By Preston Pouteaux
I have had a persistent nudge of curiosity that I simply cannot shake. Everytime I have breakfast with my neighbour Chris, or talk about gardening with Steve, or get together with our neighbours Colin and Kayla, I find myself astonished. These neighbours have become vital to my faith, and I don’t have a category for it, a frame of reference for why they mean so much to me. I feel like there is so much more happening between me and my neighbours than just a stream of niceties.
Christ-in-me is meeting Christ-in-them and it’s profound. God is so remarkably present in my neighbourhood, and the implications of that fill my imagination.
Here is what I’ve found: Love of neighbour has become a hobby for the church and Christians who worship together each Sunday. Hobbies are something we dabble in on the weekends or in retirement. We pull our hobby down from the shelf when we have time and energy to spare. Hobbyists may be more or less enthused about their craft, giving a moment of themselves to their passion so long as it fills the need it was created for. When real life leans in, or the hobby loses its lustre, they are boxed up and eventually sold in a garage sale.
Love of neighbour, however, is not a hobby, Jesus does not give us the luxury of calling it that. It is a vital core practice of followers of Jesus and the Church. Baking or woodworking might be a hobby, but eating and safe shelter are essential. Love of neighbour, at least for Jesus and the early church, was clearly essential. Jesus said we are to love God and neighbour, while Paul wrote to the Galatians saying, “For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
This is not hobby talk, it is foundational and pivotal work on which the rest of our life of faith finds its purpose and direction.
I think something is missing.
In the pantheon of disciplines, the discipline and practice of loving neighbour is alarmingly absent.
Jesus’s own commandment to love neighbour has been relegated to the hobby bin of the Christian faith, we simply cannot imagine there is much to discover there, not much to experience, probably because we have never ourselves truly experienced the life of Jesus in our neighbours. So we view Jesus’ words to love our neighbours as an addendum; a hobby for those Christians who have time to spare.
Serious seminaries and churches don’t teach hobbies.
They teach theology, the study of God. They teach soteriology, the study of salvation. They teach epistemology, the study of knowing. They teach ecclesiology, the study of the church. They teach pneumatology, the study of the Holy Spirit. They teach Christology, the study of Jesus. They teach Eschatology, the study of the end times. They teach patrology, the study of the early church fathers. They teach missiology, the study of the mission of God.
Love of neighbour? Real, actual, next door neighbours? Sorry, it’s simply not in the index.
While loving our neighbour is core to our faith, the church has found more energy in delving into mariology, hamartiology, and apologetics. More energy has been given to the study of Mary, sin, and defending our faith than we give to loving our neighbours — the very heartbeat of Jesus.
I would like to suggest we open a new line of study, practice, thoughtful discipline, research, and examination. Understanding how we love our neighbours should be so core to our seminaries, bible training institutions and churches and it should amaze us that it has been so lacking.
Jesus said that we are to love God and love our neighbours. We have the first half of Jesus’s Great Commandment down to a ’T’. Literally. Theology, the study of God, has so captured our imaginations throughout history that it was called the Queen of the Sciences. Alongside philosophy, theology glistened in the imaginations of those who studied her mysterious depths and glorious heights. Theological disciples blossomed as people discovered there was more to be found. Poets and prophets, pastors and academics revealed what they found. The study of God is vast. Soon we found ways to study God with systematic theology, practical theology, moral theology, historical theology, aesthetical theology, biblical theology, natural theology, spiritual theology, philosophical theology, liberation theology, ecumenical theology, pastoral theology and so on. There has been no end to the books written celebrating the first half of Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God.
But what of the second half. This invitation to love our neighbour?
The word Jesus uses in the Great Commandment to love neighbour is plesion (pronounced play-see’-on). Plesion is Greek and appears in all four Gospels. To the Jewish people plesion referred to a member of the Hebrew nation, but to Jesus it was extended to include people of other nations and religions. It comes from the word pelas, which means ‘near.’ Neighbour is a good English translation of plesion. ‘Neighbour’ comes from Old English root words neah “near” and gebur “dweller.” Neighbour is the ‘near-dweller,’ and plesion refers to the person who is near to us. Jesus says that the Great Commandment is to love those near to us; our neighbours, plesion.
Plesionology, then, is the study of neighbours. It is the close examination of how we relate to our neighbours and how we love them in obedience to the Great Commandment. It is paying attention to, being curious about, standing in awe of something so profoundly vital to being a human made in God’s image. Plesionology puts others, specifically those we can talk with and pass on the street everyday, and places them right in the centre of this human experience. It puts neighbours right in the midst of our faith in Jesus and says that we meet God when we love our neighbours. Jesus thought it was essential, and I’m starting to think it might be, too.
We are enamoured with theology because we can, as one of my theology professors said years ago, pick apart God like a frog specimen in science class. Theology and all of her branches of investigation does not often require much of us. We can think about God without having to become like Jesus. We can read our books and prepare our sermons without much changing in us. Theology, without plesionology can be hollow and void of any true life. Jesus never intended theology to exist apart from living out the very thing that God (who so loved the world) intended for his theologians. We were always meant to love our neighbours, and it is in loving our neighbours that we make sense of God.
So I’ve decided to follow that nudge of curiosity. I want to explore all that loving my neighbours means to growing in Christ. Why I love being a pastor in the neighbourhood way more than I ever did as the manager of a church program machine. Why my neighbours have come to trust Jesus, not because I was convincing. Why Christian spirituality finally makes sense within 90 paces of my front door. Why beauty and imagination compel me to love more and more. Why grace is truly Good News when it emerges between me and my neighbours. There are so many profound questions I have and they keep coming. Although I just made up the word ‘plesionology’ to serve as a much needed framework for these questions, there is deep joy in finally embracing the second half of Jesus’ words to ‘love God’ and ‘love neighbour.’ It’s making me more fully human, and I love it.
Jesus moved into the neighbourhood and it changed everything. Has our theology? Have we?
This post previously appeared on medium.com. Preston Pouteaux is a Pastor at Lake Ridge Community Church, author, beekeeper, and curator of neighbourhood conversations at intotheneighbourhood.ca.