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Published on Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Postmodern Flaw in the Theology of Love

The classic interpretation of Paul's dictum ("So there are faith, hope and love... but the greatest of these is love") is that a theology of love is primary, and faith and hope flow from the experience of love. But for postmodern people, love is either absent, fleeting, or unobtainable. So in postmodern context, hope is primary. First we must have a theology of hope, and then faith and love will flow from that.

Many baby boomers will remember the refrain: They’ll know we are Christian by our love!  And many will tell you that they left the church precisely because there was so little real love to be found there … just ingroup sentimentality that lacked any sense of accountability. Nevertheless, the mantra of love continued in their spirituality. God is love … love is God. The very thought of God should magically induce love for our neighbor, and love for our neighbor should be sufficient for our understanding of God’s nature and activity. Many baby boomers would find this a perfect excuse to doubt God’s existence or at the very least God’s power, since social justice and universal love seemed so transitory and perhaps impossible. The absence of love proved the absence of God. God was limited to the little circle defined by one’s network of “love”, and ultimately confined to the extension of any individual’s benevolence. I am God. Or at least, God is dependent on my good will to have any existence at all. For some that is a moral imperative to do justice, but for most it is permission to do whatever feels good at the time.


But the postmodern critique of the theology of love goes deeper than just baby boomer sentimentality and fear of accountability. Consider, for example, the perspective of Anders Nygren and John Wesley. These interpreters of Lutheran and Methodist traditions might disagree on a number of points, but agreed with St. Paul in believing that among faith, hope and love, the greatest principle was love. Love generated both faith and hope. The experience of God’s unconditional love imparted faith as a gift and generated hope for the future.


I suggest one radical shift in the postmodern world is that love is no longer the point of entry for spiritual travelers and committed Christians. That entry point is hope.


I observe that spiritual travelers search for hope first and foremost. They gather around a cause, a reason to be optimistic, and a way to find strength and courage for the future. Loving relationships may come as friendships are born around a common cause … but it is the common cause and not the relationships that keeps them going. Relationships without a cause plateau, stagnate, and become trivial.


I think the same is true about relationship with God. Postmodern people come to God primarily as a source of hope. Recognition and relationship, love, may come also, but only in the context of hope. God promises deliverance, God delivers. God is the ground of being and the power of being. God provides courage for life. But it is only in the experience of the power of God that the identity of God becomes manifest. We put a face to the experience and discover love within and behind hope.


This is quite different from ecclesiastical theology, and certainly contrary to Baby Boomer assumptions about the need for relationships. We do not know God and then hope; we hope and meet God. We do not see God through our neighbor; we reevaluate our neighbor through our experience of God. We do not have faith because God loves us, but we have faith because God gives us hope. Hope is the primary gift. Faith is secondary.


One might argue that hope, faith, and love are still a trinity of key theological concepts, and that it doesn’t matter in what order they occur. But it does matter. Looking for love is ultimately futile, and eventually leaders to skepticism (i.e. there is no real love to be found) and depression (i.e. the real presence of God is constantly in doubt). The more the church concentrates on love the more it declines. Looking for hope, however, is more productive.  The quest for hope leads to trust (i.e. optimism even when there seems to be no help on the horizon) and courage (i.e. confidence that one will find the strength to persevere). And one day you meet God face-to-face and exclaim: So that’s who you are! And you see humankind in a new light: And that’s who you are!


And that, I think, is what Paul means by saying now we look through a glass darkly, and yet face to face; and now we know in part, but only later will we know fully; because while we will never know the truth about God, God know the truth about us. Faith, hope, and love are important, but the greatest of these (in the postmodern world) is hope. Love and Faith come later.

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