The Root of Everything: Witnessing Divine Love in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In that last week of clammy August malaise that inevitably precedes the start of the semester, my family and I often go to the “second-hand” theater a couple of blocks away in search of discounted entertainment and free air-conditioning. This past summer, our feature of choice was Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Neville’s documentary sketches the life of Fred Rogers, whose unique careers as child psychologist, minister, and television entertainer combined to make him an American saint. The film, like Rogers’ show, has been wildly and unexpectedly successful. Along with an impressive 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? has spurred a profusion of Facebook encomia from the “millennials” for whom Rogers’ show played a quintessential role in childhood experience. Along with this nostalgic value, the reasons are obvious: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? provides a delightfully simple yet evocative score, warm and saturated hues, endearing anecdotes from Rogers’ family and colleagues, and a nice, “feel-good” message.

Despite carrying itself lightly, however, the film is on solemn ground right from the start. Less than five minutes in, a grainy interview clip gives us Rogers gazing directly into the camera and stating soberly: “love is at the root of everything… Love, or the lack of it.” Rogers’ insistence on the ultimacy of love pervades the film as its central theme: his radical love for and acceptance of neighbor extends to each individual irrespective of age, race, disability, or sexual orientation. In an interview, Rogers’ colleague and friend, Rev. George Wirth, sums it up neatly: “Fred’s theology was love your neighbor, and love yourself.”

I remember it struck me as somewhat odd that the first of the “two great commandments” was absent in this formulation. Although Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, the film references God rather infrequently, and Rogers himself— at least to the extent he’s depicted—does so still less. In his gentle and pleasantly off-pitch voice, Rogers sings that “it’s you I like,” assuring both children and adults that they are loveable and good “just the way they are.” He does not tell them of God’s love, of salvation, or of His presence in their lives. I began to think that, despite its startlingly profound beginning, the film would portray Rogers merely as one more advocate of a shallow and facile “ethic of acceptance,” the ethic that dominates  contemporary discourse and that so often sets the terms of division between “liberal” and “conservative” Christians.

But an off-handed remark in an interview with Rogers’ youngest son caught my attention and made me reconsider. Recalling Rogers’ untiring exertion in his ministry, John Rogers quips that it was “a little tough” to have “almost the second Christ” as his dad. As I’ve continued to reflect on the film and on the vision of love that Rogers communicated through his work, I find in this one remark the expression of a richly theological and incarnational current that pulses through Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, one that, in my opinion, explains the documentary’s unique poignancy.

The “conservative Christian” objection to Rogers’ seemingly simplistic vision of love—an objection that haunts the film and one with which we Hillsdalians may sympathize— stems from a genuine concern for the integrity of truth. Surely such blind acceptance and affirmation of others compromises our ability to see them as they really are; surely it is this same unqualified acceptance and emphasis on being “special” that stunts all consideration of “objective” truth and fosters instead the inertia of relativism. It seems a fair claim that for any orthodox Christian, real love is wholly inseparable from the communication of truth and the call to spiritual transformation.

And yet, I wonder: what do we mean when we demand that we see people as they “really” are? Do we not most often imply by this that we possess sufficient knowledge of our neighbor’s shortcomings and errors, of his misguided beliefs or of his vicesas though to know these things were to know him essentially? In his essay on The Paradoxes of Love, philosopher Robert Spaemann reminds us that while “popular wisdom” tells us that “love makes blind,” traditional Christian wisdom claims the opposite: Amor oculus est, “love is the eye.”

To live life with an authentically Christian faith requires that we willingly subordinate our own judgements to a new standard of “objectivity.” Having been revealed in Christ rather than attained discursively, this standard destroys any aspirations to “impersonality” as the mark of truth. In his work Love Alone is Credible, German theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that in the face of Christ, “the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and a father.” With the Incarnation, the ultimate criterion of truth, the universal logos or “God’s-eye-view,” coincides with infinite, personal, and gratuitous Love in a perfect and radical identity. What this means is that “the way God, the lover, sees us is in fact the way we are in realityfor God, this is the absolute and irrevocable truth.” For the Christian, to see the other as he “really is” is to see him as God does: loved beyond all comprehension and freely willed into being. Human existence, in its most fundamental and “real” dimensions, bears the mark of the divine and is therefore utterly inseparable from truth, from goodness, from desirability. Christian love, like the “ethic of acceptance,” thus attributes a value to the Other that stands independent of all “empirical evidence” about his particular beliefs, qualities, and desires.

