Editor’s note: This essay by Terryl Givens is part of an ongoing Deseret News series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought. It was first published in Public Square Magazine and is used here with permission.
“The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.” — Joseph Smith
“Moral consciousness began with God’s question, ‘Cain, where is thy brother Abel?’ It will end with another question on the part of God: ‘Abel, where is thy brother Cain?’” — Nicolai Berdyaev
In the earliest text known to be written by a Christian, Paul the apostle writes to a small flock of believers in Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece. Composed perhaps two decades after the death of Jesus, the introductory lines refer to those early Saints — as disciples were called — as those who became “imitators of us and the Lord” (1 Thes. 1.6).
What did this “imitation” entail? How far did it extend? How was such imitation manifest, and to what did it lead? A partial answer is revealed in Paul’s vocabulary, drenched as it is with one dominant motif. The Thessalonians are commended for their “labor of love;” they are “beloved by God;” Paul feels for them “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children;” he and his brethren “care deeply” for them; they are “very dear” to us; they are his “brothers and sisters;” he “longed with great eagerness” to see (them) face to face; he has “joy” in them;” he again praises their “faith and love;” he reminds them that they “have been taught by God to love one another,” and he writes approvingly, “indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.” In the face of coming trials, they are to “encourage one another and build up each other,” “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”
In the coming centuries, Christianity would assume those characteristics that accompany any institution: Creedal formulas, boundary maintenance, orthodoxy and orthopraxy tests, theological expositions and articles of faith. Meanwhile, the idea of God’s love became unmoored from its foundations.
Love may be the most abused and multivalent term in the English language — commodified, banalized and glibly employed to cover affection extending from hamburgers to a suffering child. In the face of this linguistic violence, however, it is crucial to recognize that “love” in its early Christian use and context does in fact entail its own theological universe. One that can well serve as the nucleus for understanding this first-century religious revolution, and act as an anchor point to gauge the failings of successive generations of Christians — including our own.
How could a particular man in a particular place and time alter the course of heaven and earth?
As the first teachers of Christianity set in motion ripples and then waves disturbing the self-assurance of Rome’s oceanic dominion, critics arrived quickly at the faith’s seeming weakness. Here was a faith that, from its inception, strived for universal appeal and universal application, even as it was rooted in a seemingly random moment in time.
As Diognetus, one of history’s first expositors of the new faith paraphrased the query: “Why, in fine, (has) this new kind or practice (of piety) … only now entered the world?” Celsus, the second-century adversary of Christianity, raised the same objection: A universal God, he intimated, would not act only in the historical particular. “The Christian doctrine of redemption,” he insisted, “centers on the mistaken idea that God abandons his creation for long periods of time, and then after a period of neglect decides to return it to a better state.”
Why was God silent for so long? And how can a temporal church encompass eternity?The third century philosopher Porphyry later raised the same objection, which suggests how general this question became — and how urgent was a Christian response. “If, as (Jesus) says, he confronted sin for the sake of those who are weak, what of our forefathers, our ancestors — were they not likewise diseased and weakened by sin?”
How, in other words, could a simple, concrete event in historical time reach back to an endless past, transcend the geographical boundaries of the present and reverberate far into the future? How could a particular man in a particular place and time alter the course of heaven and earth?
What was genuinely revolutionary — and unprecedently powerful — about the core of the Christian proclamation was its brazen lack of proportionality. The claim was unapologetic: Love embedded in a frail body of flesh and bone could achieve infinite ends. The claim such love made upon the human heart — to be divine in its source and absolute in its reach — could not be circumscribed by time or place or merit. And the reach of this vision of God and his absolute, uncompromised love was the claim and the promise of those first Christians (in Palestine and elsewhere) who were converted to the simple plea of Jesus: “Return unto me …, that I may heal you.”
We marvel along with the poet who rejoiced at that Divine Being “whose glorious, yet contracted light,Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger” (George Herbert, “Christmas”).
This season of the Nativity, we should indeed rejoice at the Incarnation, but not only because it was the fulcrum of time when the divine became human. That actual moment, that long-ago spot of time registered visibly on whatever sundial or water clock in a royal palace marked the minutes. But the meaning of that Christmas morn is transcendent, its repercussions eternal — while it happened on a particular night as constellations that will never again have the identical alignment in the night sky long faded, as shopkeepers prepared their wares in the market amidst conversations never to be repeated, and while birds bred and eggs hatched whose atoms have long since dispersed; the moments that marked the birth of Christ were as historical and real and as much a part of our universe as the seconds that pass while you read these pages.
That was miracle enough. The true miracle is that an infinite love could, instructively, find embodiment in the body and life and deeds of one particular individual. And that one particular life, as Paul taught those of Thessalonica, we are called to imitate, however gradual and piecemeal that imitation. Our discipleship might well be measured by how expansive our impulse is to similarly encompass the entire range of humanity within love’s healing embrace.
Terryl Givens is a Neal A. Maxwell Senior Research Fellow at Brigham Young University and a professor of literature and religion emeritus at the University of Richmond.