First Corinthians 13 is a fairly famous Bible passage, likely for one reason: it’s often read at weddings. At least, a small section of it is. It is read as a reasonably eloquent description of the kind of love that enables a marriage to thrive. But… that’s not quite what it’s about.
The passage comes in the midst of a letter to a conflicted church. In the chapter that immediately precedes number 13, Paul is trying to describe unity in diversity by using the analogy of the body. A body has many parts, all different, and yet they work together for the good of the whole. What benefits one, benefits all, and what harms one, harms all. We each have different gifts and abilities, and we are called to use them for the common good. After describing this picture, he goes on to say he will show the Corinthians “a still more excellent way.” (NRSV) I quote the 13th chapter in full:
NRS 1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I’ve divided the passage into three. The first part says, in short, that without love, we are nothing. Love is the absolutely necessary marker of anything Christian; if it lacks love, it is not of Christ. That means right belief and right worship are not sufficient to define Christianity; love must factor in. The second part describes this necessary marker, love (because as we mostly know, that word can mean several things!). The descriptions are evocative, but the Greek word used here – agape – is used throughout the New Testament to refer to the love of God we sometimes call grace. It is unconditional action towards another’s best interest.
Finally, in the third section, Paul (as in the first part) relativizes other aspects of the faith in comparison with love. In particular, Paul relativizes knowledge: “I know only in part.”
To be sure, Paul is speaking here not to an interfaith audience but to a religiously
diverse Christian congregation. Still, in his day that would have included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, so the diversity was significant in terms of culture, practice, and belief. And I think it is very clear in the rest of Scripture that the calls to love and to humility are not, not, not to be restricted to the church or any other “in” group.
Here, then, is the basic ground of my argument around interfaith neighbourliness.
Many, probably most, Christians are taught that the essence of Christianity is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. To believe in Jesus Christ means, likely, believing certain things about Jesus, and God, and what we might call the story of salvation. Because we are taught that these things are the essence of our faith, and because they are particular to our religion, we then usually assume that we are in competition with all other, differing, religions. In other words, we assume that only if one believes in Jesus the way we are taught, is one to be saved. Religions are incompatible because of the difference of our belief.
However, in the context of 1 Corinthians 13, I would say that all such belief falls into the category
of what Paul calls “knowledge.” And while I don’t think that Paul says that belief
is unimportant, he is clear that our knowledge/belief is partial. We don’t have the whole story. We don’t possess the definitive truth. Humility is required, here and now.
In the traditional colonial pattern of Christianity, I see us compromising love of neighbour so that we can hold tight to our knowledge. We are willing to look down on neighbours of other religions, we may even think we have to look down on them, in order not to compromise our beliefs. But in 1 Corinthians 13, I see Paul asking us to be a bit more humble about our (partial and in-a-mirror-dimly) knowledge/beliefs in order to hold tight to what is really important – love.
As I think of our history here in Canada, what happened in the Residential Schools is a great
example of the settler/colonial churches thinking we had all the knowledge, arrogantly insisting on our own way, and forgetting such things as kindness and truth-seeking (listening).
So what I am asking – what I think Scripture is asking – is for us to turn our priorities around,
when it comes to interfaith relations. “True” and “false” become matters of discussion and inquiry, together with our neighbours of other faiths, because the very best we can do on this earth is to find some partial, dim understanding. Love, on the other hand – getting to know each other, working together to mend the world, eating together and caring for one another – that is the thing that must never be compromised. Because without that, we are undoing the work of God. Without love, we cannot be truly Christian.
To be sure, when I am in a multi-faith group, I am very much a Christian. Christianity is my spiritual home and a deep part of my identity, and after all these years I can share the gospel and teachings of my faith with some confidence. It’s just that I expect light and truth to come from others as well, in different languages, cultures, and from different perspectives. I expect my own partial grasp on the truth to be complemented, illuminated, and challenged by the partial understandings of others.
In my experience, something amazing happens when we love first, and let the truth about God be bigger than our own theology. But more on that later.