Recently, in a theology class, I was asked this question: “Why is it that whenever we talk about love we soon end up talking about rules and commandments? Invariably we end up talking about what we can’t do! And it’s the same thing with faith: We begin talking about faith and then end up talking about dogma, creeds, and heresies. Why can’t we just talk about love and faith without immediately bringing in a bunch of `dos’ and `don’ts’?”
Fair enough. A good question. This is not unlike the famous ecclesiological query of a century ago when a French theologian asked: “Jesus came preaching a kingdom, how did we end up with the church?” Where do commandments, creeds, dogmas, and structures come from?
First off, we should admit that, sadly, sometimes they come from the wrong places. Rules, laws, and dogmas too frequently come from administrative offices that are too concerned with their own power. As well, they come from fearful, jealous, and petty places inside of ourselves. Small wonder that they do not always serve love and faith very well. However, in their best expression they come from love and faith themselves, just as an oak tree comes from an acorn and a mature man or woman develops out of a single set of chromosomes. Love and faith, like an acorn or a set of chromosomes, carry a clear, determined DNA.
We see this with faith: Bernard Lonergan once said that faith is the brand of the first principles inside the human soul. Henri Nouwen, using a different language, said the same thing. For him, faith is the primal memory of the kiss of God in the soul, the dark remembrance of true first love, of having once, before conscious memory, been caressed by hands far gentler than our own. These are wonderful, helpful images for faith. Faith is a brand, a kiss. However once we begin to try to touch that kiss in any way – through words, imagination, or even through feeling – we find that not all expressions of what we think this kiss is are true to its DNA and that only certain things can grow out of that acorn. The thing itself – however inchoate, dark, and beyond our imagination – dictates the lines within which it can validly be taken. As soon as we try to give expression to the kiss of God in us we find that some things we say are true to that kiss and others are not and soon enough that makes for creeds, dogmas, and heresies. We see this right in the way our Christian creeds developed. Immediately after the resurrection, the earliest Christians had only a one-line creed: Jesus is Lord! That’s a powerful little acorn! It says it all. However, as they tried to un-package what that meant, while all the time remaining true to its DNA, they eventually ended up with a couple of lengthy creeds and a whole series of dogmas that were needed to challenge a number of false understandings along the way.
Love works the same way. It too is a brand inside of the heart, an acorn with a unique DNA. Love can grow legitimately only in certain directions. What is its DNA? At one level this is clear. Love, in order to be love, must contain gratitude, respect, selflessness, and a willingness to let the other be free. Selfishness, envy, taking-another-for-granted, disrespect, and violation of all kinds can never pass themselves off as love. They are its antithesis. All of this is already written into the acorn. Hence there are some non-negotiable “dos” and “don’ts” within love. These are not arbitrary, humanly-imposed, dictates that limit love, but are rather the inherent lines for health and growth written right into love’s DNA. Thus, love, like faith, necessarily ends up with a number of commandments, creeds, and dogmas.
Sometimes today we are too easily seduced by a naive concept of love and freedom. This naivete would have us believe that faith and love can exist without boundaries, that there is not within them a defined DNA that may not be violated. The belief here is that love and faith can mean whatever we want them to mean. But, as we know, something that means everything means nothing. Love that is potentially anything, that exists without any non-negotiable protective principles, can also then mean incest, rape, and murder. The same is true of faith. Faith without boundaries, without creed and dogma to specify it, can then just as easily mean racism, Nazism, and bigotry.
Why do we inevitably end up talking about creeds, dogmas, commandments, and boundaries? Because love and faith have a set DNA. Every acorn is meant to be a very specific kind of tree. So too with love and faith. Already in their nascent forms, as in any tiny seed, there is present a fairly complete script for health and growth. Good creeds, dogmas, and commandments simply lay out that script so that it can be consciously read.