Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity by Norman Wirzba
What is at the heart of the Christian faith, what makes this age old faith tick? This is the question that Professor Norman Wirzba tackles in his new book, The Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity. Many will know Wirzba as a Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke University Divinity School, while others will know him for his long forays into the intersection of theology and the environment (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2011). This book is both a clearing of the deck of old worn out theories describing the essence of Christianity but also paves the way forward with a vision of Christianity that is for all of life, including all of creation. With a healthy dose of wisdom, clear thinking, and imagination, Wirzba plows ahead breathing new life into the teachings of both Scripture and the faith.
Grounding the nature of Christianity as both a way of life and an understanding of God, Wirzba writes, “Christianity reveals the life of God and therefore also the meaning of life as a way of love (1-2). Yet, the church has often been an obstruction in the way of love, seeking to exclude or punish others while maintaining a safe distance from those deemed a threat. Even with a painful past, “love needs God to expose and explode the often anxious, often self-serving desires that are love’s pretenders (3).” Our feeble minds dissect love into who’s in and who’s out, all the while narrowing and making love much too small, while the coming of Jesus of Nazareth upended all these distinctions. So how does this way of love work and transform all those whom it touches? Wirzba writes, “Seeing Christianity as a school or laboratory that trains people in the ways of love is the best way to understand the work and mission of the church (7).” There is an apprenticeship in mind here, a life-long training that discards distorted ways of love and inculcates a way of love that embraces the other.
One of the beautiful points of the whole book is Wirzba’s insistence that we can’t love on our own (21). Early on he writes, “To learn to love, you have to practice with other people who are committed to inspire you when you are tired, celebrate when you succeed, and comfort you when you fail (21).” The concept of a man meditating on high place or a wise person flagellating his body does not push someone to love others well. Rather, being in community with others gives us a vision of sacrifice, of “going to others and offering ourselves to others, so that our life together can grow and flourish (22).” We see in this picture of the marriage covenant, each person committing to love on another til death, through thin and thick, but we also witness this sacrificial love in church.
Wirzba takes on the issue of sin and its effects on all of creation with profundity and wisdom. Looking at sin’s dysfunction interpersonally, Wirzba writes, “When people are muddled about love, they gradually lose the sympathies to recognize each other’s need and pain, the imagination to envision each other’s flourishing, the commitment to work patiently with others to help them realize their potential, and the joy that cherishes and celebrates the goodness that others are (99).” We have corrupted the way of love into a self-serving kind of convenience that cares not for the outside world. And yet, “The love of God is not like this. It is unconditional and universal, extending to every creature and every person (106).” Norman brings together a Augustine’s understanding of sin but also gives us a glimpse how disordered desires hinge upon power, control and convenience. No longer is there a giving and receiving of love, but a taking and profaning of the other person for our own twisted ends.
The book takes a turn for the beautiful as Wirzba recounts the story of Mark Eddy joining the small college community in Georgetown, Kentucky. With anger, sadness, depression for at least ten years (149), Mark needed some healing. Standing before the congregation in 2006, Mark tells them,
“When it became known that I was sick, I found myself surrounded by the light of love from people who hardly knew me. My family was flooded with prayers, food, cards, and the assurance that we were not alone and that others would be there for us. It was though there were a thousand arms of love reaching out to us. And I knew that it was the presence of God. I felt that I’d been overtaken by the kingdom of God and allowed briefly to look inside to experience just for a moment the love and joy of Christ’s kingdom (150).”
The visible grace that was shown to Mark is what this book is all about, making evident the rich love of God and the way of love that is taught by God to be showered upon all creation. I hope you will read this book and be richly encouraged by its words.
Thanks to HarperOne and Jane Chong for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.