Rachel Held Evans had a powerful set of posts last week detailing her problems with what she described as “the scandal of the evangelical heart.” She noted the often disturbing lengths to which evangelical Calvinists such as John Piper, Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll have gone to affirm the bigness and sovereignty of God, ascribing to him atrocities and tragedies that, were they correct, would turn God into a monster.
Rachel notes that many have criticized what I’ll call establishment evangelicalism for its anti-intellectual strain. She instead focuses on its stunning lack of grace, love or compassion.
But the questions that have weighed most heavily on me these past ten years have been questions not of the mind but of the heart, questions of conscience and empathy. It was not the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” that rocked my faith; it was the scandal of the evangelical heart. …
For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?
In a followup post, she quotes from readers, one of whom makes a point similar to what I’ve argued on this blog before:
If “God is Love” is something that cannot be fathomed by our emotional understanding of love, then that verse has little meaning outside of any context people wish to place upon it. And placing a context upon ‘love’ that lies outside of our emotional understanding diminishes Christ’s loving sacrifice.
Rachel’s purpose in these posts is to defend the existence and use of emotion in our faith, and I certainly have no problems with that.
But I also want to affirm that love is not only emotion; those of us who are more “head” types than “heart” types can get this, too. Because “love” has a definition, as do “grace” and “mercy” and “forgiveness.” Definitions and the contexts they create are the currency of communication. Without a stable definition, words lose their meaning and communication is worthless.
God chooses to reveal who he is in many ways – the councils and creeds of the church, through the study of his creation, through our own interactions with him, etc. – but the primary means of revelation he chose was through written communication, a testimony of his people describing whom they thought he is and what they thought he does. That communication fails if we abandon the accepted definitions of the words God inspired his followers to use.
There are certainly pieces of the Bible in which God is described exactly how Piper and Mohler and Driscoll and many others describe him: angry, capricious, inconsistent, arbitrary. And those passages do us a service by providing the language we need when we feel attacked by life – and therefore by God – without reason. But confusing those passages as straightforward, literal descriptions of God himself, rather than the incomplete attempts of a culture-bound people to describe as best they could the God they thought they knew using the categories available to them, is the first step to Marcionism. Because the God of violence and death and unmitigated rage found in pieces of the Old Testament is simply incompatible with the God in the New Testament who himself takes on the violence and rage and death of the world to reconnect us to himself.
So, yes, our emotional conception of love – the one every healthy person shares to at least some extent – can and should be a measure against which we determine how God acts. And so, too, can and should our intellectual definition of love. We know what love looks like, both because we have experienced it and because we can understand it. It’s defined in the Bible, it’s defined in our humanity, and it’s defined in our hearts. God is love, and love is good.