In the mail today, I recieved a mailing from the Disciples Peace Fellowship, the peace and justice caucus within my denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The newsletter had a quote that struck me. It said:
“No amount of theology about God and the Bible and ethics and theology is equal to the smallest amount of action taken in behalf of another human being.
I thought about that, because I’m someone that has always loved to think about the Christian faith. Does this mean theology has no place in our faith when it comes to helping our fellow man? If this means that all that we have to do is treat our neighbors right, then why bother with church or God?
I posed the question to my housemate and best friend, Erik, who is a frustrated theologian working as a help desk worker. He noted that theology is important because as Christians we have to know why we do what we do. As I thought about it, it made sense. I’ve been involved in several things that might be considered peace and justice. I’m the head of the state chapter of Log Cabin Republicans working for the equality of GLBT persons. I helped start a church that is welcoming to gay and lesbians. I don’t do these things simply because it’s the nice thing to do. I do it because in the Bible I’ve learned of a God who cares for the poor and needy. I read about God revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who made friends with the outcast. I do what I do because I’ve learned it from what God has done.
Some people think theology happens in seminaries far away from the pain and suffering of the world. What good is it to think about God when there are hurting people, they think. In my view, theology and action, have to go together. Simply thinking about God and doing nothing to help your brother or sister in need is faith with no substance. In contrast, doing action with no thought about faith can lead to taking care of the physical needs without feeding the spiritual needs. Anglican blogger Barry Vaughn explains it a tad better than I can:
Isn’t loving our fellow men and women the only way to love God?
There was a time when I would have said that it was redundant to say “Love God and love your neighbor”, but I’m no longer sure about that.
I think that Jesus identified the “great and first commandment” as “love God” and then followed quickly with “and love your neighbor as yourself” because it is possible to love others or at least be concerned with the needs of others without taking into account the spiritual, the transcendent, dimension of human life.
There are those who are passionately concerned with the care of the hungry and the homeless who nevertheless have no awareness of the spiritual nature and spiritual needs of human beings. I honor them for their actions and fierce commitment to justice. However, I think that they are making an error which will prove very costly in the long run.
Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that “the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help… is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering.
“But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry.” (Who Needs God? quoted in The Reader’s Digest, Nov. ’96, p. 90)
Finally, note what Jesus did not say. He did not say “serve God” or “obey God”; he said “love God”.
From first to last the Bible is a love story. It is first the story of God’s love for Israel and then of God’s love for the church. First, God’s covenant people are wooed and then they are invited into relationship.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is less commandment and more invitation. It is an invitation to love One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more human. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others — that we might love God and others as God loves us.
Can one do good things and not talk about God? Yes. But for Christians who know the story of God’s love for us, why would you want to?
Just a thought.