This is the third part of a four-part post; see links the end for the first two parts.
Dante and the flame of love
One more pre-Reformation example of the religion of the heart. In recent years, I have fallen in love—I don’t know what else to call it—with perhaps the greatest western poem, the three-part Comedy of Dante Alighieri. As Wilken reminds us, at one point in Dante’s poem the pilgrim character, who is Dante himself, asks his beloved Beatrice why God would choose to redeem us by coming to us in the Incarnation. Beatrice, who has already died and gone to heaven and is talking to Dante with the certainty of one who has seen the face of God, responds “that what she is about to explain to him ‘is buried from the eyes of everyone whose intellect has not matured within the flame of love.’” In other words, says Wilken, “Unless we invest ourselves in the object of our love, [the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ] we remain voyeurs and spectators, curiosity seekers, incapable of receiving because we are unwilling to give. . . . Only when we turn our deepest self to God can we enter the mystery of God’s life and penetrate the truth of things. If love is absent, our minds remain childish and immature, trying out one thing then another, unable to hold fast to the truth.”
If this is true, then it means that the religion of the heart, the religion of love, is not just some nice add-on to the religion that concerns itself with doctrinal truth. It is in fact the only way we can even come to truth in the first place.
And this is the great contribution of the Pietist tradition to the modern world: At a time when the Scientific Revolution had swept through Europe, entrenching an Enlightenment belief in reason as the only reliable source of truth—at a time when the Christian church had been torn and bruised by a century of theological squabbling between the new Protestant denominations, squabbling that had erupted into the bloody spectacle of the Thirty Years’ War—the Pietists turned their backs on that mess of rationalist pottage and returned to our birthright as Christians: the religion of the heart. That is, again, not a religion that is all about getting good feelings, but a religion that recognizes that without transformed hearts that turn to God in yearning love, everything we do and say as Christians rings hollow.
Luther’s warm-hearted mysticism
Now, I have mentioned that both Calvin and Luther liked to read Bernard of Clairvaux—one of the great “love poet/slash/theologians” in the history of the church, whose best-known work was called “On Loving God.” Well, a word more on Luther: he was himself something of a mystic. He appreciated very much the warm-hearted mystical tradition of such medieval devotional leaders and writers as Catherine of Sienna and Julian of Norwich. And you don’t have to read far in his own writing to find this devotional note.
For example, in Luther’s famous exposition of justification by faith, an essay titled The Freedom of the Christian, he uses the classic mystical image of marriage to represent the soul’s relationship to Christ. He simply takes this image to a new level, insisting that our marriage to Christ involves a wonderful divine exchange. In that intimate union between the soul and Christ, Christ takes on the soul’s sin upon himself, and in return, the soul receives Christ’s righteousness. So, through this union, Christ has set us free from sin, death, and Satan, but he has also imparted his righteousness to us.
The fourth and final post in this series is here.