Christians make the best lovers

Next week I am guest blogging every day on Zondervan’s koinonia blog (so stop by and make a comment if you’d like).  I just composed this one this morning, and before I send it in I thought I’d invite any helpful feedback that you might have.  Here it is.

I want to try out a thesis that may be controversial.  I believe that, thanks to common grace, non-Christians throughout the world love their children, care for ailing parents and spouses, and sometimes even sacrifice their lives for strangers (e.g., the New York firefighters who on 9/11 ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center while everyone else was fleeing down). 

But non-Christians perform these acts of love despite rather than because of their worldview.  I propose that the Christian faith alone supplies the rationale for altruistic love.  When Christians love others they are acting in sync with their ultimate beliefs.  When non-Christians love others they are behaving better than their beliefs allow.  They are borrowing from the Christian worldview, acting as if the Christian faith is true.

I don’t have space to address every non-Christian worldview, but I’ll briefly examine Christianity’s two largest competitors in order to demonstrate how this might go. 

1. Secular humanism:  Alvin Plantinga observes that social scientists committed to philosophical naturalism (there is no God, just nature) believe that each person seeks his own interest in a cosmic survival of the fittest.  So how to explain why some people sacrificially love others?  According to these scientists, altruistic people suffer from “docility” (they do what others tell them) and “bounded rationality” (they are dumb).  Should these scientists themselves ever genuinely love—and God help their families if they do not—they have by their own standard become stupid wimps.[1]  

2. Islam:  Muslims often show kindness to others.  But Islam is a performance-based religion grounded in fear:  do the best you can and hope that it will be enough for Allah to accept you.  While this religious system may encourage Muslims to do many good deeds, it cannot turn them into lovers.  Frightened people are too focused on themselves to put others first.  When Muslims genuinely love others, they are acting inconsistently with their religious beliefs.

What makes the Christian faith a superior ground for altruistic love?  Two things.

1. The Christian Trinity supplies the ontological ground and model for love.

Christians believe that the triune God is a community of self-giving lovers:  a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who have eternally set aside what might be in their own interests to serve the other.  When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), he was not declaring anything new, but was simply continuing the submission that the perfect Son always gave to the Father.  Likewise, the Spirit obeys both the Father and the Son (John 14:26; 15:26), and they in turn watch his back.  Jesus said that every sin will be forgiven except one:  whoever slanders the Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:31-32). 

If we are created in the image of this triune, self-giving God, then it should be the most natural thing in the world for us to love our neighbor.  Just as our triune God of love flourishes as he loves the other—first within the Godhead and then we his creatures, so we are wired to thrive as we give ourselves away.  If God is life and God is love, then we are most fully alive when we love like God.

2. The Christian story of salvation supplies the motivation for love.

Every non-Christian religion that offers personal salvation states that this salvation is obtained by doing good works.[2]  But if we are doing good works in order to earn our salvation, then these works would seem to be tinged by selfishness.  They are not entirely altruistic.

In contrast, Christians love their neighbor not to earn God’s love but because they have already received that love.  John writes that “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).  As Martin Luther explained in his classic work, The Freedom of a Christian, Christians who know that they are secure in Christ are free to selflessly serve their neighbor.  He wrote:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that it is true.  Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches?  I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.[3]

According to question two of the Heidelberg Catechism, when we understand “how great my sin and misery are,” only then can we appreciate “how I am set free from all my sins and misery,” which then automatically leads us to wonder “how I am to thank God for such deliverance.”  And thankful Christians devote themselves to good works, seeking to please God by loving their neighbor.  Grace (charis) produces gratitude (eucharistia) which produces works of love.  Can there be any other logical ground for altruism?

It is increasingly popular today to suggest that fixating on the specific, historic doctrines of the Christian faith supplies an obstacle to loving others.  How are we going to demonstrate the inclusive love of Jesus if we make others believe like us before we welcome them into the kingdom of God?

Against this rising tide of compassionate inclusivism, I propose that the historic doctrines of the Christian faith—specifically the doctrine of the Trinity and the story of salvation—supply the only logical ground for genuinely loving others.  A healthy focus on these doctrines will yield more love, not less, for Christians who truly believe in them will be appropriately motivated to sacrificially love their neighbor. 

