So last time I was appealing for courtesy and kindness in our dealings with those who we disagree with, even those we see as our ‘enemies’. Even when nothing short of God’s Truth is at stake, we need to speak and act with love and grace and compassion – for these qualities are the essence and purpose of God’s Truth.
I also noted fellow blogger Morgan Guyton’s idea about two very different approaches to holiness – either as rightness and doctrinal correctness, or else as seeking the heart of Christ. You could at a stretch characterise (or caricature) these approaches as ‘Truth’ (rightness) versus ‘Love’.
Staying with this idea, I’d like to suggest that evangelical Christians are often concerned with truth at the expense of love, whereas liberal Christians are often concerned with love at the expense of truth. It’s a caricature again, but one in which I think there’s some truth (though perhaps not so much love ;)).
Alternatively you could say that evangelicals actually define love in terms of truth; whereas liberals define truth in terms of love.
So for an evangelical, love has to be understood and practised according to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture. God’s Word – the Bible – is the arbiter which prescribes and proscribes precisely how love does and doesn’t work, what it does and doesn’t do.
By contrast, for a liberal it’s love that is utterly fundamental and non-negotiable, and truth that is secondary. Truth is never merely an abstract or objective standard, and rather has to be understood and worked out in the context of personal loving relationships. Truth has to be incarnated in love.
Unchanging truth vs dynamic love?
Perhaps one reason that those with a primary concern for the truth often tend to be conservative arises from a perception that Truth is something static, fixed, eternal and unchanging. In this view, truth is something to be preserved (at all costs); something which we keep moving away from and need to keep returning to, or keep spoiling and need to keep conserving and restoring. I don’t hold this view of truth, needless to say.
By contrast, those with a primary concern for love tend to be more radical, because love is seen to be a dynamic, moving force and a creative, unpredictable energy. Which indeed I think it is; but it is also a solid rock, a secure embrace, an unchanging faithfulness.
I suspect that most of us favour one or the other out of Truth and Love. I can see this in my own family of origin. There was at least one ‘truth’ person who believed in speaking his/her mind, often with little regard to how it made others feel. And there was also at least one ‘love’ person who valued kindness and maintaining relationship over uncomfortable honesty.
I definitely fit into the latter camp, favouring ‘love’ over ‘truth’ – though I’ll confess that this often just boils down to avoiding conflict and ‘keeping the peace’. But both approaches are faulty and incomplete by themselves.
Some time ago I wrote about two approaches to bringing up children. On one end are extremely nurturing parents who empathise with their children’s feelings but don’t help them to learn self-control or empathy for others. On the other end are extremely disciplinarian parents who teach their children self-control but do not help them listen to their feelings or develop their sense of self.
Again, it could be characterised as love-or-truth dichotomy. And again, it’s a false dichotomy which we need to transcend or surpass in order to bring up healthy, whole children who know they’re loved but also know what’s expected of them and how to treat others with love and respect.
It also strikes me that the truth/love dilemma is analogous to the ‘Word’ vs ‘Spirit’ debate between conservative evangelicals and charismatic Christians. Does the written Word of God trump, restrict and even replace the living, speaking Spirit of God, or can the Holy Spirit’s activity at times override biblical precedent and doctrine? Of course it’s not quite as simple as Word=Truth versus Spirit=Love, but there are some strong parallels.
It’s also similar to the debate between science and faith, which again could possibly be characterised (or caricatured) as Science=Truth and Faith=Love. Einstein famously commented that ‘Science without Religion is lame; Religion without Science is blind’. It seems to me that a similar verdict could be applied to the debates between ‘love’ and ‘truth’ and between ‘Word’ and ‘Spirit’. Love without Truth is blind; Truth without Love is lame. For God is both Love and Truth; and he is both Word (‘Logos’) and Spirit.
Truth and Love are completely mutually interdependent, as are Word and Spirit. They should never be divorced from one another, nor should one be set over the other as ruler or arbiter. Real truth is always loving; and real love is always based on truth. The Word is given life by the Spirit, and the Spirit acts in accordance with the Word (or with the spirit of the Word) that it inspires, for both are rooted in the same divine character. It’s both/and, not either/or; to set one against the other is to create a false and divisive dichotomy.
So Christians (particularly evangelical Christians) often see the Bible as ‘Truth’ – the source and measure of truth. But if it is, it is the truth about love, inspired by love, rooted in love, for love’s purposes. And I would argue that the Bible can only properly be understood if it is read with love – love for God, love for oneself, love for fellow humans. It is not a theoretical document from which to mine abstract truths, but a living one with which to engage deeply and personally.
And conversely, love can only properly be practised in the light of truth, Christ’s truth, the truth that sets us free and makes us real and whole and ourselves.
Evangelically liberal – love and truth
It’s perhaps in this sense then that we need Evangelical Liberals, or need to be evangelically liberal (and liberally evangelical). We need to be people both (and both equally) of Love and of Truth; people of loving truth and of truthful love. Our truth needs to be mediated by love – the amazing, endless, unconditional, inclusive, self-giving love of Christ. And equally our love needs to be grounded in truth, in reality, in honesty, in authenticity; the utter reality and truthfulness of Christ.
‘Truth’ people often like to talk about integrity, but you only have integrity when you’re fully integrated as a person. And for this you need both truth and love, interwoven, working in harmony together.
You cannot claim to love me fully if you ignore the truth about me, turning a blind eye to (or even colluding in) destructive ways in me that militate against reality, goodness and love. If I say I love you, and I’m lovely and kind to you, but I don’t say anything about (say) the affair or the abusive relationship you’re in, or your porn addiction, that’s not really loving. It falls short of true love; it’s a cheap, easy version; ‘Love Lite’.
So those who would love must learn to care for the full long-term wellbeing and spiritual health of those they love. They must realise that true love holds people to account for their actions, and for their own sake does not merely let them off the hook of their relational responsibilities.
But on the other side of the coin, those who like to tell others the ‘truth’ about their faults and failings must also learn what it feels like to have the reality of their own shortcomings pointed out to them. It’s easy to dish it out, as a self-appointed arbiter of God’s law, but much harder to receive it. What was that someone said about planks and specks in eyes…?
Love corrects but does not condemn. Those who would speak the truth must learn to care deeply about those they speak it to, to understand their situations and empathise with their feelings. You cannot claim to be representing Christ’s Truth if you only point out my faults and flaws without lovingly standing with me and helping me tackle these problems.
I would even go so far as to say that it can be spiritually abusive either to dish out ‘truth’ without genuine love or to ‘love’ without truthfulness and accountability.
God is a unity of truth and love, of justice and mercy, of holiness and compassion. His attributes are in perfect harmony, not in conflict with each other but informing and indwelling each other. Anselm put forward the doctrine of divine simplicity, that all God’s qualities are one and equal and indivisible. His truth is loving and his love is truthful.
But I’ll confess that I still secretly believe that love trumps all else. Hence why this blog is The Evangelical Liberal, not the other way round. The greatest of these is love…