He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”
--Matthew 22:38-39 NRSV
“Our tradition has done a good job loving God with our hearts but it has done a poor job of loving God with our minds.” I clearly recall the moment Dr. Bill Rogers said those words to me as I sat in his office during seminary. He articulated what I had already known all my life growing up in the Southern Baptist/evangelical culture. My father a Southern Baptist pastor valued higher education and a historical critical approach to faith, and my mother who had been my Sunday school teacher as far back as I could remember passed on her cynicism of preachers who relied on emotion to cover up their bad theology. I had benefited from mentors, teachers and professors who had taught me to use my mind when I approached my faith, but I had lived in a religious culture suspicious of the mind as a place for Satanic deception. I had absorbed who knows how many messages I had internalized that said unless you “invite Jesus into your HEART’ then you were not a true Christian. I needed Dr. Rogers to make his declaration, because even as a seminary student I still deep down mistrusted the idea of loving God with my mind.
I had grown up going to youth camps and attending revival meetings where emotional appeals were used to get those present to “walk the aisle.” The only statistics that mattered were the ones saying how many people got “saved,” so no amount of emotional manipulation was off limits, the ends justified any means to save souls from eternal damnation. Never mind that religious commitments made in the heat of emotion never seemed to last. In youth group, we were warned about the “mountaintop experience” of having an intense spiritual experience at camp that would all be for naught if we didn’t guard ourselves against temptation when we “came back down the mountain” and our spiritual high wore off. Emotion was the gauge of spiritual authenticity, and the question of whether one “felt close to God” had eternal consequences. The ever-present bromide, “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?” ensured that we would keep searching for the next moment when we felt Jesus in our hearts once more.
While attending a Baptist college, I saw the emotional side of Christianity cause not just shame but also abuse. I attended college meetings where speakers would declare any who didn’t end up crying by the end of the worship service to be false Christians. Friends of mine tried attending a charismatic church the next town over from our campus where they experienced intense emotional harm, because they didn’t have the same kind emotional breakdowns that drove other attendees to lay on the floor weeping. It was not uncommon to see guys (it always seemed to be guys) breaking up with their girlfriends and blaming God for the decision. “I just feel led by God to not be in this relationship anymore.” Who could question the God who spoke to us through our feelings?
When I left the Baptist world I was raised in, I sought out more progressive/liberal congregations in the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ. Those churches would regularly describe themselves as the kind of churches “where you don’t have to check your mind at the door.” Indeed, I can remember countless stimulating conversations and intellectual debates in these congregations. I reveled in the intellectual freedom I hadn’t known in the churches I grew up in. Nobody was called a heretic or condemned to hell for expressing doubts or raising questions. Finally, I learned what it was to be in churches where people loved God with their minds!
I discovered, however, that these more cerebral churches had their own issues. I expected that our stimulating intellectual conversations about social justice would lead to faithful Christian social action, but to my dismay I found out that white liberals feel like they’ve done something if they have had a good discussion about it. I would wonder why I would invite church members to a protest and they would look at me confused, as if to say, “Well, we talked about racial reconciliation (or poverty, or LGBTQ rights, or equality in education, etc.). What more is there to do?”
In the same way, I found out that for many folks in these churches their faith was about an intellectual assent to an idea rather than any sort of commitment that shaped how they lived. Talking about God replaced having an experience of God. Talking about the Bible replaced actually reading it. Discussing an ethical issue in society or even in the church included little thought to what God might actually ask them to sacrifice or do differently. Loving God was more of an idea in the mind than anything that touched the heart of one’s being. I learned that just as emotion could be taken to an extreme that neglected the mind, the reverse was also true.
On my spiritual journey, I’ve struggled to find communities of faith that strike the balance Jesus asks for in the Greatest Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Loving God seems like a never-ending process where we work on opening ourselves up to God, and during that process we discover that we always seem to emphasize one part of ourselves over another. We must constantly seek to recalibrate a balance. God doesn’t seem to want just a part of us but all of who we are to be caught up in love with the Divine.
More than mind and hart, Jesus says we must also love God with our soul. “Soul” is a mysterious sort of term that meant a bunch of different things even in Jesus’ time, but I think the word “soul” always contains the sense of an unquantifiable wholeness of our true selves. Whatever isn’t contained under the category of “mind” or “heart” falls into the “soul” category. In the end, these terms are just human ways of describing how the love of God seeks purchase in every fiber of our being.
The medieval mystic Hildegaard of Bingen said this about the soul:
The soul is a breath of living spirit,
that with excellent sensitivity,
permeates the entire body to give it life.
the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful.
Thus the air is the soul of the earth,
If you’ve discovered part of yourself that you’ve neglected to cultivate in your spiritual journey—your mind, your heart, your soul—perhaps a good place to start to do so is a place inside you that is in need of spiritual moisture and greening. May the parts of yourself that have not been fruitful begin to blossom.
Grace and Peace,
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