[1] See Herbert Simon, “A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism,” Science 250 (December, 1990):  1665-68, as cited in Alvin Plantinga’s lecture “Science and Christian Belief:  Conflict or Concord?”, at The January Series of Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), January 18, 2005.

[2] Two religions, Amida Buddhism and the Ramanuja and Madhva forms of Hinduism, teach a form of grace (though not the robust kind found in Christianity that requires the death of a sinless substitute).  But neither offer salvation.  Instead, they hope for the termination of personal existence, where individuals are dissolved into the oneness of the universe.  Their free offer of personal extinction sounds more like death than anything that might count as grace. 

[3] Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd ed., ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2005), 406 (italics mine).

 


15 Comments

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  1. You’re probably shortchanging the secular humanist view just a bit. Perhaps some of them would say that altruism is weak or dumb, but most of them see it as an evolutionary advantage for a species as a whole.

    Here are some links you may find helpful:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/altruism-biological/

    http://www.emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/pdf_attachments/de%20Waal%20(2008).pdf

    http://www.livescience.com/animals/070625_chimp_altruism.html

  2. I couldn’t agree more with number one…the Christian Trinity and the model of love. (are you looking over my shoulder…if so at least say so…it seems all too familiar…but just the same…I like the view). The Father, Son and Spirit model love for one another as the divine illustration. So kudos Mike.

    But to conclude that people outside of Christianity cannot love or serve seems wrong, if not downright arrogant to me. People ‘love others’ or ‘serve humanity’ as a result of their honor, integrity, or commitment to a truth or cause. Whatever the driving force the sacrifice is real and the resulting act of love most definitely ought to be acknowledged as ‘sacrificial love’.

    To say we have a corner on the market is offensive and drives a deeper wedge between those who need Jesus and the church.

    And the ‘rising tide of compassionate inclusivism’ may be actually be unstopping our ears in order to hear…I think Jesus said something about that.

  3. Does “common grace” include being created in the image of God? In other words, is “goodness” a result of them being created in God’s image and therefore continuing to reflect something of God, or by something new God is giving them?

    If it is by virtue of them being created in God’s image, I may adjust the line that says “they are borrowing from the Christian worldview, acting as if…” to say something like “they are living as God intended them to live and Christ has redeemed us to live…” Make sense?

  4. Once again we are driven back to the question of the definition of love. How can a secular humanist define love? What is the basis for the definition or concept of love in Islam and other non-Christian religions?

    As you pointed out, the foundation for a Christian definition of love is found in the triune God. Our conception of love comes from the love we see in the Triune Godhead, and secondarily in the love expressed by that Triune God to a lost world and mankind at emnity against God. As such we accept a definition that comes from outside of ourselves.

  5. Brian:

    Thanks for your idea. I was emphasizing the epistemological ground for love–i.e., what must someone believe in order to live altruistically. That’s why I said, in typical presuppositionalist fashion, that they are unwittingly living in accord with the Christian worldview when they live altruistically. I agree with you that ontologically they retain the image of God, which is part of what enables them to love others despite their non-Christian beliefs. I’ll take another look.

    Daryl:

    I agree with you that non-Christians do acts of love. I said that right off the bat. My point is whether they have sufficient theological or philosophical grounding for such love. I don’t believe that you answered that. Maybe you could elaborate? Also, do be careful when quoting Jesus. You don’t seriously believe that “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” was a reminder that we ought to be open to the insights of other religions, do you?

    Guy:

    Thanks for the links. I’ll take a look. I’m guessing that the great Alvin Plantinga would respond to your point by saying that evolutionary advantage is inherently selfish and so undercuts the very idea of altruism. Again, secular humanists can and do very loving acts. My question is whether they have the philosophical-theological underpinnings to support such acts.

  6. Mike:

    You said it ‘right off the bat’ and then quickly dismissed it as secondary or ‘less than’…at least it felt that way to me as I read it. When you write “but non-Christians perform these acts of love despite rather than because of their worldview” and “when non-Christians love others they are behaving better than their beliefs allow ” you make some extensive assumptions about others.

    Don’t you think that most people who do the acts you described in the first paragraph do so for deeply held convictions. Dallas Willard says that we ‘act out of (or react in accord with) our belief system or convictions’ not despite them. These people may not be able to verbalize a ‘theological or philosophical grounding’ but what drives them is powerful.

