A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

The State of New Testament Studies: eschatology

This arrived in the post yesterday.

Publication date is 05 November 2019.

Delighted and humbled to be part of such a project with such an array of scholars.

The book is a fantastic ‘go to’ resource to familarise yourself with pretty well any topic within contemporary New Testament studies.

My chapter surveys developments in the study of New Testament eschatology and how, over the last century or so, eschatology has (rightly) moved from the margins to the centre of New Testament theology.

Key figures discussed along the way include Johannes Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, C. H. Dodd, Werner Georg Kummel, Oscar Cullmann, Jurgen Moltmann, Norman Perrin, Margus Borg, N. T. Wright, Brant Pitre, Timo Eskola, James D. G. Dunn, J. Richard Middleton and Richard Bauckham.

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘eschatology’?

Perhaps it evokes some sort of end-times scheme. Or perhaps it raises questions likeWhat happens when I die?’; ‘What is heaven?’; ‘What about judgement?’ ‘What does it mean to have a resurrection body?’ ‘What will the new creation be like?’

While these are certaintly important and pastoral eschatological questions, they tend to relegate eschatology to the future rather than of relevance to the here and now.

Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to eschatology. My argument is that there is no area of Christian theology that is more relevant to Christian living in the present.

So the focus of the chapter is broader, looking at how, as Jurgen Moltmann famously said ‘Christianity is eschatology’. Here’s a snippet.

Particularly post-Moltmann, and reinforced by Bauckham, the renaissance of eschatology is characterised by a recognition that it represents the spine of early Christian faith, giving the rest of the skeleton support, shape and ability to function. Without it, the entire body collapses. Such eschatology is intrinsically particular; right across the New Testament it is relentlessly Christological, focused on the person, resurrection and enthronement of Jesus. (249-50)

What is an Anabaptist view of Brexit? (3) problems with the world-centred view

Problems with the World-Centred View

In the last post we left off with John Nugent’s description of a ‘world-centred’ approach to Christian action and witness. It should sound familiar – it encompasses people like N T Wright (Surprised by Hope) and Richard Middleton (A New Heaven and a New Earth).

Jesus has inaugurated a new creation in which God’s people are called to participate as image bearers, acting to bring God’s future world into this present one wherever and whenever possible (Nugent, p. 13). We cannot redeem the world, but our action in the present will point to and be ‘folded into God’s ultimate global redemption.’ (p. 13).

And the church itself is to be a foretaste of that new creation.

This all sounds good and right does it not? What’s not to like?

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have unhesitatingly affirmed this world-centred framework. It avoids the undue optimism of the human-centred view (that humans can transform the world along the lines of God’s kingdom) or the anti-worldly and often dualistic theology of a heaven-centred theology.

However, researching and writing The Message of Love reinforced something that I had felt but not fully worked out – that there is remarkably little in the Bible about God’s people loving the world. And there is next to nothing about God’s people being called to transform the world.

But there is an overwhelming emphasis on the people of God living up to their calling to be a community of love and justice in the world.

It is this unique ecclesiological calling that tends to be blurred within the world-centred view. I use the word ‘blurred’ deliberately, because ‘loss of focus’ describes well what is going on.

The specific task and calling of the church to be the church is subtly widened to include making the world a place that better aligns with the kingdom of God. This happens when biblical commands aimed at the people of God are misinterpreted to become general endorsements to transform the world.

Nugent gives some examples:

  • OT prophetic denouncements of Israelite social injustices such as the rich exploiting the poor (Amos) is broadened into a mandate to denounce and fight against all injustices everywhere.
  • Mary’s Magnificat celebrating God’s rejection of the proud and powerful and choice of a humble peasant girl becomes an endorsement for political action to liberate the marginalised and oppressed in general.
  • Jesus’ and James’ teaching about caring for the poor within the kingdom community shifts to become a basis for political action to end global poverty (and we could add in Paul’s command to ‘remember the poor’ in Galatians 2:10 here).

Many more could be given but you see the pattern: the mission of the church, and Christians within it, becomes heavily invested in political activism. ‘Kingdom-work’ gets broadened to include all sorts of activity that loosely connects to themes of justice or social improvement.

Focus is lost on how, in both the OT and the NT, attention is on the integrity and communal life of the people of God. In the NT, it is the Spirit-formed body of Christ that is now being renewed and which represents God’s new-creation in the world.

