The Acid Test of God

The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved heart, mind, soul and strength? If the thoughtful answer is “Not really,” then we need to look elsewhere or deeper. It does not really matter how sophisticated intellectually or doctrinally our approach is. If it fails to set a lovable God–a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible, and totally competent being–before ordinary people, we have gone wrong. We should not keep going in the same direction, but turn around and take another road.
— Dallas Willard

If I were Jewish, in the desert with Moses, and heard the great commandment as instruction, then I would struggle with the language. It’d be Hebrew, and I might even read the words:

ואהבת את יהוה אלהיך
בכל־לבבך
ובכל־נפשך
ובכל־מאדך׃

If I were back in Egypt, in Alexandria, I might get these words in Greek and might, as Sylvie Honigman suggests my community would, hold them “at least as sacred as the Hebrew original.” And they’d go like this:

καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου

Or if, back in Jerusalem, I might read Mark or Matthew [with some variation] or Luke (with some variation) translating, and then I’d apprehend the words this way:

καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου
ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου

ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου
ἐν ὅλῃ [τῇ] καρδίᾳ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ [τῇ] ψυχῇ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου

ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου
ἐξ ὅλης [τῆς] καρδίας σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου
καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς διανοίας σου
(ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ἰσχύϊ σου
καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου)

Invariably, what I might notice is the imperative mood of the words. “We should” is how Dallas Willard writes to his readers, in the imperative using a modal auxiliary. I notice, nonetheless, a singularity in the words. The original command is preceded by singular, particular oneness: אחד. And the singular pronoun is used in the Hebraic Hellene for one individual or at least one individual community: σου. The plurality of the words, the ambiguities in the translating, they all help me.

Today, being who I am at the moment and where I happen to be, I wonder mostly about “love” and being “lovable” and a “lovable” God. In my earlier years, in Vietnam, I’d hear lovable as dễ thương. Literally, it means “easy to love.” Figurally, as when beetle-nut spitting grown women were pinching my boyish cheeks red, it means “adorable” or “cute.” In my undergraduate years, at college, I’d read various ancient Greek words that one C.S. Lewis would separate out as the “Four Loves” (he wrote a book about it) without bothering with the fact that he’d also collapsed the commands of scores of peoples into one Tao anyway (as in his Appendix to his book The Abolition of Man). And all of my life, whether in Viet Nam, in Thailand, in Arkansas, in Hawaii, in Indonesia, in Virginia, or in Texas, I would hear preachers wax eloquently, and certainly, and imperatively on love. Love, not as a feeling, never as Eros, hardly as Phileo, (what’s StorGe anyway?). Love is just an act, of course, they’d say. Or they’d quote Paul’s letter mailed off to Corinth, Greece, as if that were the definitive, and only, thing to say about it. One summer, one preacher even preached a series called “Summer of Love,” a time when he called out certain members of his congregation for certain sins, and he hit his point home by calling his action with words the “sledge hammer love of God.” So I wonder about commanding love of any sort. Who can demand it of any lover? And how can one command another to love with so much of oneself? And how can one command another to love with so many parts of oneself?

As I mind my language, because I “should,” I wonder if there’s not something more to love than how so many have limited with their words. It’s funny, ironic, isn’t it, that love could be a test, an acid-test no less?! I’m not saying I really disagree with Willard. I rather disagree with preachers who give out commands they themselves don’t live by. Willard is a philosopher professionally; he’s also a Southern Baptist preacher. My preacher’s kid ears have heard about love enough.

But who can love a god that’s not lovable? Who should? Those, I do believe, are some great questions around a great command, an acid test.

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2 responses to “The Acid Test of God

  1. How, how, I wonder could a Greek specialist write about Love without quoting the Symposium? (If it was good enough for Percy Shelley and Stanley Rosen ….)

    Even more shocking, how could an American write about Love without quoting Hank Williams? (“My love for you has turned to hate.”)

    We hardly need to bring God into this. Why not simply ask — if we cannot compel ourselves to an emotion, just what is going through the mind of a bride or groom when binding their future emotions: “Do you promise to love until death?”

  2. We hardly need to bring God into this. When there’s a command, or a promise, we hardly need to bring emotion into this.

    Wouldn’t we confuse categories more? What did Han Suyin 韩素音 know of love? What business did her Chinese father have with her Belgian mother? What did her own profession of health care really have to do with her practices of the literary life? What did her Winter Love have to do with her promises? Wasn’t she confused racially, made one way sexually by some society’s oath? Can’t we tell her she never ever found A Many-Splendoured Thing? Won’t we make her confess, and say, My House Has Two Doors? So what if she read Plato if she never met Hank Williams? We are talking always about the (who cares if it’s real) ideal, aren’t we?

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