What’s love got to do with it: Theology and its defences against the dark arts

Towards the end of my very brief career as a theologian in a conservative, fundamentalist, NZ theological college, I had come to the sad realisation that theology, as an academic discipline, is unable — incapable rather than unwilling — to say things about love that art, even in its most popular forms, is more naturally able to say.

Artists — musicians, writers, painters — can say things about love that theologians cannot.

As a theologian, that was a little disconcerting.

Theologians (with some select exceptions) don’t say things like “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Jesus did, but theologians don’t.

It’s not that a phrase like that, from Moulin Rouge, is too simple, or too vacuous — I think it’s because it’s too personally threatening — too compelling, too invitational, too much of an imperative.

When theology speaks of love it handles it like an object — it holds it at arm’s length and displays it as if it’s up for auction. The invitation is not to participate in it, but to purchase it, or to rent it for a while so that you can drive it up and down the motorway and convince yourself, for the duration of the journey, that this is real life.

When art speaks of love, it calls us to enter into it — to explore the implications of love, to surrender to it, to experience the vulnerability that always, in this broken world anyway, accompanies it. And this, I think, is the reason art is better equipped to put words and images and music to love — because theology as a discipline is not essentially about vulnerability, or participation, or engagement, or encounter, but about control, mastery, isolation, and distance.

The difference between art and theology is the gaping chasm that separates the pharisee and the tax collector in the temple — one who looks to heaven and thanks God that he’s not like the unworthy people who gather there; and the other, who enters trembling in the full awareness that his unworthiness places him in absolute peril. And yet … he’s compelled.

Don’t misunderstand me — in my thinking, I differentiate the discipline of theology from scripture. I think scripture does what theology cannot. I think scripture, essentially because it is art, draws us in. It compels us, grabs us by the shoulders, guides us, tugs at us, beckons us, nudges us, sometimes shoves us, into encounter with God.

The conditions of this encounter are those of love. Scripture reads us, and in the knowledge, or awareness, or even, at the least, suspicion, that we are being read, examined, known, we discover our vulnerability and exposure, and in that place we are open to encounter with mysteries beyond our control, beyond our experiences, beyond our knowing.

Take, for example, the incredible poetry in the Old Testament Song of Songs:

The fire of love stops at nothing — it sweeps everything before it. Flood waters can’t drown love, torrents of rain can’t put it out.

Although these lines hold love up to us, they do so in a way that does not distance us from its call. If these lines make your heart dance then you have already surrendered to the compulsion to experience the raging power of love. If your spirit quickens because it resonates with what these lines invite you to, then you are already primed to love. And you will seek love out. You will desire it, long for it, be willing to be swept up by it.

The great poets — and even the not-so-great — get the difference between being experts on love, and being lovers. And their words compel us in the same way scripture compels us — that is, if we are compelled by love at all.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time — it’s easy. All you need is love.

How come Lennon and McCartney get it, and theologians don’t.

Hell is the suffering of being no longer able to love, says Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky gets it. Why don’t the theologians?

A more distressing question is this — how come theology is so willing to mock anything that resembles what The Beatles, and even Dostoevsky, have articulated so well? In my limited experience, theologians are experts at arguing that because Lennon and McCartney aren’t theologians then they can’t possibly be saying anything worthwhile.

Theology argues it can’t be that simple: love can’t possibly be all you need.

My suspicion is that theologians tremble at the possibility, or even suggestion, that the key to all mysteries is common property, as easily accessed by the secular and the profane as it is by the sacred and the pious.

But when Thom Yorke of Radiohead sings “Immerse your soul in love” in the song Street Spirit (Fade Out) he is embodying what Paul in Colossians argues is the reconciliation of all things in the cross of Jesus. Thom Yorke understands that the key to all mysteries is love. And what Thom sings resonates more with the apostle John’s incredible words in his first epistle than most theology I read. And not because it is right — but because it quickens in its listeners the desire to risk themselves to love in a way that theology does not.

Let’s get one thing straight — theology does not fear the vulnerability of love because the language of love is about feelings and not reason, even if this is what theologians would like to think. It is because love compels the theologian, as it compels all of us, to treasure the other, and in treasuring the other to be willing to engage the other, and in engaging the other to encounter them and be encountered. Love describes the relational dynamic that occurs when two or more people surrender to the magic of being known by the other, and commit to the adventure that is initiated by their mutual transparency and longing to be known.

Love is not (solely) about affection or feeling, though clearly our internal emotional systems are engaged when we love. Rather, love is about encounter — two people standing before one another and mutually surrendering their “rights” to be isolated from each other. And theology — as a discipline — does not facilitate this well. At its worst, it militates against it. It enables our default state — self-protection, isolation, self-justification, hiddenness. And I think it does this because fundamentally it is a discipline that is trying to reason what cannot be reasoned.

The greatest irony of all is that theology as a “social science” is built upon the very epistemological foundations (ways of knowing) that have enabled fallen humanity to rebuff love encounter with God.

The account of the Fall of Humanity in Genesis 3 describes the moment of man’s denial of love as the grammar of the dialogic encounter between God and man, and between man and woman. It recounts the discovery by man and woman that there might be another way to know God — and each other — and a different way to account for, if not control, life and relationships.

This alternative “way” is the way of right and wrong. Another words for this is law. Adam’s desire for the knowledge of good and evil is the desire to apply a different grammar, a different foundation and framework, to his relationship with God and with Eve. Ultimately, it is a way to control those relationships — a way to suppress, or at least avoid, the risk and vulnerability of love.

Theology, I believe, plays into the hands of fallen man in the same way any system of self-justification does — by enabling isolation, the avoidance of encounter, by adding to our “knowledge” of good and evil. It recognises the vulnerability of encounter with God, but instead of taking up arms to battle that fear and enter into love, it turns and runs the other way … into law.

And in doing so, it runs from life.

Thank God we have artists who are willing to be bold, who willingly enter the arena of love on our behalf, and sing, and write, and paint, of its pain, of its glory, of its beating, living heart. The piece that theologians potentially contribute to this endeavour is that which acknowledges and proclaims the person and event that gave such expression its purpose and grounds, its canvas, its grammar and its manuscript paper.

(This is a reworking of a previously published blog)