In the classic Louvin Brothers song, an old man stands up after the congregation sings about God being real and says, “Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too.” And the song goes on to declare that “Hell is a real place, A place of everlasting punishment.” Hell and Satan are certainly theological concepts, but can devotion to concepts such as these (or others) lead us to behave toward others in ways that would otherwise violate core ethical and theological commitments to our fellow human beings? Unfortunately, history is littered with tragic examples of humans treating others in horrific ways in the pursuit of what they deemed higher purposes.
From early in their history, Quakers cautioned against the dangers of theological abstraction getting in the way of our humanity. “Friends would rather know God than know about God,” according to the West Hills Friends Meeting website. “Consequently, we have been skeptical of creeds and theological abstractions. Human ideas are sometimes called ‘notions,’ (or even ‘airy notions’) as a reminder that their value is limited.” William Penn offers a good example of this when he says, “For it is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to propositions, though ever so soundly worded that makes a man a true believer: it is a conformity of mind and practice to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person a child of God.” Lucretia Mott echoed this later in her observation that “The likeness we bear to Jesus is more essential than our notions of him.”
Is all of this to say that theology does not matter? I actually tend to think it matters a great deal. But just as Jesus cautioned against an overemphasis on the letter of the law rather than its spirit, we can lose sight of the dignity and value of the person in front of us or across the globe if we place too great an emphasis on either our own moral rectitude or any ideal or object (theological, philosophical, political, etc.) upon which we place great value. In so doing, we can create a hell for ourselves and others.