Seeing as God Sees

Putting on the lenses of love.

By Jonathan L. Walton

To love someone means to see him as God intended him. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Wisdom is qualitatively different than smartness. And maturity is qualitatively different than braininess. I am not against smartness and braininess, but it just falls so radically short of wrestling with what it means to be human and making the right mature choices in life.
—Cornel West

One Love

From Genesis to Revelation, there is a dominant theme throughout the Bible: God sides with those on the underside of power. Consider first the Hebrew Bible. From the story of slavery in Egypt to that of exile in Babylon, the most memorable narratives involve a God who stands over against systems of oppression. Similarly, the Hebrew prophets speak of God’s care for the most vulnerable in Israel whenever the leaders “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:7).

The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth also capture this view of God. According to Luke, Jesus inaugurates his ministry by quoting from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). Couple this scene with what has to be considered Jesus’s boldest and bravest parable—in Matthew 25, where he teaches about the day of judgment—and Jesus reveals to us a God who identifies most with those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, ill, and imprisoned. For as we treat them, we treat God.

This is excerpted from A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World, © 2018 Jonathan L. Walton. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
Photo of Jonathan Walton in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church at Harvard

Jonathan L. Walton. HDS Photo

Entering a text trying to see what God might see and trying to land in a place where God’s love seeks to abide are consistent with the overarching spirit of scripture. Saying that I attempt to see what God might see is in no way a claim to have the mind, awareness, or comprehension of God. But I try to put on the lenses of love to look for those with whom God most aligns, the marginalized and victimized. I aim to step inside of a text and search for the lonely, the left out, and those who have been left behind. Here we will find the Spirit of God and God’s radical love for us.

This is what it means for me to approach scripture with a critical mind and sensitive heart. Intellect is never divorced from moral character. To show compassion requires that one demonstrate a critical understanding of social customs, laws, and structures of a given society. Knowing the stated (and unstated) rules that govern a society helps a reader better identify the people that are most likely to be privileged, as well as those who are most likely overlooked. Compassion coupled with a comprehensive understanding of society come together to cultivate a moral disposition of love and care. Simply put, we need both our head and heart to show love.

In calling for such an intellectual disposition, I am challenging a way of moral reasoning that seeks to divorce the “rational” (read: brain) from the “affective” (read: feelings and emotions). Traditionally, notions of ethical decision making informed by the Enlightenment called for dispassionate and objective analysis. Feelings, intuition, and emotion were supposed to be brought under the control of rational, logical reasoning. This is a fool’s errand. We human beings are social creatures who are always and already informed by cultural patterns, past experiences, and sacred stories that shape how we see the world and process daily interactions. While scientific data, empirical verification, and deliberative, well-informed decisions are important, deeply embedded feelings, anxieties, and aspirations shape the choices human beings make as well. Emotions matter.

Here I find the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible helpful. The purpose of Wisdom literature in the ancient world was not very different than it is today. Elders in the community passed down inherited lessons on life and living to develop the personal character of young people and to explain inexplicable aspects of life. Wisdom here is not tied to smarts as much as to virtue. The Greeks called this phronesis, or practical wisdom linked to personal character. As an example, Proverbs 4:20–27 reads:

My child, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Do not let them escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Let your eyes look directly forward,
and your gaze be straight before you.
Keep straight the path of your feet,
and all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.

At the outset, the writer encourages readers to keep these teachings within their hearts for living a productive life. The writer is not sentimental or maudlin. To the contrary, the writer makes an intellectual argument, as the ancient Israelites did not make the division between the heart and the head. The Hebrew word for heart, leb, can also mean “mind” or “will.” Israelites understood the heart as the center of knowledge. An encouragement to keep those teachings in the heart is acknowledging the heart as the center of moral decision making.

This serves as the bedrock of Jesus’s ethical teachings. For Jesus, demonstrating our love for God by seeking the good of others—an ethic known as agape love—sums up the law and the teachings of the Hebrew prophets. When religious leaders attempted to trip Jesus up in Matthew 22 by asking him what the greatest of all commandments was, Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Herein lies the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” The great educator and sociologist of religion Benjamin Elijah Mays summed up this concept brilliantly: “The love of God and the love of man are one love.”

King held neither a romantic nor a friendly conception of love, but rather an understanding of love expressed in intentional acts of care and compassion.

Among Mays’s most notable students at Morehouse College was Martin Luther King, Jr. King provided a beautiful example of this understanding of love in his final sermon, delivered on April 3, 1968. Addressing a packed audience in the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, less than 24 hours before his assassination, King expounded on one of the foundational aspects of agape love: seeking the good of others. King held neither a romantic nor a friendly conception of love, but rather an understanding of love expressed in intentional acts of care and compassion, which is at the core of the Hebrew Bible and the heart of the gospel message. King looked to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) in his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address.

