Fighting for Love
What the World Needs Now It Hardly Knows
I am writing one week before the presidential election, and although I have no idea what its outcome will be, I know that Christians will be called upon as always to fulfill the two great commandments, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The second commandment, Jesus says, is like unto the first, and many a Christian will say, correctly, that unless we love our neighbors, we do not love God, for "he that hateth his brother is in darkness" (1 John 2:11). What is harder for us to see is that unless we love God, we will not love our neighbors either. Here we verge upon the mysteries of God's grace, for many a man will by grace be moved to love, even though he does not know it is God who works upon him.
We cannot see into the individual man's soul. We can, however, observe the spirit of a culture, when God delivers it over to "a reprobate mind," and the people grow malignant, perverse, and cold in love, "without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful" (Rom. 1:28,31). Such is ours now, implacable, unmerciful, and unneighborly in the extreme. Every statue of an old and all-too-human benefactor or hero that comes tumbling down is a memorial raised to our intolerance, our unwillingness to forgive. We find fault where there is fault to find, and we are glad to find it, because we have so little that is virtuous and beautiful to show on our own account.
A Hope Now Hardly Conceivable
"Love is Love," say the angry signs, but where is this vaunted Love? That which was once the longed-for hope of a Christian culture is hardly conceivable now. Picture a debauched young man, dying at the side of the wife whom he has betrayed and abused, whom he had driven to flee him with their young son. She has now returned to tend to him, body and soul. When she begs him to think of the goodness of God, he cries out, "What is God? I cannot see Him or hear Him. God is only an idea."
She will not let him go. If the idea of infinite wisdom, power, goodness, and love is too vast, "if your mind loses itself in its overwhelming infinitude," she says, "fix it on Him who condescended to take our nature upon Him, who was raised to Heaven even in His glorified body, in whom the fullness of the Godhead shines."
No man at the point of death and judgment wants to hear about Jesus reduced to a very fine teacher, even the wisest who ever lived. Nor does he want to hear about a Jesus who had a loving heart. He needs Jesus Himself, he needs to hear that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
Anne Brontë, in that climactic scene from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), does not make it clear that the sinner repented, but she has her heroine write in hope,
not only from a vague dependence on the penitence and pardon that might have reached him at the last, but from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass—whatever fate awaits it, still, it is not lost, and God, who hateth nothing that He hath made, will bless it in the end!
I am not a universalist, nor do I want to broach the issue here. My point is that Miss Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman, could write such words only because she trusted that her readers would understand them, and that they too, in their inmost hearts, could imagine holding out a similar hope for the worst sinners among them, even for themselves. They could also understand why the woman would return to tend to the man who had darkened her life. To see that we do not understand these things, one might watch the most recent film adaptation of the novel (1996), whence all of the biblical allusions have been scrubbed; scenes of brutality, lust, wrath, and resentment dominate; and the actors and actresses cannot render any credible portrayal of what Paul calls "natural affection," even the most natural affection between man and woman.
Sunk Beneath Idolatry
Here is our situation, as I see it. We are called to bring the love of God to what has largely ceased to be a human culture. We preach not to the old idolators who were seeking God but got him wrong. We preach to people who have sunk beneath idolatry; who have strangled liberty with liberty, acknowledging no laws but those they make themselves, and none too consistently at that; who have, as Solzhenitsyn's peasant said, "forgotten God," and who have as a consequence forgotten man; who produce no great art of their own, and try to deface or bury the art of the past; who sing no hymns, or songs of love.
We must do so among lonely and dispirited people, for whom the slightest taste of love, even when mingled with corruption and wickedness, is like a drink of water to someone dying of thirst in a desert. That will demand from us great patience, tolerance, and prudence. We will be tempted to let the water be adulterated, so long as we deliver the drink. We will be tempted to withhold any drink at all, lest it be adulterated. We will be tempted to tell or to condone lies. We will be tempted to let pleasantness pass for kindness, and wishful hoping pass for an earnest desire to heal.
"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness," says Jesus, "and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33). Perhaps by means of these things, the good things of a healthy human life and culture, we may begin to attract the lost souls of our time. If they cannot at first be moved to love God, perhaps they may be moved by the beautiful and life-affirming goodness of the human things, what they have lost. Who knows? They may even begin to understand the literature of their own language. Nor will it be the first time that God has led souls to him by the merest reflection of his glory.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius Press, 2019). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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