    And as for the Jesus quote…it was meant to indicate that Jesus challenged the rock solid worldview of His listeners on a consistent basis. He still does. The part I believe He would have us to hear has to do with ‘compassionate inclusivism’.

    I have an idea of what folks are trying to say or do with the shift to the ‘belong–behave–believe’ model that may feel like a lowering of the bar for the sake of inclusion. While this emergence is unsettling…it is here to stay.

    Have you read Tickle’s “The Great Emergence”? I would be interested to hear what you think of some of her sweeping interpretations.

  7. This also begs a follow-up question: if you have the theology right (and I believe you do), wouldn’t it follow that Christians would be known the world over for their sacrificial acts of love–more so than the populace at large? Would you say that describes the reputation of Christians today?

  8. Please do some research before you become a judge!

    http://www.beautifulislam.net/tellmemore/god_and_love.htm

  9. Daryl:

    I wonder how you know that if Jesus was here today that he would want us to hear the message of “compassionate inclusivism.” On what basis are you making this claim? I could just as easily say to you, “Unplug your ears and listen to me–see Jesus’ words in the gospels,” but where would that get us? Your claim strikes me as entirely arbitrary and question begging.

    Since the point of my post was the beliefs that ground our actions, that is what I focused on. I didn’t dismiss non-Christian acts of love out of hand–I acknowledged them and then asked why. Per your question, I would claim that common grace is what enables non-Christians to behave better than they believe. Indeed, most people, including Christians, don’t think much if at all about the implications of what they believe–which is the point of my essay.

    I have Tickle’s book and plan to blog about it. I’ve only started it, but I am intrigued by her suggestion that dramatic cultural changes occur on a regular 500 year cycle. By my calculations, that means Cleveland will once again celebrate a team championship in 2464.

  10. Guy:

    Christians historically have had this reputation–see Tertullian’s Apology. Of course, Christians are sinners like everyone else, and too many of us are scandalously inconsistent with what we say we believe.

    I’m not sure what to make of the present situation. Certainly our reputation isn’t all that great–but I’m unsure how much is our fault and how much is not. Certainly Christians have provided plenty of fodder for ridicule, but I suspect that there are a host of ordinary Christians who don’t make it on CNN who are terrific lights in their communities. Maybe you are one?

  11. >… a host of ordinary Christians who don’t make
    >it on CNN who are terrific lights in their
    >communities. Maybe you are one?

    Oh, I assumed you could see our email addresses. It’s me–Phil. So you’re way off.

    And since you brought up Cleveland sports, this forum would be a fine place for your public apology to Shaun Rogers.

  12. Now that you’ve asked…I believe that Jesus was moved by compassion for the outcast/marginalized and frequently was included these ‘sinners’ at the table…which (as you know) has strong overtones of acceptance in Eastern culture. Who you ate with meant more then than it does today. And of course that was part of the ‘skandalon’.

    Many questioned why He would allow or sit with these people at the table. The leaders of Isreal were frequently irked with His insistent behavior to include ‘outsiders’.

    And what follows in Paul’s gospel concerning his confrontation with Peter about Peter’s insincerity at the table in the letter to Galatia seems relevant as well. I (personally) don’t believe Paul was not trying to ‘one up Peter’ or simply ‘establish his authority’ as an apostle. He was dealing with the very essence of the gospel. The narrow table of Judaism had become the wide table for the world.

    Thanks for your response of Tickle’s book. I will look forward to your insights.

  13. My best wishes to Cleveland fans! 2464 is better than never.

  14. Of course I knew it was you, Phil. I just didn’t want to blow your cover. By the way, why are you emailing Phil Savage during games? Who knew that Shaun Rogers would be the only Brown not to quit?

  15. Daryl:

    Thanks for your words. My only caveat is that Jesus’ love for the outsider/sinner–which I and every Christian must be convicted by and seek to emulate, should not be confused with soteriological inclusivism–the idea that people are saved who do not believe in Jesus. Jesus said that sinners must believe in him to be saved (John 3:16-18), and I am not compelled to disagree with him. He who has ears to hear! (sorry, I mean that as our inside joke).

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