Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity
Reviewed by Andrew Camp
Having celebrated Easter, the church will soon be settling into what she has traditionally called Ordinary Time—the time between Pentecost Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent. Like Peter returning to fishing after the Resurrection, we are called to descend from the mountain top experience of Easter and return to the ordinary, mundane living of our Christian faith.
As we find our bearings in this Ordinary Time, we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, train ourselves to see that the mundane activities we once thought were boring are actually fraught with the love the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our hearts are captivated by God’s love and we begin to see the primacy of love in all that we say and do.
Rediscovering the centrality of love in the Christian life is Norman Wirzba’s main point in his new book Way of Love. He writes, “Our way into the fullness of life is the way of love…. Love is the eternal ‘yes’ to life’s possibilities and promise. It is the form of protest that says ‘no’ to all the forces in our world that diminish and degrade life” (page 7). Wirzba longs to see the church take her place as the “training camp for love” (7), where in the context of community we are apprenticed in love, unlearning our false visions of love and relearning God’s grand vision of love, most visibly seen in Jesus Christ.
However, most often in community, we not only have front row seats to, but are active participants in, how easy it is to hurt people and how hard it is to love. Even in the midst of the hurts, pains and difficulties within community, we cannot give up on community. Wirzba writes, “The less to learn is that without participation in communities that instruct and train us in God’s love, we should not expect to excel in the ways of love. It is impossible to predict that kind of love that is possible when people are formed and supported by a God-inspired community” (31). It is also in the context of community where we are constantly reminded of the grand biblical drama of God’s plan to make his love “fully active in the life of each and every creature” (42) by telling the story in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Hope.
In Creation we see that God freely created because his character is such that he “wants to share and extend to others all the goodness and joy that God’s eternal life is” (48), which leads us to see that love is never coerced, forced or domineering. God begins his creation with the Garden of Eden, empowering humanity with the vocation to tend and care for the world.
But why a garden? And why was our first vocation to be gardeners?
Literally and figuratively, gardens keep us grounded. Adam’s name is a constant reminder that we were formed from the dust of the earth (the Hebrew word for dust is adamah) and that we are not God, but a creature in a created world. As we begin to see the world as a magnificent garden of God’s delight, we “see creation as a membership of creatures living in interdependent and beneficial relationship with each other. Nothing is alone. Nothing is irrelevant. Whatever exists does so because it contributes to the flowering of life” (74). In a garden as we work on our knees with our hands in the dirt, we gain a deeper and clearer appreciation for the interconnectedness of all of life. God originally created his Garden to be a hospitable place where all creatures would have the room to flourish and be their true self. We Christians are called to mirror this hospitality, first within our own souls and then in the places where God has called us to inhabit.
If Creation was God’s desire to freely extend his love to be shared and experienced by all, we soon realize that something has gone and continues to go terribly wrong, what we Christians have called the Fall. Wirzba defines sin as “the failure of love,” and a little later, “Besides being a personal disposition, it is also a presence or a power that has the effect of rendering people unable to love…. Sin is a dis-abling force that locks people in prisons of fear, anxiety, and darkness, so that they cannot relate to others or themselves in nurturing and celebratory ways” (96-97). According to Wirzba, we can never reduce sin simply to the acts we commit against each other and creation, but rather sin is an all-encompassing mode of being—sin places us in “a perpetual state of disorder and corruption” (97).
As an aside: While affirming the “perpetual state of disorder and corruption” humanity finds itself in because of sin, Dr. Wirzba distances himself from the concept of original sin (the idea that because of Adam’s sin, all humans are born into sin and are guilty from the moment of birth) as a genetic/biological gene inherit in all humans. And yet at the same time, he finds Pelagius’ attempt to rid Christians of the idea of original sin and champion human freedom equally discomforting as it unleashes profound anxiety among humanity (104). It is enough for him that we live in a world in which love is degraded and twisted, which keeps us mired in sin beyond our personal choosing.
Sin causes all of us to be conditioned on conditional love, a quid pro quo love (105). And just like Adam and Eve, we hide when confronted with our sin. Or even worse, we seek to possess and control people due mainly to the deep disordered desire to want life on our terms, (117) which in turn leads us to turn the beauty of God’s creatures into idols for our comfort, control and glorification (120).
In the midst of the torrent of sin, how is the church to train her people to counter the effects of sin? Wirzba writes, “The primordial vocation of humanity is to live in ways that contribute to the world’s flourishing, because in doing so they participate in God’s gardening ways with the world. Love wans all life to flourish” (140). The church’s call is to promote this flourishing and to constantly inspire and retrain people’s imagination to see the world as God sees it.
Editor’s note: The ninth paragraph above has been edited to clarify Wirzba’s position on original sin.