April 7, 2017

In Defense of Love

As happens occasionally when my two brain cells collide, my thoughts got sparked yesterday during a conversation with my best friend, accomplice in thoughtcrime and philosophical conversation partner, Ed. We use these conversations to have a sounding board to crystallize our own thoughts most often, and sometimes find a new avenue of exploration. Yesterday, Ed's lead-in was a topic we really haven't covered specifically on its own: the dichotomy in the contemporary American church of a wrathful and punishing God that is the darling of fundamentalists and new Calvinists, and the newer trend of seeing God as love and nothing more. The thing we immediately agreed upon is that the church in America needs to have more discourse in seeking a viewpoint of God that has balance. (Yes, I know that there are plenty of churches that discuss God in this manner, but it's not the viewpoint that gets much publicity.)

So, let's dispense with some preliminaries. First, God is as perfectly balanced as can be possible, simply because of His nature. The problem lies in how we perceive and define that balance. Second, that in His nature He is ineffable, that we can never truly define or comprehend that nature. Given those points, the problem lies not in God or His nature, but how we perceive Him, present Him, and live in Him.

Addressing the three previous problem I mentioned, perception and presentation are inextricably linked. Much of our perception is based on how He has been presented to us by others, and by our own experience in our earlier lives. Likewise, the presentations given us are formed by those people's experiences and how God was presented to them. These perceptions and experiences are powerful enough to persist through our whole lives, even in contradictory experience and evidence. But, at some point in our lives, to become mature in our spiritual belief, we must put our ideas to some rigorous examination. That is what I wish to discuss here.

However we do perceive God, we must consider how we might perceive God. When we look to scripture to see who and how God is, we always view this through the lens of our experience, learning, and environment. As we gain maturity in mind, soul, and spirit, we become able to choose the lens with which we view the scriptural portrayal. I was raised in a church culture of legalism; the Bible said what it said, and that was it. As I aged, I realized that we all tend to cherry-pick the scripture to support our internal viewpoint; we give more weight to some scripture than others, even when we deny that fact. Several years ago, I was challenged to consider Grace in its fullest, and to look at scripture through that lens.

This led me to try and reconcile some scriptures that are seemingly in contradiction. But the conclusion that I came to is that there is one over-arching concept and several subordinate concepts with which we might want to view scripture and God. All through the Bible we read that God is (wise, angry, tender, protective, saving, condemning, joyful, sad, ever-faithful, wrathful, etc.); a list of adjectives. These adjectives describe God in terms we can grasp, but not in His fullness. God = adjective, a word that only describes an aspect of His. However in 1 John (as well as 2&3 John and 1&2 Peter) we see God equated with a noun: "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love." 1 John 4:8. This is an equation God = love. From the context, we can also deduce that love = God, since not loving equals not knowing God. This is not a description of an aspect of God, it is a declaration of His essential being.

Since the basic essence necessarily underlies, informs, and controls His aspects, it may be very beneficial to us to view Him through that essence, and then fit His aspects into that viewpoint. This can bring a greater depth of understanding to the seeming contradictions we may see in scripture, and bring a deeper wisdom and compassion into how we live in and present Him. We can find a balance between the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" God of Johnathan Edwards and the laissez faire flower-child God of the nouveau hippies.

But, truly finding this balance in our view of God requires a drastic internal shift. Subordinating our ideas of God's aspects under the idea of love as God's essential being is a radical idea from any side. For some it might mean diminishing concepts of punishment and wrath under the essence of love. For others, it can mean bringing ideas of justice and judgment into the idea of love. For all of us, it needs to inform our internal and external reactions to others.

How does this work out in our everyday lives? That's the hard thing. Should we refuse to use violence to defend the defenseless? I certainly think not. There's nothing loving about allowing someone to be injured, nor to continue allowing someone to injure others. Mahayana Buddhists understand that very well. This is bringing the uncomfortable aspects of God under the essence of love.

What about the other side? Should we confront "sin" in others when no one is being harmed? (Yes, I'm talking about gay people here, not alcoholics, addicts, or other people causing a real and tangible harm to themselves and others) Putting the Law and judgment underneath God's nature as love itself demands that we not cast any stones unless we are without sin. That's the point Jesus was making, IMO. This brings the essence of love to the uncomfortable aspects.

All of that was merely my long argument in support of having the tough discussions about God to reconcile his essence and aspects in our faith communities and relationships. It's far too easy to preach and defend and extreme, but these extremes ultimately wind up hollow and unfulfilling. The narrow path demands we walk between these extremes, and this is where Christ has asked us to follow him.

Love your neighbors as you love yourself.
So, love yourself.
Love God with all your heart.
God is love, so where love is, there God is.
May His peace be with us all.