all there is, is love.

by amelia

since my last post and the comments that ensued, i’ve been thinking about the gospel.  specifically, the word “gospel” and what it means.  the question came up specifically when i posed the question “and if the best way i find to live out the gospel is outside of the church? what then?” and mb, in response, asked:

The question for me is, what is essential gospel? What are the parts that are most essential to God? What are the parts that I feel most instructed by him personally (not by my particular passions) to devote my soul to? 

in true english geek fashion, i started by turning to the oxford english dictionary (i do love the OED), which defines “gospel” in several ways, including:

1. ‘The glad tidings (of the kingdom of God)’ announced to the world by Jesus Christ. Hence, the body of religious doctrine taught by Christ and His apostles; the Christian revelation, religion or dispensation. Often contrasted with the Law, i.e. the Old Testament dispensation. 

2. The record of Christ’s life and teaching, contained in the books written by the ‘four evangelists’.

4. Something as ‘true as the gospel’; a statement to be implicitly received.

5. Something that serves as a guide to human action; something that men swear by.  b. A doctrine ‘preached’ with fervour as a means of political or social ‘salvation’.

the OED also clarifies that the old english etymology originated with god + spel, meaning good tidings; however, when god-spel became the standard translation for the latin evangelium it’s indeterminate written form led to mistaking it for a compound of god (the deity) and spel (story or discourse), or god-story.  this definition was reinforced by the fact that god-spel was a “word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy.”

in true mormon geek fashion, i turned to the LDS bible dictionary, which defines the word “gospel” as 

good news. The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a perfect atonement for mankind that will redeem all mankind from the grave and reward each individual according to his/her works. This atonement was begun by his appointment in the premortal world but was worked out by Jesus during his mortal sojourn. Therefore, the records of his mortal life and the events pertaining to his ministry are called the Gospels

both the OED and the bible dictionary definitions would lead to the conclusion that all the writings of the gospels (at least matthew, mark, luke, and john; and, for some, the other non-canonized gospels) are the gospel.  or at least all of the teachings of jesus as contained in the gospels are gospel.  for mormons, this would have to extend to jesus’ teachings in the americas, too.  i suppose some could argue that this extends to the teachings of jesus’ anointed prophets, but it could be argued that prophets’ teachings expound the gospel, rather than are the gospel.

but for me, this answer is unsatisfactory–that the gospel includes all of the writings of the gospels or even everything jesus taught in the gospels.  and i don’t think it really answers mb’s question, which is about essence.  so what is the essence of the gospel?

i think we can take guidelines for our definition from both the OED and the bible dictionary definitions.  i think the gospel can be found in the gospels and, specifically, in christ’s teachings.  and i particularly think that the gospel is both something implicitly to be believed and something which functions as a guide to human action.  but what is that guide in its purest, most essential form?

my answer is simple: love.  in my mind, the essence of the gospel is love.  everything else–and i mean everything–is secondary to love.  and i think the scriptures back me up on this.  

in matthew 22:37-40, when the lawyer asks christ to identify the most important commandment, jesus answers:

thou shalt love the lord thy god with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. this is the first and great commandment.  and the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

in romans 13:8,10 we learn to “owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. . . . love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” and galatians 5:14 reiterates the idea: “for all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”  it seems very clear to me that to love will naturally lead to living christ’s teachings, to living a christlike life.

the scriptures also make it clear that love is the avenue to knowing god and thereby gaining eternal life.  john 3:16 teaches us that “god so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” and john 17:3 clarifies that eternal life is to know god and jesus christ. 1 john 4:8 clarifies that he that loveth not knoweth not god because god is love.

so what’s the upshot of all of this?  what does it mean to know a god who is–who must be at least in part–unknowable because distant from us?  what does it mean to love god with all our heart, soul, and mind?  i think the answer is buried in a phrase usually overlooked–specifically the phrase “and the second is like unto it” used to introduce the second great commandment (to love thy neighbor as thyself).  i think the first and second great commandments are literally equivalent.  when we love our neighbor, when we love ourself, we love god.  and i don’t mean this in the typical “when ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me” sense.  i don’t think that somehow loving others becomes an act of transference by which we love god.  i literally believe that we know god by knowing that which is divine in ourselves and in others, and because we know it we love ourselves and others.  simply.  purely.  

this is a hard gospel.  but it’s a beautiful one.  it’s a guide to human action.  it deserves implicit reception.  and far too often it is overlooked in the name of ritual and form, conformity and obedience.  because i believe that this is the essence of the gospel–to love self, other, and, therefore, god–i do not believe that living the gospel is constrained by certain religious teachings.  because i embrace this simple, essential gospel, i do not believe that there is only one way to believe or to live.  all there is, is love.  and love is the grace and light and goodness of all humanity, not of any one creed or religion.

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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7 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Beautiful thoughts, Amelia. I really couldn’t agree more. I think with our eyes on the first two great commandments the Savior gave, everything else falls into place. The Book of Mormon backs this up when it defines charity as the pure love of Christ, that endures forever, and those of us who have it in the last day will have things well with us (Moroni 7:47).

    While “religion” isn’t necessarily “gospel,” (and I’m just not geeky enough to look it up this morning), I also love this “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

    It seems the core of religion is compassion, refraining from judging the souls of others, bearing one another’s burdens, providing comfort, and practicing the kind of love God has for us. I think about this when we take the sacrament. As we all take of the one bread, the body of Christ, so we become the body of Christ to do His works. And His work is to comfort, to heal, to lift up souls, to love.

  2. Caroline says:

    Amelia,
    This is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I love this part:

    “i literally believe that we know god by knowing that which is divine in ourselves and in others, and because we know it we love ourselves and others. simply. purely.”