Nugent puts it this way;

“… the world centered approach risks putting the cart before the horse. Even though the New Testament presumes and proclaims God’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of all things, it gives primacy to the new thing that has already begun among God’s people. What Christ has begun to do in the church is the core of what will be folded into his ultimate renovation of all things. The order of priority is first Christ, then his renewed people, and finally the redemption of our bodies and then of non-human creation.” (p. 18)

His conclusion is that

“God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns.” (p.20)

Quite radical implications follow

If political and social activism to make the world a better place becomes primary, then Nugent argues that this oversteps the church’s mission, eclipses part of the gospel and leads to neglect of believers’ true calling.

This challenges disciples to ask where are our energies, time and resources focused? Are they detached from the church into community and political activism?

Are all our energies and time and money invested in seeking to make the world a better place – whether in political lobbying, environmental protection, business development, social justice activism and so on?

Do we see ‘kingdom-work’ being engaged in any activity that is somehow making the world a better place?

And, returning to Brexit, are our emotions, worries, time and energies focused on the political drama unfolding in Westminster? If they are – what does this say about where we see real powers in the world at work? Are we obsessed with Brexit because we believe that human political power is where things are really at?

Rather than understanding that the future of the world lies elsewhere and that the nations are but a drop in the bucket to the one true God (Isaiah 40:15)

Again, this is not a call for pietistic retreat. It is not a heaven-centred ‘washing of hands’ concerning desperate needs within this broken world and a dualistic desire to ‘get out of here’.

What a kingdom-centred approach to life within the world is where we will go in the next post(s).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (5)

Chapter 4 of Mark Clavier’s book is on Augustine’s Rhetoric of Delight

Clavier explores Augustine’s eloquent God – by that he means it is God’s power alone which has the power to transform and liberate. We need liberation because knowledge of the good is not enough – there is an (humanly) unbridgeable gap between what we know we should do and what we do.

That gap is caused by the fact that we are not merely rational beings – which is why, Clavier says, Paul in Romans 7 talks about failure to do the good in terms of desire.

Clavier takes Romans 7 to be autobiographical – Paul talking of his struggle with sin. This is debateable but the point is that Romans 7 spoke powerfully to Augustine. Not only did it describe his own inner moral conflict captured in the Confessions, it

… gave him a way of explaining theologically how sinners escape bondage to sin and achieve salvation. The answer is delight: the heart must delight in righteousness before it can choose it. However, this isn’t just any delight. It is a divine delight that originates in God, is woven into creation, and enters the human heart through the reception of the Holy Spirit … to be saved is to be drawn to God not by tyrannical force but by the persuasive force of God’s eloquence: the Holy Spirit. Augustine famously claimed “Love God and do as you want” (HEJ 7.8 ) For Augustine to be free we must be swept up into God’s love, experienced as a ‘victorious delight’ that frees our wills not only to know righteousness but to desire it as well. (64)

Again, Augustine’s own experience is significant here – he talked of his former life as a rhetician and master of logic as being ‘puffed up with knowledge.’ The trap – or irony – that Augustine came to see was how pursuing higher wisdom leads to pride.

The revolution in his thinking was to see that it is only God’s eloquence, God’s delight, God’s love that can set people free. Clavier puts it this way

God doesn’t require people to ascend to him because in his humble love he came down to them in order to raise them up. Human weakness is no longer the barrier to salvation, but the means for it. Christians gain wisdom through the humility of Christ – indeed Christ the Word is the wisdom of God. (66)

But how is this divine wisdom received? How do people have their hearts transformed so that they desire true delight – which is God himself?

The answer for Augustine is the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit through whom God’s love is poured into believers’ hearts (Rom. 5:5 – an important verse for Augustine, appearing over 200 times in his writings). Clavier quotes Augustine’s Morals of the Catholic Church (1.17.32),

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, this love leads us to the Son, that is, to the wisdom of God through him the Father himself is known. If wisdom or truth is not desired with all the powers of the soul, it shall not be found at all, but if it is sought after as it deserves to be, it cannot withhold itself nor hide from those who love it … It is love that asks, love that seeks, love that knocks, love that discloses, and love, too, which abides in that which has been disclosed (74)

So the Christian life is NOT a matter of choice – of the head – the arena of Christian discipleship, ethics and virtue is the heart – it is what we delight in, what we love, that will dictate how we live. Clavier summarises it this way

Augustine give experiential depth to the Pauline theology of bondage to sin and death. By locating the key moment with delight rather than choice, he shifted the emphasis from the mind to the heart, thereby explaining why embracing virtue and shunning sin is so hard. In order to be saved, people must be inflamed with a desire to love God, and that only happens if they are first overwhelmed with by the presence of God experienced as delight, which is none other than the Holy Spirit. (81)  

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

How Important is Love? (3) Just ‘the only thing that counts’

Gal 5 vs 6Galatians 5:6 is a crucial verse when it comes to the relationship between faith and love.

