God-Language and God's Love
Seminar delivered by Fr Anthony Campbell on September 12, 2001
These are notes for an evening's discussion at St Peter's on Wednesday, 12th September. Readers will remember that this was the day of America's disaster, at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. It might seem the worst time to speak of God's unconditional love; perhaps it is not. If talk of God's unconditional love is not appropriate in a queue inching toward the gas chambers at an extermination camp, it is surely not appropriate anywhere. Our prayer on such occasions must be for the victims of aggression and oppression anywhere across the street or across the world anywhere. A loving God may be angered, frustrated, and grieved; in times of aggression and oppression, a loving God grieves what has happened to the work of God's hands.
The following notes were provided by Fr Anthony they may need expansion, but we trust that enough has been given to make the approach intelligible. GFLU refers to God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love (New York: Paulist, 2000), distributed in Australia by Rainbow Book Agencies (03 9481-6611), and available from religious bookstores, including the St Peter's Bookroom.
I need that my language have coherence with itself and coherence with myself; I do not ask for more. I am not a philosopher seeking to identify a coherence between my God-language and my God. I do need coherence within my God-language and with my own living.
After that: belief.
2. God in my language to God in my belief: why?
I look at myself and our world and I believe there is need for a creator God. I am aware of major problems with the idea of a creator God, but I believe the need is greater than the problems. I do not base belief in a creator on the Bible.
The Bible offers us manifold allusions to creation, whether lengthy descriptions or shorter references. Psalm 104 moves magnificently from the earth on its foundations and the deep as its cover to the ocean with ships sailing on it and Leviathan sporting in it. Proverbs 8 has a marvellous image of creation, with wisdom's primacy over everything else, "the first of God's acts of long ago" (v. 22) through to rejoicing in the world and delight in the human race (v. 31). Job 38, opening God's discourse out of the whirlwind, has a wonderful series of questions about the laying of the foundation of the earth, the shutting in of the sea with doors, the origins of morning and the dwelling of light, the storehouses of the snow and the channels for the rain. Genesis 2 has the forming of a man and God's search for human completeness, achieved in the forming of a woman. Genesis 1 has the creation of our visible world, majestically segmented into days, finding its completeness in the hallowing of the seventh day, the creator God's observance of Israel's sabbath.
Alongside these, in the sophistication of Isaiah, Job, and Psalms, we have allusions to creation by combat and the dismembering of the primeval sea monsters with Rahab cut in pieces in Isa 51:9; with the dragon (Tannin), Rahab, the Sea, and the serpent (Nahash) all featuring in various parts of Job (e.g., 7:12; 9:13-14; 26:12-14); with Leviathan being crushed in Ps 74:14 and Rahab crushed in Ps 89:10. When, in its times of distress, Israel needed a God with grunt, the awesome power of the conqueror in creation was available.
In all of these, God creates. Nothing else is common. We have witness to faith in God as creator. As to the "how" of creation, we are invited to reflection.
3. Nature of God:
An element in the mystery of God is our needing to choose among our options for our God. Not only judge or lover. Involved surely are the God of the few, the God of the many, and the God of all.
Most mysterious of all is that we cannot discover which of these is God; we must instead discover our decision and our choice. (GFLU, 86-87)
Personal belief: The vision sketched here is a belief that is chosen. It is a matter of bringing elements of faith together in brighter light and sharper focus. It does not make and cannot make a total or exclusive claim on Christian faith. It is a belief available to be chosen within Christian faith; it is one position among others. Such chosen belief is commitment to a point of view, while recognizing that it might be wrong (with acknowledgments to John Polkinghorne and ultimately Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, 1958). (GFLU, 4)
4. Church teaching or theological tradition:
Should I turn to church teaching or theological tradition for answers about the choices I need to make? On certain issues, these have proved somewhat unhelpful.
The ultimate decision on what I believe is therefore going to be mine.
A saying that I have not heard contested or queried sharpens the issue. It is a matter of observation, not an axiom. "We do not believe something because we can quote it from the Bible; we quote something from the Bible because we believe it." This leads me to two questions: i) By what process and for what reasons do we come to believe something of relevance to our faith, if it is not on the authority of the Bible? ii) Why then do we quote from the Bible in support of what we believe? What need is operative in us?
We believe something because it has its proper place within the interpretation of ourselves and our world that we have shaped from our experience of ourselves and the various levels of community within which we have been shaped based on an insight into ourselves and our world to which we are committed and which gives meaning to our lives.
5. Decision of God to create:
At the bottom of it there is an act of faith: the conviction that a God exists. For me, on top of that act of faith sits the conviction that God is primarily loving. None of the other possibilities canvassed in classical theology have completely satisfied me. They may sound fine in a theological treatise; they do not carry weight for me in the world I live in. So I believe in a God and in a God who loves. The Older Testament even gives me words for it: "you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you" (Isaiah 43:4). (GFLU, 45)
6. If love, a chaotic world.
With a divine judge, the wicked are somehow punished and the rest of us are instinctively secure. With an unconditionally loving God, this world is evidently not open to our moral calculations; the good get cancer. Without the order assured by a God who judges, we are insecure, left with only our trust in God, trusting God to love us and no more. A God who can be counted on to be there always; helpless to change things perhaps, but there, warmly and passionately and supportively, much like an utterly committed friend and no more. (GFLU, x)
