The Shema: A Call to Love God with Your Mind

Tefillin

I have been accused of being sarcastic, edgy, confrontational, tonally angry, yes, even obnoxious. I cannot say I disagree with my critics. Often I write because something is wrong. I see a problem. I witness an injustice. I see someone hurt. I empathize. I get pissed. I don’t yet feel the need to apologize for that. Perhaps I will one day; I’ll see it differently. I can imagine that happening, but not today.

The opposite of love is not anger, wrath or rage; it is apathy. While I have tried, I still cannot get apathetic about the tribe that raised me and nurtured me, perhaps even saved me. So, this morning I sit with pen in hand (I’m being metaphorical here), and I write because, as much as I have tried, I still care. In an attempt to prove to you that I do, I’ll adjust, I’ll move, I’ll embrace the otherness of the critic, and I’ll attempt a more “pastoral” tone.

My personal testimony about the work of God in my life – over the past 15 years (especially since grad school) – is that I have an increasing sense of our failure regarding one of the more central commands we were given as Christians. I write not as one that has this down, a master of all Jesus taught and commanded, but I write as one that has failed but learned. I cannot grandstand. I cannot bloviate. I cannot strut proudly because behind me is a long and embracing legacy of failure. I write as a seasoned, grizzled veteran of failure who has recently glimpsed the face of victory. Before I get more specific, let me tell you a story.

There was once a Rabbi, a very controversial Rabbi. He was fond of calling out those in power for what they really were. One day another group of Rabbis, who themselves held some measure of power in the community, came to this rambunctious, upstart of a man to trick him in front of the adoring crowds, to embarrass him, and to mock him. You have to realized that for these Jews there were two Torahs: the written and the oral. The oral tradition was a practical “how to” set of instructions for living out the written Torah. Great debates abounded among the Rabbis, and it was common to used strong language denouncing one’s opponents when arguing over the meaning of Torah. To the ears of we goyim this intense language may sound antisemitic or dismissive of Hebrew scripture and interpretation; it is not. Anyway, this powerful group of Rabbis asked this young, upstart which commandment in all of Torah was most important. His answer was very straight forward.

Part of his answer came straight out of the Torah, Deuteronomy 6 to be exact. Jews call this portion of scripture the Shema because it starts with the Hebrew word Shema – which is a command form for “Listen!”

“Listen, O Israel,” the scripture says, “the Lord your God is one . . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your strength.” What is interesting is that this Rabbi tweaked the language a bit. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” There is it. A slight difference. With your mind. Jesus commanded us to love God with our mind.

In the spiritual home where I was nurtured, namely conservative Evangelicalism, we were very good at loving God with our whole heart. We were proud of that, in a good way. We stood as guardians against nominalism, empty exercises, and languorous liturgy. We got our feels for Jesus every week. In this, we followed Jesus well. “Nevertheless, I have this against you,” Jesus says.

The summary of the whole law, a law which we are supposed to take seriously, says that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole mind. In this we have failed by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

Please understand, I am not calling Evangelicals stupid; there are brilliant Evangelical men and women from whom I have learned a great deal. Also, please, don’t write this command off as a job for the “smart” folks. This is a call for everyone to do all they can, taking our context into consideration. We can no longer allow the professional priestcraft – pastors, priests and professors –  to take care of all the reading, thinking and writing for us. Each of us individually and as local communities must take up this command and go forth as best we can in grace.

We are too easily satisfied with the quick dopamine fix that comes from TV, movies, social media and banal arguments masquerading as discerning discussion about the common good. We have the luxury and privilege of time and money like no one else in the history of the world, and Jesus said to love the Lord your God with your mind. We have access to texts like never before in the universe – libraries, the internet, and my favorite, Amazon, and our Rabbi called us to love God with our mind. What could that mean? What might that look like?

Perhaps it means putting off some things, as the apostle Paul told us. Putting off network TV and cable “news” shows, putting off our self-constructed echo chambers, putting off quick ten word answers to millennial old questions, putting off the chance to feel good and affirmed in what I already believe, putting off laziness of the mind.

But, it will, no doubt, require putting on some things. Putting on TV shows and movies that have something to say, putting on humility to listen and understand those with whom you most disagree, putting off our American culture that has prized and cherished simplicity and “common sense,”putting in the effort necessary to first articulate your opponent’s position in such a way that they would recognize it as their own before you disagree with it, putting on the humility to realize our need to know history and what people have said about these questions before we came along, putting on the practice of assuming the best of your opponents, and putting off our knee-jerk reaction to think that I’m already doing this.

What would it look like for American evangelicalism to love the Lord God with all their mind? Properly speaking, this is not about becoming intellectuals – which would be great if we all could. This is about being humble, listening, learning and fully appreciating our particularity. If what I know is based solely upon my experience, I will claim to know so very little. Alternatively, if I can though humility listen to the experience and insight of others – whether through conversation or reading – then my universe of facts and perspectives has grown exponentially. I cannot know God very well, but we can. I need you. You need me. (Great now I have Barney’s song stuck in my head). So, together we must challenge one another to love God with all our minds.

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