by Matthew Raley
My post two weeks ago on the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Prop 8 initiated parallel discussions, one with fellow evangelicals (reflected in last week’s post), the other with progressives.
My friend Dr. Ben Carson is a composer at U.C. Santa Cruz. He has been wondering what sort of conservative I am if I don’t think Christian morality should be legislated. Ben wrote, “What kind of conservative recognizes society as [an] inherently plural nation in which the state has no business re-institutionalizing religious rites? And wants Jesus’ teachings to be considered on a level playing field of alternatives? I think you might consider embracing your inner leftist.”
I replied that the legal expressions of Christian morality are breaking down because our culture no longer lives by Christian morality. I want the motive for Christian morality revived — namely, love. Ethics unmotivated by love have no integrity. Until Christ’s love drives us, rebuilding the legal forms of Christendom can only lead to hypocrisy.
Christianity aims at this transformation of the soul as the key to transforming all else in human life. When Christians are motivated once again by the infusion of love directly from Jesus Christ, I believe the integrity of Christian ethics will quickly produce the most attractive lifestyle on a playing field of alternatives. If Christians do not regain this Christ-infused motivation, they will lose the culture and their souls.
Such is the background for Ben’s further questions, which I thought were important and insightful.
How can I build a moral philosophy on love, a concept “that doesn’t have a clear definition, or a clear criterion that signals its absence or its presence?”
Ben elaborates that love is supposed to be the motivating force behind a wide range of social relationships, sexual and parental in particular. “But it’s so easily falsified, revoked, retooled, and manipulated in our language…what check do you have against its ephemeral nature? Couldn’t selfishness sometimes masquerade as love, and then motivate a ‘morality’ that is immoral? If our morality is guided by love, then how do you work with that vulnerability?”
My answer includes scripture references, which I hope will not be tedious but illustrative of a quite different mode of reasoning.
1. In the New Testament, love is not defined in the abstract, but is shown as personally embodied.
I think what Ben says about love is accurate: it is “easily falsified, revoked, retooled, and manipulated.” The more love is formulated in the abstract, the more vulnerable to manipulation it is.
The NT exhibits Jesus Christ as the embodiment of love in several ways. The Gospel narratives show him as love in action. Doctrinally, Christ is the security for reconciliation between God and sinners because he died to pay for sin. Ethically, his self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies is the ground for all moral decision-making (Philippians 2.1-18), and is the standard for love in marriage (Ephesians 5.22-33).
The most neglected way Christ is shown as the embodiment of love in the NT is his participation in unity with the Father (John 17).
So the NT answer to the question of how define love is to point to a man.
2. In the NT, love is generated only through interaction with Christ, who embodies it.
Christ’s resurrection and return are essential parts of the growth of love in the NT. Because he lives now, he is able to give us new life (Colossians 2.6-15) and to form himself in us (Colossians 3.1-17). Because he will return, our ability to love as he loves will be consummated (1 John 2.28-3.3).
Conversely, the NT explicitly and repeated denies that there is pure good apart from the love of Christ (e.g. Colossian 2.16-23).
So, not only is Christ the defining man of love, but is the sole source of it. There is no abstract teaching in the NT that can discipline a person’s mind-and-heart to conform to Christ’s example. There is only Christ’s personal energy.
3. In this moral philosophy, a church’s role is two-fold: call people to interact with Christ and nurture his love in community.
Practically speaking, I have never been successful at changing anyone’s behavior. I do not want to try anything so presumptuous. My role is to point to the love of Christ that a person has already experienced and help him or her proceed further with that love.
This kind of work can only occur in the context of deep trust and interaction. Law can’t even approach it.
In sum, a moral philosophy derived from the NT must be predicated on unbreakable bonds with each other in Christ’s love. NT love says, “My commitment to you is irrevocable because Christ’s commitment to me is irrevocable.”
Love in our society has become an easily-manipulated abstraction, in my view, because we flee belonging in favor of autonomy. We keep the exits from our relationships clear. Our society cannot have a vision of love without strong grounds for self-sacrifice, and I do not hear any such ground articulated by anyone, left or right.