Why are the best church sermons often lessons to help us unlearn previous church sermons? Why is the most compelling religious talk usually a refutation of previous religious talk?
Maybe we’ve all said way too much about God.
I’ve found that as I admit my doubts and open up to questions, I’m not as interested in hashing them out as I was interested in hashing out other people’s doubts and questions when I had all the answers.
As a very young child, I learned that God loved me. I was taught to love God and neighbor, and that “neighbor” was everybody everywhere. I learned “God is love” (1 John 4:16) as a Bible memory verse.
As I grew older, I was taught qualifications upon qualifications to help me unlearn this initial lesson. Yes, God loved me, so much so that he sent his son to die for me, and all I needed to do was to accept the free gift of that executed son. (Otherwise, in spite of God’s love, I would burn forever yet never die.)
I should love others, yes, but some people needed tough love – especially anyone different from me and my kind. Tough love doesn’t allow a sinner to wallow in their sin. Tough love is preferable to “sloppy agape” (testify, sisters and brothers, if you grew up with this phrase too!). And although the Bible says that God is love, songs like “All You Need is Love” or “What the World Needs Now is Love” were clearly examples of the liberal or communist or humanist agenda.
Grown-up theologians know that the simple “God is love, and we should love one another” religious teaching given to three-year-olds is a good way to teach toddlers not to hit one another, but hardly enough to base a religion (or a war, a political agenda, a bestseller, or any other money-making scheme) upon.
So naturally, much religion is about unlearning – or at least qualifying – the simple instruction to love.
Some religious people who have been schooled in unlearning love are then further challenged and moved when they encounter religious think-tanks who skillfully dismantle the love-unlearning paradigms of much religious thought.
In other words, when a religious leader says that it’s okay to love my neighbor as myself (even if my neighbor is gay or a Muslim), and whips out some fancy theological explanation for this countercultural idea, I call his or her ideas “progressive.”
I’m with John Lennon these days. Worn out on God-talk. Imagining a world where we all live in love and peace. I’m with Jesus too, because I think he also imagined and tried to live out the reality of a world like that.
Progressive religious people call this re-imagined world “the kingdom of God” or sometimes less-patriarchal renderings of the same idea. Okay. I just want to submit that God – aka Love – maybe is just as (or more?) interested in our working towards that new world order than in all the words we have to say about it.
*“I Don’t Wanna Talk About it Now” is a song from Emmylou Harris’s amazing album Red Dirt Girl. The song itself bears no connection to the content of this blog post, but the title is a perfect fit. And you should definitely check out the album.
Why, yes I did have an Emmylou Harris song in my head the entire time I was reading this. 🙂 You’re right, it’s a fantastic album.
The whole idea of love becomes a problem when most people make use of the common definition (i.e. the way it’s most commonly used in our culture), while a few others want to define it in a way that includes a god who condones infanticide and other atrocities. Though I didn’t run across the term “sloppy agape,” certainly the idea was/is there. For instance, someone I know called a woman a whore and a slut because she was making life choices that he disapproved of. He insisted his words were loving because he was trying to save her soul and “it was what she needed to hear” (that last quote comes from his religious advisor). My vehement protest was proof that I “can’t stomach Christianity” (his words).
Well, it’s true that a god who would order a woman to marry her rapist probably wouldn’t flinch at the use of those particular words. So when you wrap your definition of love around that kind of god, the term becomes useless. Love could be anything. This is one of the reasons why Christianity is difficult for me to swallow–you can use the Bible to justify almost any behavior (Westboro Baptist Church ain’t just making this stuff up, you know).
So, is there a place for “tough love”? How does a Christian lovingly respond when someone is making harmful choices (or choices perceived as harmful)? Does the end justify the means?
(Funny, I just realized that the people I know who hate the idea of situational ethics are the ones who seem to believe that any hurtful or forceful means is justified if they think it will save a soul. That’s today’s RDA of irony.)
Thanks for your comment, Jodi. “[Y]ou can use the Bible to justify almost any behavior . . .” – so true. That’s sort-of what I was thinking about when I wrote this post. You can find Bible verses that say God is love, and you can find other Bible verses that say God punishes children for their parents’ sins, or gets angry at a king who doesn’t “utterly destroy” every living thing in the nation he conquers (1 Samuel 15).
In my personal experience, the name-calling man you mention above would have fit right in to my religious environment. And yet, in that same religious environment, the ideas that people felt were most important to teach young children were love, sharing, kindness, and the like. It was important to couch these ideas in religious terms and back them up with Bible verses, but my point is that somehow, when people talk to small children about what’s important in life, across religious and cultural perspectives, love and peaceful living are consistently taught.
