I just finished my Intro to Sacred Scripture final, and although it could have gone better, it has had my mind more scripturally focused than it has been in a long time. I generally try to avoid scripture when it comes to discussions, because it's a minefield of misinterpretation. It's infinitely more difficult to interpret than even James Joyce, because of it's multifaceted context. Every book of scripture is formed around specific oral traditions and written sources, both of which are largely unknown to us. Even further, each book develops in a specific social, political and historical context, each of which is, once again, largely unknown to us. The Hebrew language itself isn't fully known to us. These contexts have to be balanced with a belief of the transcendence of each book over place and time. Authorities can't even agree how the Bible should be read. Should it be read as literature? History? Within it's historical context? As a product of tradition? Literally? Metaphorically? Spiritually? With a myriad of various methods to simply approach the text, what hope do we have to understand it and use it as tool for debate? And even if a uniform interpretation could be agreed upon, the authority itself of the text is universally disputed. Scriptural quotation in a debate does nothing but open an uncloseable door. Lucifer himself uses scripture to tempt Christ.
I have though been contemplating the damages a misinterpreted scriptural passage can cause. The lack of a universal interpretation of the Bible does not preclude people's devotion to the text and their interpretation of it. Despite the Bible's controversy and innocuousness in debate, it still holds a large power over the formation of individual minds, especially because of it's claim to divine origins.
All this thought about the Bible made me realize that perhaps the most oft-misinterpreted passage of scripture, despite it's seeming harmlessness, is in 1 John 4:8, "God is love." It appears to be the most benign (and consequently mundane) passage in all of scripture, but it is it's apparent harmlessness that makes it so volatile. While it appears to be a vindication of modern liberation theology in which God is a loving and forgiving father that extols his creation and prefers popsicles to punishment, it is, in fact, far more complex. This passage is so simply stated that its importance nearly escapes our scouring eyes. But to understand that God is love presumes that we understand love. Because "God is love," there is an inextricable correlation between our concept of God and our concept of love, and it is a dangerous correlation. If one is conceptualized before the other, the other conforms to that conceptualization. Because they support and sustain each other, it allows us to define God as we conceive love, and in an individually-driven, consumerist society, the interpretation of God as love conforms to our conception of love, which unfortunately is entwined within societal conception of love. God as love is no longer a transcendent figure of space and time, but is forced to step into the box of our conception of love.
If there is anything less understood in our society, it is love. While hormonally-enraged, acne-prone teens of every age have struggled to unlock the secrets of every Ashley and Sharon's mind, teens of this generation have a considerably more difficult go at it, because their parents are just as lost as they are. Our cultural misinterpretation of love begins at the roots of culture, the English language. The Greeks had four separate words for love with four separate definitions. In the English language those four separate meanings are blindly mashed together into one, bludgeoning word. It's like stretching a baby blanket over Andre the Giant; it just ain't gonna happen. This is why every ninth grade Susan has to break poor Cody's heart by saying "I like you, but I don't like like you." Language and expression form our minds. Language provides the very foundation of our mind, and inexpressible concepts create holes in that foundation. The point is, our misunderstanding of love is not only a societal flaw, but a linguistic one as well.
Due to societal inundation of scantily-clad Calvin Klein models, our one definition of love has become centered around appearances - appearances that are transient, and love has followed suit as something transient. To us, love is pleasure and the absence of pain. Love is nestling gently in Matthew McConaughey's burly arms as he whispers tender nothings into our ear. Love is painless. This assessment is the singular, most vitriolic conception in modernity (no offense to Matthew McConaughey...mmm). To believe that love is passion is to believe that love is free from pain, strictures, commitment, obligation and, most importantly, suffering. All loving relationships begin in passion, but they invariably face suffering, sacrifice and apathy. To modern man, these are the signs of a failed relationship. They are signs to pack your bags and move on.
This belief is vitriolic not only because it subjects us to the throes of capricious passion, but because our conception of God is inextricably linked to our conception of love, and therefore God becomes passion. God becomes free from pain, punishment or anything else that sours our temperaments. And thus, God becomes sterile. God inspires no change, impels no reform and threatens no vengeance. His sole purpose is as a pick-me-up, as a forgiving, pusillanimous father that is too fearful to punish. God becomes pathetic.
But how else are we to define God, if he himself claims that "I am who am" (Moses asking God who he is is asking him to define himself)? John defines him for us: "God is love." But without a proper understanding of love, this definition is more detrimental than helpful. Fortunately, we need to look no further than another John of the Bible, and that is John the Apostle in that ever-famous passage, "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The answer to that binary question of what is love and who is God is answered in Christ, and ultimately, Christ's sacrifice. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to die mercilessly at the hands of the world. God so loved the world that he sacrificed all that he loved for the sake of the world. It is in that unrelenting sacrifice in which true passion is found. It is the transcendence of discomfort, suffering and self for the sake of another in which true love is revealed. God offers us the blueprint to worship Him and to love each other in Christ.
Love then is not momentary passion, but a promise of redemption through suffering. It is seeing the eternal in another's eyes, and sacrificing one's own sight for that reward. Consequently, suffering, sacrifice and apathy are no longer warning signs of a failed relationship, but integral evidence of true love. Suffering is an inevitable crossroad of a relationship in which we are forced into a strict dichotomy. It is the point where we choose self or self-transcendence. Christ has shown us that through that transcendence of self comes eternal life, yet ironically lovers consistently choose themselves over the other. But as Robert Frost wrote, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I -- I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."
Perhaps it was providential that I was struck by this thought so close to Valentine's day, but it serves us all to remember that love isn't about a cavalcade of flowers, chocolates or songs about flowers and chocolates. It is about sacrifice, and without that sacrifice, even if we spend this day and the rest of our days with another, we will ultimately end up alone.
As a sidepoint, I am fully conscious of the fact that this sounds like the same recapitulated Catholic babble that we all read in the picture books of smiling Jesus at the petting zoo, and that it seems too uncomplicated to be reconciled with our complex world. But life is a revolution that consists of two revelations. The first is the epiphany that the nursery tales of our youth are incompatible with a ruthless, uncaring world. That the structure of religion blinds us from reality. So we take off the religiously tinted glasses to look at the world free from stricture. The second revelation comes after thinking we have discovered uncharted territory free from religion, and realizing that this uncharted territory has actually been charted - by religion. That, although simple, there is truth in nursery tales, and that life itself is simply a complicated bedtime story. The revolution comes full circle. You stand looking in where you once stood looking out, and the recapitulated Catholic babble reveals itself as true.