“What matters more — love, or correct beliefs?”
This is the question one of my Facebook friends posed on his page recently. (It received well over 100 comments). Part of one of my responses:
People all over the planet could by and large agree on what love looks like. Saying we have to have correct beliefs to know what love is is like saying we have to all have the exact same view of the sky before we can agree that it’s up there.
To me this is self-evident, and I would have the same opinion even if I were not a religious man, but since I in fact AM a religious man, there are a few New Testament texts that are so definitive on this matter that I cannot help but feel that most people who come to a different conclusion can only do so by bringing their own agenda to the table. The Apostle Paul said:
1st Cor. 13
1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.
This is not just some passage that happens to talk about how love is a good thing. This passage is making the specific claim that everything hinges on love, that this is what it all comes down to, that nothing else we do matters without it. We could easily insert, “If I am baptized in the Catholic Church, or pray the sinner’s prayer in a Protestant church, or believe all the correct things about Jesus and the Bible and every Christian doctrine, but have not love, I am nothing,” and it would not be in the slightest bit out of context.
The Apostle John said:
1 John 1:8
8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
Again, not simply that love is a great ideal and we should try hard to do it, but that love is the very essence of God and that the test of whether or not we know God is that we love.
And of course it is not of little consequence to the Christian faith that Jesus was part of this exchange:
34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[b] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
There’s Jesus — the one Christians claim founded our faith — saying specifically that all the Law and the Prophets (everything you have ever understood religion to be about) hang on the command to love. Jesus nowhere says beliefs are irrelevant, of course, but here he certainly does put beliefs in their proper place — behind love.
This just seems to me to be so indisputable that I believe it must serve as the very foundation of scripture itself. God IS love. No matter what we accomplish, we are nothing if we fail to love. Love is what all of this is about to begin with. Therefore, everything else in all Christian scripture must be interpreted in light of these strong words. Anytime anyone interprets anything in Christian scripture as contrary to love, that is due either to a bias that the reader himself brings to the text, or even to bias the writer might have had that is evident in the text.
To some this might sound heretical, but everyone who reads sacred texts does this. When King David prays for the death of his enemies in the Psalms, for example, very few people assume that we also should pray for the deaths of our enemies, since Jesus commanded us to love our enemies. Instead we read David’s words in scripture and assume that they are there to give us an honest look at the human heart, so that we too can openly express our emotions in prayer. In fact, would Christianity be any worse off if we refused to believe that ANY of the violence in the Bible expressed truth about God? Just asking.
Finally on this issue, those who think correct beliefs are most important are making a serious mistake. As Richard Rohr says, every point of view is a view from a point. I am tired of the cliche of the “church that teaches God’s Word and not man’s.” In reality, every pastor in every church teaches his/her perspective and opinion of the Bible. That is the reason there are 30,000 Christian denominations. By the way, nearly all of them will say that they are a church that “teaches God’s Word and not man’s,” yet they often believe vastly different things. This point I am making is so obvious as to make it ridiculous for me to even have to write it down, and yet there are those who would seriously try to argue that there could be any such thing as a church that does not teach its own opinion of the Bible, but instead just teaches “God’s Word.” This, of course, is simply a way of admitting that one does not see any difference between his/her opinion of sacred scripture and the opinion of God himself.
It cannot be correct beliefs that matter most, because there is simply no way to ever know if we are “right” enough. Of course beliefs matter, and they often matter a great deal, but beliefs take a back seat to love.
At least that’s what I believe.