Some years ago, in an afternoon class at Regent College, Vancouver, I was listening to the gracious words of James Houston. Houston is a man of genial disposition, deep spirituality, and broad Christian intellect. In all of my interactions with him he has been nothing but kind. But that day he startled me with his rather abrupt directness. He was recounting a moment in a very large Christian gathering where the speaker, perhaps with too much sentimentality, said to a crowd of thousands, “I love you all”. As one of the many listeners, my professor said he responded with a silent protest: “Liar! You don’t even know me.”
When I heard that quip, I sat back in my seat, straightened up by my professor’s take on what seemed to be a normal way of talking. Wasn’t this a little harsh? Perhaps the speaker did feel some sort of emotional connection to the crowd. How could my professor call him a liar? What do you think? Was Professor Houston being fair?
To give him his due, Houston was calling for a more grounded and honest view of love. He was wanting to preserve love as something tangible and real, something far better than mere schmaltz (there’s a helpful word). Love, if it is love, requires personal knowing, personal interaction, direct engagement. Love, if it is love, moves far beyond the sentimental. Its more than a feeling (to quote a song from the seventies), but rather the choice to do and be good for those in your circle of concern. And maybe that is why we are so often confused about love in our present era. We are experts in feelings, but not so good at making our feelings practical and specific.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamasov, a conversation recounts this very idea:
"I love mankind,” he said, “but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said. “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole." [Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamasov, transl. Peavear and Volokhonsky, p. 57]
In Jesus’ exchange with the Scripture scholar in Luke 10:25-37, it is not hard to imagine the scholar repeating what Dostoevsky wrote. He knows well the Biblical instruction to love God and neighbour. But the text tells us “he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). In other words, isn’t such language mere fluff? mere schmaltz? In telling the parable of the Good Samaritan then, Jesus pushes the idea of love for God and neighbour down toward specifics. In Jesus’ view of the world, there is no neighbour in general, no abstract humanity to love. There is only the person in front of you, the person you meet in the course of your day, the person you bump into on life’s road.
Maybe we should be more careful how we talk. Perhaps it is only God who loves humanity, and only because he knows us all, is involved with us all, touches us all. What we can do is love the person we meet, the person we are brought face to face with in the course of our day. And this is what makes love what it is: its specificity, it concrete practicality.
Listen to what John says in his first letter: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother." [1 John 4:20-21]
I encourage you to consider how practical and touchable you are in your life of loving God and loving people. I continually learn how love is real when it is responsive, more specific and action-oriented, and less abstract. I have been experiencing this lately in ordinary small ways.
This Saturday we present our last Grow Seminar for this season. We are calling this one What in the World Are We Doing? It will be a conversation on the two principle points of Westside’s missional engagement: Calgary and Africa. Perhaps you might join us. We want to learn about our world and our neighbours, and then take action to do something good for them. You can register at wkc.org/grow-seminars