In my experience, there are three particular dimensions of how people have historically loved God. And like all things that have been enjoyed best in moderation, no one perspective should be more indulged in than the other. Certain denominations, certain people, it becomes clear which position is over emphasized and which others are diminished.
Or, maybe, I’m just wrong about all of this. But who cares, right?
God’s Love, as in how we classify the crucifixion, can be realized as an economic transaction, a court proceeding, or the ebb and flow of a relationship.
Language of debt
We have heard things like, “God pays our debts” or “the wage of sin is death.” I often hear members of the church using economic jargon to explain how God loves us. For instance, at a very awkward charity dinner, a guy about my age (18 at the time) got up on a stage and started talking about God. He explained that salvation was like God giving you the keys to a brand new Lamborghini, for free. We would be a fool not to take it right? The problem I have with language like this is that the language of commerce is very integrated into our society. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. We shall not want. Every house has a car that was paid for with money the person didn’t have. Every channel selling products and services for the small, small fee of whatever. Because we are conditioned to be consumers from birth, it’s only the next logical conclusion to see God as an ATM machine with the infinite credit “of his righteousness” that we can draw upon, because his Son “paid our debts.” All these statements are true but, given the context of our own wealth, God’s love becomes transactional. Our devotion is conditioned on spiritual return on investment. If our profits and losses forecast indicates that keeping stock in God is not worth it, then we’ll invest in a new idol.
When Paul says in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” the language is worthy. 2,000 years ago, the world was minting coinage with important people on it. So a basic template of transactional commerce was available for Paul to use, only he frames this in the context of the process of labor in action. People worked harder than we could ever imagine back then, far more than we do today. Working a full day (530AM to 730PM in the Summer) with no respite, and all for a small pittance, was the labor Paul was intimating. When people sin and turn away from God, its hard labor on an ever diminishing timetable and pay scale. It would be like working 35 years at a company, standing apart from your co-workers as a champion for the Brand and then getting an ignoble death instead of a company watch. (Or worse, receiving the watch that you worked so hard for, and then getting shot in the face.) It would be like building a skyscraper for your entire life, and at the ribbon cutting ceremony being barred inside while it’s demolished with decades of hard work coming down on you. Paul is talking about investing in the self, giving purpose to work and action, working a long, hard day and receiving payment. (Possibly an analogy for a lifetime of experience.)
Something that pagans have understood even longer than Christians and much of the history of Judaism is that the favor of the divine comes at a steep price. Blood sacrifices weren’t merely an expression of primordial savagery, they were expressing an idea that the things we want come at a price, often at the expense of other things. Children were sacrificed to ancient Mesopotamian and Sumerian fertility gods. The same principal applies however when we buy products made in sweatshops today. Likewise, Viking raiders would flay and hang their own people to ask favor from their gods for victory, just like we send countless soldiers to die in foreign war zones so that we can wield soft power in future geopolitical dealings. So when Christians talk about the payment of Christ’s blood for our sins, it should be more sobering, not just something to “yaddy-yaddy-yadda” while drinking the communion wine.
Justified By Jurisprudence
Reformed Theology favors overwhelmingly a legal perspective when speaking to things concerning salvation, often using a “courtroom analysis” of Soteriology (the “ology” that studies the act of salvation in Christianity, and its mechanisms). Humanity is on trial for crimes against the divine and in a dramatic turn of events, during the sentencing hearing, Jesus sentences himself for the punishment, being both 100% Man and 100% God. There is also the matter of the blessings and curses that God stipulates in his law, as pertaining to the Hebrew people. Jesus, being a member of that population, acts as a proxy for both the rewards and punishments of the law that the Jews received from Moses (seen in Deuteronomy, Chapter 28). As a result, he (Jesus) can satisfy to the fullest extent what is required to be justified before God. Just as well, he can be sentenced for the unlawful actions made against God. (This is why they explain so thoroughly the perfection of God’s justice in both the Torah and the New Testament.)
Focusing on just the legal aspects of religion, one can strain out most—if not all—of the lurid and compromising history of Christianity in the modern era, namely concerning the Puritans. Often, there’s this desire to sing the praises of the Puritans, who really strived to live out their lives with holiness and dignity, though this seemed to be at the expense of others. The Scarlet Letter, the acts of the Salem Witch Trials, and the implicit need for a “Great Awakening” indicate that living under a legal mindset begets a religious experience robbed of the “freedom” of the Gospel that united disparate social classes and demonstrated Christ’s love to the world in the latter half of the 1st century and 2-3rd centuries. Legal thinking tends to compartmentalize ideals and paradigms. Rather than think about helping another in need, we may assess first the need against hypothetical factors. “Why is this person like this?” “They must have done something wrong to be like this.” Each of these ideas Jesus himself refutes in both Matthew 5:45 and John 9:1-12. He says God “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” And, concerning the Gospel of John, Jesus’ own disciples ask why a man, stricken with illness, has lost God’s favor. It is such an insane idea, as if God’s people—or anyone for that matter—can save themselves from their circumstances, but this idea is rampant across the fragments of Christendom. If not based on the principal of social contract, the charity of the Gospel should be enough, at the very least, to support ideas like universal healthcare and class inequality.
