Love as the way of knowing

Paul says this great thing in the opening verses of Philippians. His prayer for them is “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…” This is not the way I’ve thought about things. It’s teaching, or information, that overflows more and more in knowledge and understanding so that I can determine what is best. This is not what Paul thinks. It’s not that teaching is unimportant. He does a lot of teaching in his letters, obviously. But Christian understanding abounds in relation to love. 

Now, it’s not surprising that I would have learned to see information as the key to insight and understanding. I’m a cultural heir of a religious tradition that has prized the rational. If we “think it,” we’ve done it. We’ve valued sound doctrine and gospel meetings and preaching and teaching. We like to figure things out. And this is not bad, and I’m particularly thankful for the tradition of strong preaching we have in Churches of Christ. But we haven’t been known much for love. Sadly, we may have a lot of facts, but not know very much.

I’m currently re-reading Jamie Smith’s books, Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom. Smith wouldn’t be surprised with the emphasis in Churches of Christ on right thinking. We are, after all, heirs of the Enlightenment, and what Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology. By Cartesian anthropology (marking the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes), he means that we understand what it means to be human in relation to the life of the mind. Our actions proceed from our conscious thought, or the way our minds order the world. Smith suggests instead that we are driven by desire. We behave according to what we desire, or love–what we worship. And desire is formed, not primarily through information, but through habits and practices–the way we live in the world.

Smith’s voice is not alone. (I would also point readers to the work of Esther Meek, Longing to Know and Loving to Know). In fact, he is following the insights of neuroscience that correspond to notions of philosophers in the phenomenological tradition (Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, among others). Much of our understanding is pre-cognitive and comes to us through bodily participation in the world. We develop practical knowledge, or know-how, by attending with others (including creation) to our world with care.

This matches Paul’s statement in Phil 1 that Christian insight and understanding comes from love, a way of being in the world that is attuned to the other. In fact, this is what transforms our thinking. As we live putting the interest of others ahead of our own, we learn to perceive the world differently. Or as he puts it in Romans 12, the secret to a renewed mind is offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, and we do that through practices: eg, associating with the lowly, offering hospitality to strangers, blessing those who curse you, rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is how we “prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable, and perfect,” or as Paul puts it in Philippians 1, determining “what is best.”

Christian understanding, then, depends on empathy. We do not come to Christian understanding by marshaling arguments into a fortress of impregnable doctrine. This way of knowing is an attempt to be self-possessing, to secure ourselves by being right. Efforts at self-possessing, which I think Paul might call “the way of the flesh,” reduce our capacity for empathy for those who do not dwell with us in our citadel of belief. Sound familiar? Our knowledge cannot abound, in these instances. It can only defend its perimeters and congratulate its possessors. As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

In contrast, the purest path to Christian understanding is through the loving of enemies. As Jesus says, there is no credit for loving your friends. Anyone can pull that off. The real trick is blessing those who curse you, praying for those who persecute you, acting kindly toward those who hate you. Paul goes so far as to say that the love with which Christ loved us while we were enemies to God, is the very love Christ pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. 

This kind of love calls us beyond ourselves. To love this way, we cannot be content to dwell within our self-possessing walls of certainty. In the way of love given by the Holy Spirit, others become, not threats to our boudaries of understanding, but doors through which love may abound with greater insight. Wisdom deepens. Insight is broadened. Know-how is enhanced. We learn to perceive the world differently, to see it the way God might see it. 

Let me be clear here. The knowledge that abounds through love is knowledge of God. We may or may not know our enemy better. Even if we know our enemy better, they may still be our enemy, though mutual understanding is the surest way to peace. But God becomes known to us through love. God is most clearly present to us and to others when we practice the love of Christ. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but the biggest might be the way we learn to respond to our vunerabilities, not with fear, but with trust. Vulnerable love can only proceed in trust–not the trust of the other, but trust in God–which opens space for knowing God. Fear reduces the space for knowing. Trust widens it.

Maybe you’re skeptical. Maybe the principalities and powers of this world have convinced you otherwise. Maybe you see Christian love as impractical, a sucker’s bet, in a world where no one else lives this way. I get it. I too sometimes despair. So, find one place today to love this way and see if there isn’t a little abounding in understanding. Begin to forgive someone who has wronged you. Choose to be hospitable in a situation in which you are usually closed. Weep with someone who is weeping. See if the God of Jesus Christ show up and love abounds in knowledge and full insight.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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4 Responses to Love as the way of knowing

  1. Josha says:

    Mark, thank you for articulating this concept. It’s a breath of fresh air. It is what I firmly believe and it is so nice to see it articulated as you have done. I really appreciate the statement, “As we live putting the interest of others ahead of our own, we learn to perceive the world differently.” And as you followed with the Romans passage, this is perfect insight as to what Paul was saying and what I believe is part of the heart of Christ and relationship with God.
    Recently, I have been visiting an adult class at a Lutheran Christian tradition and the question was asked, “what is the most memorable sermon you can recall from your past.” My answer was a sermon of yours where I believe you referenced Romans 12 and what I took away from your sermon was “Be interruptible and share your possessions…in relation to the love of Christ.” My answer and all the other answers had more to do with what you have written in this post than of doctrine or intellectual debating….and so I think that is a significant point.

  2. David Roberts says:

    Good words. What translation is the quote from Philipians 1:9 from?

  3. joey says:

    Yes, love is ONE of the ways whereby we come to “know” things. Elsewhere, Paul prays that the Ephesians might have “the eyes of their hearts opened” that they might “know” certain things. In other words, IMAGINATION, like love, is another, valid way of “knowing.” The practice of our sacraments is another way whereby we come to “know” things. The list could go on. But what should be noted is that “knowing” is not completely or, even, mostly, an intellectual process. We are SHAPED and SHAPEABLE creatures. As such, we don’t function primarily from the frontal lobes; we function primarily from the heart. (This is a major part of Smith’s thesis, something that I would have thought is manifestly true, and what narrative theologians have been saying for years.)

    On another note, I think your description of the Church of Christ “religious tradition” is a caricature, and a tired one, at that. I grew up in Churches of Christ and I experienced love regularly. And that covenantal love, though I wasn’t consciously aware of it as such (think: Lyle Lovett’s South Texas Girl), was a profound part of my knowing. It seems to me, too, that your caricature of “prizing the rational” was/is part of the Enlightenment and characteristic of (most of) post-Luther, Western Christendom; and not unique to Churches of Christ. Your “Sadly, we may have a lot of facts, but not know very much,” if referring to Churches of Christ, does not reflect reality, and contradicts the basis of your piece. If we are shapeable creatures, then those Church of Christ members that you caricatured were being shaped (were “knowing”) whether they were conscious of it, or not. They “knew” LOTS of things, as evidenced by the fact that there they were, attempting to be and BEING God’s faithful witnesses, regardless of how flawed you think they were in their thinking. You could have made your very valid point without taking a swipe at Churches of Christ and then justifying it by the same, old “But I’m grateful for” some other aspect.

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