Christianity is Love

    Christianity is the assertion that love is the most powerful force in the universe.

    Of course, when we talk about love, all kinds of ideas come to mind, from romance to hippies to powerful feelings about ice cream. (And by the way, if you don’t have those, I’m not sure you’re fully human.) But Christianity has always understood love as much more than emotions, instincts, or feelings. So let’s start by proposing a technical definition of ‘love’:

    Love is the reconciliation of differing interests

    When we step into this technical understanding, it becomes clear that love is essential at all kinds of scales.

    Certainly, love is what allows a family, a community, a society, or a civilization to function.

    But it is also foundational to simply being alive. What is multicellular life but the cooperation of vast numbers of smaller beings? What is an ecosystem but the interlocking relationships of creatures of all sizes and kinds?

    Love is even what allows a mind to function. By reconciling its internal, conflicting interests, a mind can operate in the world. Failure to reconcile those interests is what we call insanity.

    What’s distinctive about Christianity is that it doesn’t simply suggest that love is good, or that we should be loving—it suggests that love has unlimited reach. There is no limit to how broadly love should be applied. Love is infinite—“God is love”, as it states in the New Testament.

    Some people have a tendency to read that statement as simply saying that “God is loving”, that God has love as one of his attributes. But I wonder if we should read it more literally. I’ve already argued that the substance of civilization and society and community is love. I’ve argued that the substance of our own minds is love, as well. Why, then, can’t God’s substance be love?

    In fact, the concept of the trinity is just such a claim. By defining God as a community of three persons, eternally locked together in a loving embrace (or, a dance, as the Orthodox would have it), love becomes the very substance and essence of what God is.

    It seems to go without saying that Christianity extends this all-encompassing philosophy of love to ethics. As Jesus says when asked about the greatest commandment of the Law:

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. On this hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

    As I read this, Jesus is saying that these two commands sum up the whole thing. Everything else is an extrapolation of these two points. Paul makes this even more explicit:

    “Do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery…and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

    All of the New Testament writers consistently held this idea: The entire collection of instructions in what we call the Old Testament were simply applications of love for a specific time and place. When that time and place were no longer relevant, those rules no longer applied, but love remained constant.

    Similarly, the instructions we read in the New Testament were not intended as universal ethical principles, but were applications of love for a very particular context. This is apparent even in format: unlike the books of the Old Testament, the majority of the New Testament consists of letters written to specific groups of people.

    Of course, love is no more apparent than in the central image of the Christian story—the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    This image has been incredibly compelling throughout history, and yet, people have a tough time making sense of it. As a result, all kinds of analytical thought is poured into what are called “atonement theories”—ideas on how to explain this event in a logical, or economic, or legal way.

    But the image itself, and what it means, are clear.

    Resurrection is the triumph of life over death. And when we understand Jesus as the embodiment of love, then his resurrection is nothing less than a demonstration that love is the most powerful force in the universe.

    This point becomes clearer when we look at the world of the Gospels themselves.

    Jesus spent his ministry preaching love as the ultimate power. But the Roman Empire saw itself as the ultimate power, and it understood that power to come from wielding violence—as expressed most clearly in the practice of crucifixion. In a crucifixion, Rome could simultaneously destroy their enemies, and strike fear into the hearts of everyone around.

    So when Rome nails Jesus to the cross, we’re seeing a showdown between two claims about ultimate power. A person who claims that love is ultimate, is going up against an empire which claims that death and violence is ultimate. And both sides are bringing only their own favored weapons.

    Of course, Rome killed Jesus, and assumed that they had won.

    But soon, people were claiming otherwise—claiming, in fact, that Rome could not keep its victims dead. This was a blow to the heart of their power: if violence cannot guarantee that its victims stay dead, it cannot guarantee anything at all. Violence is left utterly powerless.

    If Jesus was raised, then love has defeated violence, fear, and death—not to mention a world empire. Love is truly the most powerful force in the universe.

    From the earliest moments, Christians talked about the resurrection in exactly this way.

    This is what Christianity is about. Whether it’s ethics, our understanding of God, our thoughts about the future, or the central image of the Christian story—it’s all love, from first to last. Every bit of it is an attempt to explain, demonstrate, or extrapolate on love.