On the matter of categorical thought, I myself was radicalized by the previous wave of reformed theology that mainstream Christianity experienced in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Ideas like “Catholics [or insert other denomination that you don’t agree with] are not saved by the grace of god,” and “theological requirements” to evidence salvation were cancerous growths on the church. And while I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify that salvation does come down to assenting to some very basic theological presuppositions that allow the Gospel to work, the fact of the matter is is that salvation by Christ is far from the idealized process laid out by reformed theologians. Jesus’s duels with demons, societal pariahs, and competing theological traditions—advanced by both secular and religious authorities—were strained and fraught with internal and external conflict. If we are to live like Jesus, we ought to expect the same atypical experiences.
The legal aspects of Christianity aside, there is merit to a uniform theological paradigm. Christianity, like any society, has norms and conventions that are assistive in bringing people together. While it is silly to fight and murder people over how-to-love-each-other-best, that doesn’t negate the need for organizational structure and theological scaffolding. The apostles did a good job at addressing concerns of the day and teasing out the finer points of the emerging Christian beliefs, and that work shouldn’t be cast aside simply because cursory readings chafe against our sensibilities. Trademark sayings like “the woman is the weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7) and “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Timothy 2:12) are certainly damning bereft of context, but the former was dealing with spousal abuse and the later with, possibly, women from cultic backgrounds syncretizing with emerging Christian liturgy. If we bristle at certain things stated in the cumulative swath of biblical literature, it is very likely that we are reading it wrong, and not the other way around. (This tends to be the case when adapting 2000-4000 year old worldviews to, ultimately, overlay them on top of a society with radically different ontological and epistemological backgrounds.)
“It’s Not You Jesus, It’s Me…”
The appropriate way to “love” God is hotly debated. (As in, for what he does in our lives and how we should thank him in worship.) Truly, it is an absurd circus of emotional baggage and presuppositions that seem to serve the individual more than the group. Relationships dominate our lives. From them we derive positional meaning in society, and validation, affection, and so on. Similar to how the law monitors the growth and attenuation of society, relationships judge how we grow and mature. Those with unstable relationships are perceived as a burden to be around, while those adept in cultivating them attract others with charismatic magnetism. The over-emphasized effect of relationships in our lives contaminates other aspects of life, including the religious.
Unlike the previous two points, I think God doesn’t mind our deficiencies in this aspect. In fact, Jesus’ ministry emphasized getting to know, being able to serve, and showing others how to love people in a way that seems so alien to our understanding of relationships. Speaking from personal experience, relationships are judged on their effectiveness to make us feel appreciated. If we stop feeling appreciated, then the relationship dissolves and the parasite moves on to another host. When Jesus is included in our lives, this pattern is challenged. An old-timey example of this is the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9. Whether or not you believe this happened or not isn’t the point, but the Tower of Babel narrative describes what was likely a ziggurat, and how it’s construction angered God. In ancient near east culture, ziggurats functioned as a connection point between the real and the divine. Supplicants—often the ruling class or royalty—would ascend to the heavens and meet their God there to ask for favor and guidance in matters of state, which was often a display of power and dominion. A city-state would often feature a patron god, whose worship was cultivated by a temple cult, vested with power on behalf of the royalty. In many ways, the relationship was quid pro quo and one-sided, where the royalty used the favor of the gods to justify their rule. So, imagine God’s anger and disappointment when the people he created build an extravagant mound to demand from their maker all the things that they want.
Fighting against Christian friends (the “good” kind) is like pissing into the wind because Jesus’s challenge is to love others more than we love ourselves. Often, that means taking into consideration thoughts and viewpoints outside of our natural inclinations. It means submitting to other people for insight and instruction. Conversations are not strategic tools for one’s gain, they are the means of reaching a consensus that benefits both parties around the influence of a mediator. This of course can be annoying. It can be infuriating even. I hate going to church sometimes, even though I know that I will encounter someone that needs me as much as I need them. In becoming a part of a church (local, global, whatever) there is a shedding of the person you were before, and not in a way that forces the participant to relinquish their personal agency. People are integrated into a system with parts, roles, and purposes. If person A is supposed to serve the role of “feet-of-the-church” and person B as the “eyes-of-the-church,” if they never cross paths, person A is going in the wrong direction and person B is stuck where they are at.
Each perspective is intended to supplement the other, as I said before. Imagine a version of Christianity where we feel the weight of our divine debt, the gravity of our legal standing, but no cultivated relationship with Jesus. The result would be hopelessness. A Christianity with emphasis on intimacy with Jesus, because of an acute awareness of how much it cost, begets a hyperbolic and ungrounded faith. Particularly ugly, due to the potential for poor understandings of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, as well as cultivating a flippant, transactional, approach to faith. Lastly, a Christianity dedicated to the lawful application of faith and a close relationship with God could, without the emphasis of our debt to God, would be patently passive and without a sense of urgency. Understanding the idea of debt makes salvation seem more immediate. That’s just my opinion, at least.
Hopefully these ideas have been stimulating. Sometimes I just like to write on autopilot and wake up to an impromptu essay. This has been one of those exercises, though spread out over the course of an entire month. I should add that these are my off-the-cuff assessments. Also, I’m not a pastor. I’m just some guy in a one bedroom apartment trying to make ends meet. So… yeah.