I’m super grateful to my friend, the Anonymous Agnostic, for their guest post yesterday about how we don’t need God in order to love one another. Here’s some thoughts from the other side of the fence.
Love is a strange sentiment. It doesn’t help that in English we only really have three words which mean “love” – “love”, “charity” and “compassion”, and often only use “love” anyway. Different cultures in different times have slightly different concepts of different kinds of love.
What I believe is being referred to throughout my friend’s thoughts yesterday is primarily “compassion”. What we have to ask ourselves is where that compassion/love comes from.
I am in no doubt that to use God as reasoning for love leads to a false kind of compassion. This is duty-bound guilt-fuelled religion at its very worst. Yet it is a step, in my view too far, to say that we can love without God.
John the Evangelist writes, “Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
I think that one of the greatest travesties of modern Christianity is the insistence on an external God with whom we have a personal relationship. Now, when I say external I don’t mean that this God necessarily resides entirely beyond us (though this is frequently the perception), but that even the in-dwelling Holy Spirit is perceived to be “other” to us. There is a line drawn between “us” and “it”. This line causes us to see God as a thing. Yet here are with John explaining to us that God is love.
I submit that we absolutely need God in order to love because God is love. God is not the object observing our love for one another, God is the love itself. God is the experience of love. God is that moment when all seems right because of a moment of affection, romance, friendship or unconditional compassion.
John continues, “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect”.
Of course one could simply follow all of this up with the criticism that this is all very well and good, but it is simply a wooly, religious redefining of “love” to suit my needs. Perhaps that is indeed the case. But perhaps God is the model from which we understand love. We know what love looks like because God demonstrated unconditional love to us when he showed us through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I don’t think it is about the source of compulsion being unnecessary, more that it is perhaps inevitable. It’s good to learn from others. We learn love from those around us, and from God.
This leads us on to the next criticism – that of inspiration and origins. The idea that in order to lead good, moral, loving lives we don’t actually need to have God as the origin. As I have just said, I don’t see it so much as a need than as a reality. In my experience, God is love.
I think that the outworking of these virtues is rooted in the fact that “we love because God has first loved us”. Our inbuilt moral compass is actually something that Paul talks about in Romans 1 when he says that God is self evident in the reality of creation.
It is important to acknowledge that the Christian world has indeed claimed a monopoly on many of the positive virtues it promotes. This is indeed wrong. That said, one such value is equality – a value on which most of the western world is now hooked and one on which the church has failed, miserably, to continue since its institutionalisation under Constantine. Equality comes from Jesus’ teachings of how we must treat one another, and Paul’s insistence that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. We’re all in the same boat.
We all need love.
Where do we fin that love? Do we find it in ourselves? If so, where does that desire come from? Is it an evolutionary trait? Is it simply a chemical transaction?
I think it is telling that even the most radical philosopher/theologians such as Peter Rollins can declare themselves to be “a/theists” or can try to rip open the very fabric of the Christian faith and happily affirm the triumph of science over superstition. Yet when pushed, Rollins says that there’s something mystical about love.
I think it’s something other-ly. Something divine. Something supernatural.
All of our origins are in religion. Yes, perhaps we have moved beyond that now. Perhaps there is no God and we can simply discover that love is an essential part of the human condition, a part of how we function well.
But I just don’t like that reality very much.
What I’m really trying to say is that I don’t understand why we need to remove God from the equation. I think that this is where things really get interesting.
IF God is indeed love itself, then that God is worth existing. A God who is loving, affirming, caring and kind is a God that anybody would comfortable believing exists (even if they would choose not to for various reasons). It seems to me that the chief objection that has been voiced is not really against “God” (as I see him) at all, but against “god”. That is, the god who invokes the flood, the god who invokes genocide, the god who murders his own son, the god who hates gays, the god whom the rich worship whilst the poor starve, the god who demands and requires and sucks the fun and the life out of everything.
But I don’t believe in that god, either.
I’ll come clean. That bastardised scripture in the last post was something I said, stolen from Mr Rollins. In Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor gentile, Christian nor non-Christian.
Of course, Jew nor Gentile is the same as the addition on the end (for those of you who are screaming at me for misquoting, yes, I know it’s an addition!). But it’s there to emphasise the point.
In Christ the boundaries of the world, the fences we put up around our own fallen gardens, are broken down. In Christ we can know love and love can know us.
Without God, we don’t know love.
But that’s not to say that those who don’t know “God” don’t know God. I think it’s really important to make that distinction, too. I don’t believe Christians are the only ones who recognise God when they see him – even if God may have other names, or be to some more of a concept, to others more of a feeling. Who am I to judge. After all, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile.
As far as reliance on scripture goes, of course it’s a bad idea to love because we’re told to! My least favourite phrase I hear in some Christian circles today is “love them on purpose”. What the actual f*** is that? Seriously. That’s beyond awful. Don’t love someone on purpose. Have your heart broken and love them just because you do.
That said, scripture contains stories about the love of God and the relationship between humankind and God, and thus God’s love for us. Surely such inspiration is valuable and useful. Perhaps, as my friend implies, this is all a simple get-out-clause from a bygone era where the invocation of divine backing would give my argument high credence. But I don’t think this is the case at all. I think it’s perfectly clear that the crusades were never an act of love, and that the life of Mother Theresa quite clearly was. I think we can all agree on that one! So perhaps our in-built morality actually helps us to read and understand scripture well, allowing us to weed out the crap we’ve been spoon fed and understand the good bits.
I’ve been on the verge of leaving Christianity, too. I’ve become totally fed up with it. To be honest, I have become totally fed up with God in recent weeks and months. But I know that the world is bigger than just me. There are countless stores of lives inspired and changed by love. These stories often invoke God. So there must be something there worth pursuing.
I’ve stuck around precisely because I want to live a life of love, precisely because I value the moral compass that Jesus gives me. Just as I’ll probably say this about myself sometime in the near future, I don’t think you, Anonymous Agnostic, are as far from God as you might think you are.