    While my soul resonates with this kind of inclusive vision of what the core gospel is, I have the feeling that more orthodox Mormons won’t connect to it as much. For so many Mormons, rituals seem to be a big part of their understanding of the gospel. As well as exclusive claims to truth and authority.

    It makes me wonder… why does your inclusive vision of the gospel resonate so well for some of us, while others of us are inspired and lifted up by authoritative claims to truth and ritual? What is working psychologically/spiritually that leads Mormons down these two different paths? I have no answers. Just throwing out what’s crossing my mind at the moment.

  3. mb says:

    Thoughtful post, Amelia.

    Caroline, I tripped on your use of the appellation “orthodox Mormon”. I think you mean a Mormon who focuses on the outward manifestations of precise conformity to attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved. That is one definition of orthodoxy . Am I right in my understanding of what you are saying?

    I notice however, that my dictionary says that orthodox can also mean “sound or correct in opinion or doctrine, esp. theological or religious doctrine.” I believe that what Amelia is expressing definitely falls into that definition.
    So, if I believe as she does and I am also a member of the church, I will adamantly claim the appellation.

    I think “orthodox” is becoming a hiss and a byword in some circles and people become fearful that they will be labeled as uncaring and narrow-minded if it is applied to them. Those of us who understand the fundamental essential nature of charity in the gospel need to claim orthodoxy rather than create a divide between ourselves and “the orthodox”.

    How ironic it would be to claim to embrace charity and then distance ourselves from those who do not understand its essentiality as well as we think we do.

    As to why there are well-intentioned souls in the church who miss the whole point, I believe there are many reasons, far too many to enumerate. And I also believe that one day, some way or another, God will get through to them. He certainly has brought me far on my journey and I believe he will them as well. In the meantime, I hope to just love them, appreciate the good things about them, forgive and work to balance the glitches. I think that’s what Amelia is talking about.

  4. Amelia says:

    alisa, thanks for sharing your comments. i love the passages in moroni about charity and that scripture in james. it’s one thing i truly love about president monson–that he emphasizes through his heartfelt (if occasionally hokey) stories the importance of charity and service. i also really like your interpretation of the sacrament; i’d never thought of it quite like that before.

    caroline and mb: i think the idea of orthodoxy is an interesting one. i like the way that mb is stretching it to include ideas like those i present here. however, my instinct is more in keeping with caroline that orthodox mormons would probably not like my conclusion too much–that there is not only one way to believe or live. please correct me if i’m wrong, caroline, but i think by “orthodox” mormons, you mean something akin to mormons who insist on mormonism’s exclusivity and authority claims (something i don’t put much value in these days) and who think that mormonism, with its requisite ordinances, is the only way to return to god/gain eternal life in an exalted sense.

    if i’m correctly understanding you, caroline, then i have to agree with you that many “orthodox” mormons would not particularly like or agree with my sense of the gospel. why is it that such “orthodox” mormons cling to authority and truth claims? because i just re-read richard rorty’s “ironists and metaphysicians,” part of me thinks it’s about how different people perceive their world–either as ironists, who are always aware of the limits of their own understanding and who do not necessarily believe all truth can be circumscribed in one whole; or as metaphysicians, who believe there is a truth out there to be found and that their perspective is the correct one for finding that truth. maybe i’ll blog about this next time around. i don’t know.

    in response to mb’s worry that “orthodox” has become “a hiss and a byword,” i want to say, for the record, that i don’t think poorly of orthodox members as i have described them here. i have no problem with people believing the church’s authority and truth claims. i can understand why many mormons think this way, even if i do not. i just wish that they would be as willing to accept my less orthodox perspective as well as others’ positions as valid. which is why i insist that everything (and i really do mean everything, including the very existence of god) is secondary to love.

  5. Caroline says:

    Amelia,
    Yes, that’s exactly what I was getting at when I use the term ‘orthodox’ – people who embrace the idea of Mormonism’s exclusive claims to authority and saving ordinances. Though like you, I also like mb’s idea of experimenting with stretching the term to include people who see many paths to God.

    Thanks for pointing to the idea of metaphysicians vs. ironists. I had never heard of that before, but of course what came to mind was the idea of iron rod people vs. liahona people. Like you, Amy, I am willing to coexist in harmony with those whom I would label ‘orthodox.’ After all, that’s probably the vast majority of Mormons (and would include my own spouse). I too just would like there to be a place for me in the tent as well – accepted and loved, even with less traditional takes on things. And a place for respectful dialogue between various types of Mormons.

  6. Margaret says:

    Your post reminds me of one of my favorite articles by Eugene England– “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” He agrees with you that love and charity are the core of the gospel. They are the concepts that we need to learn if we want any hope for salvation. But he points out that without human interaction, love and charity remain only conceptual. We have to work with people we disagree with in order to learn love. We have to serve people we dislike in order to learn charity. It is the grittiness and frustrations of the church which force us to interact with people we would normally avoid that is its strength. It teaches us the core of the gospel. Ironically, by immersing ourselves in the weaknesses and frailties of other people in the church, we learn divinity.

    This is why I think it would be hard to live the gospel outside of the church. Personally, I need the church in order to learn the gospel.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Oh! I think I forgot to hit “Submit Comment” a few days ago…

    A beautiful piece, Amelia! I think Mosiah 18:8-11, when the people covenant to mourn with those who mourn and bear one another’s burdens as part of their baptismal covenants, fits in with the other scriptures mentioned.

    I may have to steal some of this for the spiritual thought I’m giving at our RS retreat this weekend 🙂

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