Of course, the parable itself is about agape love, empathy, and identifying your neighbor in the unlikeliest of places. When a certain Jewish man fell among thieves along a dangerous highway, it was neither a Levite (a well-pedigreed Judean) nor a priest who stopped to provide assistance, but a Samaritan—a class of people who were considered religiously and culturally inferior to people of the faith in Judea and Galilee. Thus, Jesus subverts conventional wisdom and places empathy in the eyes of the one who would otherwise be considered a foreigner. Jesus wanted to make the point that the Samaritan could see as God sees. The Samaritan saw the victim through the lenses of love.

King took the parable one step further. Not only did he allow the hearer to witness the Samaritan’s demonstration of agape love, but King went on to show concern for the presumed bad guys of the text. King described his own experience driving down this “winding, meandering road” during his first trip to Jerusalem. Because of this experience, King imagined the priest and Levite fearing for their own lives. King concluded, “So the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ ”

King’s retelling of this story models the ethical design of the parable. He demonstrates both an ethic of love and empathetic care without reducing one to the other. This is to say, we have the capacity and obligation to do what is right and to show concern for our neighbor whether we feel like it or not. When we strengthen our capacity to identify with others, and thus empathize with them, it is always easier to do right by them. Love and empathy, together, lead to justice. As my former teacher and now Harvard colleague Cornel West likes to say, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Benjamin Mays and Martin Luther King

Benjamin Mays with Martin Luther King, Jr.


The Stories That Shape Us

Part of the genius of the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” address is in the way King blends multiple interpretive and ethical approaches. In locating himself and his readers within the story of the Good Samaritan, King employs an ethical approach philosophers refer to as narrative ethics, which focuses on the stories that shape us morally. The stories that frame our world have a normative dimension insofar as they inform how we ought to think, act, interact, and judge others. Narratives are at the core of our moral selves.

Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s view of scripture focuses on the power of sacred narrative that shapes the moral life. As Hauerwas writes in his classic primer on Christian ethics, The Peaceable Kingdom: “The Bible is fundamentally a story of a people’s journey with their God. A ‘biblical ethic’ will necessarily be one that portrays life as growth and development.” To be clear, I am more inclined to interpret and reinterpret scripture than many virtue ethicists like Hauerwas. I am not as wedded to traditional interpretations of scripture. Yet there is one area where we strongly agree. Knowing what one is “supposed” to do and actually making the right choices when the pressures of life encamp against us are two different things. Ethical decision making is more affective and intuitive, thus revealing the importance of personal character born of communal narratives. Similar to how an athlete’s practice regimen takes over when she is fatigued, our character serves as a sort of moral muscle memory when life becomes overwhelming.

A narrative ethical approach asks us to insert ourselves into the text and to identify with the triumphs, trials, dilemmas, and disappointments of biblical characters.

This is why I appreciate Hauerwas’s approach to scripture. Narrative ethics beckons us into biblical stories as moral subjects. A reader is not a disengaged interpreter standing outside of a story. Rather, a narrative ethical approach asks us to insert ourselves into the text and to identify with the triumphs, trials, dilemmas, and disappointments of biblical characters. Moral principles are not deduced from a list of commandments in order to judge who is right and who is wrong. We immerse ourselves in the text, experience the hopes, fears, and concerns that define the narrative, and then locate the complete and complicated humanity of all moral actors in the story to develop moral sensibilities.

This approach to sacred narrative captures what it means to be a part of a healthy living tradition. Stories of the past are strong and noble enough to be uprooted from their original context without being destroyed, and thus they provide fresh meaning to the contemporary moment. Living traditions bring the insights of the past to a new age in ways that are both inspirational and decidedly relevant. Instead of being a static symbol or standard against which everything is measured, they are a productive component of one’s fluid and ever-expanding faith. These stories provide fresh meaning and insights applicable to our particular moment.

Is this not what a minister does each Sunday morning? Preachers seek to bring Jesus forward from the annals of antiquity in order that he may be pressed upon the hearts and minds of the contemporary hearer in real and relevant ways. One’s illness today may not be an issue of blood, leprosy, or a withered hand. Yet knowing that one’s life is special to God can bring added strength and comfort to the cancer patient going through chemotherapy or the young man recently diagnosed with HIV.

I witnessed this recently with a dear friend. She entered the summer the envy of many. She was smart and charismatic. She had a caring husband and two beautiful boys. A new tenure track job at a major research university even awaited her in the fall. Yet during the summer she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent the entire year in and out of hospital waiting rooms, undergoing multiple surgeries, and enduring debilitating chemotherapy. Though she entered the year an admitted “collapsed Catholic,” having found the church’s hierarchy, marginalization of women, and perceived abuses of power too much to stomach, she increasingly began to tap into the spiritual resources and sacred stories of her faith. She came to realize that though Catholic hierarchy and patriarchy was one aspect of her religious tradition, the Catholic Church of her childhood had granted her so much more. It provided powerful and productive stories.

