Being Christian Is About Love, Not Laws

Jesus didn't come to construct a litany of offenses that fundamentalists can cite. He came merely to be with us.

BY: Andrew Sullivan

 

The message of the Gospels seems to me to be constantly returning to this theme: those who set themselves up as arbiters of moral correctness, the men of the book, the Pharisees, are often the farthest from God. Rules can only go so far; love does the rest. And the rest is by far the most important part. Jesus of Nazareth constantly tells his fellow human beings to let go of law and let love happen: to let go of the pursuit of certainty, to let go of possessions, to let go of pride, to let go of reputation and ambition, to let go also of obsessing about laws and doctrines. This letting go is what the fundamentalist fears the most. To him, it implies chaos, disorder, anarchy. To Jesus, it is the beginning of wisdom, and the prerequisite of love.

My favorite of all the stories told about Jesus is one of the simplest.

At one point in my life, when I was diagnosed with what was then a fatal disease, HIV, when one of my closest friends was suddenly admitted to the hospital with AIDS, and when my mother was also hospitalized with depression, I felt something inside me simply beg for God's help. I wanted to know why all these things had befallen me and those I loved all at once. I wanted an answer. I wanted something to hold on to, something to anchor me, to return to me the spiritual and physical equilibrium I had suddenly lost. I found myself drawn to the Gospels, and all I can say is that the old story I had long loved spoke to me more powerfully than ever.

The story is of Jesus' surprise visit with two friends, Martha and Mary. When Jesus arrives, Martha immediately does what she should: she prepares food. The meal is in the future and her job is to get there.

Mary, in contrast, simply "sat down at the Lord's feet and listened to him speaking." Martha gets progressively more irritated with Mary's indolence and finally bursts out: "Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself ? Please tell her to help me."

Jesus answers: "Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken away from her."

An endorsement of idleness? Of irresponsibility? Of selfishness? In a way, Mary is guilty of all these moral failings. By the book, she's wrong. But in that very moment, she is not merely right. She is, in Jesus' formulation, doing the only thing that is right. And she is doing nothing. She is merely being with Jesus.

She has let go.

And this, it seems to me, is the true mystery of the incarnation, the notion that in Jesus, God became man. I should say that I believe this in the only way I can: that one man represents, for all time, God's decision to truly be with us. The reason I call myself a Christian is not because I manage to subscribe, at any given moment, to all the truths that the hierarchy of my church insists I believe in, let alone because I am a good person or a "good Catholic." I call myself a Christian because I believe that, in a way I cannot fully understand, the force behind everything decided to prove itself benign by becoming us, and being with us. And as soon as people grasped what had happened, what was happening, the world changed forever. The Gospels--all of them, including some that were rejected by the early Church--are mere sketches of a life actually lived, and an experience that can never be reduced to words or texts or doctrines. And the world as it was--as it still is--was unable to tolerate this immense occasion; and so Jesus was executed and the life more in touch with divinity than any other life was ended abruptly, when it was still achingly young. The existence of such a life was both so wondrous that it changed everything; and also so terrifying it had to be snuffed out.

The point of this incarnation was surely not to construct a litany of offenses by which we are to judge our own lives at any moment, to force us to thrash and writhe in a constant ordeal of self-criticism and guilt. The point was merely to be with us; and by being with us, to show us better how to be human, how better to embrace our lives by accepting the divine around us and inside us. By letting go, we become. By giving up, we gain. And we learn how to live--now, which is the only time that matters.

In this nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important then theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle. This is the Christianity that the conservative clings to; and it is a form of Christianity the fundamentalist rejects. That is his right and his prerogative. But it is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid. There is another way. For Christians, that other way is about a man, Jesus, whose individuality and humanity cannot be abstracted. And it is about a commemoration of that man, as he asked us to commemorate him--in a meal, a breaking of bread, a Seder--made-new, the mass, as Catholics have come to understand it. This is my faith, if I were forced to describe it.

It is not about doctrine as such, although doctrines may indeed be inferred from it. It is about a man who was God and lived among us, and died for us, and gave us his own body and blood to eat and drink, and who commanded us to ignore everything except the only thing necessary: the command to love one another, as a sign and reflection of God's love for us. I am by no means perfect or even good. But this faith has never left me; and I refuse to acquiesce to the idea that it isn't as real as any fundamentalist's.

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