7. If love, what of prayer?
In my vision of a loving God, prayer is primarily relational. It functions in much the same way that communication does in my human relationships. To be fully myself in relationship, I need to be still enough at times to know myself. So too with God. At times in a deeply loving relationship I need to say what I know or what I feel, so that I hear myself say it. So too with God. At times in such a relationship I find myself silent in the other's presence. So too with God; I call it contemplation. At times in a deeply loving relationship, I need to share what is going on for me. So too with God. At times I may need to ask the other to share with me. So too with God but trickier. Above all, it is my experience that those who love me support me, encourage me, challenge me, hang in with me, and are present to me in so many ways. So too with God. As a rule, I don't ask God to do anything that I would not ask of a good friend. (GFLU, 59-60)
Intercessory prayer is an important element in human religious experience. It is a deeply rooted instinctive reaction of the creature in relationship with the Creator. Prayer for help is natural and spontaneous. People pray to God for help for themselves or others. They pray to God for the church and the world. At the same time, it is a prayer that can function as an indicator of the depth of acceptance of God's unconditional love. Do we hear a strong sense in such prayer that God loves the people praying or the others, or the church and the world more than they themselves do. The tone of such prayer can often be a pointer to the rootedness of belief in a God who loves us passionately and unconditionally.
Prayer to God as our helper is a commonplace of Christian faith. It can be a weather vane, showing us the way the wind is blowing in our relationship with our God. Is our prayer a sharing of our needs or others' needs with one who loves us deeply? Or is there a sense of our need to move God with the urgency of our intercession? On a tugboat in a typhoon or in some other desperate emergency, urgent intercession is utterly natural. In more ordinary times, the style of our intercessory prayer may be a pointer to the depth of our belief that God loves us passionately and unconditionally. We don't beg those who love us.
So what do we do when we must believe and we must pray? Quite frankly, I'm not sure. We are touching on the visceral as well as the rational. Maybe the viscera are not always right; maybe the rational can be out of its league. Often the more urgent our fear or the greater our need, the more the visceral takes over. A child asks: hold me tight; make it better. Being held tight can be the most important part of making it better. What more can a mother do for a dying child? When I pray for someone or something, what I ask of myself is that I try to express my prayers in ways that do not deny God's love. So I may begin, "O God, I know you love more deeply and passionately than I can hope to," and I see where it goes from there. Or I may begin, "O God, it is because I love and I believe you love even more that I turn to you now." I do not believe my prayer is needed to move God to action. I do believe that I need to share with my God what matters so much to us both.
We can image God's help in different ways. Looking at either end of the spectrum will clarify the range as a whole. As helper, God may be understood as enabler and sustainer, one who enables us to do what lies within our power where we might have lacked the courage, the inspiration, the imagination, and so on. Or as helper, God may be understood as provider and supplier, doing for us what we are unable to do, filling the gaps left by our own weakness and fragility. As enabler and sustainer, God travels with us along the journeys of our life. As provider and supplier, God carries us to the end of whatever our particular journey may be. The enabling and sustaining power of God can be spoken of in many ways: there is the power of basic trust, the power that comes from another's solidly deep commitment, the power that derives from the attraction and challenge of high ideals. God as provider and supplier is the one to whom many prayers of petition are directed; "if you choose, you can make me clean" (Mk 1:40). If God loves us unconditionally, then "if you choose" is not a question. If only it was as simple as that. But if we accept God's unconditional love, our prayer needs to mirror our acceptance. (GFLU, 56-58)
8. If love, what of my life?
Choices to be made. Which attitude to our relationship with God is going to enrich our lives most? That is the challenge we have to face and the basic choice before us in life. What has bite for us is the question: what is the fullest way that we can live our lives? If we have tried to achieve that, then at the end we'll have no regrets. Whatever the outcome, I tried. As one wise old leader suggested for his epitaph: He did what he could with what he had.
What can we do to live our lives to the fullest? We may wish we didn't have to ask that question, but we can hardly escape it. Some people do escape it most of their lives, maybe all their lives. Too bad, but the rest of us can't; we'd be living in permanent denial and that is scarcely enriching. We can't escape the faith questions. I've tried, God knows. I had a ten-year stint as an agnostic, but I had to realize finally that I was not taking my own self seriously. So I have to accept what my answers to those faith questions are. Yes, I do believe in a God. Yes, I do believe I survive my body. Yes, I do believe that God is unconditionally loving.
So where does that leave us? We can alter the last response to replace "unconditionally loving" with: yes, I do believe that God is benign, kindly, and understanding. Well-disposed. All that jazz. But I know that I don't quite believe it as the whole answer. Not deep down somewhere. Reality doesn't make full sense to me if God doesn't love us passionately in the ordinariness of life. Maybe it doesn't make much sense if God does. But for me there is more sense if God loves us deeply and passionately. So, like it or not, that's where I have to be. (GFLU, 82-83)
It is a vision of life where there is no currying favor with God, easing vague anxieties. No payment of dues in return for divine goodwill. No doing what God wants because it is God's will but because we both want it. Just the integrity of who I am and my deepening acceptance that the ultimate accomplishment of my life is me. The ultimate mystery of our lives may be God's unconditional love for us. To live in this context is to rise above the oldest archaism of the human spirit. The invitation is to aspire to a level of spirit-filled existence that so far too few have managed to sustain for more than fleeting moments: a disclaimer of self-interest in divine order and a freedom to be loved and to love in the disorder of life's experience to accept in faith God's unconditional love and faithfully to respond to it. It is a challenge; it is not easy. (GFLU, xi)
In a letter to The Tablet (11 August, 2001), Ian Loosely distinguishes between a "requirement" model of spirituality (stay the course, go to Mass, and God will love you) and a "surrender" model (there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less).
My own preference is to advocate an "acceptance" model of spirituality: accept that God loves us unconditionally and live accordingly. Awareness of being loved brings out the best in us.
Fr Anthony Campbell is a lecturer in Old Testament at the Jesuit