Which commandment in the law is the greatest? A good question for us as we prepare to vote in a few days. We are commanded to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. As they say, this is not rocket science. The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “It is not hard to believe because it’s hard to understand. It is hard to believe because it’s hard to obey.” And St. John of the Cross tells us: “In the end we shall be examined in love.” That’s it! Theologian Karl Barth’s summary of the Gospel is elegantly simple—“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” That’s it!

The mystical tradition of Christianity teaches us that life is the school of delight, the school of love. The maddening thing is that we are told to love each other but not given much help in living it out—in the mess and muddle of things—In our politics, in our social policies, in our personal lives. Stephen Prothero reports in his Religious Literacy that we are one of the most religious people on the planet and yet the most religiously illiterate! We say one thing and do another. The most famous and popular text from the Bible isn’t in the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves.” Ben Franklin wrote that. And 10% of us believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife! Nevertheless, the rule is simple. In the end we shall be examined in love.

Novelist Julian Barnes writes with distaste of “America’s Extreme Christianity”:

Old Europe took a more leisurely approach to the final arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven—a long mouldering in the grave before resurrection and judgment, all in God’s good time. America, and Extreme Christianity, likes to hurry things along. Why shouldn’t product delivery follow promised order sooner rather than later? Hence such fantasies as The Rapture, in which the righteous, while going about their daily business, are instantly taken up into Heaven, there to watch Jesus and the Antichrist duke it out down below on the battleground of planet earth. The action-man, X-rated, disaster-movie version of the world’s end.(1)

And the supply of Jesuses seems endless: Superstar, a pure-blooded and exemplary Aryan, first member of the Master Race, the Messiah who magically transports himself to the Americas, a black man who has “the blood of all races in his veins,” a fun loving, partygoing preacher who happens also to be a paragon of efficient business discipline, a master at PR and advertising—in effect the founder of a modern corporation. Jesus, CEO. A Jewish Peasant Cynic, a shaman, user of hallucinogenic mushrooms, homosexual, Maoist, father of secret children, Roman spy, Egyptian, Spirit traveler to India. Just plain fictional. “He is both the best known and the least known of all human beings. He is that person about whom the most has been said and about whom we are the most ignorant.”(2)

The presidential election just over a week away—a version of American Idol. Our present state was foretold many years ago. Wouldn’t you know it was in Ohio, in a small town called Zenith—the town in Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922). Nothing much has changed except perhaps the acceleration of change. It was published the same year as Calvin Coolidge’s “The business of America is business.” George F. Babbitt—a realtor—is hard-working, prosperous, well-liked—all of which are just the beginning of his problems. Lewis was a fierce critic of the acquisitive and materialistic society of nearly 90 years ago. The ancient myths are pervasive and persistent. (We forget that, in the end, we shall be examined in love.)

One of Lewis’s central points is that small town America is nowhere nearly as friendly or as agreeable as it’s made out to be. The citizens were suspicious of difference or of anyone who didn’t share their views. Lewis traveled America to write Babbitt. He took copious notes and then invented a character who still lies at the heart of American materialistic culture. Success meant three things: material comfort, popularity with his fellow citizens, and a sense of superiority over the less successful. He was complacent without even realizing it. He was seduced by efficiency, merchandising and the accumulation of “goods”—stuff. Art and religion had their place but were always at the service of business.

A character Chum Frink delivers a speech at Booster’s Club (somewhat like Rotary). The theme? Zenith should have it’s own symphony orchestra. “Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city today as pavements or bank-clearances. It’s Culture, in theaters and art galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors… [So] I call upon you brothers to whoop it up for Culture and a World-beating Symphony Orchestra!”

Babbitt’s world begins to unravel when his closest friend kills his wife. Babbitt wants to change his life but there’s a price to pay for success. His tragedy is that he doesn’t even know that he’s a tragic figure. It’s the time of the coming radio and advertising and now, for us it’s the internet. In 1925 anthropologists descended on Muncie Indiana to do a kind of Babbitt inspired research. They discovered only two classes of people—the business class and the working class.

It’s a thorny path to our final exam. The Jesus test is very simple. There’s a story about how the British Council of Churches wanted to support the church in Greece after the devastation of the WWII. The council, without much thought, sent a deputation of three Scottish Presbyterians of the most conservative and Calvinistic variety. One of them heard the deeper call to a liberality of spirit. They stopped by the priest’s house in a Greek village. The priest was both delighted and touched by the visit of these three Christians from Scotland. How could he show his appreciation? He remembered a box of fine cigars he’d been keeping for a special occasion. Much to his dismay two of visitors firmly turned down his offer for a smoke. The third, however, took the offered cigar and smoked it with obvious enjoyment. The priest then remembered a precious bottle of wine he’d been keeping in his cellar. When the wine was offered, the two guests again refused the proffered drink. The third drank down not one glass, not two but three. The priest was pleased if puzzled and the three Scotsmen went on their way. As they were driving to their next appointment, the two strict Presbyterians remonstrated with their friend. “Why did you smoke that cigar and drink all that wine. You know that we neither smoke nor drink!” “I know, I know,” replied the third man, “but one of us had to be a Christian!” In the end we shall be examined in love.

What might prepare us for the final exam? Many things. Here are just three:

  • A liberality of spirit (like that of the third Presbyterian);
  • a willingness to live with questions by allowing ourselves to live into the amazing mystery of being alive and aware;
  • a recovery of the poetic as a path to the sacred, without which life is nasty, brutish and short.

