All my friends are protestant, but I converted to Catholicism. This of course leads to occasional spats which they end by saying, “Do you love Jesus? That’s all that matters.”
Which I usually acknowledge with mumbles since I don’t really like debating them anyway.
Today though, contemplating a recent Christianity Today article on the juvenalization of church, and wondering what exactly spiritual maturity is, I suddenly realized that while I don’t know the answer to any of the questions that have been nagging me today, I do know why I always mumble in agreement to that platitude: it isn’t true.
This is kind of a tricky situation, because loving God is obviously important. But I don’t know if it the most important thing–which sounds strange to say. It comes down largely to what we mean by love, and what we emphasize in our journey.
We live in America, home of individualism. And what we emphasize is increasingly our individual feelings. It is as if we took the process of discernment, and eliminated all other factors except how we feel about it. We are told to follow our hearts, but not every emotion rises from our breasts just as not every emotion is noble. Emotion is in fact the most fickle of the factors in discernment: even when we head the right way we don’t always feel that way. Yet this sense of feeling is pervasive in Christianity; when my friends talk about spiritual difficulties and successes they always talk in terms of feelings, they really felt something during worship, the sermon didn’t really leave them touch them. The whole language of modern Christianity is based on feeling; everything from a “personal relationship with Christ” to being “born again” to “reaching people where they’re at” (none of which are bad mind you). Our understanding of spirituality is limited by our viewing it through a purely emotional lens.
And this is just horrible, not only for the more philosophical reasons I will get to, but because humans while not purely genetic and biological, are genetic and biological. Our brains react in certain ways to certain stimulants, and as C.S. Lewis noted in I think Mere Christianity many emotions feel the same. The sinking of your stomach when you skydive and the butterflies in your stomach when you fall in love are much the same. We associate certain emotions with certain things, and judging our faith based off our feelings can lead to a cheap sort of spiritual junky. Always going for a quick hit from a powerful sermon or worship session and assuming that if we’re not feeling it something is wrong.
Aside from all that though, love is more than a feeling, we know that. Love is a verb as well, so we can still think of love as the driving factor in our faith. However what we do for love is going to be determined in a large part by what we feel in love. That is love as a verb, rests hugely on love as a feeling. This is not an emphasis we find in scripture. In fact, while in Matthew 22:37 where we are told the fulfillment of the law is to :
To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.
The Greek verb used for love is agapao which means love in a social or moral sense: that is love as duty.
This is emphasized elsewhere in Scripture:
Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him.
That he may learn to fear the Lord his God by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes
If you love me, you will keep My commandments.
22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.
But He answered and said to them, “My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.”
– Luke 8:21
It is safe to conclude then that our emotions are not an accurate indicator of our relationship with God. In fact, if you have ever tried to do as God told, and really tried to stop a particular sin or cultivate a particular virtue, chances are that if you are at all like me you rather wish the Bible and all that would just leave you the heck alone for five minutes. With God, the emotional high we sometimes experience, should not be expected to be the norm. When you climb a mountain, the greatest feelings of exaltation and inspiration are always when you stop to take in the view. But when you turn back to climbing up, you’ll feel decidedly less so. Similarly, our spiritual growth does not necessarily coincide with feeling close to God.
Just as we cannot rely on our emotions to judge our relationship with God, we cannot rely on our personal love for Christ as the determinant of our actions. It is of course true that Christians of every strip and color do or don’t do things for God all the time. But we cannot trust that our love of God and our understanding of His will and His Word is allowing us to truly follow Him because it is always tainted by our individuality and especially in today’s spiritual climate our emotions. We will of course be headed in the general direction, but as someone who has always embraced that as my hiking philosophy, trust me. It is way easier when you find the trail and the exact direction.
Loving God does involve emotions, but I think it ultimately involves emotions most of us cannot understand. We are given a sort of taste of it from time to time, but what I seem to feel when I feel my love for God seems so different (or at least my understanding of it is so different) than what the Saints seemed to feel when they loved God: anyone from St. Francis, to Mother Teresa, to St. John of the Cross, to St. Aquinas. The emotion we feel is such a human emotion, but one we constantly seek out. (Maybe this is what the juvenalization of church is)
However, I am wandering from my main point. The idea that as long we love Jesus our differences are ultimately trivial is false. True, the differences between Protestant and Catholic are not liable to be sending one or the other to hell. But, if our main purpose is to do what God told us to, can we not see that the question of whether or not the Real Presence is real is hugely important? Or whether or not the Pope is legitimate authority left by Christ whom we are to follow? Or even whether we ought to show devotion to Mary and the saints? This isn’t to say we ought to be at each other’s necks about this, but it is important. We can’t ignore it. We do have to love God to get anywhere, but that love of God cannot be evaluated as a feeling. Our love for God is going to be primarily and most importantly expressed as action, and we need to talk these things over to determine whether or not we are doing the right thing in the light of reason, conscience, prayer, Scripture, and yes feeling. But we cannot suppose that we can rest comfortably as long as both parties feel they’re doing the right thing. We are none of us relativists.