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.  

 

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Divine Love and the Cloud of Unknowing, Part Three

In which St. Augustine and a medieval mystic show us how it’s done, and we realize John Lennon was plagiarizing both of them…

I ended the previous part of this meditationSaint_Augustine_by_Philippe_de_Champaigne on this note: if we want to be in communion, fully, with God, and know that what we’re communing with is God and not something else that we’re mistaking for God (like Ebenezer Scrooge’s bit of underdone potato, or, what is the more common, our own God-concept, our theology of God rather than God), we have to somehow get in touch with that strange inexpressible thing that exists in the gap between what we can understand and symbolize and what God is in all His fullness. It’s not even something we can think; we can only sort of vaguely and inadequately conceive of it as a sort of formless, massless, non-thing-ish thingy, and we can only to that through metaphors that don’t do it justice. But one metaphor might be that of something we can get our mind around that is both formless but undeniably there–like a cloud. A cloud of what? A cloud made up of something we don’t know and can’t symbolize, but yet still sense somehow, so it’s not a cloud of nothing. It’s a cloud of something we can’t know–a Cloud of Unknowing–the title of a fourteenth century treatise on mysticism.

The good news–quite literally–in this case is that God has already made this possible by accomplishing what was discussed in the first part of this meditation  the incarnation, where all that fullness, in a great and mysterious action, became one and the same thing as an embodied human being. That’s why the incarnation is so important. It means human and God can in fact be made one.

At the same time, that gap between what we can know and what God is is still there, so what takes us the rest of the way? It can’t be understanding. It can’t be knowledge. It can’t be human effort under its own steam.

But what might happen if we try to get to the point where we can work through those things: start with what we can sense, move up through what we can understand and symbolize, precisely in order to be so aware of those things that we can come into some kind of contact with that realm beyond it. Get past sense and signification so that we’re stretching our intent entirely toward that “Cloud of unknowing?”

St. Augustine gives us an interesting glimpse into what something like that might be like. The moment happens at a point where Augustine, after his conversion, is sitting in a garden, having a conversation with his mother:

From Confessions, Book Nine (New Advent Trans.):

We then were conversing alone very pleasantly; and, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, Philippians 3:13 we were seeking between ourselves in the presence of the Truth, which You are, of what nature the eternal life of the saints would be, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. But yet we opened wide the mouth of our heart, after those supernal streams of Your fountain, the fountain of life, which is with You; that being sprinkled with it according to our capacity, we might in some measure weigh so high a mystery.

And when our conversation had arrived at that point, that the very highest pleasure of the carnal senses, and that in the very brightest material light, seemed by reason of the sweetness of that life not only not worthy of comparison, but not even of mention, we, lifting ourselves with a more ardent affection towards the Selfsame, did gradually pass through all corporeal things, and even the heaven itself, whence sun, and moon, and stars shine upon the earth; yea, we soared higher yet by inward musing, and discoursing, and admiring Your works; and we came to our own minds, and went beyond them, that we might advance as high as that region of unfailing plenty, where You feed Israel for ever with the food of truth, and where life is that Wisdom by whom all these things are made, both which have been, and which are to come; and she is not made, but is as she has been, and so shall ever be; yea, rather, to have been, and to be hereafter, are not in her, but only to be, seeing she is eternal, for to have been and to be hereafter are not eternal. And while we were thus speaking, and straining after her, we slightly touched her with the whole effort of our heart; and we sighed, and there left bound the first-fruits of the Spirit; Romans 8:23 and returned to the noise of our own mouth, where the word uttered has both beginning and end. And what is like Your Word, our Lord, who remains in Himself without becoming old, and makes all things new? Wisdom 7:27

We were saying, then (my trans):

If the roar of flesh fell silent

silent the phantasms of earth,‭ ‬water,‭ ‬air,

silent the heavens

silent the very soul to itself,

so that it passes beyond itself,

not knowing itself‭;

If dreams quieted‭

‬and imagination,

and all tongues,

every sign,

each transient thing

just stopped–

since,‭ ‬if one hears,‭ ‬all things say this:

‏>“‎not for ourselves were we made

but for he who made us who dwells in eternity‭”‬–

and,‭ ‬having aroused the ear

of Him who made them,

they quieted down,

and He spoke:

Himself only,

so that we heard the Word Himself

not through carnal tongue

nor voice of angels

nor sound of a cloud,

nor cryptic metaphor–

If we heard only Him,

who we love through these things

but without them

(just as now

we strain

and in a lightning thought

touch eternal wisdom

dwelling above all‭)

And if this could continue,

purging all other visions

of far inferior birth,

and this alone ravish and absorb

the spectator,‭ ‬hide him

in inward joys,

so that eternal life was this moment

of understanding:

Isn‭’‬t this,‭ ‬and this alone:

‏“‎Enter into the joy of your Lord‭?”

