When Rusty Reno speaks, I listen.
As the editor of First Things and articulate proponent of a neo-conservative form of Catholicism, Reno is someone with whom I often disagree but always respect. So when Reno recently published an article called “Keep the Churches Open!”, I read eagerly because while my church has made the decision to suspend our gatherings, I haven’t felt particularly at peace about it, which meant I read Reno’s article open to being persuaded we had made a mistake.
Reno starts by acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic is serious and yet nevertheless proceeds to argue that closing churches and canceling services is a betrayal of the church’s fundamental purpose to love the Lord our God. Reno suggests that in canceling services, churches are capitulating to the spirit of our age “which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs.”
Death is Not the Worst Thing
And Reno is obviously at least half right. Modern culture is locked into a hopeless denial of death, acting as if death is the worst thing that could happen to someone. But Christians are not allowed to believe death is the worst thing that could happen to someone. As Jesus said, rather ominously, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) A less ominous way to say this is that Christians know the worst thing that could happen to someone is not death but unfaithfulness.
I don’t think anyone could seriously deny that some of the panic on display by Christians is rooted in the utterly un-Christian belief that death is the worst thing that could happen, in the delusion that we might yet find a way to get out of life alive. We won’t. We will all die, and the pandemonium has made clear that much of our “peace” has actually been rooted in our death-denying delusions and not the resurrection of the dead through Jesus Christ. I don’t think anyone could seriously deny that some of the panic on display by Christians is rooted in the utterly un-Christian belief that death is the worst thing that could happen. Click To Tweet
But then Reno’s argument takes a turn I cannot follow. Responding to the Vicar of Rome’s suggestion that churches should be closed out of love for neighbor, Reno says this is a mistake because the first commandment is not to love neighbor, but is to love the Lord our God: “The first spiritual need of charity is to grow in our love for God, for only then will we have the firm foundation on which to endure the sacrifices and responsibilities that come with loving our brothers.”
How do We Love God?
The implication is that when forced to choose between the love of God and the love of neighbor, we must choose the love of God. Why? Because it is the first commandment, and because it what makes the love of neighbor possible. A cogent argument, to be sure, but let us consider this.
In Romans 13:8, Paul says, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Similarly, in Galatians 5:14: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Twice, Paul picks up a precedent set by Jesus and compresses the will of God into its simplest form. And yet notice that whereas Jesus compressed the law into two commandments (love God and love neighbor), Paul goes further and compresses the law into a single commandment: love your neighbor. Knowing full well that Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God and love neighbor, Paul makes an intentional decision to simply further: the will of God is that you love your neighbor. Why?
Well how, exactly, does one go about loving God? After all, God is the infinite and invisible source of all that is. How do you get your arms around that? How do you love that? What would it consist of? Saying nice things to God? Thinking happy thoughts about God? Singing songs, receiving Eucharist, praying? How does one love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength? For Paul, the answer was simple: by loving your neighbor. In other words, the primary way we love God is by loving our neighbor. So it’s not just that love of God produces love of neighbor, but that love of God is love of neighbor. The primary way we love God is by loving our neighbor. Click To Tweet
All of which calls to mind a lovely C.S. Lewis quote:
“The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it’s immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.”
So while I’m still open to the possibility it is wrong for churches to suspend their gatherings and agree much of the pandemonium betrays a sinful fear of death, my church will continue to suspend gatherings because I think Reno is wrong on this point: we can never separate love of God from the love of neighbor. Indeed, in the deep symmetry at the heart of all things, we will never have to choose between the love of God and love of neighbor for they are one and the same. How could it be otherwise?