Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
-Jesus of Nazareth (Matt. 22:37–39, KJV)
All you need is love, all you need is love,
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
-The Beatles (“All You Need Is Love”) 1
Were John, Paul, George, and Ringo, 1900 years after Jesus of Nazareth, reiterating His message to a new generation? Is this similarity evidence that the same basic message underlies all world religions and worldviews? That after we strip away all the external, all the ceremonial, all the legal, all the theological and metaphysical considerations, every religion pursues the same basic values, usually including “love”?
That all religions are basically the same is an idea held both by the man on the street and in the halls of academia. Consider what Paul Tillich wrote:
In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, a point at which it breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions as the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.2
Eavesdrop on an ecumenical gathering or an international peace talk, and you’ll hear the participants competing for the most-flowery-love-peace-mutual-respect-talk award. In the end, it all sounds very much alike. But even if it could be shown that every world religion includes a basic imperative to love, are they somehow more alike to each other for it? Hardly. The idea that the closer one approaches the center of a religion, the more general and universal it becomes, is undiluted hogwash, the antithesis of the truth. The closer one approaches the center of a religion, the more particular and specific it becomes.
So what about the particulars of love in Christianity? What does Christianity say about love that other world religions simply cannot say? Would John, Paul, George, and Ringo, still sing the same song if the Bible defined “love”?
First, in Christianity, the triune Godhead is the ground, source, and epitome of all true love. God is love (1 John 4:8). (The converse is not true.) This is not simply a god or a god-quality permeating the universe (which, when God is viewed that way, does begin to sound like the converse, “Love is god”). The God who is love is Jehovah God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of Jesus Christ, who was sent in love into the world—into history—that we may have life by His death. From the flow of 1 John 4, we learn that no one may truly love without having been born of God, but all those who are born of God must love, both their invisible God and their visible brethren. They experience the love of God through their personal relationship to the God who loves and by loving as He loves. In short, “We love because He first loved us” (4:19, ESV).
God holds the patent to love. Everything else is a cheap imitation. God is characterized by true love and describes Himself by the word “love.” When other religions lay claim to the word “love,” they parallel the supermarket generics that package their products to resemble the leading brands. The word “love” is just a package. Where did the stuff inside come from? That’s the important consideration.
Second, in Christianity, God is the supreme object of love. We return to what Jesus says in Matthew 22:37; the first great commandment is to love God. Again, this is not just a god or a god-quality, but Jehovah God. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6. In that passage, the command to love God supremely follows the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (6:4, KJV). The God of the Bible is a holy, jealous God who insists on His own unique excellence and praiseworthiness, for it is He who has made us, He who has redeemed us (Ex. 20:1–6; Deut. 6:10–15; Ps. 100). He is a sovereign God who sees, loves, hates, judges, and discriminates between good and evil (Gen. 16:13; Deut. 7:7–11; Ps. 11:4–7; Heb. 4:13). He is both personal (i.e., aware, intelligent, willful, emotional) and infinite (i.e., omni-xyz); He alone can say “I AM” with a period. If you think of Him as infinite without personality, He becomes a vague, blind force. While a blind force may govern the world, it governs mechanically and is outside the sphere of moral criticism, either to criticize us or for us to criticize Him. If you think of Him as personal without infinitude, (1) He is no longer responsible for every happenstance of nature, and (2) He is easily thought of being subject to the same independent standards of behavior as we are. But if He is both infinite and personal, then He is very much aware of what He is doing, is very deliberate about doing it, answers to no independent standard of behavior, and exercises full prerogatives to judge us according to His standards. This God who is love reserves the right to flood the world, annihilate nations, set up and take down rulers, give life and take it, show mercy on whom He will show mercy, and even make use of eternal punishment.
The natural man’s response to the true God is not love. Man in sin is inclined to hide from God, which God makes difficult just by being who He is. Augustine remarks,
For whither fled they, when they fled from Thy presence? or where dost not Thou find them? But they fled, that they might not see Thee seeing them, and, blinded, might stumble against Thee (because Thou forsakest nothing Thou hast made); that the unjust, I say, might stumble upon Thee, and justly be hurt; withdrawing themselves from thy gentleness, and stumbling at Thy uprightness, and falling upon their own ruggedness. Ignorant, in truth, that Thou art every where, Whom no place encompasseth! and Thou alone art near, even to those that remove far from Thee.3
Natural man is inclined to stint God of His due glory and replace God with ridiculous but safer idols. A lot of people will tell you they love God, but when it comes time to describe Him, I doubt He’d recognize the description. And if they were to hear God described as He truly is, they’d probably say something like, “No, I wouldn’t love that God,” thereby validating Romans 1–3.
Those who say that going to the heart of a religion reveals its similarity to all religions must either assume that God is not really out there or that He has not revealed Himself adequately or that He is not a jealous God who will regard supreme affections toward anything else as enmity toward Himself. The God of Deuteronomy does not agree with Paul Tillich. He is there; He has spoken; He is jealous; He will judge. Does that sound rather exclusivist? Good. Point made.
