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Can Love Be Trusted?

Related to the previous post about what makes a life “full” or “good, I came across this fantastic (and sobering—be sure to read the last sentence at least twice!) quote from Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today about love as a way of life:

The dark truth is that we may praise love (or, more weakly, “benevolence” or “compassion”), and few people would refuse to do so when love is rightly understood. We may wish to be loving—to be kind and helpful in our relations to those near us. But we do not trust love, and we think it could easily ruin our carefully guarded hold on life. We are frightened of the world we are in, and that makes us angry and hostile, and contempt makes it easier to harm or disregard the good of others. So the world boils with contempt….

Above all, one has to find by thought and experience that love can be trusted as a way of life…. Love is not God, but God is love. It is who he is, his very identity. And our world under a God like that is a place where it is safe to do and be what is good and what is right. Living in love as Jesus defines it by his words and deeds is the sure way to know Christ in the modern world. On the other hand, if you are not reconciled to living in love as the center of your life, and actually living that way, any knowledge you may have of Christ will be shallow and shaky at best.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    As you know, I do not admire Dallas Willard.

    I do agree that we do not trust love and that faith involves a trust of love. Dallas Willard takes that insight too far and places an unbearable burden of love on us. By the standard the last sentence, all of us fail.

    Dallas Willard would be a dreadful God. Dallas Willard does not understand mercy, which means as well that he does not understand love or humanity. He is obsessed with how people live. He bludgeons us with love and morality. He needs to look at mercy.

    By the way, it is interesting to contrast the insight that God or Jesus wants us to trust love with Darwin’s expression that we ought to admire the instinctive maternal hatred of the queen bee towards her fertile daughters. He did not really admire it, of course. There was irony in his expression. Still, the insight the expression offers, that love and hate are the same in the order of life, is part of a major paradigm for science and for understanding life in modernity. I think it is on such ground that Christian theology conflicts most with evolutionary biology.

    June 14, 2009
    • I think the contexts out of which you and I emerge reflect our differing responses to Willard in general and this passage in particular. I’m very familiar with approaches to faith that emphasize doctrine at the expense of ethics—situations where people will be very concerned about making sure everyone believes the right things but there will be very little actual evidence of practical expressions of the love of Christ in day to day relations. From what I know, the reverse may almost be true for you: you’ve been a part of contexts where ethics was all that was preached, perhaps at the expense or neglect of anything resembling orthodox Christian belief. Would that be a fair assessment? If so, it might explain why I find Willard compelling (at times) while you do not.

      I do agree that we do not trust love and that faith involves a trust of love. Dallas Willard takes that insight too far and places an unbearable burden of love on us. By the standard the last sentence, all of us fail.

      It depends how you interpret the last sentence. I suppose a lot hangs on what the word “reconciled” means. I think it’s entirely possible to be “reconciled to living in love as the center of your life and actually living that way” without measuring up to the ultimate standard. If it wasn’t, as you say, we would all fail. I think Willard’s statement simply reflects the Hebraic conception of knowledge that would have been assumed in Jesus’ day. Knowledge of God goes beyond propositional affirmation of truths—there is a moral component to knowing Christ. It’s not just “if you know Christ, then you will behave morally”; rather, I think Willard would say “behaving morally is a non-negotiable way that you actually get to know Christ.” Again, I think this is a necessary corrective in some (not all) Christian circles.

      June 14, 2009
  2. Ken #

    I think it is certainly true that the liberal churches in my life have emphasized ethics (social justice) rather than right belief. (Except that they also constantly deride the wrong beliefs of evangelicals.) At home I was exposed to neither of these emphases, but instead to an existentialist, romantic, tragic perspective or emphasis.

    I think your analysis here does help me hear the Willard’s leanings more clearly. Sill, I remain uncomfortable with his view that the mission of Jesus was a “moral revolution.” I think his mission was mercy.

    I do agree that a concern for how to live, for ethics and morality, social and personal, has always been an appropriate concern for Christians. At the same time, when I look at history (and our own time) I suppose I think it has always been (and is) overemphasized. I suppose that means my own leaning is against that and towards mercy. I believe that mercy is found in the heart of God, and in the world we live in. As for how we live, I think we are capable of mercy even towards those we do not love and who do not love us. I think we are capable of mercy, and enjoy the mercy of God, even though we do not trust love.

    June 15, 2009
    • I see mercy and ethics as being very complementary things—indeed, I think that part of what it means to “live in love at the center of your life” is to adopt a posture of mercy and compassion to those around us as a reflection of what we have received from God. I don’t particularly care for the term “moral revolution” but to whatever extent it describes what Jesus was on about, part of the revolution surely was a renewed emphasis upon the mercy and grace of God.

      As for how we live, I think we are capable of mercy even towards those we do not love and who do not love us.

      I absolutely agree.

      I think we are capable of mercy, and enjoy the mercy of God, even though we do not trust love.

      What if one of the ways that we demonstrate that we trust love is by giving and receiving the mercy of God?

      June 15, 2009
  3. Ken #

    Certainly the implication of your question is true. I think we can still concede that we do not trust love, as Willard suggested.

    Notwithstanding the truth of what you have written here, I mean to emphasize the way mercy and ethics are different, and not complementary. I think of ethics in its liberal versions as concern for the application of justice or fairness or equality in relations with others and in its conservative versions as a concern for character. It is true that mercifulness can be a character trait, and in that sense can be considered part of an ethic. Mercy amounts to overriding the liberal versions of ethics – the ethic of justice – and overlooking failings of character. Willard’s ethic appears to be a mixture of conservative and liberal versions. I don’t hear a concern for mercy in his writing or in his public speaking or in his answers to questions. I hear a stern ethic. I think he seeks to judge and afflict people he feels are not rightly concerned with ethics. He uses the word love, which can imply mercy, but in doing so he condemns those he believes do not trust love. He is not merciful. He has no pity for us. Mercy is the complement of pity, not of justice.

