“Love Wins” – you recognize the slogan that became viral in the summer of 2015 among those celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that homosexual marriage is a fundamental right under the Constitution. A similar sensibility is conveyed in the “Love Has No Labels” propaganda campaign on television and the internet.
What is the thrust of these images, these appeals? What they imply is that there is no difficult question of constitutional law or political philosophy to examine, nothing to debate regarding moral and social purposes of the natural family or the ethical principles that underlie our social compact: the simple word “love,” and the feeling it is supposed to evoke, are held to have settled all such questions. If you are not against love, then you cannot oppose the indefinite expansion of “rights” protecting sexual expression and affirming diverse lifestyles. And who can be against love?
Progressive liberalism claims the authority of reason and of openness to a “diversity” of views and ways of life. But the Love Wins mantra reveals the sacred dogma that underlies the pose of open-minded rationalism: “love” understood as boundless acceptance and empathy, excluding all moral judgment, is the new, unquestioned standard of moral judgment. And the prestige of this secular love, impatient with all boundaries and standards, is clearly a residue (however distorted and misapplied) of the very Christianity that secularism must overcome. Secularism is the secularized residue of Christianity. And this residue, in the form of the ideology of “love,” wields amazing dogmatic authority in our supposedly free-thinking secular age. Question every authority, progressive liberalism entices us, but do not even think about questioning “love,” meaning absolute acceptance and non-judgmental empathy, as the sole standard of human goodness. Never in the darkest of Christian “Dark Ages” did an ideological authority envision such a total domination over the human mind and heart as that asserted by the post-Christian humanistic religion of “love.”
Reasoning about Love
The significance of the “Love Wins” ideology can only be clarified by examining the secular idea of “love” in comparison with the Christian idea of Charity. The key question, then, is this: is the contemporary dogma “All you need is love” a legitimate descendent of the biblical teaching, “Charity never faileth?” The question for us is not same-sex marriage itself, as important as that question is, but the understanding of “love” in terms of which many, including Mormons and other Christians, frame their support of this new “right.” We need to understand what is at stake in this conception of “love” in order to be clear about what we are discussing, not only regarding the marriage question, but wherever fundamental moral and religious principles are a matter of public concern.
I realize that just by asking what “love” means I am already taking a position that some find troubling or annoying. After all, how can love be the main thing, the answer to all questions, if we must first achieve clarity regarding its meaning? To clarify is inevitably to divide, to separate light from darkness, to invite “binaries,” whereas love implies unity. By even raising the question of the meaning of love, I might seem to be ranking clarity above charity, light above love.
I want to acknowledge this conundrum at the outset; if it has any answer, I hope that this discussion will help to bring it to light. But at the outset it might be noted that, where the question of reason (distinguishing, discriminating, dividing, clarifying) is concerned, the sides seem have switched from what is generally assumed: it is the progressive liberals who tout love as an alternative to all reasoning concerning basic ethical, political and religious principles, a moral trump card to silence all discussion, whereas it is “conservatives” (like me, indeed), who defend the essential role of informed, rational judgment in moral matters.
I might justify my questioning of “love” by noting that we all seem to be here at this Fair Mormon conference because we think that it is good to reason together. We must then have faith and hope that reasoning together, distinguishing and discerning, somehow contributes to love, that light and love somehow converge. This convergence would seem to be a necessary condition of “speaking the truth in love.” And for those whose idea of truth is an evolutionary and progressive dialogue, a process of progression more than a discernible outcome, then you might indulge the present attempt at clarity as a little moment in that process of faithful dialectic. “Progress” itself would seem to depend upon someone at some time standing up for something definite, not merely exulting in openness to the “process.”
Substance and Universalism
Before I consider published LDS examples of the “love wins” mentality, I want to acknowledge the difficulty of the moral and philosophical problem presented by the revolutionary Christian notion of Charity as surpassing all natural ethical concerns. We can’t blame the Beatles or some LDS writers too harshly for arguing that “all you need is love,” if it seems to many that Paul the Apostle said that long before Paul McCartney.
The central problem behind the confusing relationship between Christian charity and secular love is the tension between substance and universalism. Recently I was conversing with an earnest and faithful young LDS scholar about the intersection between the Church and the secular world, and I began to make the simple, if you will “orthodox” case for the importance of defending a clear moral standard and family ideal in a relativistic world. His heartfelt reply was “don’t you want the Church to be available to the widest possible group, even to all humanity? Does it not hinder the universal mission of the Church to insist on barriers”? Another faithful young LDS scholar was emphasizing the importance of compassion towards those who struggle with Church teachings on sexual morality. He was asked, would not sharing the principle of repentance be an important expression of love for a struggling neighbor? No, he replied, if anyone needs repentance, it would only be the person who would presume to appeal to a principle higher than the feelings of the person who is struggling.
