Love is Never A Mistake: Christ and Augustine on “Doctrinal Correctness”

Note: I wrote this post in early July of 2017, only a few days after I’d been told by my surgeon that I had four blocked arteries and would need major surgery. I wrote this only a day or two before the surgery, not knowing if I would live to write another. I asked myself “if there’s only one thing I have time to say publicly, what would it be?” This was what came out. Nine months later, I’m still here, my health mostly recovered. I get to read more, think more, say more, for which I’m more grateful than I can express. But had this turned out to be the last thing I published, I’d be okay with that.

I’m not a theologian. Let’s take care of that one straight off the bat.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_033

I’m fascinated by theology, and love to read about it, discuss it, think about it–but at the end of the day, as a believing layman, I sometimes find myself wanting to simplify rather than complicate that belief. What does it really boil down to be a Christian believer in the world? When all the interesting theological thinking is done, what do I actually do to act on whatever belief I hold? Is there a simple principle that can guide my thought and action?

Luckily, it seems to me that there really is, stated in flatly unambiguous terms by my faith’s own central figure, in the Gospel of Mark:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’–this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:28-34, NRSV)

The Bible is often a difficult text, rife with passages that require a lot of study and very careful interpretation, and upon which scholars have legitimate confusions and disagreements. But this isn’t one of those passages. It’s stone-cold clear: a scribe asks, essentially, “of all the various tenets of our faith, which one is the most important, the one that should trump all the others?” Jesus gives a twofold answer with stark clarity:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Boom. That’s it, folks, right from the Big Guy himself: the idea that that, of everything that we might think, believe, or do, this twofold commandment is the trump card. The concept that takes precedence over all the others.

St. Augustine usefully combines both these concepts into a single term, caritas.

Caritas is a Latin word, which is the root of the English word “charity”, but for Augustine means much more. He means precisely the two qualities Christ marks as the Most Important Thing Of All in Mark 12:

Caritas=Love of God and Neighbor

Augustine unpacks the importance of this concept in one of my all-time favorite books, called the De Doctrina Christiana (Concerning Christian Doctrine). The De Doctrina is ostensibly a book about how one should go about translating the Christian scriptures, but it also goes beyond that: it’s not just about linguistic translation, but about how the content of the scriptures–the Gospel itself–is best translated into our lives and cultures. How do we translate Caritas into everything we do?

Interestingly, Augustine takes the concept of Caritas as both his starting point and his main “razor” for both linguistic and cultural translation. In essence, he says that the end of scripture, its most important purpose, is exactly what Jesus says it is in Mark 12: caritas. Consequently, the most important rule of Biblical translation, for Augustine, is that any translation of scripture must ultimately convey that caritas. Even when we think we understand something in scripture, but our understanding does not lead to caritas, something is wrong:

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all [boldface mine]…However…if he is deceived in an interpretation that builds up charity [i.e. caritas], which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.1

In other words, for Augustine, if one’s translation of scripture does not, ultimately, point toward and demonstrate love of God and love of Neighbor, that indicates that something is wrong, no matter how correct you might believe your translation to be. On the other hand, even if you make a mistake, if that mistake itself leads to the love of God and Neighbor, you’ve done little harm, as though you got lost in the middle of a journey but still wound up at the right destination anyway.

To put it even more simply: A mistake that still leads to caritas beats something you’re convinced is correct but doesn’t lead to caritas, every time.

To put it even more simply than that: love is the trump card. If what we believe or do does not show and result in love, something is wrong, no matter how right we think we might be. If what we believe or do is mistaken, but still shows and results in love, then, at least, we’ve still ultimately managed to do the right thing. We did it in spite of ourselves, perhaps, but we still did it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that too many believers (myself included, sometimes) have become stuck in the idea that right belief–what we might call “doctrinal correctness,” is the most important aspect of our faith. I suspect this is because it’s easier to create a laundry list of propositions and then mentally check them off (“yep, believe that, check; okay, believe that other thing, check…”) than it is to make sure we’re truly showing and promoting love of God and Neighbor in everything we do. I see it in my own dealings with fellow believers on social media, when I snark at people who I think are wrong. I see it in the accusations that fly back and forth over issues like positions on the status of LGBTQ persons or gender roles: “you can’t really be a Christian if you believe x or y.”

But according to Christ himself, that’s not really the question, is it? What makes someone a Christian, at the end of the day, is our ability to demonstrate love for God and Neighbor. Period. If we don’t do that, we’re not succeeding, no matter how correct we might think we are. When I snark at someone with whom I disagree, I’m not doing it right, no matter how right I think I am. If I try, as a believer, to “convict” someone of something I believe is wrong or sinful behavior, and that person winds up walking away feeling more shamed than loved, I have failed, no matter how correct I think my belief about his/her behavior might be. If that person walks away feeling loved, I’ve succeeded, whether my belief about that person’s behavior is correct or not. If I’m not sure whether my words or behavior toward another person are right, or if I’m not sure whether my belief is correct, erring on the side of love is never, ultimately, an error.

It’s a freeing principle for we imperfect people, and easy to remember:

When in doubt, love. When  not in doubt, be more concerned about showing love than being right. Love is never, ever, a mistake.


  1. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), pp. 30-31.  

 

Proximaplexy

Inaugurating a new blog with a brief series of posts on a topic that’s become increasingly fascinating to me of late: the idea of the neighbor. Starting with, well, one of that idea’s earlier and more significant theorists…

Jesus Christ doesn’t generally get the credit he deserves for being an interesting theorist.

One of my favorite moments in this vein is the parable of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke. Therein, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a deceptively logocentric-seeming question: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer appropriately answers with the old Levitical saw: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the answer, but the Lawyer–pushing his luck, and, according to Luke, wanting to “justify himself,” asks, with what I always imagine as a smug, know-it-all smirk, what he thinks a clever question: “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with the well-known parable, which deconstructs the Lawyer’s glib question in a manner that would make Derrida envious. The parable does this by pulling the rug out from under the lawyer’s question, rendering the quesiton absurd in relation to the command. To accomplish this, Jesus brilliantly reverses the expected subject-object relation in the story: the lawyer, after all, is asking to whom he should be a neighbor, which might lead one to expect a parable in which a Judean, like the lawyer, is the one in a position to be neighborly. Jesus turns that position on its ear, making the Judean in the story the object rather than the subject, the one in need of a neighbor, not the one in a position to be one. The Judean protagonist of the parable, then, watches as his compatriots in the upper echelons of the society of which he is a part, using a twisted concept of their own law, wind up ruling out their own most obvious neighbor (a fellow orthodox Judean Jew) as such. That, of course, is precisely what the lawyer was attempting to do with his question: rule out potential neighbors. After all, the question “who is my neighbor” assumes that the command hinges on a differentiation between two sides of a binary: those who are one’s neighbors, and those who are not. Jesus, in his response, out-Derridas Derrida by not only showing that the lawyer is engaging in binary thinking and that his binary is far from stable, but also in showing that binary thinking itself lies entirely outside the discursive and ethical universe of the commandment in question. In terms of the way in which the lawyer applies his own law, the one in need of a neighbor is ruled out as such by members of his own community. He even rules himself out: if the protagonist in the parable is a stand-in for the lawyer, then he is as ritually unclean to himself as he is to the Levite and the Priest. Applying the question “who is my neighbor?” to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, then, excludes the lawyer-protagonist from both neighborhood and selfhood.

Jesus provides a solution to this dilemma in the figure of the Samaritan. It is important that Jesus identifies him as such–through a cultural label–as doing so creates an ironic, needling reference to the very kind of cultural exclusion and categorization the lawyer, through his question, wants to apply to the neighbor: the Samaritan is a member of a cultural “them” as opposed to the laywer’s “us.” Samaritans were regarded by Judeans as practitioners of a heretical perversion of Judaism, unclean, despised, possibly violent and dangerous. That categorization makes it all the more astonishing that the Samaritan in the story disregards all such categories and simply identifies with the protagonist in his suffering humanity. His action is a bit like a benign version of a return of the Freudian repressed: the repressed other that the subject has excluded in order to reify his own subjectivity comes back not to haunt the subject, but to rescue him and return him to wholeness.

Jesus then proceeds to further trap the lawyer with the flaws in his own thinking, asking him who acted like a neighbor in the story. Unable to bring himself to say the dirty word “Samaritan,” the lawyer responds, “the one who showed mercy.” It’s a great moment: Jesus here actually banks on the lawyer’s own exclusionary thinking precisely in order to force him out of it, rhetorically cornering him to the point that he has to admit that neighborliness has nothing to do with exclusive categorization, but rather with acts of mercy that have no regard for category. The parable points to the paradox the lawyer’s question is meant to mask: to ask to whom the commandment to love the neighbor applies is to break the commandment before the attempt is made to follow it. Jesus thus exposes the lawyer’s question as the rhetorical dodge that it is; the question shows not that he is interested in learning how to follow what he admits is the highest commandment under his own law, but that he has already decided not to.

Thus we learn the danger of attempting to out-theorize the Supreme Being.