“Theology is ok for some people, but for me, I think it’s a lot better just to love people, you know?”
At least, that’s what a growing chunk of evangelicals are saying. But does it hold up? Does it actually work? Does it even make any sense?
This sentiment gets part of it right, at least. The Church is supposed to love people as Christ loves people. That is, we are supposed to desire the good of others and to act for that good, even when that requires sacrifice. To love, in the Christian sense, is to be selflessly committed to the capital-G “Good” of the beloved (which, for the Christian, is everyone).
So far, so good. But here’s where it gets tricky: that desire and commitment for the good of the beloved is actually fairly useless without a corresponding knowledge of both the beloved and the Good. Because while it might be fairly easy to affect happiness in the beloved, Good is often a lot trickier.
This is easiest to see in areas like parenting, where working towards the Good of your children is often uncomfortable and even counter-intuitive. Making your children happy, without caring for any other consequences, is easy: working towards their actual Good is difficult. That’s why it’s possible for parents to genuinely love their children, to genuinely desire their Good, yet spoil them rotten. Some parents believe that the best way to achieve the Good of the child is to make them happy, to give them whatever they want, to appease them at all costs. This kind of “love” takes the form of limitless candy, unending indulgence, and an utter lack of discipline: a course of action sure to produce a happy child. Unfortunately, that child will also likely be insufferable, malnourished, and utterly unprepared for the larger world. In this case, genuinely loving actions on the part of the parents actually work against the Good of the child, due to a lack of knowledge regarding both children and their Good.
Even actions motivated by true, unselfish love can have disastrous consequences, if not based on true knowledge. Love alone is insufficient, because working towards the Good of the beloved requires a real knowledge both of the beloved and the Good. And this especially applies to the Church’s relationship to people.
We are to love people, as Christ loved us. On this the Bible is very clear, and on this, at least, all of the varied claimants to the title of Christians can agree. “God so loved the world,” John 3:16 tells us, and one of Jesus’ last commands to the disciples before his death is “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” That is, indeed, the mark of the Christian, and 1 John emphasizes that God himself is love, and that loving is the mark of a true Christian.
And, to a certain extent, we can love well thanks to common grace and general revelation, gifts given by God to all people. Paul tells us in Romans that the Law, intended to guide humanity towards God, is written on the hearts of men. To some extent, we know what is Good for people. We know that parents should feed and protect their children, we know that some things are good and some things are bad. As far as this knowledge takes us, we can love rightly, we can know what is Good and act towards it.
Again: so far, so good.
Unfortunately, that knowledge of the Good is fundamentally broken and insufficient. Whatever true knowledge we retain, we have lost much more, and we’re even worse off when it comes to acting on it. Jeremiah 17 states our situation clearly: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick: Who can understand it?” It is actively deceitful, pushing us towards what we know is evil; it is also constantly sick, an utterly insufficient guide. If you rely solely on your heart to make decisions, you’re gonna have a bad time. You might be acting out of love, but you will not be acting for the Good of your beloved.
So where do we get this knowledge? Where are we to find this knowledge of humanity, if our heart is so deceitful? Who will tell us how to love, if we are so desperately sick? For the Church, there is only one answer: God. The one who knows what we are for, because he is the one who made us that way to begin with. True knowledge of humanity, and humanity’s Good, can only come from true knowledge of God and what he created us for.
And unfortunately for some denominations, it does not work backwards: you cannot look to your own heart and try to find God with that, because you will only end up with an even larger lie, consumed by an even more desperate sickness. We cannot make God in our own image, for our image is already disfigured. Nor can we look to our own selves for the good of humanity, because we are fundamentally broken, barely even human ourselves.
We are left with only one solution: theology. What we as people are, what we were created for, how we best pursue our Good and the Good of others…the ultimate guide to all of that must be God, and God alone.
So no, blog writers and internet commenters that so irritate me, you cannot leave the theology and “just get on with the business of love.” You cannot learn to love well without theology. If you want to love people well, to genuinely work towards their Good, you cannot afford to leave the theology behind. It is theology that tells us about God, and in turn tells us about people. The two go hand-in-hand.
One last thing: I do understand where this desire to step away from theology comes from. There’s also a problem at the opposite end of the spectrum, where people have theology that is technically correct, but do not use it to love well (or worse still, use faulty theology as a weapon to harm people). But throwing out theology entirely (or separating it from our day-to-day lives) cannot be the solution.