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When Opposites Don’t Attract: Christianity, Culture, And the Crisis of Love

( [email protected] ) Jun 30, 2015 05:13 PM EDT

Thomas Hunt
T.W.S. Hunt

In every culture war there's a war of words, and a war over words. Today's Kulturkampf about gay marriage is no exception. From Ireland and Indiana to the Supreme Court, the meaning and use of words like 'marriage' and 'rights' are hotly contested. But one of today's most important terminological tussles receives little attention. It's over neighborly love.

In contemporary, western societies, there is no greater love than this: to lay down one's preconceived notions about what people should do, and celebrate them for who they are or choose to be. The vocabulary of this love-language is acceptance. But religious conservatives talk about love in a completely different dialect. For them, neighborly love is about helping people to lay down their preconceived notions about themselves, in order to accept who God wants them to be.

Naturally, these two love-languages can't hold a conversation. Love for one is defined by affirming their neighbor's right to self-identification, self-expression, and self-determination. Love for the other subordinates these for the sake of a person's soul-fulfillment. Both seem at odds with the other. But given the recent victories for gay marriage in Ireland and America, it's clear which ideal is less at odds with society. In some circles, like academia and journalism, the traditional concept of neighborly love has even become a byword and foil for everything love and respect shouldn't be.

The progressive idea of neighborly love is winning both the legal battle and the linguistic war. For religious conservatives, neighborly love no longer means what they would like, or perhaps need, it to mean. But when a word like love changes, the world changes. For a proselytizing faith like Christianity - self-described as a religion of love - this is a problematic trend. In fact, it's a public relations nightmare. For love, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. When an old love becomes the new hate, it becomes problematic to act in the name of that love.

Clearly, there's a new love emerging in the public heart. Less clear, however, is how the faithful will respond. For some the answer might be accommodation. To accept society on its own terms - like a missionary on the mission field - and focus more on how love is received, rather than how it's offered. For others it might be to persevere and love their neighbor as before: no longer as a Good Samaritan, but an honest one. Some will take a hard line, others soft. But whatever they choose, they face an unusual challenge. For it's a rare sociological moment when the most positive feature of a religion acquires the most negative connotations.

It's rare, but not new. In fact, the phenomenon is as old as Christ. He was the first stumbling block that also doubled as a cornerstone. Since then other important elements of Christianity have served as potent repellents. In the second century, for instance, worshiping an invisible God put many Romans off. Christian belief was dismissed as unbelief. Christians were even targeted by the state as atheists, because Roman culture equated an invisible God with no god at all. Later in the Enlightenment, Christian knowledge was downgraded to ignorance. The sacred scriptures were distrusted and the spirit of the age repudiated the spirit of divine revelation. Thinkers like Kant dared people to think for themselves: leaving the church in the dubious position of trying to think for other people. And loyalty to the church has long aroused the suspicion of disloyalty to the state. In missionary endeavors, like in Shogun Japan and Communist China, this distrust has handicapped the spread of Christianity. So the love that's lost between contemporary society and traditional Christianity is not a unique phenomenon.

In fact, Christianity has a venerable history of ostensible failure. For millennia it's failed to live up to the life of Christ. For centuries its disappointed the desires of culture and dithered over the demands of society. Today is no different: their neighborly love will be unrequited. But two thousand years and two billion believers later, the religion somehow remains undeterred. For traditionalists, therefore, success in this culture war might not look very different from failure. In Winston Churchill's words, "Success is simply going from failure to failure with undimmed enthusiasm."

Follow T.W.S. Hunt on Twitter and his blog.