Last week, I started musing a bit on how we might achieve theological health. Riffing off the following from Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, I suggested that our starting point might be asking the question, “How do we best love God?”:
…theology that produces bad behavior loses its claim to be giving faithful stage direction to the Christian drama.
Today the question is, how do we do theology in such a way as to build in, from the get-go, the result that we become a people who love our neighbors as ourselves?
First, let me say a word about “neighbors.” I assume here that neighbors are the people who live next door to us, whom we work with, whose kids play on our kids’ soccer teams, whose daughters dance ballet with mine. Neighbor is not someone who does, or ideally should, agree with my theology. Neighbor is, as often as not, the religious and theological “other,” the “outsider” to our theology discussions.
As I was putting together my thoughts on healthy theology, my friend Sean Palmer tweeted this:
How do we formulate our theology, our understanding of the gospel, such that “neighbor whom I love” rather than “sinner whose sin I hate” is, in fact, the dominant mental model with which I engage the people around me?
Standards of Love
There are two verses that lay out the posture with which we need to be developing our theology as we think about our neighbors:
- “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18; Mark 12:31, etc)
- “Do to others what you would have done to you.” (Matthew 7:12)
These two commands summon us to some hard mental work. They require of us to put ourselves in the position of the neighbor and ask, truly, what would I want them to do to me if the shoe was on the other foot? How do I want them to think about me? How do I want them to view me with respect to God? How do I want them to treat me in light of their theology? How do I want them to view me as a member of the same community in which we are all trying to build happy and rewarding lives?
Where this gets tricky is when we get so stuck in the rightness of our own system that we can’t imagine standing outside of it. We might be tempted to say, “If I were erring the way that they are erring, I would want someone to tell me! I would want someone to grab me and force me back onto the right path—for my own good!”
But do you?
Imagine that the person doing the theologizing is Muslim, with a strict view of diet and dress. Do you want them to compel you to cover from head to toe? To compel your daughter to do so? Do you want them to have all pork products removed from the grocery store so that you won’t offend the Deity?
This is a clearer guide for us, Christians, when we think about what neighbor love looks like, than running through scenarios where we are trying to influence people to be Christians. It shows us how we want to be “done unto” by the person who is religiously different, and therefore provides a roadmap for how we should treat others who are religiously different.
Knowing Love When They See It
I know that those two verses are important for thinking through a theology that produces the life of love we’re hoping for. But there’s one more that I think has the power to cut through a lot of our self-deception. It’s this from the Sermon on the Mount:
Let your light so shine before people that they will see your good deed and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
Do you see what Jesus did there?
He put the judgment of our works, as the people of God, into the hands of the outsiders.
It’s we who are to shine, and the people of the world who are to see the light and recognize it as such.
Let me put a finer point on it: If someone has to agree with your theological system in order to agree that what you are doing is “love,” then you are not loving your neighbor as yourself.
People know love when they see it. And they will glorify God for it.
But first, it must truly be light.