Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Love, the Bible, and Other Things We Pretend are Easy to Understand

Back in the day, hanging on a wall just inside the doors on the way to the college post office at the school I attended, was a theological disagreement board. On it, students and faculty would post thoughtful and sometimes less thoughtful theological positions, but the exciting thing about the board is that responses were invited and encouraged. In a given week, if you were lucky, you could watch two or three really interesting discussions unfold, on day at a time, as red ink filled the margins of the original post or, if we were really lucky, someone channeled their inner Martin Luther and thumb-tacked amendments or official disputations to the end of the preceding post. 

The theology board had so much potential, but sadly most of it went unrealized. That is because the most common response scribbled in the margins was a three word kiss-of-death that would shame most posters into silence:

"That's not biblical."

(I know, I know. Four words, if you count the apostrophe.)

At an evangelical college, one of the worst things to be accused of was departure from scripture. For all we knew, the recipient of such an admonition might soon find herself on the slippery side of the slope that led to reading the notoriously liberal Karl Barth. I hope my intended sarcasm/humor comes across, but it was also our situation.

Even as an undergraduate student much intimidated by the theology board, I found the suggestion that one's theological opponents, because they did not read the Bible the way you did, did not read or value the Bible, absurd. Of course, there are violent and inaccurate ways to read/twist scripture. But it's also true that the Bible is not self-interpreting. Much is plain, much is not, and within its pages are myriad disagreements and tensions of scriptural interpretation. It is a heavy and cruel burden to be saddled with an outside directive to encounter the Bible and not find it wondrous, mysterious, and strange. Moreover, such a directive wreaks of misused power dynamics and the desire to intimidate, limit, bully, and/or control another person's faithful imagination, which might have become a gift even to the one so directing. So the directive usually comes from those heavily weighted by fear.

I share the story of the theology board and the assumption that my understanding of the Bible is the understanding of the Bible, and should be obvious to everyone, because I have noticed a tendency to apply the same dynamic to the exhortation to love one another. Before I go on, let me say clearly that I believe in the exhortation to love one another! What makes me nervous, however, is the frequent assumption that what it is to love in a given situation is everywhere obvious. In such a moment, love is presented as the one thing we can all agree to do. But agreeing to love has never been my problem with love. 

Some days I want to love, but I don't know what to love well would look like. It's the lesson of ally-ship, for a white, straight, cisgender, male, that pretending to know how to love apart from vulnerable relationship and difficult conversations and similarly difficult feedback is but another way of insulating myself from discomfort while reinforcing the status quo. It's the impotence we feel when we enter the hospital room with a dear friend who is dying. It's a compassionate reading of the foolish things Job's friends say to Job, which we sometimes mock, even as we thank God we weren't put in their shoes. To borrow from a Sam Wells sermon I can no longer locate, quoting the 80s band Foreigner, some days 

I wanna know what love is.

Dismissing other details while appealing to the obvious baseline of love is little different from appealing to one's own "biblical" reading of scripture, with all of its attending dynamics of power and coercion. Both love and sacred texts are not always easy to know. Both are regularly wondrous, mysterious, and strange. Both, I would argue, are projects enhanced by, and which require, the company of holy friends, for surely if, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have shown us, we cannot know ourselves by ourselves, we cannot by ourselves learn to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such a community of holy friends, if they were Christian, would remember Jesus' commandment to love as Christ has loved us, that challenging transformation of the Golden Rule, and so turn to the scriptures in the expectation of being shown more and more about the nature of the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus, most chiefly on the cross. Such a turning and expectation, with much prayer, might protect us from claiming as love that which is merely sentimentality. 

But all in its time. To begin, I would be much relieved to find consensus in the modest contention that there are times and situations in which what it is to love is not obvious. I imagine a circle of friends, meeting semi-regularly, each bringing to the circle one occasion in their life for which love's expression is not clear. Each would speak and be received in turn. The ones who receive would have previously foresworn offering solutions or "should." Instead, they would be invited to offer images of scripture which the Spirit calls to mind, or verses from hymns of the community, or wisdom of the saints. No debates or formal conversation, just offerings until they're done, received as gifts to pick up or put down, but locating the difficulty in the resources of faith, of which the circle, the gathered Body of Christ, is not least. 

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