Rabbi Donniel Hartman has just published a book entitled Putting God Second-How to save religion from itself (Beacon Press, 2016). One of his central ideas is that an unswerving devotion to God, however one conceives of the Deity, has the potential to blind us from the ethical dictate to love our fellow humanity. History (and the present) is full of horrific examples of injustice, violence, and killing done in the name of God. His argument is that devotion to God must be subjected to an uncompromising ethical treatment of others. I just got the book yesterday, but having had the opportunity to frequently hear Dr. Hartman speak over the years, my sense is that he will argue that by loving neighbor first, we will ultimately love God best. The writer of I John states a similar idea when he states "for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." (4:20)
Jesus told his followers that we are to love each other as he has loved us-this is the new mandate that is commemorated on Holy or Maundy Thursday (John 13:34). We understand Jesus's love to be total, unconditional and sacrificial. The good news is that there is only one new commandment. The challenge is that it is the one mentioned above. It is safe to say that after two thousand years, we are still working on it and mostly failing.
What does it mean for me to love God. In John's gospel, Jesus circles us back and says if we want to love him we need to obey his commandment (s) (14:5). When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, each time Peter says yes, Jesus's consistent response is to tell Peter to take care of his flock (John 21 ff). The Johannine literature is fairly clear that to love Christ/God entails loving each other first and perhaps foremost. Rabbi Jesus and Rabbi Hartman seem to be on the same page.
But we are still called to "love the Lord our God." I do experience God's mercy and love and I try to love back. I like Leonard Cohen once observed "want to travel with him" but like the character Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar, "I don't know how to love him." Part of the power of the song is that it has so many levels of meaning, some more provocative than others. I sing along almost as a meditation on the mystery of the man Jesus. And I find myself in the end agreeing with her.
There is in any religious devotion a desire for a deeper connection to God (or Something). Encountering the Divine is what has sustained my life-long quest to try to love my suffering neighbor. But trying to love the revelation of the Incomprehensible One will in this life always leave one with as many questions as answers and as with as much longing as satiation. Maybe that will always be the case with a faith that has a Cross as its central icon.