Thursday, March 26, 2020

Christian, or just ‘christiany’?

When I was a kid, the local fast food place used to sell a little box of cookies as a sort of quick dessert once we had loaded up on their high-calorie burgers.

One day I was eating out with a friend and happened to notice that on the packet of these little items it said “Chocolaty Chip Cookies.” Not chocolate, “chocolat-y.”

“Why does it say that? What the heck is ‘chocolaty’?” I asked.

“Oh,” said my friend, “it’s not actually chocolate. It’s some kind of chocolate-like thing, and they can’t legally call it chocolate. So they stick the ‘y’ on the end to cover themselves.”

At the time, I don’t remember being troubled much by the thought. To the unsophisticated palate, “chocolaty” tasted pretty much like ordinary chocolate; and my palate was pretty unsophisticated in those days.

Years later I tried to find out what was actually in the chocolaty chip cookies online. But apparently the company had discontinued their production of “chocolaty” a couple of decades ago, and, it seems, buried the recipe. Maybe there were good reasons for that. Either way, it remains in my mind as a great example of simulation without substance … and of rather clever advertising, hiding uncomforting realities.

Christiany

What’s this got to do with anything? Well, lately I’ve been reading the 19th century Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. And he’s got me thinking about the past, and about things I’ve sometimes mistaken for Christian.

I realize now that sometimes I’ve been fooled by pseudo-Christian packaging, and ended up swallowing stuff I did not realize I was digesting. Yet, as my palate has become more sophisticated, I’ve realized that much of what was served up to me in the past as genuinely Christian was not — it was only christian-y.

Get it? No capital letter “c”, and a “y” at the end. Why? Because these things weren’t really Christian.

Not authentically. They really had nothing to do with Christ or with knowing, loving and walking with him, but they had a kind of flavor of morality and spiritual interest that imparted to them a vague ambiance which could be casually mistaken for Christian.

But they were only christiany. Appealing, perhaps; but no more real than chocolaty chip cookies.

Not Christianity

What is the hallmark of authentic chocolate? It must have an FDA minimum prescribed amount of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. There must be real stuff in it. Others can be sold as “compound chocolate” or under a different candy name — like “chocolaty”. But without enough real cocoa ingredients, they can’t be chocolate.

But I wonder how much admixture Christianity can stand before it degenerates into just christiany. Not much, I’m thinking. It’s pretty easy to dilute the word of God to such a point that knowledge — real knowledge — is not in it, and that what seems like love is not, and that real obedience is no longer required. All you have to do is soft-peddle a word or two, drop a thing out of context, ignore a few passages, and bingo, you’ve got something you can live with even if you’re a total unbeliever. Something religious but not too difficult.

Love is the first thing that gets diluted when we turn Christianity into christiany.

Christiany Love

Fans of C.S. Lewis will know that he talks about four kinds of love we find in scripture. There’s eros (sexual love), storge (familial love), phileo (friendship) and agape (God’s love). They’ll also already know that the last one, agape, is the uniquely Christian love, the love of God for mankind. Agape does not destroy the other kinds of love, but is their fulfillment, the rich soil in which the other three can authentically grow.

But Kierkegaard puts the point more starkly. In his book Works of Love, he writes that mere human beings have no true idea of “what it is to be loved by another human being, that it is to be helped to love God”.

Eh?

You can grasp his point very simply. If to love God is the highest good for any creature, then to help that creature to love God is the greatest good you can possibly do for him or her. And to do less, or to let some other affection compete with that goal, no matter what other kindness such a betrayal seems to contain, is to love oneself more than person one is claiming to love. In fact, it is treachery, both to God and to the beloved one.

But to help anyone to love God is to reinforce the eternal cord of love between the creature and God, so that all kindness, goodness, affection and desire is established on the firm thread of loving God, which cannot be shaken by time, circumstance, or the lapse of the will. It is to pour goodness into the life of another person, regardless of whether or not that person returns love to you, and regardless of whether or not you feel like loving them at the moment. “God commends his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

This is the basis on which a truly Christian marriage can endure all trials … even the waning or wandering tendencies of desire. This is the way a friendship can survive all circumstances, even betrayal. This is the way love is possible even to those who are simply not desirable in themselves: to the poor, the dirty, the fallen, the sin-stained … and even to outright, dedicated enemies.

Only agape love has at its core the adamantine band of the love between God and man. And only under conditions of agape love can any other kind of love prove real.

No wonder the world knows nothing at all about this love. He who does not know God simply cannot know love. He can know only the tenuous bonds of his own emotional affection, but nothing of the core cord that holds to the beloved through the love of God when the frail strands of feeling fray.

Christian Hating

Now, it is in this sense that Christ could say, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He is not counseling hatred of relatives; he is saying that when even a beloved one says, “Forsake God for my sake,” the true disciple responds, “This I cannot do, for it is impossible that I should love you while desiring that you should not have the love of God. I cannot so betray you, and if it is required of me, then I must take sides with the love of God. For outside of you loving God, there is no good for you, and then I cannot do you any good. Therefore, it is better you should hate me and I should stand before you for the love of God, than that I should allow myself to cease to represent that to you. I will not: no, even if you should henceforth hate me to the death.”

