Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Valentine's Day, Thoughts of Love

A happy Valentine’s day to all. A day to think of love—and what love means. So we’ve begun the day listening to the West Coast Mennonite Chamber Choir sing Gerhard Tersteegen’s beautiful German pietistic hymn “Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe." Who, listening to those swooping, reverent verses can be unmoved by the call to immerse oneself completely in the waters of divine love?

And yet, who can ignore the ways in which this piety of self-abnegation before the Father God through Jesus may have fed the obediential impulse of an entire nation in the Nazi period? Every form of piety has historical roots, and shares the limitations of the period in which it arises. We ignore that historical context at our peril; when we treat a particular expression of devotion—whether the Latin liturgy or the rosary or Marian piety—as transhistorical and remove it from its historical context, we allow that historical expression a power it ought not to have.

We permit it to claim some kind of divine status in what is, after all, historically produced and historically conditioned. We turn it, in other words, into an idol. We allow it to lure us away from our obligation, as believers, to move towards the future, rather than to let the past captivate us.

It is easier to cling to what has been handed down to us, as if the legacy we have received is perfect, than to build for the future. It is also easier to be told what to do from on high, rather than to pray, think for ourselves, and question. It is far easier to tip our hats to the sanctity of conscience than to engage in conscientious deliberation. It is certainly easier to talk about love and listen to hymns about love than to engage in love.

Which is why the Christian tradition has, built into its foundations, an always present critique of any rhetoric about love that is not expressed in practical compassion. Love demonstrates that it is love by moving us to reach beyond ourselves, to give ourselves in practical ways to others, to the building of a more humane society in our particular place and particular time.

Where is love, among those who talk about God as love and about love as the primary obligation of believers? How do we know that we have met authentic divine love among those who measure and judge—and often deny and outlaw—the love of others, on the basis of historically conditioned ideological norms they have elevated to the level of divine revelation?

We know we have met love when we see it in action. Love builds, while hate tears down. Love clothes the naked, welcomes the stranger, feeds the hungry, visits those in prison, and sits at table with the outcast. When the church lives that message by behaving that way, it convinces us that its message of universal divine love is real and compelling. When the church fails to live that way, it accomplishes the opposite.

And it is the duty of believers to note the discrepancy—if we care about the church, its message, and the proclamation of that message in our own time and place, that is . . . .