Book Review: The Betrayal of Charity by Matthew Levering

The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins that Sabotage Divine Love by Matthew Levering (Baylor University Press, 225 pages, August 1, 2011)

It is always refreshing to read from a young theologian bringing new perspectives and exploring topics in a new light. Matthew Levering certainly does not  disappoint with his newest theological work, and recent Patheos Book Club pick, The Betrayal of Charity: The Sins that Sabotage Divine Love. In bringing together the works of contemporary theologians and scholars in other areas (i.e. Harold Bloom and René Girard) and comparing them to the scholarship of Thomas Aquinas, Levering provides a fresh look at Charity in an accessible format.

Levering’s book focuses on unpacking the meaning of charity and the sins that work against charity: hated, sloth, envy, discord and contention, schism, war and strife. In doing do, he challenges us to examine our own lives and how we, as individuals and as a society, betray Charity. I was impressed with several aspects of Levering’s work. First, each chapter introduces the topic by telling the reader how the chapter will be structured. Second, Levering explains the contemporary theologies that he will compare with the theology of Aquinas. Third, he doesn’t utilize Aquinas solely to refute contemporary theologies; he also uses Aquinas to illumine contemporary thought. Finally, Levering uses language that any reader can understand. Yes, Aquinas is difficult to read, but Levering takes the time to explain exactly what Aquinas means.

Each chapter of Levering’s book can stand on its own. In his introduction, Levering tells us that the chapters may seem disjointed at first, but they all aim to explore the topic of Charity and its threats in-depth. Personally, I didn’t see anything disjointed about it. On the contrary, each chapter builds on the previous chapter’s exploration of charity.

BC_MatthewLevering_rtThough I was impressed with the entirety of Levering’s work, I was particularly impressed with his chapters on sloth and envy. I found these chapters to be the most insightful for all of us as individuals rather than collectively. How so? Well, before we can respond to Charity as a collective Christian community, we must respond and live out Charity as individuals. Before I proceed to talk about the chapters on sloth and envy, I would like to provide Levering’s definition of Charity (utilizing Aquinas):

Charity is a supernatural virtue infused by God in order not only to heal the fallen human will, but also to elevate the human will to a sharing in the love of the Trinity. As a deeper participation in divine love, charity relates the human person in particular to the person of the Holy Spirit, even though as a created effect in the soul, charity is not the same as the Holy Spirit. (5)

That is the definition from which Levering explores the sins against charity in his work—a definition stemming from Aquinas, of whom Levering appears to be well-versed.

In Chapter 3, Levering discusses Sloth and the Joy of the Resurrection. Sloth is, according to Aquinas, the opposite of joy in divine realities or a “sorrow about spiritual good” (55).  This occurs when other goods (the material) seem better than spiritual goods (the love and friendship of God). We become more concerned with doing things in return for something material rather than doing things out of a response to God’s love. In other words, we turn away from God.

Levering shows us that for, contemporary theologian, Timothy Jackson Charity is God’s greatest gift—not necessarily eternal life: “Charity should love God without expecting anything more than we already have from him, namely, the extraordinary gift of his love and presence here and now (a presence that in Christ Jesus enters into the heart of our suffering).” In other words, we can hope to share in the eternal life of God upon our death, but Charity should not depend on that hope.  For Aquinas, as for Levering, we must be mindful of the joy of resurrection and the promise of eternal life. As Levering paraphrases Aquinas:

[I]f our participation in God’s goodness is only for this life, then our relationship with God—charity’s eternal dynamism—would be stunted from the outset. Why would God only love us and care for us for such a short time, and then assent to our utter annihilation? How could a friend or lover do that, and how could our love be nourished within such a context? (61)

The answer is that it could not, because without the promise of eternal life our faith would be futile. We would be more prone to sloth if the very promise of redemption—eternal life with Christ—was not realized.

Chapter 4 focuses on a topic that is very real and common for all of us: envy. This is not to say that all of us are envious, but I’m sure all of us have had to deal with envy in some form or another. Envy is a betrayal of charity. Once again Levering looks to Aquinas for a definition of envy, “Aquinas defines envy as sorrow regarding the good of our neighbor, a sorrow that comes about because the good of our neighbor seems to constitute a evil for ourselves” (67).  This is the opposite of charity because charity finds the good in others—the gift of God’s self-giving love in others. To envy is to sorrow about the goods of others and to conceive of a stingy God whose gifts are so scarce that we must hoard them (71). To do so would be to turn away from a God who is infinitely good and infinitely loving and who desires for us to live in communion with others. Envy also craves power and status, which is the opposite of living out the love of God, the love of Christ’s self-giving on the cross.

So, how do we overcome envy? The Eucharist. In the Eucharist we become fully united to Christ so that we can participate in His redemption. As Levering writes, “We overcome envy not by self-reliance, but by receiving the Holy Spirit’s healing power through our participation in Christ’s changing of the world” (78). I believe that what Aquinas and Levering are pointing us to, throughout this book, is to view each other and the world through the lens of that self-giving love that was made visible on the cross and still offers itself to us at the Eucharist.

This is a terrific work by Levering. For those of us who have studied soteriology before, his final chapter has an excellent discussion of Girard’s scapegoat theory. Levering’s chapters on schism and war are also exceptional. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in moral theology or looking to read a book that will challenge their own conceptions of Charity.

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