I sometimes page through religious books of other denominations. Not long ago, I picked up a Lutheran text. It was called Christianity Is For You, by Milton L. Rudnick.
Disclaimer: my comments are simply my personal impressions of what I read. I am not qualified to speak generally about Lutherans of whatever confession (and there are several).
Christianity Is For You is a catechetical handbook, mostly but not exclusively for youth ministry, published in 1961. On page 1, Rudnick states his intent: “We are going to study the entire Christian religion in a rather thorough and systematic way.” As somebody with a bachelor’s degree in theology, I have to say I consider that an astonishing feat for a 110-page paperback.
On page 3, Rudnick begins his “study of the entire Christian religion” with this:
Christ can bring us to God because he has taken away our sins. Sin keeps us apart from God. The evil urge that makes us disobey God was put into our hearts by the devil. Because of our sin, the anger and judgment of God have come upon us. He is pure goodness. God cannot stand anything evil. On account of our sin, He cannot associate with us; He must withdraw from us in horror and disgust. This attitude of God toward sin is called His “wrath.”
The next paragraph goes on, “In addition to His wrath, however, God also has great love for us.” Still, your starting point tells me what you prioritize. Wrath, God’s “horror and disgust,” was the priority. Love was not.
German liberation theologian Dorothee Solle wrote, “God and love are inseparable. It is not possible—and this is probably the gravest error of all conservative theologies—to tear God and love apart and to say that God is primary and permanent while love is some secondary, derivative thing.”
It’s not so much that God is primary. God needs descriptors and modifiers, so we take some quality ascribed to God, supposedly more fundamental than love, and make that primary. In Christianity Is For You, it was righteousness expressed as wrath. In the Catholic Church, the hierarchy emphasizes Truth, with a capital T.
This has been explicit in the reigns of the last two popes. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have often framed their missions as calling us back to a crisp, rigorous, detailed Truth.
Benedict’s motto is Cooperatores veritatis (“Co-workers of the Truth,” 3 John 8). John Paul devoted an entire encyclical, Veritatis splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”), to the concept. Benedict wrote an encyclical titled Caritas in veritate (“Charity in Truth”), which is a reflection on socio-economic problems, but I find that title interesting: charity, or love, as a subset of Truth.
Consider the two. Love, whether euphoric and romantic or the “harsh and dreadful thing” of Dostoevsky, is about relationships. Love is regard for flesh and blood, flesh and blood that cries and laughs and sweats and burps, that demands respect in and of itself, for itself. People must be approached carefully, gently, individually.
Truth, however, is abstract. It is Plato defining a chair in its ultimate chair-ness. It is about coolly contemplating perfection. Perfection comes before people, and things may be done to people in perfection’s name.
One need not ask too many questions about what it means for a man to fall helplessly in love with another man, or for a woman to fall helplessly in love with another woman. Since tab A so obviously fits slot B, one may simply file such people under “intrinsically disordered.”
Nor does a bishop need to look too closely at a nun, a hospital administrator, who reluctantly approves an abortion to save the life of a mother of four. Rather, the bishop can confidently excommunicate her, and strip the title of Catholic from her medical center, depriving it of liturgy and sacrament a few days before Christmas.
“Truth,” strangely, doesn’t require you to think too much. In the end it is about implementation, not reflection. As John Paul told the Vatican Supreme Court, the Sacred Roman Rota, in 1992, “There can be no question of adapting the divine norm or even of bending it to suit the whim of a human being.”
Jesus, in the recent cycle of daily Mass readings from Mark, associates with lepers excluded by the “divine norm” and exercises his “whim” to heal and include them. He also heals the sick and lets his hungry disciples pick grain on the Sabbath day, thereby transgressing the “divine norms” of the Sabbath so egregiously that he signs his own death warrant.
If “Truth,” or wrath, or anything but love is really first in Christianity, then Jesus says Christianity is not “for you.” Let “them” keep it.