woensdag 3 september 2008

God is love. Some perplexed notes.

In love the separate does still remain, but as something united and no longer as something separate; life in the subject senses life in the object
Hegel, Love, in: Stephen Houlgate, The Hegel Reader, p. 31.

First, an irony connected to the subject of this post. I believe that in many of our ventures, we seek somehow to undo, to roll back the curse of Adam and all that the eating of the fruit brought him: sense of self; alienation from God, from the other, from nature; an apprehension of a great chasm between us and God. In answer, we seek to lose ourselves, in mystical experience or in mass movements or in sex or love or material wealth. There's something gnawing at us in the depths of our hearts that we seek to flee from, yet can never escape. A sense of being ultimately and irreducibly alone. Of never being able to share or pour out all of our being into the other; there is always something that remains hidden, unshared, and it gnaws.

The irony being that I think it is precisely in loneliness, in solitude, that we may intimate that we are not alone at all. Christ approached the poor, the marginal and the sick; but not because being poor is good, or vice versa that the poor and the marginal and the sick were more sinful than the rich and powerful and hence needed him more. The reason, I think, that they lacked the barriers that we build up between us and God as soon as we can, the noise that we immerse ourselves in that drowns out His presence. Christ went to the poor and the sick because they were able to hear and understand him.

The God of Israel is a God of the desert. To approach Him, you must go to the desert. Or make a desert in your heart.

I have been moving towards Christianity sideways like a crab, with a lot of misgivings and a lot of hesitancy. Someone was hammering at my doors, at the edge of my consciousness, but for a long time I was not sure who. I was afraid it was not Him, but the other one. The bad one. Not joking: I am not sure whether I believe in an actual Devil, but I very much believe in temptation. And I am not particularly difficult to tempt once you know my weaknesses (and there's plenty of those). Eternal life? I am so utterly afraid, horrified, cowering at the very idea of death that I could not believe it, afraid to be led into wishful thinking. Hence, I could not but distrust a Gospel, Good News. Because some Good News was precisely what I was longing for.

But now I have no doubts anymore - and I am no longer afraid that I am led to worship a Devil, real or one of my own making.

God is love.

And no demon, nor any creature of my own making could lead me to begin to grasp a sliver of the truth behind those three words.

I am becoming some kind of an existentialist or a pragmatist about truth. Mark Twain at some point wrote that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Of course, this is about metaphors, words which convey poetical truth, but the matter is the same: as it is precisely poetry that conveys individual, existential truth that we live by. And there is a similar kind of difference between understanding something as an abstract concept, and understanding that same something as something of fundamental, enormous subjective importance. A kind of understanding that makes one's legs go to jelly, that makes one feel as if pierced by arrows, and light shining through the holes.

I don't want to sound presumptuous here: I think I understand very little. At the same time, in my own crab-like manner, I think I'm slowly getting somewhere.

God is love.

An alternative way to put Anselm's argument, or other ones trying to explicate God as a necessary being. When we talk, say, about a tree, we talk about an instantiation of a set of universals: a tree (as any tree) has stem, branches, leaves or pines, etc. All of these universals embodied concretely by the particular tree we talk about. Yet there is something about any particular tree that is not exhausted by any set of universals we may use to describe it. Something about the "thisness", the raw actuality, the "here-and-nowness" of the tree escapes any determination in terms of universals. In other words: existence is not a predicate, or better, actuality is not a predicate, and we cannot reason from universals to actual existence.

However, God is not an exemplification of any set of universals such as the tree, or my hat, or any other contingent object. Just as we can talk about unicorns in a world which lacks unicorns, we could talk about trees in terms of certain universals in a world which happened to lack actual trees. But we cannot talk, in similar fashion, of God as a set of universals (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) which may or may not be instantiated in the actual world. Such a being would lack in the transcendence we ascribe to God. It would maybe be a god, but not God. We can only refer to God as to a concrete and actual being, a particular that transcends all universals - because otherwise we would no longer be referring to God! So God is either a necessary being or utter nonsense - but what he is not is a set of properties that fails to be instantiated. In God as a necessary being the opposition between universal and particular is collapsed as it were: necessarily actual, "here and now" He lends actuality, hereness or nowness, the "fire" in the equations of science and all abstract thought that will forever escape scientific and abstract description, to the world and everything in it.

Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'
Exodus 3: 13-14

In Whitehead's philosophy of process, the basic 'building-block' of the universe is an actual event, a concrete little happening, a little 'flash' of experience, which defines itself with the universals it instantiates and against its own past of actual events, thus reflecting in a way its whole past universe - yet is not determined by it. There is always something undetermined, something creative, something genuinely new, about actuality. The ruach, Spirit, breath of God.