Both of these thoughtful and faithful young Latter-day Saints were effectively falling in with the “Love Wins” mentality, not out of any particular enthusiasm for sexual liberation or revolution in family structure, but according to the logic of universalism, inclusiveness, which indeed seems to be a defining gesture of the Gospel, and especially of Paul’s letters. Similarly, when an account of Elder Holland’s recent address at BYU Education Week, which included a strong warning against the rising tide of secularism, was published in the Deseret News, the first online comment that appeared chastised the
apostle for erecting “walls” when he should be “building bridges.” It seems to me, though, that there is a pretty simple logical problem with this movement of thought: universalism is by itself empty and meaningless: there must be some content, some substance, to be universalized, something to be shared. A bridge must be from somewhere to somewhere. Every outreach presupposes an affirmation, every extension a center, every movement of compassion some understanding of the good, of what it would mean to heal. The enthusiasm for inclusiveness or the movement of compassion without regard to content is not only religiously suicidal but logically incoherent.
Published LDS Examples of Love Wins Mentality
In order to show that my concern is not misplaced where LDS are concerned, I need to share some specific, named examples of the Love Wins tendency in our midst. In fact my three examples are either employees of or have a significant connection with BYU. The questions I will raise have nothing to do with the character or good faith of my interlocutors, but only with their arguments, which I will try to present as fairly as can be done in a brief space. I know that for some the imperative of love would require passing over things I disagree with in silence. But the motive of love risks lapsing into an attitude of easy tolerance: “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” In fact I think there is something important to see. Again, my faith and hope are in the convergence of light and love, and here I hope to contribute a little to the light.
My first example is an argument made by Blair Dee Hodges, who received a master’s degree in religious studies from Georgetown and now serves at BYU’s Maxwell Institute as public communications specialist and in editorial roles. I think Blair is here today, and hope that he will regard my remarks as a continuation of our civil discussions.
The argument of Blair’s that I am addressing was not made in his BYU capacity but as a prominent blogger at By Common Consent. Responding on that site to an example used by Elder Anderson concerning the challenges an LDS teenager faced in standing up for her “belief in marriage between a man and a woman,” Mr. Hodges proposes “a different version” of such an experience in which the girl wishes to defend her belief in “marriage equality.” The premise of Hodges’ argument is the equivalence of these two experiences – as if it were arbitrary or accidental that Elder Anderson was offering support to the girl defending a specific LDS teaching. Of course Elder Anderson would counsel, as Church leaders have often counseled, that we treat those who contradict church teachings with courtesy, respect, and love. But this takes nothing away from the Apostle’s clear intention to contribute to the defense of true teachings and not to compromise with a significant and dangerous error.
Hodges goes on to defend the equivalence between the two girls’ cases (one favoring real marriage, the other “marriage equality”) by invoking “love for one another” (John 13:35) as the “generally reliable indicator of our Christian discipleship.” Of course the statement itself is incontrovertible, but the whole question concerns the status of particular commandments and principles in relation to the great and ultimate idea of love.
Hodges disposes of this question with this decisive affirmation: “If we can be united on this one single idea, we will be united in the one thing that ultimately matters.” Citing 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Hodges thus counsels us to regard all opinions on matters such as gay marriage and abortion as personal perspectives that admit of no certainty, and that don’t ultimately matter anyway. Since we don’t have “perfect knowledge,” we should consider love to be the only absolute truth – and this then is a love that has been severed from any “opinion” we may have about such things as commandments and purposes.
Of course, if Mr. Hodges were merely saying that all our dealings with other human beings, especially fellow saints, should be informed by love, then he would be saying something very true and very uncontroversial. But he is saying more than that. In the guise of claiming, in the notion of “love,” a higher ground above all mere opinions, “liberal” and “conservative,” he is in fact laying out an aggressively liberal position, a position of effective relativism (whether he knows it or not, and he insists that he does not): We can’t know if Elder Anderson is right, or if the girl favoring gay marriage is right, so let’s put them on the ground of equal ignorance of the ultimate truth. Since “we could be wrong about any particular subject,” but not, it seems, about something called “love,” our beliefs concerning the content of God’s love for us, that is, concerning his plan for us, must not enter into the way we show love. If we are ignorant of the ultimate truth… then how can we really object to anyone’s “preferences,” since they are all equal. And why would we ever presume to offer “correction” to someone who just happens to find himself “in a minority position within the church,”?
Mr. Hodges has taken exception to my interpretation, and I am happy to note that he does not think he means to intend to say what I take to be the clear implications of what he writes. He does deserve credit for counseling loving responses to all members, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” who feel painfully besieged by other members for their moral or political positions. He wants to evoke the pain felt on both sides as a common ground apart from the truth of a position. But this is precisely the shift of emphasis I mean to call into question. Without dismissing anyone’s pain, and certainly without wishing to add to it, Elder Anderson clearly means to support the young woman who bravely stands up for the truth of real, natural, divinely ordained marriage. Mr. Hodges shows little interest in this effort (if he does not simply dismiss it), and turns to the equivalence of “pain” on both sides as a kind of trump card. The common ground of “pain,” the equality of grievance, displaces the common ground of truth. If, like Elder Anderson, we take the truth of the Restored Gospel as a common ground, then our loving response to the person feeling pain as a result of separating herself from the truth would include, not only loving sympathy, but some effort to restore her to the truth. But that would not seem to be compatible with Hodges’ urging of equal love for equal pain.
To his credit, Blair Hodges does not dismiss the existence and ultimate accessibility of truth – we “will find out the truth someday.” But it is decisive for him that what “ultimately matters today” is that “we’re all still learning” – that is, we do not know enough to affirm and to act on the truth in the present (the only time we can act, it turns out), at least not in any way that some might experience as “painful,” (my emphases). Thus, even though he acknowledges the existence of some truth accessible to us in some indefinite future, what matters for us today is to acknowledge what we cannot know and therefore to treat each other in a loving way, a way that does not depend on what we cannot now know. Truth always lies in the progressive future, and so only love can guide us now – love which is then, by logical necessity, detached from any claims of a truth which we must admit we do not now possess. Belief in progressive truth turns out to be very hard to distinguish from relativism – in all areas, that is, except for the commandment of love, which has been effectively severed from any previously associated claims of moral truth.
To be clear: I completely agree with Hodges’ urging us all to show love to those with whom we disagree, and not to make our love “contingent upon any agreement with us on any particular point.” This is indeed an imperative of charity with which we all agree, however difficult this disposition is to achieve in practice. I do not know any Latter-day Saint who would disagree, certainly not Elder Anderson. But this whole argument began with Blair Hodges’ trying to add something to, or to put a different spin on, what Elder Anderson had said in support of a girls’ effort to stand up for moral truth (and to do so courteously). The whole thrust of Hodges’ argument, whether or not he likes to hear it repeated back to him, is that we can’t really stand up for truth because we don’t yet confidently possess any, and therefore that “love is the one thing that ultimately matters.” Either you believe, with Elder Anderson, that affirming a definite truth (without thereby claiming to be absolutely in possession of the whole truth) is a key presupposition of showing love; or you believe, with Blair Hodges, that our knowledge is so slight or uncertain that we must love others without respect to the content of any supposed truth.
Blair Hodges’ plain debunking of knowledge in favor of “love,” his severing of love, effectively in practice, from knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, is a clear example of the appeal for Mormons of the secular “Love Wins” idea. (Mr. Hodges has requested that I note that he “completely disagrees” with my interpretation. I am happy to leave the question to the reader, who may consult Hodges’ original.)
Another good example of Love Wins Mormonism was a recent post at Times & Seasons by Craig Harline, BYU History professor, entitled “Going All Sorts of Gentile.” Harline’s argument illustrates how a certain interpretation of Paul is central to the Love Wins argument.
Peter may have had the dream, Harline says, but Paul had the real vision. And the point of Paul’s vision was this: “if you’re going to go to people you think are strangers and invite them to join you and stay with you, then you have to really go to them, instead of expecting them to do things just the way you do.” The essence of the Love Wins strategy is contained in this formula: the imperative to spread the message trumps any content of the message. The spreading is the content; love as universalization is the essence of the gospel, and all troublesome details such as those involved in “the way you do things” must be considered wholly negotiable in the pursuit of a broader membership. The good news has no content, finally, but the spreadability (universalizability) of the good news: if you can spread it, it must be good. Acceptability to a target audience, popularity, always trumps any supposed truth about beliefs or practices. And this popular acceptability is what we mean by “love.”