Finally, Christianity forbids us to answer the question, “What is the loving thing to do?” without referencing God’s law, His revealed will. Returning to Jesus’ precepts to love God and neighbor, we must remember that Jesus doesn’t stop there. He elaborates on His statement: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40, KJV). The Apostle Paul, discussing the practicalities of living Christianly with one’s neighbors, echoes Jesus: “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). In Christianity, the Decalogue, along with every moral precept of Scripture, instantiates true love.4
Of course, one can lovelessly keep the law. The hypothetical situation in 1 Corinthians 13 describes someone giving his body to be burned and giving up all his worldly possessions but still lacking love. Gritting your teeth as you do good to others is not love. Love cultivates a true delight in the glory of God and the good of others. But a general, aimless feeling of benevolence isn’t going to cut it either. “I want the best for everyone.” Great. What does the best look like? This is what I recently labored to show a lady from a liberal denomination. She seemed to think that she could end the ethical discussion with the basic imperative to “love,” but when it came down to it, what she meant by “love” was unconditional acceptance of others. She had no way to justify this definition outside her own common sense. On the face of it, her definition of love is a passive, ineffectual definition. It doesn’t guide me to actually help other people. Shall I just unconditionally accept the poor of Omaha, the recovering alcoholics, the AIDS victims in Africa, the Katrina victims in New Orleans, my non-Christian friends upon whom the wrath of God still abides (John 3:36)? Right—“be warmed and filled.” I am to delight in other people’s good, but the harsh fact is that most people are not in a good way, especially as touching their relationship to God. Loving people involves being sensitive to problems, correctly identifying them, and working (by the grace of God) to mend them.
Such a host of problems! We desperately need a reliable, comprehensive ethic to guide us when people are starving, when people are dying of AIDS, when a grandmother is on life support, when a serial rapist/murderer is on trial, when Saddam Hussein is on trial, when there is a boundary line dispute among neighbors, when a spouse cheats on a spouse, when a nation invades a nation, when a corporation falls into the red, when a family member is dealing with an unruly and rebellious child, and on and on and on. Sure, we can summarize all the right responses as “Love God and your neighbor,” but a summary does not overwrite the specific right responses. It only, well, summarizes. Linguists tell us that words take their meaning from usage and context. A word as big as “love” needs a big context. The law of God provides that big context.5 General, uniformly spherical emanations of beneficence are impossible because experience repeatedly compels us to sort out conflicting interests and prioritize among competing goals. Often some party is unhappy with our choice in these matters. But Jesus assumed that our true love would at times offend, so much so that He described genuine devotion to Himself as hatred for our families (Luke 14:26). Small wonder, then, that Christians acting in love are sometimes accused of hatred.
Accusations in the name of love against people who act in the name of love. If there were no God who speaks, such accusations and counter-accusations would be a farce of semantics. But Christianity presents a God who has revealed Himself in Scripture, a God who is love, a God who can and must be loved by us, and a God who has described at length how love works in daily affairs. While the ubiquitous word “love” creates the illusion of similarity, the question of what love really is becomes a potential point of apologetic confrontation. Loving confrontation, of course.
2 Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter with World Religions. Quoted by Martin Marty, “Religio-Secular Society,” in The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), 219. Marty’s “essay” is a republished interview and did not include specific bibliographic information from Tillich’s work.
3 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Edward B. Pusey (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999), available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confess.vi.ii.html?highlight=seeing,them#highlight.
4 Augustine fleshed out the four classic virtues—temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom—in terms of love for God. He wrote in On the Morals of the Catholic Church, “As to virtue leading us to a happy life, I hold virtue to be nothing else than perfect love of God. For the fourfold division of virtue I regard as taken from four forms of love. For these four virtues (would that all felt their influence in their minds as they have their names in their mouths!), I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it. The object of this love is not anything, but only God, the chief good, the highest wisdom, the perfect harmony. So we may express the definition thus: that temperance is love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God; fortitude is love bearing everything readily for the sake of God; justice is love serving God only, and therefore ruling well all else, as subject to man; prudence is love making a right distinction between what helps it towards God and what might hinder it” (Trans. Richard Stothert, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff [New York: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890]), available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf104.iv.iv.xvii.html.
5 Richard Rorty describes discussions of these issues in terms of a “final vocabulary.” Note his contrast of the “ubiquitous” with the “parochial.” He notes that it’s not the ubiquitous, but the parochial terms, that convey the needed meaning. He writes, “All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts, and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person’s ‘final vocabulary’….A small part of final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as ‘trust,’ ‘good,’ ‘right,’ and ‘beautiful.’ The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, ‘Christ, ‘England,’ ‘professional standards,’ ‘decency,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘the Revolution,’ ‘the Church,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘rigorous,’ ‘creative.’ The more parochial terms do most of the work.” In “Ironists and Metaphysicians,” in The Truth About the Truth: De-Confusing and Re-Constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), 100–1. Reprinted from Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).