I’ve been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred during World War II. In Chapter 1, I came across a statement comparing Christian love (agape) to human love (eros), and it immediately turned me off. It was not the contrast between the two concepts that turned me off, but that the statement was phrased as an absolute. I haven’t found the exact sentence again, but it was something along the lines of human love always leads to emptiness, while Christian love always feeds us. This may be true, and after reflection, I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable with the statement as my very visceral initial reaction was. But I was surprised by the strength of that first reaction.
I’ve noticed that a hallmark of maturity seems to be the ability to live in the tension of non-absolutes, of the grey areas, of mystery. Life is so easy when there is a black-or-white answer to everything, but there are so many questions and problems and opportunities that don’t have a simple, clear-cut answer. As a culture that values science, rational thinking, logic, and rules of evidence, we can reject the richness mystery and nuance and mythology and miracle in favor of the simplicity and clarity of yes/no, black/white, true/false. Very few people are really for abortion, just as very few people are categorically opposed to ending any pregnancy ever. Rather, most of us are somewhere in that grey, fuzzy middle, and we may not be sure where exactly our boundaries are. Unfortunately, arguments in the public sphere can degrade into this I’m-right-you’re-wrong way of thinking, which deprives us of the richness of that middle ground and degrades everyone’s perspective.
Those privileged enough to receive higher-quality education as children and more education as adults view this as a more mature way of thinking, as well. If one immediately answers yes or no to a question, then clearly one hasn’t really thought the issue out. Skepticism — defined as honest questioning and not accepting a hypothesis until being satisfied by its proof — is highly valued, and any absolute statement is viewed as suspect, set up as a target to be shot down. A religious group that is seen as offering absolute statements is immediately rejected for relying on fairy tales and fantasies, which are necessary only for those who are not mature enough to engage in a more relative way of thinking.
I’ve continued to mull this over, to let it roll around in my mind and heart, after reading that statement. I’ve arrived at a theory that this sense of absolutism — whether factual or merely perceived — causes reactions similar to mine, among those who reject Christianity. It is very easy for Christians to say things with this same degree of absolutism, and these messages are all over the place:
- If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you aren’t saved.
- If you aren’t baptized by full immersion, you won’t get into heaven.
- God hates fags.
- If you don’t _____ like the rest of us, then you aren’t really a Christian.
- Goodness only comes from God; humans are not capable of being good on their own.
- Thou shalt not _____.
- You’re only sick because you don’t trully believe in God’s healing.
- Do you really think that outfit is appropriate for church?
The message doesn’t even have to be in words. It’s a message of absolutism when you see an entire church full of people of one race or one social class.
I’m not saying that all of these messages are wrong or even that they’re all bad. We need to be aware of them, to recognize what they’re saying to those who see us or hear us. There’s a quotation apocryphally attributed to St. Francis of Asisi (or sometimes to St. Dominic de Guzmán) that tells us to preach the gospel always; when necessary, use words. What gospel are we preaching when the messages we give are messages of absolutism and exclusion?
I will freely admit that tolerance can become an idol, as can any value or concept that we pursue to the exclusion of God. And I certainly don’t want to get into debate as to whether Christians can or should accept other faiths as equally valid. What I do know is that Jesus talked about other sheep who are not part of this sheepfold, and that he commanded us to love your neighbor and even to love your enemies. Jesus charged us to extend Christian love to everyone, and he went further to define Christian love as love that not only cares for others but that takes care of them as well. From our great historical tradition, we find this love defined through the corporal works of mercy, which parallel the instructions Jesus gave us for living out Christian love.
I also question the idea that only professed Christians can be good people, can be moral people, can be ethical people, can be loving people, can be lawful people. I find this idea repugnant, so much so that I believe it to be repugnant to God as well. All people are God’s children, and all people are part of the body of Christ. Jesus tells us that we must believe in him, but he also tells us that we must love God, that we must love each other, that we must love our enemies, that we must feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and give shelter to the homeless. Who among us, here in this world, can set priorities among these commandments? Who among us can say, “Well, you have four out of five, so you should be okay to get into Heaven”? Quite honestly, we can’t. If we try, then we’re taking God’s job. Again, the long tradition of Christianity has given us the baptism of desire, by which God’s children can be accepted into God’s kingdom without having been physically baptized with water.
I am coming to believe that there is only one being in the universe who is capable of delivering a truly absolute statement, and that this being is God. All of us here on earth have a limited view, a small scope, a tiny perspective on all that is. Only God has the wide view; only God has the perspective that encompasses millennia and light-years and billions of souls. Even the Church — the visible body of Christ on earth — is not capable of holding this perspective.
So what does that mean for evangelism? This question interests me because I feel a deep pull toward those who are angry or hostile toward the Church, those who have been hurt or damaged by the church. These men and women and boys and girls tug at my heart and my mind, and I want to help them find healing and union again… or maybe for the first time. I, too, have been angry at the Church, and angry with God as a result. I, too, have walked apart from the Church because I felt hurt, because I felt that there was no place for someone like me within it. And I know God positively aches to draw these special children close to God, to hold them and hug them and show them that all is well and that all will be well and that they will always be cherished and treasured. I don’t know how this will work out in me just yet, and it may be the work of a lifetime.
Meanwhile, I’m going to attend carefully to messages of absolutism in my life, those that I experience as well as those that I give. Where do they come from? Who is saying them? What motivates these messages? Are the messages really true? Are they really godly? Are they a defense against something that is threatening? Are the messages harmful? I don’t know where this path is going to lead me. I’ll have to let you know.
UPDATE: Apparently, I’m not the only one who is turned off by absolutism.