Paul thought all sorts of people could benefit from the good news, and he had a different vision from John of what doing that meant, and what pure meant, and it didn’t involve never allowing anyone to diverge from the way you did things or always standing up for and defending your way as the only way or even avoiding the people you thought were impure, but instead involved sitting down and figuring out how you could tweak your ways a little here and even make a wholesale change there and okay even rethink even certain apparently non-negotiable unmissable ways in order to help accommodate people you’d thought were strangers, because you were sure that your mutual hope and love in Jesus rose above all that, or better yet underlay it, like some big pillow, softening everything.
The Love Wins argument is apt to wrong-foot anyone inclined to counter it, since no one wants to be against “love.” But Tom Spencer (BYU German professor) sees through the specious rhetoric:
This is a frustrating passage, because it expresses a sentiment (“hey, let’s find a way to help everybody fit in”) that is obviously good on a general level, but then gives that sentiment apparently unbounded disruptive authority… [T]he author has in fact set himself outside the realm of sincere discussion [of the content of belief], because he has already declared the common ground of content-indifferent Jesus-believing to be in fact the whole ground. … All “apparently non-negotiable unmissable ways” of Christian living can therefore be abandoned, in order to accommodate, in principle, even the most extreme norm-defying persons or behaviors. … [Harline’s] point it is to proclaim to the Jesus-believing community that with God all things are changeable, and amidst the ongoing mutability of the church only “Jesus-believing” can/should/needs be constant. … the gospel boils down to a social form–the form of the Jesus community–that has no necessary connection to any particular content, which is why all specific commandments or doctrines can be changed. Or rather the only commandment that matters is “love God,” which the author interprets in a footnote as strongly synonymous, perhaps even substantively identical, with “love your neighbor.” And again, “love,” like “Jesus-believing,” seems to be a content-variable formalism that manifests itself in purity precisely when it shrugs off “things”– especially the “fixed-forever God-given things”–in the spirit of inclusion. In other words, when you are dealing with real Jesus-belief, content (doctrines, teachings, rituals, traditions, etc.) is what we sacrifice in order to soar to the infinitely ironic heights of divine conviviality.
Prof. Spencer concludes further on in his review: “The transformation of eternal truths into you-just-thought-they-were-eternal truths is categorically incompatible with basic Mormon theology (and it would be very extreme, almost a logical contradiction, to assert that there is no Mormon theology at all) regardless of the cultural aims this transformation hopes to achieve.”
“Love” wins; the actual moral and religious content of love loses.
The same “love wins” philosophy is evident in Prof. Harline’s book Conversions. I here cite the account of Conversions in BYU’s Mormon Studies Review by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth’s religion faculty. In Harline’s book a young man, a Mormon convert, struggles with what he considers his homosexual identity in its tension with his own Mormonism, which he chooses to abandon, and with his parent’s evangelical faith. Fortunately, from Harline’s and Balmer’s point of view, the apparent conflict between being Evangelical and being Mormon, as well as that between being Mormon and being a proudly practicing homosexual (and so, it seems to follow, the tension between being Evangelical and being homosexual) can be happily resolved. This resolution draws on two worldviews that one might have thought quite distinct but that Balmer’s Harline now forges into a very powerful alliance: First, the reconciliation of former religious and moral tensions “has something to do with cultural diversity of the Enlightenment or the postmodern validation of an infinite variety of experiences.” (132) Second, there is the theological discovery of the “New Testament teaching that love trumps law,” a “capacious” teaching that enables the overcoming of “the premise of dogma.” This alliance of enlightened, postmodern Diversity with the new Love produces a miracle of reconciliation, which saves Michael’s parents from having to choose between “their conservative evangelical beliefs or affiliations” and their loyalty to their son. Postmodern love thus allows evangelicals (and Mormons) to move beyond mere tolerance to “a willing embrace of the Other (133),” that is, an embrace (I infer) that abandons all reference to a demanding moral dogma and thus to the need for repentance. Such is the happy ending, touted without critique, in BYU’s Mormon Studies Review. Love Wins. There is nothing to see here, no essential conflict between the Gospel and the world. Move on.
As a final example of the Mormon Love Wins strategy, I offer the case of Adam Miller, philosophy professor at Collin College in Texas and editor at BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Miller’s gospel of love is quite subtle and philosophically sophisticated, and I cannot do justice to his perspective here, but, as the most accomplished philosopher of this tendency, his work deserves mention this context. (See my review of his Future Mormon at Interpreter, and our earlier discussions at SquareTwo.)