My friend mined the resources of a healthy living tradition found in her faith. She recalled biblical stories of Jesus connecting with human beings even when they were at their lowest. Over time, no matter how her body felt or looked due to the rigors of chemotherapy, she told me that it was good for her to know that she was yet affirmed and loved by God. Likewise, God’s command for us to love and care for one another resonated deeply with her during the year. Taking time to appreciate beauty, enjoy the quiet presence of loved ones, and seize moments of joy were all born of the sacred ritual practices of her contemplative Christian tradition. Just as the faithful have found delight and encouragement in the Psalms for millennia, this form of intentional spiritual mindfulness caused her to lift her mind from her illness and connect with those who the demands of life often cause us to take for granted. The narratives and experiences of ages past were shaped to comfort her in the present.

Narratives pass down the powers of tradition. The strengths of shared stories include shaping appropriate moral dispositions to confront contemporary challenges. Ancient biblical writers understood this point well. As the Baptist preachers of my youth were known to say, “One should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Facts may inform, but stories shape our character. This is why biblical writers were so comfortable shaping history with stories. Stories can convey eternal truths that the facts of life often miss.

When the Sun Moves

On more than one occasion I have distinguished between fact and truth. This is intentional. Although academic approaches to the Bible have aided us in identifying authorship, pinning down historical dates, and learning more about the ancient world, there is an underside to evidence-based knowledge. Our modern obsession with factuality and empirical verification can negatively impact the way we read and receive the Bible. Too many have made the interrelated mistakes of biblical literalism and crass reductionism.

Biblical literalists feel that they must defend the factuality of the Bible to the extent that they are willing to compromise scientific credibility. In the face of overwhelming evidence, scientific discoveries, and increased ways of knowing, a literal reading of the Bible will tempt the Christian community to excommunicate scientists and observers who provide powerful insights about the makeup of humanity and origins of society. Such biblical literalism leads to a crass reductionism insofar as its adherents think that they can only hear and receive the writings of the Bible through this modernist frame—that is, if they cannot historically verify that Jonah remained alive in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, then the story cannot reveal any truths about God’s love and capacity to forgive. As a result, too many confine their intellectual capacity with the spiritual straightjackets of fundamentalism. Conversations are shut down by literalism, and spiritual insights that might be otherwise gained from the Bible are foreclosed by the need to verify empirically every single detail.

Conversations are shut down by literalism, and spiritual insights that might be otherwise gained from the Bible are foreclosed by the need to verify empirically every single detail.

One does not need to live long to realize that there are multiple forms of truth. There is the aesthetic truth: beauty. I cannot verify empirically or explain scientifically why the sound of Donny Hathaway singing “Come Ye Disconsolate” or Luther Vandross’s rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “A House Is Not a Home” transports me to a place of peace, joy, and tranquility no matter how many times I hear them. But I know it is true. Similarly, I would never question a couple who walks down the aisle in holy matrimony convinced that they are holding the hand of the most beautiful person that they have ever met. I believe in the idiom “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

There are metaphorical and moral truths. Nobody I know believes in talking lions or magical worlds behind closet doors. This has not prevented millions throughout the Western world from passing down C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to subsequent generations on the basis of the manifold moral truths it conveys. Nor would many give any credence to tales of yellow brick roads, dancing scarecrows, and cowardly lions. But L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has encouraged many of us to look deep inside of ourselves for the things we desire on the path toward success. Simply put, stories can serve as metaphors that convey moral truths without being literally or factually verified.

Few express this philosophical and historical nuance better than novelist Toni Morrison. In one short but influential essay, “The Site of Memory,” Morrison explains that the crucial distinction in her writings is not between fact and fiction, but rather fact and truth. She notes how literature is considered fiction when it is deemed a product of the imagination but falls into biography or nonfiction when traced to a publicly verifiable event. In the absence of detailed, personal accounts of historical subjects, a writer has nothing more than her imagination to reconstruct the interior life of historical subjects. The point Morrison makes here is that truth is usually concealed. Like the ancient goddess Veritas who Romans believed liked to hide in the bottom of wells, we can only find truth after considerable searching and expense. For Morrison, imagination contributes to the interpretive process that helps us to pull truth from out of her hiding place.

Think about the subjects Morrison most often writes about: African American women living on the underside in conditions of slavery, segregation, and sexism. The absence, if not intentional erasure, of personal accounts of the deepest longings and spiritual strivings of enslaved women in America necessitates what Morrison refers to as “literary archaeology.” A writer is forced to investigate remaining historical sources and use her imagination to reconstruct an interior world of individuals whose sentiments have evaporated into the gases of history.