Not at Westboro Baptist Church, I’ll grant. (I saw a disturbing documentary where tiny people who had barely learned to talk were already parroting hateful phrases. Link here – http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-most-hated-family-in-america/.) Or in too many other similar-type churches/faith communities/etc. around the world. But I would suggest that these places stand out to us precisely because they so radically depart from teaching a basic ethic of love and peace.
You wrote, “So, is there a place for “tough love”? How does a Christian lovingly respond when someone is making harmful choices (or choices perceived as harmful)? Does the end justify the means?” I think love is the same whatever one’s religious views, and I think the best religious/spiritual/philosophical instruction will help people to learn and practice love in every situation. “Tough love,” I think, is usually a cop-out to not do the hard and painful work of loving people we’d rather just punish.
I resonated with Kate Braestrup’s comment in a recent OnBeing podcast. I’m paraphrasing (maybe too loosely) but it was something like this: Christianity has gotten it wrong in focusing on life (i.e. immortality) instead of love as the ultimate meaning of our human experience. Link here – http://www.onbeing.org/program/presence-wild/144
You always give me something to think about, Julia! After reading your comment, I spent a good part of the day trying to remember how much love, kindness, etc. were stressed in my religious upbringing. It’s always hard to judge things like this in hindsight, but I don’t remember there being any special emphasis. What stands out most in my memories is that obedience was the highest valued virtue.
I know I painted with a pretty broad brush when I threw Westboro Baptist Church into the discussion. But every Christian I know picks and chooses which parts of the Bible (or tradition, in some denominations) that they will stress and which they will ignore. What’s to say that WBC is choosing the wrong parts? In some ways the comparison is obvious hyperbole, but by asking the question I think I’m essentially proving your point: most of us seem to know instinctively that love and peace are the bedrock of “good” religion, even if we don’t live that way.
Braestrup’s quote resonated with me. Thanks for sharing it; I look forward to listening to the podcast.
This morning I ran across a poem that I saved awhile back, and it reminded me of this conversation. Linda Pastan wrote it. She also wrote “Why are your poems so dark?” which I think you shared with me? (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/31132) I have to thank you for that, because she’s become one of my favorites. This one’s called “In the Garden”:
I tell my dog to sit
and he sits
and I give him
I tell him to come
and he comes
and I give him
I tell my dog Lie Down!
and he sits,
at me with trust and adoration.
I give him a biscuit.
This is the beginning
of love and
I was never meant
to be a God.
Thanks for this, Jodi!
“Yes, God loved me, so much so that he sent his son to die for me, and all I needed to do was to accept the free gift of that executed son.”
Love how your sentence slices at the end. Put me in mind of the atheist zinger that according to Christian doctrine, “God sent himself to sacrifice himself to save us from himself.” Sometimes, when feeling all achy for the old certainties, I just state various orthodox christian doctrines explicitly, (well, I usually make these statements in my head), stuff about virgins having god-man babies, people rising from the dead, the (ahem, baptist intellectual hat now in place) “hypostatic union,” etc. It all just melts into some puddle of muddy, non-potable water.
While the doctrine is ridiculous to me, and while I often consider many adherents utterly ridiculous and stupid, (check out this site from time to time to keep tabs on what the religious right is doing: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/ ), I cannot deny Christianity…I’m not talking about any ideas of it being literally true, or even, as C.S. Lewis called it, the “true myth,” but instead as a massive and unlikely human system of thought that developed over centuries and created a framework from which human-beings sought to understand their place in the cosmos,,,really, to understand themselves. Christianity has done horrible things: the crusades of course, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the execution of my hero Giordano Bruno, the presidency of George W. Bush…but from Christianity has come things like Flannery O’Connor, (a women with whom I occasionally lose arguments to), or John Donne, a great devotional and erotic poet, (a man that truly loved a naked woman), to what I think is the greatest work in the English language, Milton’s Paradise Lost. You know, Julia, reading any of these and so many others that worked out their genius withing the Christian paradigm, I never find myself awed by the god invoked or the religion practiced. Instead, my reverence is for human accomplishment, human striving, human genius.
You spoke of love in your post. In Paradise Lost, when Adam and Eve walk out of the garden, “hand in hand” upon their “solitary way,” I have completely forgot about God and Satan, sin and death-all those things simply fade as two human beings, “our parents,” says Milton, make their way together, in love, hope, and sorrow into the wide world. For me, God is the stuff of boring bible commentary. The great works available to us are all about, finally, human beings.
Great post, great thinking, if my response doesn’t seem exactly on topic, just know that what you write often pulls me out of my routine and keeps my wonderings and enthusiasms fresh.
Thank you, Nnox. Lovely ponderings here. “Human flourishing” is an idea – and an aim of life – that’s become really significant to me, and I agree that the best work – by people of any or no religion – inspires in that direction.