Miller’s starting point is a radically Pauline conception of grace in relation to love. In light of the grace by which God gives us everything and reveals our nothingness, obedience to law is a distraction, even a dead-end compulsion that prevents our openness to the gracious gift of love. Love is the end of the law; love accomplishes the law but without confirming the erroneous assertion of “the law’s inviolable priority.” (2279). “Our love must be practiced with a kind of disregard for the law.” (29612). Miller of course does not counsel disobedience—he concedes that “obedience is generally better than disobedience” (6)—but he is much more concerned that we will attach too much importance to obedience rather than too little. He sees that “strict obedience” is too often a “strategy for suppressing the truth and avoiding God’s grace” by attempting “to put God in your debt”.” (1625). By forsaking this compulsive and futile effort to win over God by obedience, to “set ourselves up … as lords of the earth and judges of what graces we will and won’t receive” (1394), we open ourselves to a world given by grace in which a love beyond law is revealed.
Miller’s praise of God’s grace, to which we owe everything, reminds us of an essential truth and provides an important corrective to the natural man’s idolatrous claim to take charge of his own being and destiny. But the result of his formulation is to limit grace to the “perfection … in love” of the world as God is already giving it to us, and thus to reduce agency to the moment of acceptance of God’s grace. From this point of view, Miller in effect condemns all efforts to rise through obedience to law to a higher sphere or existence, to be worthy of a better world, of an exalted condition, as instances of idolatry.
Adam Miller is thus very hard on human desire, indeed on any conception of a good—even or especially a “higher” good—distinct from the “reality” of giving and taking away that defines the actual, ever-passing world in which he thinks God’s grace is fully present. His provocative theological innovation stems most fundamentally, I think, from his insistence on a radical, even an absolute distinction between “what God, in all his goodness and wisdom and mercy, is actually trying to give” and “what we think we want.” (54124). He has nothing to say, certainly, on behalf of a plan of salvation or “great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8) by which human beings would deliberately seek, through obedience and repentance, some good superior to what is given in the ordinary, everyday world. For Miller our desires have no end beyond themselves, and to look for any higher end, to hope for and to work to prepare for a better world, is to sin against grace, to resist the love that has no purpose but the graceful sharing of suffering in the world that is actually, already being given (and taken away) here and now.
There is surely an elusive and exquisite insight in Miller’s praise of a grace immanent in the givenness of the world, a dimension of grace that our more common activist, goal-oriented approach to the gospel often misses. But it seems clear that Miller, in his ambition to produce a pure theory of grace in the framework of certain philosophies of radical materialism is led to dismiss essential elements of Christian and especially Mormon teaching. His campaign of graceful love against works righteousness in some sense goes too far and excludes too much. For Miller there can be no better world where all our tears our wiped away; to hope for such a world is to worship an idol rather than receiving the graceful world God is always already offering.
Adam Miller does not explicitly throw his considerable philosophical weight behind the “Love Wins” campaign, but his philosophy, like the popularized New Testament rhetoric of Harline and Hodges, tends to strip the Restored Gospel of its most distinctive and beautiful promises and to thus to disarm moral effort and opposition to the relativistic distortion of “love.” The levelling of all desires to the sheer gratuity of what God has given implies the equality of all natural desires and indeed the sinfulness of any effort to attain righteousness, that is, to govern lower desires in view of a higher hope. Gratitude for the world just as it is as the central principle of the Gospel is hard to distinguish, in practice, from worldliness.
The Genealogy of Love Wins (a Sketch)
The costs of reading of Christian charity as “love wins” may be obvious, but a diagnosis or genealogy of the disorder proves to be a challenging task. The philosophical and theological roots of a certain confusion between secularism and Christianity lie deep in the history of the West and entangled in the foundations of the modern age. To uncover these roots is a monumental task, and here I can offer only a few glimpses of the paradoxical relationship between Christianity and Secularism that can be helpful in addressing the current confusion.
As I was suggesting earlier, the young scholars (universalist and compassionate) are not alone in their quandary, since the tension between the universalizing form and the particular content of Christianity has been a challenge from the beginning. To spread the Gospel beyond all ethnic and political borders while holding firm to some substance of what is to be shared is a problem coeval with the announcement of the Good News, and one can in fact trace the history of Western thought as the story of this problem.