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!"
Revelations 21:5

As human beings, it is precisely in our thisness, in our utter individuality, that we are free. We may be partially determined by our biological make-up, by our past experiences, but never wholly so. Our own concreteness, like the rest of the actual universe, remains underdetermined by universals, defies exhaustive description, and this is what makes us free.

God is love. And love is that mysterious force between the subject and the other that allows one to pour oneself out fully, to give oneself wholly to the other, without losing one's individuality and actuality. That allows one to behold oneself and become a self through the eyes of another. To ground oneself, one's whole existence, in the other while yet remaining free. Difference in sameness: it is paradox, Hegel's dialectic made flesh, laughing at identity, mocking cause and effect. The making that does not break, creativity and genuine novelty, creatio ex nihilo right here and now, as impossible as it sounds.

God is love - it is not a metaphor, not a hackneyed phrase from a pop song. It is literally, blindingly, astonishingly true. Love is not a human feeling, it is more than that; it is not a physical force, it is more than that; love is the more than that, the principle underlying the existence of all, me, you, trees and rocks and gas giants.

In Peirce's terms, law is 'thirdness', regularity, persistence. As such it is opposed to 'secondness': concrete actuality with all its interrelatedness with the rest of the actual universe, and 'firstness': the bare universal.

Regularity which in the case of moral law becomes an abstract norm, which we may obey or rebel against. But love, as God has revealed Himself to be in Christ, remains pure actuality, 'secondness', or rather, is 'secondness', a concrete, situational here-and-now which curiously transcends any regularity, abstract norm, law, or 'thirdness'. Christ as the incarnate Word is the eternal, God, 'breaking into' the temporal, history, and revealing Himself therein as the ground of all being, love. Just as God is not an instantiation of an abstract universal 'Godlikeness', so Christ-as-history is not an exemplification of a moral law. In as far as Christianity means following Christ, striving after Christlikeness, it is antinomian in that love relativizes any moral law including that of the old Covenant.

Yet, as Paul made clear, this does not lead to a license to sin:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Romans 6: 15-18

Sin is a turning away from God, a failing of the two Commandments that remain: to love God with all one's mind and strength and all one's heart, and one's neighbour as oneself. If God's self-revelation as love and the new Covenant is an invitation to (in Kierkegaard's words, if I remember) ground ourselves transparently in God, then sin is a failure to do so, and thus the substitution of the moral law with love as an absolute standard hardly makes sin meaningless - it only makes it even more acute.

Some of the above may have sounded a bit neo-orthodox. I am attracted to some neo-orthodox notions, particularly that of the Word of God as embodied by the events, God's self-revelation in human history as witnessed by Scripture, rather than Scripture itself. Likewise, I think that it is helpful not to understand Christ's Godhood as a "thing", as a "substance" like wine in a bottle. The Word is not a thing. The Word of God is not a given text. It is precisely the way in which God reveals Himself in what he does in human history: and the apex, the absolute centerpiece of this is precisely the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. And the notion that God is love is the key to making sense of it. The ultimate and total self-sacrifice of God-in-Christ in death and His consequent triumph over death after three days reveal who God is.

God is love. And as love, he approached the ones who, in all their wretchedness, recognized Him for who He is. Love is the curious force that creates without destroying, heals without breaking, allows the lovers to be grounded in one another while yet remaining themselves, and more than themselves:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
Isaiah 42:3

And thus alone transcends law, the barren, mute cycle of cause and effect, and death. Conquers death. Breaks the barriers of our loneliness, alienation, sucks out the venom of sin.

And Christ took sin upon himself, and shame, and pain and savage death, and yet he rose. He poured himself out into the world, sacrificed himself, and yet he rose. The "and yet" goes to the essence of love. The "and yet" that whispers that the curse of Adam was not the whole of the story, that something yet follows, that there is an answer to death and sin and the hold they have over us. And what an answer!

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15: 54-55

This is why the one Biblical miracle which I unconditionally believe in is the Resurrection. The walking on water, the sharing of the bread, the healing of the sick - I can accept them as symbols or metaphors (though I do not mind literal interpretations of them as well). But the one truth which they point towards, as symbols, is precisely encapsulated in Christ's death and resurrection. The basis of our hopes that the "sting of death" is not the end of it all. That there is an and yet in God who is love. Were I to demythologize the event, to regard it as a mythological expression for our hope, I would undercut precisely the basis for that hope.

God is love. And those three words are the key to my slow, piecemeal understanding, and my all-too intermittent, hesitant faith in the God of Abraham and Jesus. I'll continue my sideways, crab-like movement to Christianity. Peer at it shyly and carefully, nose pressed against the window. But I am grateful beyond words, beyond expression to have gotten where I am now.

Geen opmerkingen: