An Obscure Calculus of Love
Presented for your consideration: a scenario that may ring true with your experience.
Upon encountering a fellow human being, it is best to:
Summarize all of the information that we possess about them, calculate the measure of God’s love for them, and then dole out a portion of love to them that we believe is consistent with our calculations.
With all of the shrewdness of an official spokesperson who dares not offend the boss, and with a keen awareness of dire consequences for “aiding and abetting” those who may be out of favor, we measure out a just and prudent quantity and quality of interaction.
Never done it?
Never seen it?
With all of the grace of a mid-nineteenth century capitalist, and with the carefree abandon of the most frugal of Yankees, we revel in a parsimonious love.
There are two parts to this scenario. Which is the most lamentable? That we attempt to measure the love of God? Or that we dispense love covetously, with a fearful eye on a covetous God?
It is not that we need be mindless about love.
There is thought to be given; there are reflections to be made.
Priorities, yes: the leavening factors of our prior and outstanding commitments; the true facts of our limited, albeit often underestimated, resources.
But whence cometh this nickel and diming?
Some may say that it began with the disciples, those early arbiters of all things Christian.
Depending upon your particular beliefs, you may hold that they were thrust into this position, or that they assumed this position, or that they were called by God to this position, or that they were called by others to this position, or that they appointed themselves to this position or that they did not really hold this position, except in the minds of people of later times.
Some may say that the disciples did not write everything that has been ascribed to them.
In any event, their reputed proclamations on all things Christian are of keystone importance to traditional Christianity.
Consider their place of prominence in sacred writings, where they have been sandwiched in between the Gospels of Jesus Christ and the Book of Revelation.
Which is no enviable position, for it requires the reader to move through the mental and spiritual gymnastics of one who is compelled to read a moral primer that is sandwiched between Homer and Dante.
Personally speaking, I find the experience of reading the Gospels and the Epistles in one breath akin to following a Charles Dickens masterpiece with a Victorian tract on morality.
Same period. Same culture. Same language.
But…quite a speed bump.
For the Epistles are overwhelmingly freighted with principles.
Principles that provide detailed responses to a vast array of social contingencies.
Principles that would govern everything from admission to the Christian assembly to codes of conduct and vocations within the assembly to the treatment of others within and beyond the assembly.
It is as though the incarnation itself had somehow failed to completely “flesh out” the words of God.
And, as if to acquire some distinctive patina of authenticity, these principles are couched in a language of admonishment, judgment, measurement and calculation that rivals the Old Testament prophets.
Those who would ease us over this rugged transition may remind us that, in the early Christian community, some sense of coherency and order had to be maintained.
If only to protect us from the excesses of those orgiastic Gentile converts.
Stern admonitions are required in order to shield us from such licentiousness.
Better that we follow the Puritan example, and feed ourselves on dry resolutions.
Which require, by their nature, the exercise of calculation.
We argue endlessly over the validity and meaning of any one of these principles.
Understandably so, for it may be impossible to reconcile all of these proclamations with each other or to reconcile all of them with the words of Jesus.
In most traditional denominations, we have resigned this task to those who have made an extensive study of the subject.
We have resigned this task to those who have engaged in such scholarship that they have been deemed competent to deal with any apparent contradictions.
And so we have created a new generation of scribes, official spokespersons, who are entrusted with the task of unraveling the true meaning of that new generation of prophets.
A bothersome notion, perhaps, for those who follow in the steps of one who came against the scribes of his own time.
A bothersome notion, perhaps, for those who follow in the steps of one who seemed to speak out against the need for scribes.
Would that we had opened our ears.
For our endless arguments over the validity and meaning of many of these principles has splintered us into hundreds of Christian factions.
Based on various interpretations of various passages in the Epistles, we differ on a host of issues ranging from the “proper” role of women to the path to salvation.
Based on various interpretations of various passages in the Epistles, we can advocate forcefully for inclusion or exclusion.
Based on various interpretations of various passages in the Epistles, we can deem ourselves competent to undertake these judgments through pure calculation.
Which will, of course, “flesh out” those details that Jesus somehow failed to provide.
Yet, arguing over the validity and meaning of any one of these principles may be less important than pondering the nature of the staggering leap from the words of Jesus to the words of the disciples.
It is a staggering leap from the mind of Jesus to the minds of the disciples.
It involves a shrinking of perspective and a reduction of vision.