We can bring this history into focus in a summary way by observing that there are two kinds of particularism, two sources of moral content or substance, that Christian universalism must aim to overcome. First, there is the particularism of the Jews, a chosen people defined by a rigorous, revealed law governing the details of daily existence. Second, there is the natural particularism of our political condition, authoritatively described by Aristotle: the natural virtues have a universal aspect, but they are always bound up with the common good of particular cities or political communities, or more particularly with the ruling ethos of these communities. Christian universalism thus necessarily confronts the particular claims of both revealed law and natural virtue, prior revelation and proud reason, Jerusalem and Athens.
In Paul’s letters, both Jew and Greek are in question, but the confrontation with the Jewish law is obviously the most obvious and immediate concern. As is suggested by the LDS examples cited above, the interpretation of the letters of Paul has always been central to the problem of sorting out the relationship between the Gospel and the World. In many passages Paul speaks boldly of the law that defined the covenant of Israel being suspended or rendered inoperative, but he also speaks of the love announced by the gospel as “fulfilling” the law. So the status of the law or of commandments in relation to the Gospel’s announcement of a Love that includes the whole human race has been a tortured question in Christian theology from the beginning. The extreme, anti-Jewish view of the question was taught very early, in the second century, by a certain Marcion, who took Paul’s writings to be foundational and used them to dismiss everything Jewish as completely foreign to Christianity and thus utterly to reject the Old Testament, its commandments, and even its God. One could say that in this key respect the “Love Wins” movement is a 21st century revival of Marcionism.
St. Augustine (354-430 AD) was of course no Marcionite; he respected the canonical status of the Old Testament while interpreting it in a highly allegorical manner. The main concern of his universalizing effort, in any case, was not with the particular demands of the Jewish law but with the status of natural or pagan virtue in relation to the other-worldly faith of Christianity. He summed up his view with this famous declaration: “the virtues of the pagans are but splendid vices.” Although drawn to Platonism, he struggles to break with it decisively because he cannot accept Plato’s belief in the natural capacity of a human being, the philosopher, to attain the good, a kind of natural salvation to be achieved by the perfection of one’s own natural, intellectual powers. Since, for Augustine, man cannot achieve the good by his own power, both Plato’s claim to philosophical salvation and the more common human virtues praised by Aristotle as intrinsically good necessarily appear merely as socially and politically useful – as “splendid vices” of merely utilitarian value. In Augustine we see the tendency of Christianity to supernaturalize the goods of the soul, to refer them to another world, and thus to construe this world as the realm only of bodily needs and of vain pretentions. The natural virtues that humans everywhere tend to praise are thus debunked and, one can say, reduced to a “secular” perspective of mere instrumental value.
The risk inherent in Christian universalism is clear enough: if the Gospel, in order to extend its reach, too enthusiastically negates both Jewish commandment and Pagan virtue – whatever is esteemed as virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy– then it risks hollowing itself out, evacuating its own substance. And one can say that the modern, secular age, the age of this-worldly universalism, was founded on precisely such an evacuation.
Love Wins and the Foundations of Modern Secularism
Modern secularism is founded on a kind of mutually eroding interaction between Christian faith and pagan reason: Christian humility debunks the “virtuous” pride of Greek reason, and Greek reason questions the supernatural claims of Christianity. The resultant rationalism preserves the moral content of neither Jerusalem nor Athens, but only the open-ended promise of progress, of ongoing liberation from the limitations of the human condition.
The Protestant Reformation, a movement based on a reading of Paul and on a radicalization of Augustine, played an ironic role in the coming forth of this hollow modern universalism. By radically separating grace from nature in order to address the Church’s worldly exploitation of spiritual authority, the Reformers undermined the continuity between natural virtue and divine commandment and tended to deprive Biblical commands of any rational support but a purely utilitarian understanding (see my Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics). But a more explicit intention to deploy Christian motives (along with others, of course) to undo Christianity can be discerned in the philosophical founding of the modern age.
The modern political-philosophical project that took shape first in 17th century Europe proposed that the Christian promise of salvation through the teachings and sacraments of the Church had stifled human progress, and that human beings needed to take responsibility for their own universal liberation from fear and want. But to do this would require a re-orientation of morality in a decidedly this-worldly direction.
