Practicing love is far more important than believing doctrine

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was an amazing man. He was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect, so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work. In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, "The Quest for the Historical Jesus." The late Fred Craddock, who taught at Candler School of Theology for a number of years, tells about the time he first read the book. He was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. 

Fred was in Knoxville and read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation. Fred was so passionate about his views of Jesus that he bought a greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to drill Schweitzer with questions on his doctrine of Christ. He reminds me of myself in my twenties. 

After the concert Fred was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in – shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Fred was waiting for his chance to hammer him on his theology of Christ. Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa, because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.” 

Fred said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Fred remarks, “And I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” 

I suspect that experience was a life changing experience for Fred. I love that story because it reflects my faith journey. I used to spend hours studying theology. I thought it was critical to get my theology right. 

Now, don’t misunderstand. I still think there is a place for theological study, discussion, and debate. But I was into it for all the wrong reasons. I thought I had all the truth or at least most of it. I wanted to argue others into my version of the truth. I wish now I spent half the time I invested in studying theology doing more for others – being a better father and husband, being a more caring person, and doing what I could to instill a vision of a just world. I wish now I spent more time accepting people and listening to their stories, rather than trying to get them to conform to my beliefs or expectations. I wish I spent less time trying to get people to believe like me and more time enjoying life and being grateful for every moment. I should have went fishing more. 

I now know that God cares about what we believe only to the extent that it impacts how we actually live. As James says, “faith without works is dead” (2:17). The works James is talking about are works of love and compassion, such as caring for orphans and widows (1:27), who were the most vulnerable and disadvantaged ones in his society. James says that’s what “pure and undefiled” religion looks like. 

Many Christians and churches today put most of the emphasis on believing the right things. The question we should ask is: “How does believing these things empower us to be more loving, caring, and compassionate?” Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine how Christians can actually love a God who they believe tortures people, nor can I imagine how that belief could make one more loving. I know Christians who are more loving than the God they believe in (that is, the God they have imagined God to be). 

I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the way a crack opened in my mind and heart, and the light broke in. I came to realize, like Dr. Craddock, what Christianity is really all about. I wish more Christians would have this kind of “born again” experience.    

(This was first published in the Frankfort State Journal)


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