What distinguishes Rogers’ radically open love from the love that our post-secular culture celebrates, however, is that while the latter stagnates its object by an unqualified endorsement of the “empirical man,” Christian love is transformative and teleological. When asked why he does what he does, Rogers responds: “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he really is accepted exactly as he is.” If it is to reflect the character of divine love, our love must rush out to meet its object precisely where he is, without hesitation, reserve, or conditions. But it also must refuse to accept that state as permanent or final.

Toward the end of the film, Rogers is shown delivering a commencement speech at Middlebury College. “From the time you were very little,” he tells the students, “you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.” Love, when experienced as freely and unconditionally “there for” us, invites a response. Rogers’ contemporaries often accused him of creating a generation of entitled “narcissists;” but it seems to me that this is the farthest thing from Rogers’ intent. Precisely because Rogers embraces those around him before they have “proven” or “achieved” their desirability, that worth comes to light for each person as something purely given to him. Absolute and unconditional love is not the permission for but the conclusive defeat of narcissism. It “condemns” and “convicts” our imperfections, but does so by the force of its beauty and gratuity. Rogers’ vision of a neighborhood is not mere acceptance or coexistence but something far richer. It is a community of persons who, by their love for and recognition of one another, call each other into an ever-deepening life of love.

The fact is that, paradoxically, an obsessive concentration on and fear of the brokenness and error in the world can give us too high an estimation of our own power. One of the most exquisite moments of  watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? for the first time was an archive clip of the public service announcement Rogers delivered shortly after 9/11. Visibly shaken by grief and horror, an elderly and soft-spoken Rogers stated this simple truth: “no matter what our particular job… we are called to be tikkun olam, repairers of creation.” Rogers, contrary to accusations, was not blind to the reality of evil and the fallenness of his neighbors. He simply refused to acknowledge these things as definitive. Human beings do evil deeds, they fall short of the goal, they create conflict, they cling stubbornly to half-truths and delusions. But it is that one word—creation—that ultimately qualifies all of those statements. The world flows forth from, is sustained by, and is ordered toward the God who is Love. Because of this, our vocation is not merely to “diagnose” and much less to dwell on all that is wrong with the world. It is to cooperate with God in drawing creation back to its Source, and to do so simply by the communication of His love.  

In a world already sated with and tired of “ideologies,” Rogers’ vision of love seems to me to model a way forward for Christians. It is said that Francis of Assisi would often encourage his brothers with these words: “preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Reverend Wirth attributes a similar disposition to Rogers, claiming that he preached not in an “oratorical” way but through a “communication right into the heart” of those who watched his show. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? imitates its subject in this regard. It is not a heavy-handed “Christian” film; it does not “evangelize” in our common understanding of the term. But it does provide an image, a unified manifestation of something compellingly other: It is “incarnational” just as Rogers was. Today, to profess orthodox Christian beliefs and values is rare. But what is rarer still is to look at another human being and to say to him, without qualification, that it is good that he exists and that he is loved. This intense, personal love is by no means opposed to truth. Rather, it is itself an expression of truth and the non-negotiable context in which we must speak and search for all “propositional” truth. If we allow ourselves to be transformed by and then to communicate this love that transcends all merely human love, we may compel those around us to ask after its source—just as I was moved to reflect on what it is that has made Won’t You Be My Neighbor? so exceptional in its capacity to move its viewers.

If von Balthasar is right—if it is the “majesty of absolute love” and not simply a coherent “worldview” or program of morals that constitutes the “most fundamental phenomenon of revelation”—then our first and most basic vocation as Christians is to participate in the revelation of this absolute reality, and to do so in a way that moves beyond all apparent tensions between love and truth, between persons and propositions. It is to be, as it were, “second Christs.”  

Cait Weighner is a junior studying philosophy.

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