The mobilization of Christian motives for secular progress is already clear in the rhetoric of the philosopher regarded as the founder of the modern age, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes crafts a story of his path of discovery and appeals to the public for support of his new scientific and humanitarian project. His aim, he says, is to demonstrate the advantages of his scientific approach so “as to induce all who have the common good of man at heart, that is, all who are virtuous in truth, and not merely in appearance, or according to opinion,” to support his project. He appeals explicitly to a secularized law of humanitarian love, arguing that we must not sin “against the law by which we are bound to promote, as far as in us lies, the general good of mankind.” And we can avoid this sin against humanity only by cooperating in Descartes’ project that by which we humans can “render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature.” – that is, not beings limited by natural or divine law.
There is thus a direct line between the detachment of human love from the commands of the Biblical law on the one hand and the natural virtues on the other and the technological project of mastery over nature, which implies the promise of a universal overcoming of the limitations of the human condition.
This subversion of Christian Charity, the appropriation of spiritual love by the secular ethic of “Love Wins” is thus not just a mistake. It is, I feel bound to say, the mistake, the substitution of the one true thing by its alluring counterfeit.
Counterfeit “Love”: the Anti-Christ
In light of the deep connection between the modern project of progressive mastery and the counterfeiting of Christian love, we can well appreciate Elder Dallin Oaks’ association of the religion of secularism with the anti-Christ: “The denial of God or the downplaying of His role in human affairs that began in the Renaissance has become pervasive today.” While “the glorifying of human reasoning has had good and bad effects,” Elder Oaks explains, “prophecies of the last days foretell great opposition to inspired truth and action. Some of these prophecies concern the anti-Christ, and others speak of the great and abominable church.”
The core teaching of this “great and abominable church,” which “must be something far more pervasive and widespread than a single “church,” as we understand that term today” is linked with assertions of Korihor in the Book of Mormon and with “moral relativism.”
…Today we call Korihor’s philosophy moral relativism. This is the belief applied by many in the popular media and in response to peer pressure. “Break free of the old rules. Do what feels good to you. There is no accountability beyond what man’s laws or public disapproval impose on those who are caught.” Behind such ideas is the assumption that there is no God or, if there is, He has given no commandments that apply to us today.
The rejection of an unprovable God and the denial of right and wrong are most influential in the world of higher education. Secular humanism, a branch of humanism probably so labeled because of its strong alignment with secularism, is deliberately or inadvertently embodied in the teachings of faculty members in many colleges and universities.
Lest you regard Elder Oaks’ association of secular humanism with the antichrist as “out there,” consider that Pope Benedict, a great philosopher and theologian, made a similar argument in his chapter on the Temptations of Christ in his book “Jesus of Nazareth.” Regarding the first of Satan’s temptations, Benedict has this to say:
Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation. It does not invite us directly to do evil – no, that would be far too blatant. It pretends to show us a better way, where we finally abandon our illusions and throw ourselves into the work of actually making the world a better place. It claims, moreover, to speak for true realism: What’s real is what is right there in front of us – power and bread.” … Does not the Redeemer of the world have to prove his credentials by feeding everyone? Isn’t the problem of feeding the world – and, more generally, are not social problems – the primary, the true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured…. The fact is that scriptural exegesis [think of the liberationists distortions of Paul] can become a tool of the Antichrist.
The great Christian writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) grasped the darkness of the secular counterfeit of charity with her singular eloquence:
Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. [Our Mormon prophets of secular compassion, cannot accept the authority of a Church that does not accept at face value the sexual disorientation some members.] In this popular pity [i.e., “compassion”], we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. … In the absence of … faith, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory [the modern project of human mastery]. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”
In any case, no Latter-day Saint should be surprised by the conjunction of a universalism that denies moral opposition and thus agency on the one hand and the Satanic project on the other: “Behold, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.” Amoral universalism always has been and always will be the work of the Adversary.
Conclusion: Philosophical and Spiritual Antidotes to the Secular Subversion of Christian Love
Let this much suffice for now as a diagnosis of the very grave error that lies at the heart of the Love Wins mentality. Since this secular notion of relativistic love is so seductive, drawing as it does on both the motives and prestige of modern secularism and those of Christian piety, let me conclude by briefly indicating some antidotes to this intellectual and spiritual disease.
First, I would recommend authors in the Christian tradition who, rather than setting grace and nature, Christian humility and universalism on the one hand and the justified pride of classical virtue, against each other, work to hold them together, in tradition of Thomas Aquinas. This can be seen in the great statement of the essence of Thomas’s philosophy: grace does not destroy nature, but completes it. A religion that seeks after whatever is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy has a natural affinity with this essential premise, despite great theological difference.
Other authors who can serve as antidotes to the secular distortion of Pauline Christianity include G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Pierre Manent, and Robert George.