What Augustine does, here, is give us a fascinating dual movement: he starts by sort of listing out all of the things through which we can begin to experience some sense of God through his sensible creation: the natural world, through which we have evidence of God’s activity–something that points toward God but is not itself God. Symbols that help us explain our conceptions of God but don’t express God himself. Even God speaking to us in words we can understand as words. Then he asks a really amazing question:

What if, for a single moment, all that stuff just shut up? What if all that fell silent and we just felt pure, unmediated communion with the thing all those symbols point toward but aren’t? What if we didn’t have to understand or experience God through these things (like pesky middlemen), but were right there, being with God as God?

Then he asks: What if that single moment–which he’d just experienced with his mom–wasn’t just a single, beautiful moment? What if it stretched out infinitely, an eternal, un-mediated being-present with the divine?

And the final humdinger: Wouldn’t that be heaven?

Notice that while Augustine didn’t get quite that far–to heaven, that is–he did get to that moment that, if stretched out infinitely, would be heaven. So what he he can achieve in this existence isn’t itself heaven–but it’s a a piece of it.

So how does one actually come to be in such a state? To commune with that part of God we cannot know?

Augustine gives us a glimpse: he and his mother start by being fully present in a moment with one another, and consider all those sense-able and knowable things we most often use to know and relate to God, but are present with them so completely that they are able to move beyond them into that space of what can’t be known.

So how, then might real people (who aren’t, you know, St. Augustine) reach toward this kind of communion? And how do we know that what we’re communing with is really the divine, and not something else?

Another mystic, the anonymous writer of a fourteenth-century Middle English treatise on mysticism called the Cloud of Unkowing perhaps helps us understand this process a little better. The Cloud author recognizes that “Cloud of Unknowing”, and his basic method is not to lament that there are things about God we cannot understand, but rather to stretch our awareness directly and fully to that “Cloud:”

Lette not therfore, bot travayle [work] therin tyl thou fele lyst [motivated, desirous]. For at the first tyme when thou dost it, thou fyndest bot a derknes, and as it were a cloude of unknowyng, thou wost [knows] never what, savyng that thou felist in thi wille a nakid entent unto God. This derknes and this cloude is, howsoever thou dost, bitwix thee and thi God, and letteth [hinders] thee that thou maist not see Him cleerly by light of understonding in thi reson, ne fele Him in swetnes of love in thin affeccion.

The Cloud author’s most basic and brilliant observation is that, while, as I’ve mentioned above, God in all his fullness cannot be known by a human mind, knowledge isn’t the only, or even necessarily the best, tool we have when it comes to relating to God:

For of alle other creatures and theire werkes — ye, and of the werkes of God self — may a man thorou grace have fulheed of knowing, and wel to kon [know] thinke on hem [them]; bot of God Himself can no man thinke. And therfore I wole leve al that thing that I can think, and chese [choose] to my love that thing that I cannot think. For whi He may wel be loved, bot not thought. By love may He be getyn and holden; bot bi thought neither. And therfore, thof al [although] it be good sumtyme to think of the kyndnes and the worthines of God in special, and thof al it be a light and a party of contemplacion, nevertheles in this werk it schal be casten down and keverid with a cloude of forgetyng. And thou schalt step aboven it stalworthly [stalwartly, bravely], bot listely [carefully], with a devoute and a plesing stering [stirring] of love, and fonde for to peerse that derknes aboven thee. And smyte apon that thicke cloude of unknowyng with a scharp darte of longing love, and go not thens for thing that befalleth.

Notice that what the contemplative is doing here is essentially reaching out toward that Cloud with loving intention, to “smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love”. Obviously that’s not going to get one all the way. But it does act as a way of clearing one’s consciousness of all the other matters–sensible and symbolic–that can’t lead toward that full relationship. And the good news–literally once again–is that the incarnation means that we do not need to complete the task under our own steam. What happens when we enter that contemplative state is that we clear the air of things that make us less receptive to the force that works the other direction, God’s own grace and mercy:

And therfore schap [determine] thee to bide in this derknes as longe as thou maist, evermore criing after Him that thou lovest; for yif ever schalt thou fele Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth alweis be in this cloude and in this derknes. And yif thou wilte besily travayle [diligently work] as I bid thee, I triste in His mercy that thou schalt come therto.

By stretching that loving intent and desire for God directly toward that Cloud of Unknowing, we put ourselves as purely as possible in the way of grace, and grace takes it the rest of the way.

A blessed Christmas to all.