It involves entering the world of middle-management.
A world where performance is measured in concrete terms.
It is like the workaday world.
In the workaday world, considerable calculation is given to the rewarding of favors, whether those favors be bestowed in a look, a smile, a nod, an invitation to dialogue or the grace of a renewed contract.
In the workaday world, considerable calculation is given, as well, to the withholding of such favors.
So, too, in the weekend world of our contemporary church.
With solid reason.
It is based on an ancient tradition.
It is not the result of mere caprice on the part of our ushers, pastors or church councils.
For the great vision of the Old Testament and the Gospels, the pungent imagery of bounty, fecundity, beauty and fruitfulness are redacted in the Epistles to the measurement of short-term behavioral objectives.
The vision is reduced to a formula.
At such times, the history of our tradition reminds me of the history of art.
A vision generates a thing of beauty, then others rush in to unravel the mysteries.
Blessed be the Aeschylus who is contemplated by an Aristotle or a George Steiner.
For an Aristotle or a Steiner have a suggestive effect that can inspire insight and generate vision.
Less fortunate, they who are contemplated by more concrete-bound commentators.
For these commentators will rush in to provide rulebooks that guarantee accurate imitations of the original.
Not in breadth of vision, but in visible detail.
Paint by numbers; write by formula…
In short, cookbooks.
Like would-be cordon bleu chefs, who would promise the artistic or spiritual equivalent of a culinary delight in only thirty minutes, these commentators far outnumber the insightful few who promise no easy recipe, but offer suggestive insight.
And these cookbook authors are motivated by…what? Blind obedience to their subject? Intellectual curiosity about how art works? A quest for artistic certainty? A pure love for their subject?
Yet the end result is a diminution of their subject, a reduction of the artist’s vision into a formula.
So the history of theatre is littered with the debris of ten-thousand failed attempts to imitate the genius of Shakespeare.
Better simply to let the poet speak and be inspired by his grasp.
Young artists need discipline, indeed.
Not the discipline to copy or borrow or cobble on to themselves what belongs to those who commented on their role-model.
But to go for that which those commentators tried to capture.
I believe that Jesus was more than an artist or a visionary.
Yet our treatment of him has resembled our treatment of artists.
For blind obedience or intellectual curiosity or a quest for moral certainty or a love of God will lead us to try to devolve his statement of love into a series of calculated principles.
But that is not the last word.
The last word is love.
At the end of all things, it is the only vocation that we have, the only meaning that we have, the only message that we have, the only attraction that we have.
In it’s simplicity, the primacy of love leaves us free to realize our own purpose, without recourse to copying or borrowing or cobbling on to our lives what belongs to the lives of other commentators.
It leaves us free, as various sisters and brothers might say, to “realize our own calling”, to “realize our own vocation”, to “find out what God has in store for us” or, in the words of the prophet, to realize those words of eternal renewal:
“Look! I am making something new!”
For those of us who are called to evangelization, it might be helpful to remember that love will always be the one thing that stymies and therefore attracts the attention of the world.
By it’s nature, it will always make others wonder:
Why would they do such a thing?
For gratuitous love has no tangible rewards.
It seems irrational.
For it is not the product of calculation.
A worthier tool of witness, perhaps, than the endless moralizing, proclamation of principle and exhortation to conformity with standards that bespeak an impoverished and reduced vision.
A worthier tool of witness, perhaps, than those tools that have bred so much cynicism in the world that the world itself has been tempted to shut down on us.
Dare we stop short of gratuitous love?
If we do so dare, then we should consider the price.
To wind up far short of realizing the meaning our own unique lives…
To wind up far short of the example that is set by people beyond Christianity who give without thinking…
To wind up far short of the example that is set by people beyond Christianity who give without recourse to principle…
To wind up far short of all those who give naturally, “without benefit of clergy”…
To wind up like that?
For pride of mind?
I post new articles twice-monthly in “Author’s Corner”.
If you live in or near the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and you would be interested in meeting with others for discussion and/or prayer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. All are welcome, regardless of identity or personal choices. Please understand that I do not have the resources to guarantee that I will be able to read or respond to all other correspondence.
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Rob Wright holds advanced degrees in education and performing arts, and he has been a professional teacher for over sixteen years. In his home denomination, he has served as a lay minister in liturgical, educational and ecumenical activities. He lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire with his spouse of twenty years and their daughter.