And likewise, the Christian who says to his fellow Christians, “I love mankind, and therefore I love God,” has mistaken the case. For God says, “By this we know that we love the children of God; when we love God and obey his commandments.” So that while it is true that one of the signs of our love for God is our willingness to extend that to loving men — to the lowly and unlikable and even to our enemies, in total disregard of any return of love — our loyalty to them is never a substitute or rival for the love of God, and can never be. To stop loving God above all else is to stop loving men and being loyal to them — even though we should with the tongues of angels proclaim how much we do still love our fellow men.

To love men without loving God first and keeping our love for God more — or, in the cause of serving men, to forget that our first love is due to God — is to speak of love in merely christiany language. It is not Christian.

Loving God

So now, as Good Friday approaches, let me speak plainly to you.

The paramount meeting of the church to show love for God is the service we call “communion,” or the “Lord’s Supper”. Of all the services we have, it’s the only one where we come purely to give, not to take. And while there is a lot we get out of a genuine remembrance service of our Lord, it is not to get things that we come: it is to give to our Savior the memorial for which he explicitly asked on the night in which he was betrayed, and to glorify God for his inexpressible gift in Christ. For that reason, the service is sometimes even called the “worship service”. In it, we come to proclaim the worth of our Lord, not to merely to congregate and take benefit for ourselves. It is the least selfish thing — and the most right thing — that the Christian church does.

So now, let me ask: where is the Lord’s Supper? I will not speak for you, but I will speak of my own congregation. It is once a month. It is performed in a rush and a routine, with little thought and less passion evident. No doubt there are still those who, in the few minutes allowed to them, are able to force their thoughts to thankfulness. But they are little helped by the haste, and (dare I say it?) the carelessness with which the ceremony is routinely conducted.

If we love God, how has this ever become so? How have we allowed ourselves to forget our duty to memorialize our Lord Jesus Christ, as if to say “I love you” to him were less meaningful if it were said somewhat less often. (Try that one with your wife and see how it goes over.)

So now, once again, on Good Friday we are having a long message and a very short communion service. How is it that we have so completely left our first love that we don’t even notice how utterly imbalanced this is?

Christian Love

Those who congregate — of all ages, interests, situations, cultures and backgrounds, with their many tastes, responsibilities and so on; that which we call “the local church” — would have no reason for being together at all unless the love of God had first bound them and given them reason and means to love one another. Absent that, there would have been no cause for them to be together in the first place, and nothing of any genuine value for them to do when they got there. The love of God is primary: it is the church’s value and its sine qua non (“that without which there is none”). It is also the only reason for the believers to love one another at all.

I think the most telling sign that the modern evangelical church has forgotten its mission and lost its way is not its deficiencies in evangelism. It’s not even its failures in retaining and passing on doctrine. It’s not in the faltering of its programs and services to the general congregation. It’s in its manifest lack of love for the Savior, expressed in its failing even to notice that we have reduced the Lord’s Table to a perfunctory and thoughtless routine, and are well on our way to eliminating it entirely.

God forgive us.

Restoring Love

Two things to take away from all this:

Firstly, love of God is primary. He who says he loves a girl but takes no thought for the fact that she is a non-Christian and cannot be helped to love God, hates her and only loves himself by that. Likewise the man who has a friend and who cares more for the esteem of that friend than for whether or not he is helped to love God, hates his friend’s soul and loves himself. These are treachery and self-love, cloaked in the glow of affectionate feelings. No more.

To love anyone is to help that person to love God. To be loved by anyone is to be helped by them to love God. There is no love that does not have its primary referent in God. Remember that.

Secondly, where is our first love for God? What has happened to worship? How has it become this self-serving thing, a kind of spiritual therapy or religious gathering, instead of a communion of saints dedicated in love to the Savior?

Where our hearts are will be indicated by our commitment to the remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ. Take the measurement there.

Yet, if we have failed in the past, it is never too late to learn to love again. The Lord himself will help us if we will return to our first love.

1 comment :

  1. An interesting attempt at trying to analyze a topic (in this case, what is love?) that simply is not very amenable to analysis. From what I have learned in life is that love of God is something that needs to be acquired often over a lifetime. In the modern mind it also is often confused with the physical love instituted by God for his creation and which often is not understood to be in it's own category. Something that should serve as a guide only to help us appreciate God and his gifts. So, basically, love of God is an intellectual decision that may or may not involve deeper feelings and types of commitment akin to physical love. Because of the intellectual commitment needed for love of God this commitment is also so easily interfered with either by intent or negligence as in the public sphere. Basically, the love of God is the love of a taught humanitarian and intellectual principle as modelled and illustrated by Christ and the saints. When understood as such it follows that that love will then especially be directed towards that person who taught it and modelled it, hence, God.

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