by Mark Hertenstein
Mark Hertenstein is an alumnus of the Boston College class of 2014. As an undergraduate, he double majored in classics and theology, and he wrote The Torch’s monthly Protestant Perspective column. He is currently studying for a M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and is preparing for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America.
Recently, I have been obsessed with that phrase in the First Epistle of John, “God is love.” Besides my theological desire to parse it to death (as we are want to do), I now have a renewed and more energetic desire, motivated by the question it raises.
If God is love, have we been doing theology wrong, and have we been doing ministry wrong?
When I was able to be in ministry this past summer, I was told one of the simplest things that has meant a great deal to my approach as a minister and as a theologian: “They don’t care about what you know until they know that you care.”
How true this is! People don’t care that you know about how to pray until they know that you are willing to struggle even now with them through prayer. They don’t care that you know about sexual ethics until they know that you care about them more than their mistake, or that you care about them enough not to recoil as if they are a dirty rag. They don’t care about what you know until they know that you care about them.
Too often, I have found, we start theology in the wrong place. We start from truth and being and other categories, not from what is the fundamental revelation of God. We start with God as He is. But we miss that any discussion of God (as He is) must start with what God first says of Himself. And that is the message that God is love.
Too often in pastoral ministry, people (especially outside of ministry) think we should start with a set of propositional truths, and then proceed to apply them to people in the abstract. The last time I checked, however, there are no abstract people walking around. There are very real people with very real concerns that do not fit in our neatly configured categories of theologizing. That means the problem is not with them; the problem is with us who put boxes up in the first place.
Theology should not be done outside the concerns and confines of the Church. Theology and practice belong together, and they always are together whether we realize it or not. The Church’s first word is Jesus Christ, and the same should be said of theology and practice, if only we realized that it means we start with God as God who first loves. And that Word is spoken both in word and practice.
“Pastoral” should not be a dirty word in theology, as if it is somehow devoid of any theology in all respects; it is the very practice of what theology does, and so practice should also define what we then say in theology! We have entirely messed up if we believe that if the way the world works is contrary to the categories we set up, then the problem is always with the world and never with our neat little boxes in which we have put both God and people (how loving, just, and merciful indeed…).
It is no wonder that many proponents of traditional Christianity cannot get a word in; they remove themselves from being able to speak at all since they do not speak out of love, or they speak out of a skewed view of it.
The problem is not that people are not receptive to the Christian message; that the world out there is no longer receptive as it once was; that we must now fight it. The problem is that we present an idol to them, not the gospel; indeed, we sometimes wield that idol as a weapon.
The problem is not that people do not make proper categories about reflecting on their experiences or mistakes or sins, or that they are not thinking about things “the right way.” The problem is that we do not address the problem by thinking it into submission; we address the problem the same way God does – love.
The problem is not that people in our society need to see compassion and sympathy in order to take seriously the Christian message of the gospel; if anything, that is a sign that all is well with us as human beings! We theologians and ministers have forgotten that.
There is something oddly beautiful about that fact, that we must first be shown love and show love in order for the truth to enter and change us and others. There is something beautiful that as ministers of God, we should imitate the way in which God has come to us- in love. The truth only comes out of love itself.
It is, in fact, the beautiful icon of God who is love, and human beings who are the image of that God, not the idol of theologians and philosophers.