NIV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’

ESV ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’

NRSV  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’

The Greek can be rendered more literally, ‘faith working love’ – the sense being that faith and love are integrally connected, almost like one tangible ‘thing’.

We may put it like this, for Paul, for someone to be a Christian (in Christ) is to be living a life of ‘faith working love’. Or, differently, the very purpose of being a Christian is ‘faith working love’. Without love that faith counts for nothing.

There is no such thing as Christian faith that does not work in love.

This takes us straight to 1 Corinthians 13 where the Apostle makes this point even more bluntly and with greater rhetorical effect – without love, whatever someone does for Jesus, however impressive, powerful or sacrificial, is completely and utterly worthless.

If so, how should this impact the priorities of church life? Of personal discipleship? Of training programmes, preaching and theological education generally?

Note how this is different to the ‘love alone’ theology of the previous post.

Christian love has a specific form – it is umbilically linked to faith. That faith in turn has a specific focus – Jesus Christ.

This means that there is a sharp contrast between Christian love and popular contemporary understandings of love.

In contrast to ‘love alone’ theology, Christian love:

  • Is interpreted and understood from within the narrative of the Bible
  • It has a specific content – the self-giving love of God in Christ
  • Nothing is easy or soft about Christian love – it involves spiritual transformation of desires through walking by the Spirit.
  • It is not concerned primarily about the self, it involves self-sacrifice for the good of others.
  • It is communal through and through – lived out in all the messiness of relationship with others within the community of the church and overflowing into the world.
  • Ethically, ‘love alone’ does not justify and legitimise what is moral and good. Christian love means obedience (‘If you love me you will obey my commands’).
  • Nor is Christian love itself divine, only God is. Love itself does not give our lives ultimate meaning – being children of the God who is love does.

Paul’s emphasis on love does not hang on a couple of extraordinary texts. Love pervades his theology and his letters – God’s love for us, our response of love for God, and – most of all – exhortations and commands for the people of God to love one another.

Nor is Paul out of sync with the rest of the New Testament. While John is the theologian of love par excellence, the priority of love is everywhere. We’ll have a look at some texts in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

How Important is Love? (2): ‘Love Alone’ theology

aliandninoThis is a second of a series on the importance of love in Christian theology and contemporary culture.

In the last post we talked about the relegation of love within the theological priorities of post-Reformational traditions where love comes in a very definite second to faith.

In this post we’ll look at the opposite trend: how in (some) contemporary Christianity love is celebrated and extolled, prioritised and spoken about in terms that elevate it to such a degree that it becomes a goal in itself.

By this I mean that love takes on a sentimental and even mystical nature, that when experienced you have reached a higher spiritual existence.

Love itself becomes divine – the ground of our being.

This links back to a post on how, in contemporary culture, we have shifted from John’s famous statement, ‘God is love’ to ‘Love is God’. Where love itself is idolised and revered as that alone which gives life meaning.

As the fab 4 sang, ‘All you need is love’.

This is all quite subtle and hard to pin down, after all, you have to be a miserable old curmudgeon to be anti-love don’t you?

‘Love Alone’ theology

Here are some symptoms of what I call ‘Love Alone’ theology

1. Love is spoken and sung about in ways that it is detached from the narrative of the Bible. Love becomes what we want it to be. Yet, in contrast, Christian love has a particular character – it is shaped by God’s self-giving love in Christ. It calls for a wholehearted response of obedience to God. It requires humility and repentance. It depends on God’s grace. It entails deep cost to the self.

2. The ‘content’ of love is assumed – the assumption being ‘sure we all know what love is don’t we?’. That content tends to be sentimentalised – love is warm, inclusive, feel-good, fulfilling. It is that which meets our deepest needs.

3. The difficulty of love is downplayed  – it is assumed that love is automatic and easy. Little or nothing is said about our own distorted loves and sinful desires.

4. The cost of love is ignored – love is that which brings happiness and joy, not that which often involves pain and sacrifice.

5. The focus of love tends to be individualistic – faith in God is what gives ‘me’ an experience of God’s love that brings me comfort and hope.

6. Love trumps all – if something is loving, the presence of love trumps all.  So, for example, a couple in love who want a baby to love pay a woman to rent her womb. Love trumps any ethical concerns over surrogacy. The outcome (love) justifies the means.

Comments, as ever, welcome.