I’ve always asked a lot of questions. In school, I was that kid whose hand shot up in class every time the teacher paused to breathe. Even when the teacher would offer an answer, I responded with yet another question. “But what about…” or “If that’s true, then…” were phrases always on the tip of my tongue. So many things were opaque to me. Granted, that may have had to do with an inherent dimwittedness, but it also seemed that the number of questions to be asked was infinite, and I considered that a challenge I would try to meet.
Of course, we now live in the Google age. Any inquiry is only a mouse click away. I still remember the moment I realized how revolutionary this is. I was in the car several years ago with my friend Scott Perkins, headed to a Duke University football game. We’d just stopped for a snack at a quick mart, and once we were on the road again we began to debate when the modern supermarket came into being. That is, when the model shifted from the type of grocer like Nels Oleson in “Little House on the Prairie,” who takes your grocery list and gathers the items for you, to the HEB or Kroger model in which there are rows of “help yourself” stacked shelves. Scott and I sat there wondering in ignorance until I realized that the new Blackberry smartphone in my pocket could find the answer for us in a matter of seconds. (The answer, by the way, is Piggly Wiggly, first opened in Memphis in 1916.)
Last week TIME magazine upped the ante by publishing a double-sized issue entitled, “The Answers Issue.” It is one hundred twelve pages of bullet-point enlightenment. Or so it seems at first. Many of the questions TIME poses are frivolous: What is the line dancing capital of America?; Where do designer dogs (like the Yorkiepoo and Dalmadoodle) come from?; and What is the most patriotic color?
As I read, I began to sense a conspiracy. Author Thomas Pynchon said, after, all, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”[i] Lull people into convincing themselves that superficiality is substance, and you can manipulate them into anything.
But elsewhere TIME was spot-on. In the table of contents, I found a section entitled, “What defines us.” That is, in a phrase, the question posed by the Apostle Paul in the Letter to the Romans from which we read today and have been reading throughout the Pentecost season. The question of what defines us is how Paul opens his letter. In its very first chapter Paul wonders if we will be defined by the frivolous idols that punctuate the creation or else by the God who creates us. Midway through, in Romans’ sweeping eighth chapter, Paul first explores what it means for the Holy Spirit who lives within us to define us. And today Paul gives us the capstone, the punch line, the full-stop period at the end of his theological argument. “What defines us?” he asks one final time.
On page seventy-four in TIME magazine’s “Answers Issue,” one finds the 21st Century response to the question of what defines us. TIME’s answer is in four parts. No frivolity here, no designer dogs or line dancing. The answers are, unfortunately, accurate and sobering.
First, TIME says, we are defined by “how we fight.” TIME reminds us that we have thus far spent $6 trillion (that’s twelve zeroes) on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even after decades of nuclear arms control, the land area covered by U.S. nuclear weapon bases and facilities is over fifteen thousand square miles. We are a people armed to the teeth, and we have shown a ready willingness to use those arms. As columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote, “What do armies in peacetime do? Make plans to kill each other just in case.”[ii]
Second, and no more uplifting, TIME says we are defined by “how we punish.” Though the United States has only five percent of the world’s population, we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. We love to lock people away. It is both our first and least creative response to crime, and it will eventually bankrupt us (if something else doesn’t do so first). And this is before any consideration of the troubling correlation between incarceration and race.
Third, TIME says, we are defined by “how we live.” The magazine explores what drives us to the urban center and what pushes us to the suburbs. For those of us living in Greater Houston, it is of particular note that between 1985 and 2010, forty-one million acres of rural America were gobbled up by urban sprawl.
By this time in my reading, I was exhausted and depressed. Could it be, I asked myself, that in our deepest selves, in the marrow of us, we are primarily defined by violence, and by our impulse to lock one another away, and by our love-hate relationship with the concrete jungle? Is that the answer?
But then I flipped one more page, and there it was: the final answer, the response that makes the ultimate difference, the one that leavens all the others. What defines us, TIME says, is “how we love.” I was stunned both by love’s inclusion in TIME’s laundry list of Google-esque bullet points and by the magazine’s wisdom in holding love back for last. A smile crept across my face as I focused my eyes to read.
The smile was short-lived. What is love to TIME magazine? Turns out love is the number of days of stubble women find most attractive on a man. It is the average number of times a married couple has intercourse in a given year. It is information about the habits and likes of adult film stars.
We can’t fault TIME magazine. TIME doesn’t invent the answers; it simply reports them. And, indeed, in our culture this is what traffics as love. Love is about physical gratification, or at least emotional gratification. Love is the line “You complete me!” in Hollywood romantic comedies. Love is, at the end of the day, a commodity. It is something we buy or sell, that we use and use up and cast off in favor of whatever titillates us next. It is more superficial than a designer dog.
In the Letter to the Romans, St. Paul approaches the question of what defines us from several different angles, all of which are vitally important. And today he comes to the same conclusion as TIME magazine: We are defined, ultimately, by how we love. And yet, Paul’s rendering of love could not be more different than the love peddled by contemporary culture. Paul’s love is radically different, which underscores that Christianity is a radically different way of being in the world.
Love, Paul says, is not a commodity. Love is not about self-fulfillment. Love is not about carnal gratification. Love is, rather, the completion of the law, which is to say, love is the summation of God’s hope for us. What does that look like? Paul says, “All the commandments are summed upon in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. We owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
We mustn’t skim this passage in haste. Our contemporary misunderstanding of love runs so deep that we risk misreading it entirely. Love here is not about warm feelings or emotional connection or “being in love.” Love is about modeling our lives on the character of God.
Our experience of God—the God attested in Scripture and the God we meet in Jesus—is of one who is not self-indulgent or self-gratifying. Neither is God’s love of the schmaltzy, romantic kind. God’s love stands for justice, not human justice through violence or a desire to lock flawed and broken people up and throw away the key, but by recognizing that we are all broken—the cracks and shards of some are simply more visible than those of others—and God seeks to make us all whole. God’s love seeks the good of the neighbor, and Jesus goes to great lengths to define the neighbor not only as the person nearest us, but as the stranger, the one on the other side of the road, of whom we may be suspicious and wary. Love, then, is not merely a private emotion or a relationship between two intimates. Love affects how we live in the world, what people and causes we support, what we buy, what we raise our children to value.
In other words, modeling the character of God’s love is a finely-tempered, steely-eyed commitment not to consider the world as revolving around you, or me. Love is the commitment to live for other than ourselves, and the commitment to keep that commitment even when it doesn’t emotionally fulfill or gratify us. Love is fierce, and demanding, and counter-cultural, and perplexing to the world. But living for love is also, Paul says, like waking from sleep, like sobering up from a bad drunk. When we seek to embody the character of God—when we love as God understands love—the gauzy haze is dispelled. Daylight shines. As Jean val Jean reminds us in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” When we do so, salvation is nearer to us than we can scarcely imagine.
As individuals, and as Houston’s Cathedral, how do we love? Our answer to that question, the only question that ultimately matters, is what defines us as Christians, as people of God. How do we love?
[i] From his novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
[ii] In her August 9-10, 2014 Wall Street Journal column, “The World the Great War Swept Away.”