Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The First and Greatest Commandment: Intellectually Problematic?

"Jesus said unto him, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.'"

Matthew 22:37 as quoted above has always been problematic for me. The heart has too many strings pulling on it, and the mind is constantly being distracted by its own musings for me to ever say that all my heart and all my mind are all in it for God all of the time. Prayer and meditation have been helpful to me in dealing with this handicap, and I have also taken comfort in the promise through faith in Jesus that God will forgive my having broken this greatest commandment.

The C.S. Lewis Society published an article a while back in which Alister McGrath reflected on a similar condition, one that can affect both theologians and lowly pewsitters: the problem of thinking deeply about God, and finding that we might be thinking too deeply while not loving Him as Christ would have us. McGrath leads us through his personal journey from head to heart. The complete article can be found here. I'll give you a few highlights below.

From the Winter 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing:

Loving God with Heart and Mind
by Alister McGrath

"I recall a conversation some years ago with Donald Coggan, formerly archbishop of Canterbury. We were discussing some of the challenges to theological education, and had ended by sharing our concerns over folk who left theological education knowing more about God, but seemingly caring less for God. Coggan turned to me, sadly, and remarked: ‘The journey from head to heart is one of the longest and most difficult that we know...’ 
...I gradually came to the realization that my faith was far too academic... 
...It was then that I began to realize the importance of letting biblical ideas impact on my imagination and experience. I read some words of a medieval writer, Geert Zerbolt van Zutphen (1367-1400), who stressed the importance of meditating on Scripture. Not understanding, but meditating. Here is what he had to say.
Meditation is the process in which you diligently turn over in your heart whatever you have read or heard, earnestly reflecting upon it and thus enkindling your affections in some particular manner, or enlightening your understanding.
Words like these brought new light and life to my reading of the Bible. I had thought that meditation was some kind of Buddhist practice that was off-limits for Christians. Yet I had failed to notice how often Old Testament writers spoke of meditating on God’s law. Meditation was about letting the biblical text impact upon me, “enkindling the emotions” – what a wonderful phrase! – and “enlightening the understanding”. And my heart, as well as my mind, was to be involved! The worlds of understanding and emotion were brought together, opening the door to a far more authentic and satisfying way of living out the Christian life... 
...As I mentioned earlier, my basic understanding of Christian doctrine has not changed over the last ten years. I remain deeply committed to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy. What has happened is that these ideas have taken on a new depth, both as I appreciated more their implications, and as I realized that my grasp of the totality of the Christian gospel had been shallow. Perhaps I could say that I experienced a deepening in the quality of my faith, rather than any change in what I believed.

...Spirituality aims to ensure that we both know about God and know God. It seeks to apply God to our hearts as well as our minds. It deals with the deepening of our personal knowledge of God. Yet this immediately indicates that spirituality is grounded in good theology. Spirituality is about the personal appropriation of what theology points toward and promises. Theology thus provides us with a secure foundation for Christian living...
 ...We have important duties on earth, but we must never allow them to preoccupy us in such a way that we forget who we are or where we are going.
My concern in this brief paper has been to offer some preliminary reflections on the importance of relating our minds and hearts, and some thoughts on how we might go about doing this. Happily, others have developed such insights in much greater detail! Theology offers us a firm foundation upon which we may build, ensuring that the great riches and truths of the gospel stimulate and nourish our minds, emotions, and imaginations..."

The idea that spirituality is grounded in good theology echoes something C.S. Lewis once said,
"If you don't listen to theology, that won't mean you have no ideas about God. It will mean you have a lot of wrong ones..."

It seems to me that much of modern "spirituality" makes an end run around theology by appealing directly to the heart in a manner similar to the eastern religions. This holds great appeal to people. If we can skip Christology, Eschatology, Soteriology, or if we can skip reading the Bible altogether, wouldn't life be so much easier? The theory being that if the Divine is already in us (or in our hearts), and all we have to do is clear away the clouds created by our overactive minds in order to be in touch with the Divine, then why waste time thinking about doctrine, theology, or a bunch of words on paper?

Like Alister McGrath, I have found meditative practice quite helpful in making the journey from head to heart. The warning I have for others is that this journey requires that the traveller embark with a Bible in the hand and the light of Christ at their back. The journey is fraught with far more hazards than proponents of modern easy spirituality would suggest.

Much of the reason for the constant appearance of heresies is that these are things that emanate either from a mind that has not made a properly chaperoned journey to the heart, or they emanate from hearts illumined by the deception of self-discovery.

One alternative is to seek a heart enlightened by God after humble and fearful meditation on His Holy Word and acceptance of its authority.

The humility, fearful, and acceptance parts of the process I described above remain problematic for many of us. We would rather not meditate on those things. This aversion is an emotional rather than an intellectual response, or perhaps the aversion is a tactic of our old friend Screwtape, or it is just that our hearts want to hold onto their unregenerate identities.

Our actions, when we lose awareness of God during our day to day business and interactions with others, betray the fact that we pay greatest heed to the words of our own hearts, words that keep whispering to our minds,
"My will be done, my kingdom come,"

and we all can guess what problems ensue from listening to that advice.

Coming to grips with the first and greatest commandment will likely remain my first and greatest problem, but it is good to know that mine is not the only mind working on it.

1 comment:

  1. This came in my morning Bible Study and I thought it suggests another solution.

    "For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:

    (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)

    Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;" 2 Corinthians 10 King James Version (KJV)