Recently, I sat through a session of someone offering reflections on the “God is love” theme of I John 4:8. He did a pretty nice job of it until his wrap-up. “God is Love,” he said, “what a wonderful thought. But it is also a wonderful thing to realize that Love is God as well. But that’s a subject for another time!”
It sure is. And it is a subject that needs some careful theological attention. This particular devotional is not the first time I have heard people saying good things about “God is love” only to go on to reverse the terms in the formula, thus marching boldly into heretical territory. When this kind of thing has happened I have not been in a position to offer theological correction, but if I were, I would have recalled a story that Fr. Avery Dulles told about the way he dealt with this very matter in a concrete situation.
The Dulles story came to mind as I was reading Randy Boyagoda’s excellent new biography of Richard Neuhaus. It did not make it into Boyagoda’s narrative, but it is worth placing on the record here. Sometime in the mid-1970s Richard had gotten a few of us together to discuss plans for the Hartford Appeal. As we pondered the misguided theological themes that the Hartford project identified as fundamental errors circulating in mainstream ecumenical circles, Fr. Avery—who was not yet Cardinal Dulles—told us about something that had happened the previous weekend. He had been asked to officiate at a mass for a community of self-described “progressive Catholics.” When he arrived, he noticed that the lectern from which he would deliver his homily had a banner hanging in the front declaring “Love is God.” He informed the leader who had just greeted him that he was not comfortable with having that particular formulation on display as he exposited the Gospel text for the day. The leader firmly replied that the banner had to stay in place.
Before the service began, then, Avery went to the men’s room and retrieved a sheet of paper towel that was just big enough to cover the word “is” on the banner. He happened to have a paper clip in his pocket, and when it was time to deliver the homily he told the audience that he wanted the banner in front of his lectern to capture the theme of his message. He then leaned over and covered the “is” with the paper towel, attaching the clip to keep it in place. He proceeded to encourage the gathered worshipers to “love God” in all of their words and deeds.
Fixing heresies is often a complex business. It’s nice to know, though, that on some occasions it just takes enough paper toweling to cover up the word “is.”
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.