First, let’s examine liberality of spirit by thinking about what has happened to the word “liberal”—a word (one might have thought) that would apply to Christians—to those who struggle to obey the two great commandments in the Law. When did “Liberal” become a dirty word? Demonizing labels are handy because they enable us to by-pass thought.

The word “liberal” was used before 1350 to mean “befitting a free people, noble, generous”. Then there were the seven liberal arts “worthy or befitting free men and women”. We use the term ‘liberal arts’ to denote a curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capacities. In classical antiquity, the term designated the education proper to a freeman as opposed to a slave. In the medieval university, the seven liberal arts were: the Trivium (the three) 1. Grammar 2. Rhetoric 3. Logic—plus the Quadrivium (the four) 4. Geometry 5. Arithmetic 6. Music 7. Astronomy. It may sound a little quaint to us, but behind it is a call to the fullness of humanity—a humanity marked by intelligence, curiosity, and an openness to wonder and the new.

Later, in the late 18th century, to be liberal meant to be free from prejudice, tolerant, pointing to individual political freedoms. The word denotes a generosity of spirit—a large heart. The very thing we can’t stand about God! So, part of the final exam about true love requires knowledge as befitting free women and men. Our system of government requires an educated citizenry. Being loving doesn’t mean being stupid.

Second, the final exam involves a willingness to live with questions. The sting is in the second half of the gospel reading: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22: 46). People read (misread) the Bible as if it’s full of answers. Too many Christians have stopped asking questions and have taken comfort in raucous and polarizing certainties. Some even know whom God wants us to elect president! Present day politics presents us with a very difficult intellectual challenge. Because politics is also a form of theater and political leadership is an art form, we have to be on our toes. It’s time to wake up. So, vote on November 4 but don’t be fooled. If you have any religious sensibility, don’t talk as if you know the mind of God. You don’t. Question! Start questioning now because it’s on the final exam!

The trouble with easy answers is that they cut off conversation, they encourage us to stop thinking. They cut us off from the infinite possibilities promised by love. We live in a time of too many cheap answers and not enough deepening questions. What we fail to understand is that belief—like love—must carry at its core an element of the unknown. Many believers willfully choose to ignore this fact. The very structure of love is that it knows no end. It asks of us the impossible. It is unconditional.

Look what’s happening to religion! Bill Maher’s pseudo-documentary Religulous comes to mind. It’s not very probing but there’s some truth in it. Much of religion is both cruel and ridiculous but it can’t be reduced to believing in a talking snake? And then there’s our behavior! “See how these Christians love one another!” We’re losing, if we haven’t already lost, the graceful art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. We could learn a lot from the argumentative rabbis of Judaism. What I admire about Judaism is that it’s “a religion that has perfected the art of disagreement, of sustaining arguments of undiminished energy extending across centuries.” Our faith introduces us to an endless conversation and too many of us are opting out.

James Carse in his book The Religious Argument Against Belief writes:

Christianity for all its durability and explosive growth, is showing early signs of mortality. By splintering into an array of factions, lining up behind political leaders and their ideologies, adopting local mores, and identifying with ethnic communities, it seems to be losing the balance between local needs and disciplined community… Even more perilous, the splintering seems to have tossed aside the centuries of culture, that has accumulated around the historic church—its music, literature, architecture, rituals, schools of higher (nonideological) learning. This is why this great cathedral is important. The grand conversation that provided the unity for the religion as a whole is largely ignored. In short, Christianity is losing its resonance… Where are its poets?

Where’s the love song? And Brecht’s “But men won’t say: The times were dark/ But: why were the poets silent?”

The recovery of the poetic, the mystical, the sacred, is the third part of the exam—the final exam on love—unsentimental, hard, raw, and immediate—a love telling us that we are deeper and lovelier than we know.

W.H. Auden wrote: “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from Plato’s downwards, have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbors start talking.”(3)

The final exam shows us how important it is for us to abandon ideology. It shows us the danger of equating goodness with success. It confronts us with our need to yield to human vulnerability and human unsuccess—“vulnerability to the crookedness of the desires, to the infidelities of the heart, to the injustices of the world.” Yet, because he was in the school of love, Auden invoked gratitude for this imperfect world. He did not despair.

From In Memory of W.B. Yeats:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Theologian and philosopher Sam Keen asks: “Without some vision of the sacred, what will be the source of the virtues of compassion, sacrifice and mutual care without which there can be no commonwealth? How will we discover values that transcend the interests of the ego, the family, the tribe, the corporation, the nation? How will we learn compassion for the stranger? Where will we get that sense of reverence for life that is necessary if we are to preserve our environment?” (4)

If we are to prepare for that final exam in love we will have to recover a sense of the sacred the deeper resonances of creation. James Carse uses the homely and poetic illustration of “dropping a stone into a pool of water and discovering it is but an inch or two deep.” This is “markedly different from dropping it into a sea immeasurably deep; it is a difference of sound, the one an annoying slap, the other a profound…boom, indicating there is much beneath, the surface, as yet unseen.” So much of our religious life is two inches deep, yielding only an annoying slap when a stone is dropped into it.

Look at what happens when liberality, generosity, questioning, and the sacred, the poetic, are thrown out the window! We have a religion of cheap tricks. We are witnesses to its trivialization. In June 2006 at the Kiev Zoo a man got into the area where the lions and tigers were. “He who believes in God will not be harmed by lions!” He was soon killed by a lioness! Novelist Julian Barnes sets his readers a little quizz, “Does this prove a) the man was mad; b) God does not exist; c) God does exist, but won’t be lured into the open by such cheap tricks.