people with the bad.

  5. IsToo,
    I was hoping you'd weigh in on the question pertaining to Jewish Law. I was not aware of the Noahide laws. I'll have to look up these 7. I couldn't actually find 7 in the Noah account (maybe 4) and those where somewhat different from the laws imposed on the Gentiles in Acts 15. Though Jesus focuses on Jews, he does interact with non-Jews.

    LIke you, I think about the concept of hell being simply part of the development of religion in human history. That being said, what do you do about Jesus talking about hell so much? Do you deny that he actually said those words? Was it part of his humanity that he simply taught what he had been raised to believe and God didn't straighten him out in private talks? If you accept the divinity of Jesus, then you've got to come to terms with those sermons of His in some way. This is what I wonder about.
    I like all the heretical points that you make, btw. :)

  6. DoOrDoNot,

    I know you addressed IsToo...but I wanted to throw something out there. I did several posts about hell and the concept of annihilation a couple of years ago...that's actually what set me on the path to become the liberal?, agnostic? uncertain? Christian that I am today.

    In brief...Jesus doesn't really talk about "hell" in the ay that we think of it. the KJV translates Gehenna as the word "hell"....most modern translations do not do this. So...Jesus refers to a place of destruction...a trash heap outside of Jerusalem. THe concept of eternal conscious torment is something that eventually developed over many years and the only real reference to it is in Revelation, an apocalyptic book using all sorts f figurative language.

    Now...I do think that Jesus talked about judgement. But, in my mind, that judgement is not eternal torment, but extinction, or annihilation.

    The Noahide laws are not actually spelled out in what we think of as Scripture. They were developed in Jewish thought and written down in the Talmud as an interpretation of parts of Genesis. They are not plainly derived from the Pentateuch but are the fruits of Jewish religious thinkers addressing the question of what God expected from Gentiles.

    AS to your reply to me.

    I don't know! ;-) I know that somehow we must, as a society decide what we think the highest good and highest love is. While I think "God is Love" ..or "Live in Love" are great concepts...I'm not sure how to completely integrate them into e complicated life. I think it's rather easy from an individual's perspective to Live Love towards their family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even enemies.

    The problem comes when we face serious evil.

    What is Love's response to evil? There is the route of forgiveness and not seeking revenge...which is fine for one-off occurrences and an individual's choice. But what about systematic evils? Or evil people who will continue to harm others with no remorse or desire to change.

    In choosing love...we have to prioritize and make decisions about the greater good that will not always seem loving to some people.

    Mind you...I have no answers...just more questions.

  7. Terri,
    When I wrote the post I thought about making the distinction between what Jesus was referencing versus what we often think as moderns about hell (the eternal torment). Maybe I should have. However, there is still the issue of judgement and punishment, even if we regard annihilation as more humane punishment than everlasting torment.

    I'd be interested in reading your posts, where can I find them on your blog?

    We certainly have question asking in common!

  8. Hi,

    I tried to post another comment yesterday, but apparently I clicked the wrong thing and it didn't post. :-(
    This link has the Noahide laws- Terri is right about them being the fruit of Jewish scholars; and thus not being explicit in the Noah story.

    I think that Terri's point is worth exploring. I tend to think there is more to this story that we don't know about. One issue I have is the idea of eternal torment is not part of Jewish tradition. The understanding I have of it, from things I've read, is that the afterlife in Jewish thought is more like a "stadium" type of arrangement- that those who were close to God in this life would be closer to him (closer to the front) also in the afterlife. This is one idea, among others.

    About Jesus' divinity, and what he knew when based on what he said; I don't know. Like I said, i tend to think there's somehow more to the story. I know for myself, in reading the Bible in the past I think I transposed what I knew it was supposed to say (based on what I had been taught) over what it might actually have been saying. I'm not sure how to bring that question to a conclusion at this point.

    Is it like "The Matrix" where "The answer is out there"?

  9. #1-I ponder this often. I wish I had more advice. The only thing I can say is that time has healed wounds, and I find it easier to attend church - we've still been attending the Anglican church that I complained about in my communion as a scarlet letter post, but incidentally, they have become very mellow about communion (perhaps the result of a comment by my husband to a pastor?). But the decreased despair has brought on a level of apathy - I plan on talking about this in a blog post. To make a long story short, I guess I would suggest to do what is best for your family and take your time making the decision. An ideal would be to find a place, whether in your current church or the UU church, where you can be honest. I am hoping to be able to be honest at my church, or else we will be looking for another church. This blog is still my only outlet. So I am still working this out too!

    #2-I've grown to like Polkinghorne's view of hell. I wonder if he expands his discussion in another book. Yes, it seems a bit heretical and unBiblical, but I probably could not remain in Christianity without espousing it. And I agree with Dagood that fundamentalism does not display much love, particularly to skeptics, agnostics and atheists. Like him, I've found it easier to love and not judge after abandoning just fundamentalism (I think the ill is more with fundamentalism than Christianity as a whole). When I was in my despairing stage of doubt, I used to feel horrible about sermons that put blame on non-Christians for not "repenting"...Christians can be the most judgmental to us doubters.

    How to love? I'm still working on that. I don't know how it happened, to have this increasing passion after shedding away so many notions of Christianity. But it has.