“IIn this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10)
Love is at the very center of the Christian religion. We hear it said that, “God is love,” but what does that mean? One would think that such a prominent virtue could be simply understood. But there are challenges, for as soon as we begin to speak about love, we are confronted by two ditches into which we are prone to fall if we are not careful, but through which Saint John paves a way. The ditch on the one side is moralism, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality, and the way through is the cross.
“Beloved, let us love one another,” writes John. “Whoever does not love does not know God,” he continues. “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And again, “if we love one another, God lives in us.” The temptation here is to place the accent on us. Let uslove one another. If welove one another. This is precisely where moralism is waiting at the door.
I would submit to you that many western Christians suffer from an unruly case, often undiagnosed, of Pelagianism: the belief that human nature is not tainted by original sin and that the human will is therefore capable of choosing good apart from God’s grace. God sent his Son into the world and upon his arrival he looked around and said, “This is quite good, actually.” All that’s left is for us to be nicer to one another and make the world a better place.
That’s what I mean by moralism. We hear Saint John say, “let us love one another,” and we assume that whatever John means by “love” comes naturally to us and that, in fact, we have a pretty decent handle on it already. In other words, we assume that we are basically good people and that what the gospel amounts to is good advice to help us be a better version of ourselves.
Related to this, the ditch on the other side is sentimentality, by which I mean the fact that we rely on our often-shallow feelings as a guide to discerning goodness and truth, often at the expense of reason or God’s revelation. Morality and ethics are grounded in our emotions. In other words, if a thing elicits positive feelings within us then it must be good and/or true.
For example, a few years ago I attended a workshop for Anglicans. At one point in our conversation we were sharing our images of God: how we understand who God is and what he is like. As people chimed in I was struck by one thing in particular: a lack of appeal to Scripture. People were happy to suggest that we can come to know God as we embrace our grandchildren or take a walk by the lake. No one seemed to think, however, that it was important to begin with the Bible—God’s own self-revelation—if we’re going to talk about God.
We hear Saint John say something like, “God is love,” and we assume that God’s love is like whatever our experience of love is. Or, worse yet, we might believe that whatever our experience of love is, is God. That is what I mean by sentimentality — when it comes to a truthful knowledge of God, things like Scripture, reason, and tradition take a back seat to my own feelings and experience.
Stanley Hauerwas, never one for mincing words, once said that the greatest enemy of the Christian religion is not atheism but sentimentality: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” Part of his, no doubt overstated, point here is that bad liturgy leads to bad ethics. Liturgy matters. The hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the sermons we preach, the language we use, the reverence with which we come to Holy Communion, it all matters. You wouldn’t want to end up murdering your best friend, would you?
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” As I said, we hear a passage like this from Saint John and we are prone to both sentimentality and moralism. Sentimentality because we think we know what love is from our own experience and moralism because we think loving one another comes naturally to us and that we’re already off to a good start.
Both of these ditches lead to our peril. But Saint John makes a way through for us and that way is the Cross of Jesus Christ. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
If we want to understand what Christian love is, we must begin not by talking about ourselves but by talking about the God who loves and whose love looks like Jesus Christ and him crucified for the remission of our sins. And as we enter more fully into the mystery of the cross, the twin threats of sentimentality and moralism are kept at bay. Sentimentality because we discover that divine love is not some general principle or abstract idea the knowledge of which we arrive at based on our own experience but is actually and concretely Jesus Christ and him crucified. And moralism because in the mystery of the cross we discover that it was precisely our poverty of love, our refusal to love, that put Christ there.
In other words, the cross is not a pep talk designed to make us feel good about ourselves before we go out and make the world a better place. Rather, the cross is both the revelation that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and also the unfathomable love of God that is made known to us in Jesus Christ, who has intervened for us unto salvation.
So, let’s talk about love, yes. Better yet, let’s love one another. But let’s be specific: let’s speak about the cross that produces love in us as we eat of its fruit. Bad liturgy leads to bad ethics, but good liturgy leads to good ethics because good liturgy helps us to enter more fully into the mystery of God’s love made known in the passion of Jesus Christ. Keep the cross in view, always. Your best friend will thank you.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is the Incumbent of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.