Second, a careful study of the New Testament and of Paul’s letters in particular will no doubt leave open reasonable questions of interpretation, but such study can guard against the simplistic secularization of Paul that we have seen has its progressive attractions for certain Latter-day saints. As an aid to such study I have found the work of the immensely learned and morally grounded N.T. Wright (b. 1948), retired Anglican bishop and eminent biblical scholar, especially useful. Here is what he says about the boundaries that defined the earliest Christian communities:
And this new community, in abandoning the ‘chief Jewish devices for distinguishing the covenanted people from the world of polytheism’, was not doing so on the basis of an ideal of ‘tolerance’ or antinomianism. Their abandoning of those Jewish markers does not mean . . . that they themselves did not also maintain strong boundaries to define themselves over against that world.
And here is an excerpt from Wright’s argument to the effect that the freedom of the Gospel is inseparable from the virtue of responsible freedom:
But if they are called to be God’s free and freedom-bringing people, then they must learn to live as God’s free people, giving up the habit of slavery—yes, slavery is as much a habit of mind as a physical state—and learning the art of responsible, free living. To put it another way, if these people are to take redemptive responsibility for the whole of creation, they must anticipate that by taking redemptive responsibility, in the present time, for that one bit of creation over which they have the most obvious control—namely, their own bodies.
(I note that the idea of a hierarchy within nature implicit in the imperative to control or to rule over our bodies is incompatible with Adam Miller’s flattening understanding of universal “grace.”)
Wright is quite explicit about the continuities as well as the significant difference between Christian and classical Greek virtue:
What Paul is arguing for is a Christian form of the ancient pagan theory of virtue. The terms in which he issues that warning, echoing and endorsing central prohibitions from the Old Testament, make it clear that, despite popular impressions to the contrary, he is firmly endorsing the ancient Jewish prohibition on sexual relationships of any sort outside the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman.
…If they are to be the royal priesthood, ruling over God’s new world (Romans 5.17), they must be people through whose lives shine a genuine humanness, reborn in Christ after judgment has been passed on their own sin. God’s work of rescuing, restorative justice must happen in us in order that it can happen through us. But the love of which Paul speaks is tough. In fact, it’s the toughest thing there is. The love of which Paul speaks is clearly a virtue. (my emphases)
Note here that for Wright the Pauline idea of Christian love is inseparable from a definite and demanding idea of the true virtue that alone can fit us to rule under God over his restored creation. This definite and demanding virtue is what is obviously missing from the Love Wins mentality, including its LDS versions in Hodges, Harline and Miller.
Finally, let me state what should be obvious. Our modern prophets have provided ample warning against the Love Wins mentality, and an interpretation of grace that avoids the extreme reading that lends itself to moral relativism. I close with teachings of Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Jeffrey R. Holland:
… But the grace of God does not merely restore us to our previous innocent state. If salvation means only erasing our mistakes and sins, then salvation—as wonderful as it is—does not fulfill the Father’s aspirations for us. His aim is much higher: He wants His sons and daughters to become like Him.
With the gift of God’s grace, the path of discipleship does not lead backward; it leads upward.
It leads to heights we can scarcely comprehend! It leads to exaltation in the celestial kingdom of our Heavenly Father, …
To inherit this glory, we need more than an unlocked gate; we must enter through this gate with a heart’s desire to be changed—a change so dramatic that the scriptures describe it as being “born again; yea, born of God, changed from [our worldly] and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.”21 Mosiah 27:25
… Throughout our lives, God’s grace bestows temporal blessings and spiritual gifts that magnify our abilities and enrich our lives. His grace refines us. His grace helps us become our best selves.
…Brothers and sisters, we obey the commandments of God—out of love for Him! (Uchtdorf, “The Gift of Grace,” April 2015. My emphases.)
Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, …
Talk about man creating God in his own image! Jesus…said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like “comfortable” doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in?
Jesus said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” To make certain they understood exactly what kind of love that was, He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” … Christlike love is the greatest need we have on this planet in part because righteousness was always supposed to accompany it.
So if love is to be our watchword, as it must be, then by the word of Him who is love personified, we must forsake transgression and any hint of advocacy for it in others. Jesus clearly understood what many in our modern culture seem to forget: that there is a crucial difference between the commandment to forgive sin (which He had an infinite capacity to do) and the warning against condoning it (which He never ever did even once). (Elder J.R. Holland “The Cost and Blessings of Discipleship.” My emphases.)