As an example, Morrison based her novel Beloved on the true story of an enslaved woman named Margaret Garner. Garner was fleeing slavery in Kentucky when U.S. marshals cornered her in Ohio. Garner opted to commit filicide by taking the life of her child rather than having her daughter grow up as an enslaved sexual toy forced to bear the children of her owner. Morrison’s novel excavates the interior life of enslaved women by revealing their truth of sexual violence, despair, and alienation from their offspring. Though we cannot verify all the facts of Morrison’s account, she sought to present the truth of slavery’s horror and inhumanity.

Similarly, just because one might be able to challenge the facts of a biblical narrative does not necessarily mean that one disrupts the truth that it reveals. Just ask John Jasper, one of this nation’s most popular preachers in the nineteenth century. Born in 1812, Jasper began preaching in Richmond, Virginia, while enslaved on a local tobacco plantation. Following the Civil War and his subsequent emancipation, Jasper organized the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church and became a favorite preacher among both black and white Baptists alike. He was best known for his sermon “The Sun Do Move,” which he reportedly delivered over 250 times, including once before the Virginia General Assembly. Jasper based the sermon on Joshua 10:13: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.”

Jasper used this sermon as evidence that God could move the sun across the sky. According to Jasper:

Joshua showed in the sight of all Israel that the Sun Do Move, because he stopped it, by God’s command, for a whole day, as the text states. If he stopped it, that proves that the sun was moving, and moving over Joshua and the Amorites, and of course they was nowhere else than on this here earth, and consequently it was moving around the earth, and after the battle was over, it begun moving again in its regular course.

Many in the community scoffed at what they regarded as Jasper’s intellectual and religious primitivism. Some whites and formally educated African Americans saw him as the quintessential ignorant preacher. But for Jasper, if God said he stopped the sun, God apparently moved it. We can verify empirically that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. This fact is undeniable. Nevertheless, what might it mean for us to understand Jasper’s emphasis as not necessarily on the fact of the sun moving, but rather on the truth of God’s power from the perspective of the formerly enslaved?

Jasper was 40 years old when the Civil War began, and like many of his hearers, he was taught to believe that servitude was a fact of life. Many white preachers even taught on the plantation that slavery was God’s will. All evidence seemed to substantiate this claim as fact. An enslaved person like Jasper, who had no reason to trust in the facts of life, was forced to hold on to the moral truth that God intended for all people to be free. This sermon, then, may very well be interpreted as a matter of simple philosophical deduction: the facts of Southern society pointed to a lifetime of servitude. Others said the sun never moves. God had the power to liberate the enslaved. Thus, God has the power to move the sun to make it stand still! What we have, then, is a metaphorical claim (“the sun do move”) to corroborate an abiding moral truth. No matter how dark the circumstances, God has the power to deliver.

The above examples reveal how we can imagine a world of love and justice. More specifically, this is the role of moral imagination, an orientation that emboldens us to transcend particularities of the present and imagine a radically different future. Think about what the protagonists of Richard Bach’s classic tale Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” share in common. They were both able to envision a different path forward that radically altered not only their individual lives but the lives of others.

Though economic and political factors may seem predetermined and limiting, moral imagination allows us to conceptualize opportunities beyond the apparent limits placed before us.

Many have employed the term moral imagination. From Edmund Burke in the nineteenth century, through John Dewey and T. S. Eliot, to more recently peace activists such as John Paul Lederach, moral imagination often describes an awakened and creative consciousness, a consciousness that can create something out of nothing. Like a painter before a blank canvas or a sculptor with a block of stone, moral imagination turns us into ethical artists. Though economic and political factors may seem predetermined and limiting regarding our ability to act, moral imagination allows us to conceptualize opportunities beyond the apparent limits placed before us.

Moral imagination is similar to faith. Moral imagination challenges us to look at what appears to be nothing to identify something. It asks us to look upon those who are deemed nobody by society to see somebody loved by God! Like faith, moral imagination is both a noun and a verb. The writer of Hebrews said it well: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith is an assurance of the hope that we possess and a description of our actions. Moral imagination is something that we have, and it is something that we can enact.

Exercising our moral imagination should never be divorced from a thorough understanding of our social worlds as prescribed above. There’s a truism: vision without execution is hallucination. We can say the same about people of faith who have spiritual imaginations without social understanding. As my grandmother likes to say, “There is no need in being heavenly minded if you are no earthly good.”

Furthermore, moral imagination is central to an ethic of love and justice. When we immerse ourselves in a biblical narrative, moral imagination helps us identify with biblical characters; over time, this can improve our ability to empathize with others. In the same way that biblical narratives help us to reimagine what was possible in the ancient world, this same moral imagination can help us reimagine what is possible in our world regarding love and justice.

Jonathan L. Walton is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, as well as a member of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Religion and Society at HDS. He is the author of Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU Press, 2009) and the forthcoming A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), due out in September.

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