    I know, of course, that some say that God is just and merciful. I would not argue with that, but I would argue that the character of God, and our hope, is more clearly expressed as mercy than as justice.

    A friend of mine sought help for an urgent need at about 6PM on a weekday at protestant church, one that took pride in its concern for justice, and that imagined itself merciful and full of love. He saw people in the church office. He knocked on the locked door. Someone called out from inside, “We are closed.” He called back, “I just need …” The voice inside replied, “Sorry, we are closed.” (They may have been working after hours on a justice project, perhaps. Or maybe they thought my friend unfair to ask them for help after hours.)

    He next sought help at a Roman Catholic Church. The name was “Our Lady of Perpetual Help.” A sign above the door said, “Always open.” It was open. Someone inside welcomed him and gave him the help he needed. That is mercy.

    June 15, 2009
    • I obviously have not had the same level of exposure to Willard that you have. All I can base my opinions on are those things he has written that I happen to have read and I would simply say I do not sense the severity that you have spoken of. I do not get the sense that he seeks to “judge and afflict” those who do not share his concern for ethics. As I’ve said, I think he is pushing against a version of Christianity that considers doctrine more important than ethics. Perhaps I simply need to read more.

      I think that the story you shared about the two churches illustrates the importance of what Willard is talking about. The one church showed mercy and in so doing demonstrated that they were living in love as the center of life. I think that ethics goes far beyond justice (of liberal theology or otherwise) and includes mercy, compassion, grace, forgiveness, etc. I understand the word to refer to one’s broad “way of being in the world” (this is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the word) and I think it makes total sense that this cannot be separated from how we come to know Christ.

      June 15, 2009
  4. Ken #

    It does seem that it is only in how we hear the words of Willard that we are different here. On taking up ethics in the broadest sense, you and I are the same, and also in believing that it is through an ethic of mercy, perhaps in apprehending God’s own ethic of mercy, that we come to know Christ.

    June 16, 2009
  5. Ken #

    BTW, an ethics scholar whose analyses I have found quite interesting is Carol Gilligan, the author of In a Different Voice. I think of her ethic of care as an ethic of mercy. As she explains, it is quite different from ethics of justice.

    June 16, 2009
    • Thanks Ken. I’ve never heard of Gilligan—guess I’ll have to do some snooping around…

      June 16, 2009
  6. Tyler Brown #

    Out of curiosity, what is Willard’s definition of Love?

    June 16, 2009
    • Re: Willard’s definition of love, here’s a passage that might shed some light (he’s contrasting it with conceptions of “benevolence” or “compassion”):

      But when Jesus speaks of love as the principle of life as it ought to be, he is referring mainly to the posture of benefiting others in the ordinary relations of ordinary life… The love of which Jesus speaks addresses the provision of positive goods, not just alleviation of painful conditions. This and the difference it makes are often missed by those who like to compare the teachings of Jesus to those of other religions…. Commonly, “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you,” the Silver Rule, is equated with, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” the Golden Rule, but they are vastly different in application.

      The positive formulation is directed toward helping others by doing what is good for them. The negative formulation is directed toward avoiding harm. It might be that some, in practice, would do the same things under either formulation, but many would not. The Silver Rule is not directed toward the good of the other the way the Golden Rule is. The mind and heart are in a different place for those who would follow one or the other. The Golden Rule is devoted to the good in the lives of those around us, and this reaches far beyond the absence of harm.

      The “love” of Jesus not only reaches indiscriminately toward those with whom we are actually in contact, but it aspires toward a remarkable richness in their lives, not simply the alleviation of their suffering. Thus it is much more than compassion.

      Elsewhere he talks about familiar biblical portrayals of love (1 Cor. 13 being the most famous). A consistent theme, I think, is that the love commanded (and embodied) by Jesus fundamentally seeks the good of the other, even at great personal cost.

      June 16, 2009
  7. Ken #

    It is Willard’s expression of love in terms of a rule that makes him a moralist. I believe that when love is expressed as a rule it stops being love.

    As I hear him, Willard is trying to argue that a particular political view is favored by God. He is using Christian ideas about love and mercy to advance his argument. He is using God as ethos in his argument. Willard is condemning those who don’t follow his rule, as his dreadful god would condemn those who don’t follow his commandments.

    June 17, 2009
    • I don’t hear this in the book at all. The God Willard describes seems far from dreadful to me, nor does it seem to me that Willard is looking to advance a “political view” or a kind of renewed moral legalism. Here’s what he says later on, for example:

      So we may be sure that God loves all people and is involved with everyone, religious or unreligious, though they may be unaware of it or reject it if they so choose. We are sure of this because of what we know, of what we have been put in touch with, as Christ followers.

      And now because of the nature of God according to Christian teachings, we are assured that no one will be treated unfairly by him. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Whatever is good and fair and right will be done by him, to the ultimate satisfaction of everyone. The character of God as love precludes any injustice on his part. He has both the will and the means to see to it that all, Christian or not, are received as they deserve, and indeed much better than they deserve.

      Our God is a God of grace, who considers the heart as well as all the limitations under which human beings labor. In the beautiful words of Psalm 103: “He does not deal with us according to our iniquities…. As a father has compassion for his child, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (vv. 10-14).

      p. 177 (emphasis Willard’s)

      June 18, 2009

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