Next Saturday (June 20), I’ll be debating with Myles and SuperLutheran over at The Godcast. No doubt, we will rehash episode 119, where they attempted to take down Holy Nihilism — or at least a video summary of one argument from the book — but I’m hoping to delve into the subject of Christianity in a broader and more general way:
What is the spirit of Christianity?
One of their complaints was their perception that I was cherry-picking verses to support my own position. But I want to flip the question: every Christian believes that some verses are clearly more important than others. When asked, I’d wager that most Christians believe that Exodus 20:1-17 is more important than Exodus 19 or Exodus 21. Most Christians, I imagine, would say that John 3:16 is the most important verse.
But I think that there is one passage that maybe supersedes even these in importance, and that is Matthew 22:34-40:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”
To begin with, the words are those of Jesus, not of Jesus’ disciple John. Therefore as a summary, they are more primary, more direct. Moreover, Jesus explicitly states these two commandments as a summary of the Law (the Bible), whereas with John 3:16, the summarizing quality is merely surmised by readers.
But the true value of this passage is in the emergence of an apparent paradox: if the Christian is to love God with all of his heart, how can he love his neighbor? For love is a matter of attention and care, and is therefore zero-sum: any love reserved for one’s neighbor is love not directed to God, and therefore falls short of the first commandment. Yet Jesus says the second commandment is like the first, and if one is commanded to love one’s neighbor as oneself, this surely implies some degree of love above loving neither…
How can one fulfill both of these commandments simultaneously?
There is a resolution to this paradox, one which — I believe — gets to the very heart of Christian spirituality… but which utterly destroys any delusions that Christianity is about, or even compatible with, a love of family or nation, or any of these other idols that right-wing Christians wish to make Christianity about.
All the other verses that I “cherry-picked” (e.g., Luke 14:26), which ordinarily Christians have to dismiss either as hyperbole (and how does one decide which verses are hyperbolic? is John 3:16 hyperbolic?) or as “a mystery.” The value of the interpretation provided in Holy Nihilism is that it gives tremendous explanatory power to many of these verses. In other words, my argument was not built on cherry-picked verses, but on the most important and fundamental verses. The interpretation of these provides an understanding of Christian spirituality which explains these “uncomfortable” verses in a manner which Christian nationalists and traditionalists cannot match.
In the end, I think Myles and SuperLutheran and I agree on the value of family and tradition; we just disagree over whether Christianity provides a foundation to support those values. It all comes down to what Christianity is really about, and that is not decided by cherry-picking verses (which Christians do as often as non-Christians), nor by appeals to “tradition” like some Catholic, but by understanding the text of the Bible as a whole.
Some relevant posts on this subject from the past: