Wednesday, October 14, 2020




No one has seen God at any time . . . . How can he love God whom he has not seen?

                                                                        1 John 4: 12, 20b


. . .  – I love the word

“love” I want to wear it as

the human clothing, though I know that I do not

know what it means for someone to love . . . 

                               Sharon Olds, Aria Above Seattle




I.               WHAT IS AT STAKE?


Decades ago I confessed to a priest that I did not love God, though I wanted to do so. He tried to assure me that “All any of us can do is want to love God.” But I wasn’t convinced. This seemed important. After all, when Jesus was asked, What is the greatest commandment? he answered, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.[i] It is the core of Christianity. But what is riding on whether we love God or how much or how well? St. John’s community was anxious about it, as I was. That’s why John devoted considerable ink to the mystery of love in his first Epistle and Paul returned to the subject again and again, as in his famous hymn to love in First Corinthians.[ii]


The common, albeit vague, assumption is that God’s acceptance of us depends on such love. If we love God we are welcomed into paradise. If not, we are cast out, perhaps even to eternal torment. God is a celestial King Lear desperate for reassurance of his status in our eyes, conditioning us with carrots and sticks to compel the desired response. I start by rejecting that notion as portraying a God we might fear or pity but not worship. Christianity is a way of life, not a penal code. 


So what to make of this?  We are commanded in Holy Scripture to love God.[iii] In the two Hebrew Scripture iterations, the love is linked to behaviors, following God’s ways and keeping the covenant. In the synoptic Gospels, loving God is linked to love of neighbors. The love commandment is never linked to an or else threat. 


So what is the point of love? Buddhism describes the core human problem as the ego-illusion. We are trapped in our self-importance, which may be proud or ashamed or anxious or all of the above. Our life project is to secure the self. But the self is inherently insubstantial, a puff of wind, the Psalmist says.[iv] We keep changing, the circumstances around us are ever shifting. Donald Revell writes:


                        But how hotly change limits

            happiness; the small happiness of possession

            and the even smaller of self-possession.

            Imagine yourself transient among these houses

            and the uncontrolled reflection of hotel hours

            when no one in the hallway or next room

                depends on you.[v]        


Finally, after we navigate the vicissitudes of life, we are mortal. Anxious striving only greased the skids toward futility.[vi]


Life is, in fact, happening all around us all the time, but we miss it, miss the beauty and the wonder, the joy and the sorrow alike, because we are wearing blinders of self-concern. The abundance of life eludes us while we polish our resumes and manage our investments. Meanwhile, self-interest distorts our behavior so that we are unkind, unjust, inauthentic in our actions. Buddhists call the problem “ego illusion.” Classical Christianity called it “original sin.”[vii]


Having named ego as the problem, religions propose various exercises to escape it. But the contradiction is that intentional efforts to transcend ego tend to be egotistic. Who is enlightened? I am enlightened. Yay me! I have achieved the greatest good. Beat that! The Christian alternative is love. To love another is to lose the self, not for the sake of the self but forgetting the self and finding the self at the same time in the other. Jean Luc Marion argues beautifully in The Erotic Phenomenon that we have no being in the metaphysical sense – hence our experience of insecurity, illusoriness, insignificance, ephemerality, transience – but rather we are constituted by Love. We love therefore we are. 


And what shall we love? Popular music of our time says, Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”[viii]Since we have said along with Ecclesiastes, Socrates, Seneca, Paul, Augustine, and  most every serious thinker since Antiquity that yourself is a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more,[ix] love of self may not be enough. We would be playing an existentially weak hand. For millennia, Christians have held that the greatest love of all is to love God as God is the Source, Destiny, and Meaning of Reality, the ultimate Beauty, Truth, and Good. To love God would be to love not just everything but that which is beyond everything. Our love would not only be immanent in all things but would transcend them, carrying us beyond this plane of existence. It would be to fall into a bottomless pit of devotion and fly into a ceiling-less sky of adoration, to become, as John Wesley put it,  lost in wonder, love, and praise. 




Loving God is a tangled question. What does it mean to love? What do we mean by God? Is loving God akin to loving another person, a lover, a parent, a child, a friend? Or is it like loving a place, dancing, a sport, a poem, or a symphony? What is love? What is God?


We’ll look at several perspectives on both those words before we are done. But let’s offer a little clarification at the beginning. Love is not precisely a feeling. If it were, it could hardly be commanded since the best way to shut down an emotion is to demand that it be conjured. You cannot command it without destroying its authenticity as in King Lear. But love is not less than a feeling. It is like a feeling but deeper, a fundamental desire, as we shall see in Augustine. It may also include compassion (Unamuno), gratitude (Bernard), delight, wishing-well, valuing, admiring, and letting be. The Hebrew word in the Old Testament for our love of God was hesed connoting covenant love or faithfulness. Covenant love is behavior as distinguished from affection. The corresponding Greek word for love in the New Testament, agape, was rarely used outside the New Testament so the definition is uncertain; but it is traditionally understood as a spiritual love chiefly characterized by unconditionality. We do not love God because God is x or y or z, but simply because God is. Likewise we love others for their simple being rather than their loving us back or possessing attributes that please us.[x]


 We will not reduce love to a neat definition. My point at the beginning is to open the meaning of love to something more than a sentiment, either spontaneous or contrived. Pietism, revivalism, Pentecostalism, and other spiritual traditions have made feelings the core of religion but have differed as to which is the requisite feeling to have. I do not mean to denigrate any of these paths or the feelings they prescribe. But I do insist that these particular emotions are not what the Great Commandment is getting at. 


And what do we mean by God? Certainly we will not purport to define God. If God is that in which we live, and move, and have our being,[xi] God does not fit inside our skulls, certainly not inside our language. The dharma which can be spoken is not the dharma. Just so, as Soren Kierkegaard famously said, If you think you understand it, it is not God. To speak of a god is to speak of a superbeing, a higher power, or perhaps a metaphysical principle. But to speak of God is to say the largest possible word. To call God the All is the smallest possible definition, heretically small for Christians. As Anselm called God the Highest Good, God is also the truest Truth and the ultimate Beauty. As a measure of the enormity of God’s worth, I turn to Marilyn McCord Adams who said, in Horrendous Evils And The Goodness Of God, that God has to be enough to bestow a joy sufficient to make all the horrors of human experience worth it. Of course, the question cannot avoid the bold claim in John’s first Epistle, God is love[xii] meaning love is not something God does, it is not a quality or a characteristic, but it is God’s very essence. Love constitutes God as God.[xiii] So we will be asking what it might mean to love Love itself.


A final question runs through our reflections. No one has seen God, St. John the Evangelist tells us. No one may see me and live, God says in Exodus.[xiv] But God says to the Psalmist, Seek my face.[xv] And in Jeremiah, God says, You will seek me and find me.[xvi]  Jesus says in Matthew that the pure in heart will see God (but he does not say when).[xvii] In what sense can we find or see God, but first, where do we look for God? Where we look may have everything to do with what we find. And must we in some sense find God in order to love God? But what if loving is the only way of looking that will reveal God? Is the seeking itself perhaps an act of love?


It is crucial here to distinguish loving God from loving an image of God. Modern psychology does not claim special expertise in the nature of God; but it does have a few helpful things to say about our images of God, the way we see God in our mind’s eye. In The Future Of An Illusion, Sigmund Freud postulated that we all have an image of God embedded in our psyches. We might love, hate, or ignore it, believe in its reality or deny its objective existence – but subjectively,  it’s there. He went on to say that we create our God in the image of our father. God is our introjected father figure. 


Decades later, in The Birth Of The Living God, Anna Maria Rizzuto reported on actual clinical studies of people’s God images. She agreed with Freud that we all have God images; but she found that they were more complex than an introjected father. God images are composites of important people in our lives – known and unknown, real and imagined, dreaded or longed for.[xviii] These people are the raw materials from which we construct our God image, which – being that we have constructed it – is an idol.


            We have all seen our God image in our mind’s eye. We have imagined it. But what does it have to do with God? It depends. Our God image may be utterly different from the true God. Then it becomes a barrier to relationship with God. Some people who think they love God may not; while others who think they do not love God may love God after all To love our God image may be a step away from loving God but it can also be a step toward such love. A God image may be a shadow of the divine, not revealing God’s fullness but giving us what T. S. Eliot called hints and guesses.[xix] Paul said, Now we see as in a mirror, dimly; but then face to face.[xx] If we hold our God image humbly, without too much certainty, we may look through our God image, not just at it. Then it becomes an icon instead of an idol. 


            The Jesuit psychoanalyst, W. W. Meissner, said in Psychoanalysis And The Religious Experience that each of us has a unique personal God image which he calls subjective. Over against that subjective God image, there is an objective God image – objective in the sense that we do not individually make it up; rather it is sculpted by religion, art, literature, and cultural assumptions. These two God images, the subjective and the objective, are not the same. Their difference is apt to cause the believer some discomfort. But Meissner says that the tension between the two God images sparks creativity and growth. Perhaps, to find God it is helpful to pit these God images against each other and give some thought, perhaps even feeling, to where we put our trust. This is a way of seeking God.


                        We will look at several great voices of the faith as examples of different approaches to the love of God. But to make them examples, we will be over-simplifying them. They are all complex, no slaves to consistency. So whatever view I attribute to them, they have also written things quite inconsistent. The views I attribute to them will be their primary emphasis, not their exclusive position. 






Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made. I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.[xxi] (emphasis added)

            Augustine was a thinker of Late Antiquity. In a sense he breaks the mold, but not entirely. In another sense, he is decidedly a man of his time. Greco-Roman philosophy was profoundly introspective and world-denying. As much as Buddhists, the Stoics, Platonists, Neo-Platonists, even the Epicureans saw the world and its carnal delights as temptations leading us away from lasting truth and meaning. So, they turned away from the world to seek something more lasting, more trustworthy, and where did they look? They looked inside themselves. Pierre Hadot demonstrates this in some depth in The Inner Citadel and What Is Ancient Philosophy.  Paul followed them saying repeatedly we find God’s Spirit and Christ inside ourselves. He wrote It is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me.[xxii] St. John the Evangelist, even more influenced by Greek philosophy, attributed these words to Jesus in the 4thGospel, I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.[xxiii] Augustine’s introspection is in line with the thinking of late Antiquity including the New Testament.

            Augustine said in the previous quotation that looking at the Creation drew him away from God. Later in the Confessions, he was more explicit.

But what do I love when I love my God? . . . Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace. It is not these that I love when I love my God.

And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire. This is what I love when I love my God. (emphasis added)

Augustine sought God introspectively, deep inside himself. He looked deeper than the persona with which he was identified to what we might call a Core Self or Soul.  Augustine called it Beauty. Lady Julian of Norwich said that the Soul is inextricably one with Christ. Roberto Assagioli said that each of us has a Core Self or Soul and so does the Cosmos, and he went on to say that the two are one.[xxiv] This Core Self or Soul of the individual and of the Cosmos is invariable serene and compassionate, understanding and accepting. That is why Augustine says, I yearned for your peace. But the God-within isn’t just a super sedative. It is Beauty to be desired for its own sake, not for how it makes us feel.


            In this sense, Augustine was a philosopher of Late Antiquity, distancing from the outer world,[xxv] in order to seek the Truth inside himself. What is different in Augustine is that his love is not apathy, so valued by the Stoics. It is in fact a passion. There is feeling in it. But it is not feeling for an image so much as a longing for a personal mystery. Augustine’s God is a missing person, but one who sends love letters. 


            The God Augustine loves is shaped by the God Augustine seeks. He says, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee. Augustine is restless. He looks within himself and finds something missing. God is the missing piece and therefore mysterious, the deus absconditus, the hidden God. Paradoxically, Augustine’s love of God has a quality of longing for someone far away even though he is looking for God within himself. At the same time, he senses that God is longing for him, that God is not the one who has left. It is Augustine who has left God. His love is a kind of homesickness and a restlessness. His love is not a self-satisfied I’ve found it as evangelical bumper stickers used to proclaim. It is more of an I’ve lost it and yearn to find it again. It is love as a discontent and aspiration. This inner search for God, not as an answer but a question, not a Presence but a Poignant Absence, will live on in the Christian Tradition. In the 17th Century, Blaise Pascal would say, 


 What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but     that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable                    object; in other words by God himself.[xxvi]


And in the 20th Century, Rilke would write to a young poetNobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write . . . .[xxvii] In our own time, the endeavor called spirituality has largely returned to introspection in contrast to the active life of social engagement.


So where does Augustine seek God? Deep within himself, deeper than any persona or subpersonality. What does Augustine find? A mystery and an absence, a voice calling him but not someone he can embrace. How does Augustine love this God? By longing for him.




            Life is always a challenge, but it is one thing in a period of societal stability and another in a time of societal disintegration. Things were falling apart as Augustine was dying. He had become a conservative defender of the faith by then. He’d spent decades defending Catholic Christianity not so much from pagans as from his day’s version of fundamentalists.[xxviii] But, at the time of The Confessions and his earlier writings on the nature of God, things were more stable than at the end. To the extent there was trouble, the Empire had Augustine’s back. It was in that context that he practiced a rather Neo-Platonic Christianity, turning away from the world outside, looking inward for the Truth and the object of his devotion -- not himself as we might mean self, but what lay beneath himself. 


            While it is certainly questionable to generalize about centuries of diverse Christian thinkers, Hans Urs Von Balthasar sees a shift of emphasis in the Middle Ages. I submit that it starts with Boethius. Augustine died in 430 as the Western Empire was crumbling. By 523, that Empire was a faded memory and Theodoric the Great, an Ostogoth, held sway in Rome. The philosopher Boethius spent that year in prison awaiting trial and eventual execution on trumped up charges of treason. He spent his days on death row writing The Consolations of Philosophy, not specifically Christian but establishing a premise that would shape Medieval theology. Boethius, in line with Aristotle, argued that the goal of life is eudaimonia, happiness. But happiness is not attainable, at least not reliably so, on Earth because of the teachery of people and the fickleness of fate. Boethius then takes two decisive steps. First, he argues that happiness is available above, essentially turning his eyes upward. Second, he looks upward by using the rational arguments of Classical Greco-Roman philosophy. We find in Boethius no hungering, thirsting, burning for God as in Augustine. Rather we find a steady reason of the intellect that lifts Boethius up from his hopeless incarceration. This is a faith less of the heart and more of the frontal lobes.


            Medieval theology, of which St. Thomas Aquinas is the apex, sees God rather abstractly. God becomes the first mover of all motion, the non-contingent basis of all contingent things, the telos or destiny of reality, the Being of all beings. All Blessed Thomas said of God was quite “up there,” “lofty” – emphasizing Transcendence as is expressed in Medieval religious art.[xxix] Yet, Aquinas divorced theology from poetry, because, as Ann Carpenter summarizes him, Poetry lives by its use of images.  Aquinas reasoned that Sense and imagination know only the external accidents, but the intellect alone penetrates to the interior and knows the essence of a thing.[xxx] Aquinas may have sometimes overestimated the capacity of the intellect to know the essence of things, but he did not entirely overplay his hand. He believed that Reason merely set a trajectory, the arc of which had to be completed by Faith. But none of this makes God very intimately lovable. Medieval spirituality[xxxi] ran a parallel track in finding God up there, not all around us or within us, but because God had become so abstract, spirituality all the more earnestly engaged the question of love.


            The greatest spiritual writer of that era was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, author of On Loving God. The problem, Bernard says, is that we love ourselves, pure and simple, for the sake of ourselves. What Whitney Houston sings is the greatest love of all, Bernard equates with a prison, akin to the one in which Boethius languished as mortality loomed. The goal, Bernard said, is to progress step by step up the ladder of love. (We deal here with Bernard as the Western voice. In the East, St. John Climacus wrote The Ladder Of Divine Ascent. But he spoke less of love and more of detachment from the world and the perfecting of virtues. Both wrote principally for monks). Bernard counsels us to shift from loving self alone to make room for loving God a little for the things God has done for us rather as a child might love a benevolent grandparent for the gift of an ice cream cone. That is a long way from spiritual perfection in Bernard’s eyes, but it is a step in the right direction. Eventually, over time, Bernard says, our self-absorption fades and we come to love God for God’s own sake. The final stage is when we love ourselves again, but now we love ourselves for the sake of God, because we are God’s beloved children and we love whoever God loves because God loves them.


            So what is to love about God? It starts as simple gratitude, loving God for blessing us. Then it takes a subtle but vital shift to loving God for being who God is, the kind of deity who wants to bless us. But that shift is not simple. Bernard prescribes three sub-stages in our growth from loving God for our own sake to loving God for God’s sake.[xxxii]First, is contrition and penitence. For lay people, the sufferings of daily life were considered part and parcel, indeed the greater part, of that process. Monks fasted and undertook ordeals as their more intentional  penance. The point here is to know how low we are in contrast to how high God is. Second came praise and devotion to God. This is not an emotional pietism. It is rather the disciplined liturgies of the Church. For monks, it meant the Daily Office, the Eucharist, and contemplative reading of holy text. Laity had less time for liturgy and were mostly illiterate, so they spent more of their lives in the first stage of the journey. Monks were believed to be called to more advanced spiritual practice. This discipline may sound to us more like duty than love, but it is closer to Old Testament hesed, covenant faithfulness, than our more emotional notions of love. The point of Bernard’s discipline is to know the loftiness of God in contrast to our lowliness. The third and final stage is an outpouring of the healing mercy which we have received in compassion for others, both friends and enemies. Loving God through liturgy and holy reading eventually bears fruit as compassion for others.[xxxiii] Note that for Bernard, compassion for others is a fruit of prior love for God. That will change in the next stage of Christian history.


            Augustine saw the problem as our addiction to the carnal world, so we should withdraw from that world into the self and love God as our own mysterious core. Bernard saw the problem as love of self which must be overcome by turning our eyes gradually away from self and upward to God. We can understand Bernard better by looking at him through the lens of those who reject him. Albrecht Durer’s self-impressed self-portrait is a visual expression of I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul. [xxxiv] Bernard does not believe in self-made people. Our very being is a gift for which the proper response isn’t look at me but thank you. Bernard does invite us to look outward to our lives and nature, but only to find blessings as a transitional step -- not as revelations of God per se but as signs of God’s beneficence toward us. By and large, Medieval thought was not so inclined to find God in nature or earthly life. Understandably not. It was often a hard time. Governments were unstable and fought wars. Each Lord’s vassals were his standing army to fight the vassals of the Lord next door. There was famine, economic upheaval, poverty, plague, filth, subjugation to those higher up the feudal chain who could exploit their underlings outrageously, and little defense against lawlessness. Is it any wonder people who longed for happiness looked upward to God above and hoped for peace in the sweet by and by?


            So where does Bernard (influenced by Boethius and the medieval theological tradition that will eventually produce Thomas Aquinas) look for God? Upward to the Transcendent. Above ourselves and this sometimes sordid, at best unreliable, world. What does he find? A beneficent fountain of blessing (who blesses us not just with specific gifts but fundamentally, as Aquinas would later argue, by being the first mover, the noncontingent base of our contingent being, the destiny of our spiritual journey, the eternal Being of our brief and fragile being)[xxxv]. And how do we love God? Not emotionally, but by gratefully acknowledging the gifts we have received and striving to grow ritually and through holy reading.            




The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible

Of that eternal language, which thy God 

Utters, who from eternity doth teach 

Himself in all, and all things in himself. 

                  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost At Midnight


                        Love is what is most terrible and tragic in all the world . . . . (I)t is necessary to love something in order to know it, and this means to know something it is necessary to have compassion towards it. It is necessary, in some way or other, to suffer with it. 

                            Miguel de Unamuno, Treatise on Love of God


            Another shift of emphasis happened beginning in the Renaissance, picking up speed in the 18th and 19th Century, then taking off like a rocket in the bloody 20th. Perhaps it had to do with science, politics of empire, economics. For whatever reason, religious thinkers lowered their gaze from the heavenly Transcendent to the earthly Immanent embodiment and expression of God. For contrast, consider that in the Middle Ages, ordinary life in the world and outside the cloister was regarded as punishment for sin. Satan did not have a visual image before that era. But Medieval artists began to portray Satan as the pagan God Pan, who had not been evil in paganism, just a lusty gadabout, the god particularly of nature, but that is nature broadly speaking. Pan means All. Pan was the god of the ordinary and the earthly. Augustine was the first to loosely associate Satan with Pan, but it was in the Middle Ages that Pan became the personification of Evil. Pantheism, the idea of Pan as God or God as Pan was clearly highly problematic.  

            But by the early 19th Century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, not just a father of Romantic poetry but a leading theologian of his day, would speak of God in all, and all things in (God).

How the shift happened had to do with Newton’s discovery of laws of physics, Deism elevating nature over revelation, and Christians responding by claiming nature for themselves as a companion and support for Scripture; but that is a tangent. What matters for our purpose is that we shifted from seeing nature, not just birds and brooks but all of ordinary life, not as evil or as a punishment for sin but as a manifestation of God -- not a gift from God as in Bernard, but a gift of God’s own Self immanent in all things. Pantheism or Panentheism ceased to be bad words. Pan was no longer equated with Satan but with Christ. We sought God in the ordinary and aspired to love God for the goodness, beauty, and mystery we meet in life. Eventually, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hans Werner Schroeder,  Fritzjof Capra, and Rudolf Steiner would speak of the Cosmic Christ. 


            Certainly theologians such as Coleridge and Bishop Joseph Butler argued for natural revelation.[xxxvi] But as monks like Bernard were the best voice of Medieval faith, poets were the best voice of Modern faith. In Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (note that nature is now a few miles above the ruins of a monastery, and we are reading the words of a poet instead of a monk), Wordsworth wrote:


                                                    For I have learned

                            To look on nature . . . .

                                                                —And I have felt

                            A presence that disturbs me with the joy

                            Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

                            Of something far more deeply interfused,

                            Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

                            And the round ocean and the living air,

                            And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

                            A motion and a spirit, that impels

                            All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

                            And rolls through all things(emphasis added)


    For the Romantics loving God meant primarily the joy of elevated thoughts sparked by attention to all things. Such thoughts might be sparked by nature or by the simplicity of pastoral life. The squalor of industrial urban life had not yet become a factor. When ordinary life became less attractive for so many people in coming years, Victorians like Dickens would change love again, this time from the joy of elevated thoughts to compassion for oppressed humans, especially poor children who represented the Christ child. Christianity took a humanistic turn made explicit in a short transparent poem by Leigh Hunt,  Abou Ben Adhem.


                     Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
                     Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
                     And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
                     Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
                     An angel writing in a book of gold:— 
                     Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
                     And to the Presence in the room he said
                     "What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
                      And with a look made of all sweet accord,
                      Answered "The names of those who love the Lord."
                      "And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
                       Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
                       But cheerly still, and said "I pray thee, then,
                       Write me as one that loves his fellow men."

                        The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
                        It came again with a great wakening light,
                       And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
                       And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.


We sought God horizontally, not vertically as we had in the Middle Ages. But such a horizontal religiosity was not as satisfying as it had been at first with its joy of elevated thoughts. Even at the height of Romanticism, it wasn’t all joy. Over a century before Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Bishop Butler’s Analogy Of Religion pointed out the harshness of nature. Thomas Gray named the regret of nature’s random failures.  

                            Full many a gem of purest ray serene, 

                                   The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear: 

                            Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen, 

                                   And waste its sweetness on the desert air.[xxxvii] 


Even then, nature, botanic and human, could be unfair and a source of sorrow. As history proceeded, we were sliding toward the cultural cataclysm of World War I -- a catastrophe that would lead to World War II, the holocaust, and Hiroshima -- but shortly before we went over that cliff, the Spanish theologian Miguel de Unamuno proposed a religious embrace of tragedy. Even before he wrote his classic, The Tragic Sense of Life, he was the bridge from Victorian faith to existentialism and gave us a serious new way to think of what it means to love God in his Treatise On Love Of God (usually called The Tracta)


            Unamuno dismissed the Transcendent abstract God of Medieval Christianity precisely because one cannot love -- as he understood love -- such an abstraction. It is too removed from us, too alien to our experience. We have nothing in common. Like the Romantics and Victorians, Unamuno looked for God out there in the world. He described God as the personalization of the All. He is the eternal and infinite Consciousness of the Universe, Consciousness imprisoned in matter and struggling to disengage himself from it.[xxxviii] A thread of Classical contempt for matter yet remains, but still the material world is, for now, the dwelling place of God, albeit not so much a Temple as a holding cell. 


            How then does Unamuno believe we can know and love God? He reverses Bernard’s assumptions about the sequence, saying we can truly know only what we have first loved. For Unamuno, love is compassion. 


I have said it is necessary to love in order to know, and this means in order to love something, it is necessary to feel compassion for it, to suffer along with it.[xxxix]


Is there an echo here of the line that recurred in most of the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles: I have suffered into truth? Yes and, more interestingly, no. The classic tragic hero discovers the truth of the insubstantiality of worldly values through his own disaster. Unamuno agrees that disaster is ubiquitous, but we cannot discover the truth of its ubiquity until we love, feel compassion for, all who suffer, not just ourselves. But how far does compassion extend? Only as far as suffering.


            Neither the Classical nor the Medieval God suffered and so could never evoke or receive compassion. When some of the early Christians had argued that the Father suffered empathetically with the Son on the cross, they were condemned for the heresy of patripassionism. Divine apatheia was a core doctrine of the faith. Remember apathy, which we moderns would regard as sociopathic vice, was in Antiquity a virtue, the equivalent of enlightenment or at least wisdom. While much modern theology recognizes some value in the Patristic view of divine apathy, it has given way to a prevailing sense of divine passibility.[xl] The chief contemporary voice proclaiming a suffering God is Jurgen Moltmann in The Trinity And The Kingdom Of God and The Crucified God. But it all goes back to 1906 and Unamuno’s Tracta. If Durer’s self-portrait was a repudiation of Bernard’s spirituality of love leading us past self-absorption, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica would be the artistic amen to Unamuno’s love as compassion. Since the Immanent God suffers all that the world suffers, we feel compassion for God’s pain which is greater than the pain of any individual. We feel compassion for God as God feels compassion for us. We meet God in Jesus at Calvary. Unamuno reverses Bernard’s sequence of compassion. For Bernard, love of God flowered in compassion for our fellow humans; for Unamuno, compassion for our fellow humans flowers in love for God.


             In fairness to the Middle Ages, Unamuno did have a medieval precursor. Peter Abelard had offered a subjective or moral influence theory of atonement, in which Christ on the Cross expressed God’s suffering love for us and evoked our love (perhaps a mix of Bernard’s gratitude and Unamuno’s compassion) in return. Abelard’s atonement doctrine was set over against his contemporary St. Anselm’s doctrine of satisfaction for the debt of sin which was an afront to the Transcendent God’s honor. Anselm was decidedly the voice of his era while Abelard prophesied from outside the gate. 


            For Unamuno, life is essentially tragic, and God suffers it with us. God’s compassion for us and our compassion for God suffering in and with all creation, redeems us even from death because compassion is endless. He rejects Boethius’s and Aristotle’s premise that the goal of life is happiness as he holds that happiness anesthetizes us. Our life’s project is consciousness and the way into consciousness is our own suffering, extended to care for others, and finally  exalted beyond death by our compassion for divine suffering. 


            So where does Unamuno look for God? Outward, in the world. What does he find? A fellow sufferer who understands,[xli]someone who is as afflicted as we are and who cares for our pain. What is it to love such a God? It is a matter of compassion. The ultimate experience of compassion is to hurt with and for God qua God, but it is authentic and salvific to be compassionate for anyone and anything in creation that suffers, as God is suffering in it. Abou Ben Adhem. But there is also in Modernity the sense of God as order and beauty in nature; so that to enjoy the world is to enjoy God. 




                               And we are put on earth a little space,

                                That we may learn to bear the beams of love . . . .

                                                                            William Blake



            The Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, looking at theology more broadly than our question of love, has said there are three stages of Christian teaching: Patristic (Classical), Medieval, and Modern. He argues most vehemently against the failings of Modernism because it is the strongest voice today, his most stubborn interlocutor; but he holds that all three stages have something to offer and all three are missing something. The failure of Modernism is, in capsule summary, the collapse of the Transcendent, a loss of the vision of a higher, holier state to which we are called and for which we are destined. The failure of the Medieval is the collapse of the personal, the human. It was, as the saying goes, too heavenly minded to be much good on earth. He finds in Dante the best synthesis of the two. But, though Von Balthasar might not be pleased,[xlii] I want to include the voice of contemporary phenomenological philosopher Jean-Luc Marion to round out his read on Dante. Together Marion and Dante may help us learn something of the possibility of loving God whom we have not seen.


            The problem with phenomenologists from the beginning, Husserl, Heidegger, even Stein, is that they speak oddly. They use an intimidating and inaccessible vocabulary. But the basic point is simply stated by Joni Mitchel in Both Sides Now. 


                        I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

                        From up and down and still somehow

                        It’s clouds’ illusions I recall

                        I really don’t know clouds at all.


Phenomenologists recognize that we cannot know things as they are in themselves (noumena). We know only our perceptions of them (phenomena). This makes the way we look at things all important. We are not so much perceiving as creating. Buddhism holds that our perception of reality is illusory and so prescribes dismissing it. Phenomenology says our reality is subjective and invites us to shape it creatively. 


            Jean-Luc Marion, in his classic, The Erotic Phenomenon, denies that we and our world are constituted by a metaphysical principle of Being. Rather all things arise from Love. The Lover loves them and so they come to exist as beloved. In Rilke’s poem The Gods Loved An Animal That Did Not Exist, the unicorn comes into being by virtue of having first been loved in the divine imagination. Or one may think of  Lady Julian’s vision of the hazelnut in which she asked God what the nut was. God replied that it was the entire cosmos. Noting its frailty, its insubstantiality, she said, it is so frail, and asked, what holds it in existence, what keeps it from falling into nothing. God answered, It exists because I love it.[xliii] Or we may think of Blake’s The Little Black Boy.


                            Look on the rising sun: there God does live 

                            And gives his light, and gives his heat away. 

                            And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive

                            Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.


                            And we are put on earth a little space,

                            That we may learn to bear the beams of love . . . .


            But what about the Lover? Where did the Lover come from? The Lover arises, not from a prior metaphysical Being, but from the act of loving. It is the decision to love that constitutes the Lover at the same moment it constitutes the beloved. No prior Being decides to love. Love comes first. This strains the mind because we think in sentences with nouns as subjects and verbs as predicates. But when it comes to God, the subject of our sentence is a gerund, Loving. Without saying the word God, Marion presents the most radical interpretation of God is love of any Christian thinker – though Augustine’s explanation of the Trinity as Lover, Beloved, and Love is a close second. 


            Despite his use of the world erotic, which connotes romantic desire, what Marion means by love is decidedly agape. Marion insists that the Love which generates everything is unconditional. It does not depend on the beloved having pleasing traits – the beloved does not even exist yet; it has no traits before it is loved; and – here’s the main point – this procreative love does not depend on the beloved reciprocating. That would reduce the Lover to a Needer or a Deal Offeror.


            In The Erotic Phenomenon, the philosopher, Marion, does not spell out the theological implications. But I will make bold to draw a couple of points. First, if God is Love, then God’s love and acceptance of us does not depend on our traits. He causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the good and the evil alike.[xliv]  Second, because love is unconditional, the commandment to love God is not a condition for our acceptance. The Great Commandment is not a grading rubric and life is not a pass/fail test. The Great Commandment is an invitation to the fullness of life. It invites us, the beloved, to become the Lover, which is to become like God, to know the fullness of joy and consciousness that comes only through loving. The Old Testament Hebrew for know, particularly to know God, is yadah, not a term of intellectual comprehension, but of personal intimacy – it is not to know that God exists or to know something about God – it is to know God.


            But what are we to love? We cannot love things in themselves, certainly not God, for their intrinsic qualities because they are unknowable. We know only phenomena, the images of others in our minds. But Marion goes on to say that phenomena, at least the most important phenomena, are saturated – by which he means they contain more meaning, more value, more truth, more beauty, more goodness than we can comprehend. We love the person, for example, to the extent we have grasped them, understood them, formed an image of them in our hearts and minds, but we might also love the mystery of the person that always eludes us. They are like a poem, a painting, a piece of music that we appreciate but we know we are not getting all that is there and we want to appreciate more, we are drawn toward it, long for it, but we know we’ll never get it all. Love is falling into a well of mystery.


            In this sense that there is more to what we love than what we can comprehend or even apprehend, Marion has a Romantic forebear in John Keats. Though Keats admired Wordsworth and Coleridge, he wanted to reach beyond their appreciation of the sensible world to something invisible, inaudible, incomprehensible. In his Ode On A Grecian Urn, a hymn to unconsummated love,[xlv] he said,


                Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

                             Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

                Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

                             Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone . . . .


                Is the mystery, the unheard music, beyond the phenomenon simply the noumenon, the thing itself? Marion is suggesting that there is more. The phenomenon which is immanent and sensible is our doorway to the Eternal which is Love. Entering that doorway requires a particular way of seeing.


                There is a paradox between phenomenological imagination and Zen seeing. On one hand, we cannot know things in themselves (noumena) but only our perceptions of them (phenomena). But there is a mysterious reality out there being perceived from our limited perspective. Phenomenology is not a license for subjectivity, thinking we can believe in whatever suits us. Reality is quite resistant to our attempts to dominate it. Things are stubbornly as they are even though --  and especially when -- we try to perceive them out of our own ego needs. 


                Zen seeing in science, art, poetry, or as a spiritual discipline sits back and looks – letting things be as they are, willingly submitting to their independent reality. This is the humility of saying Thou as Martin Buber described it in I And Thou, by which he meant to honor the other as other, not as an It, something that is there for my purposes. Buber said the I came into itself as through the humility and generosity of saying Thou. By way of contrast, Von Balthasar’s chief criticism of Rilke is that Rilke desires an intransitive love without a Thou.[xlvi] Applied to Marion’s phenomenology of love, I suggest this means that loving begins with looking, paying attention, humble attention, just looking at the other without an ego agenda.[xlvii] We perceive the other with the humility of knowing that we do not know the other, and with an appreciative awareness that there is a penumbra of mystery beyond our perception. Looking in this way liberates us to exist as Lover instead of User.


                God’s first act of love in Scripture is the creation of the cosmos. Theologians have taught us that God was love before the cosmos began and Marion affirms that truth. But our perception of divine love begins with God’s act of creation. Notice how Genesis describes each act of creation. God does not command, Light shine. God says, Let there belight. God speaks permissively, allowing something to be rather than compelling it. This is what Simone Weill means by calling creation an act of abdication. God makes room for that which is not God. For each part of creation, God says, Let there be . . . . Then whatever comes to be comes to be itself, and God says, It is good. God blesses it for being what it is. To love as God loves is first to let the other be itself, including being other than ourselves, other than we might have it to be; and second, to bless it, to affirm its being what it is. How can we do that when its characteristics do not please us? I will turn to an odd authority, Epicurus, who taught us to appreciate the being of things, the simple being. If God can make room for that which is not God, we may practice the humility of allowing others to be other than ourselves, other than we would have them be; and, in that allowing, find the blessing of living in a diverse and fascinating world occupied by real beings, even people, instead of puppets. Goethe wrote:


                            In being, let yourself be blessed!

                            Being is eternal: for laws

                            perpetuate the treasures of living things

                            in which the All adorned itself.[xlviii]


                This loving act is a kind of xenia, a hospitable seeing. Still we perceive a phenomenon, but we see it generously, appreciatively, curiously without an ego agenda. We see the protagonist of its own play, not a supporting character in our story.


                What does this have to do with loving God? The Incarnation is not a pantheism in which we deify the world. But it is a faith that God as Christ is present in all we encounter, in the noumena beyond the phenomena. For Gerard Manley Hopkins that meant, as Carpenter puts it, (A)ll things ontically possess sympathy for one another: things are expressive and responsive to expression . . . . What Hopkins loves about the wildness of the world in its beautiful uniqueness becomes a way of admiring the wildness and uniqueness of God.[xlix]  There is in our every encounter with the world an encounter with God revealed and concealed and happening in us to the extent we let the world be itself.


            And this brings us to Dante – at least as Von Balthasar understands him – the synthesis of scholasticism (medieval metaphysical theology) and mysticism; of Antiquity and Christianity.[l] In contrast to Rilke’s sense of love as tragic and terrifying, Von Balthasar says, 


For Rilke’s every doubt that love is possible without destroying the lover and the beloved, Dante bears the unwavering conviction that love redeems what is personal as well as what is universal.[li]


In The Divine Comedy, Dante, lost in a dark wood, was not Augustine consciously longing for God. Dante traversed Hell and Purgatory, implicitly looking for something, perhaps trying to learn right from wrong, but he was not consciously in love with God. He was decidedly in love with his love object from La Vita Nuova, Beatrice Portinari, who had died at the age of 25 after having been loved by Dante pure and chaste from afar for years. Upon traversing Hell and Purgatory, at the threshold of Paradise, it is Beatrice whom Dante meets and who demands his confession of having abandoned hope. It is then Beatrice who guides Dante into Heaven where he receives the beatific vision. Von Balthasar sees the message here as personal love being the path to loving God. 

 (T)he principle is established for the first time . . . for the sake of infinite love it is not necessary to renounce finite love. On the contrary, in a positive spirit, he can incorporate his finite love into that which is infinite but at the cost of terrible suffering . . . .[lii]

When Dante meets Beatrice, she is veiled. After he confesses his sin of despair, the angels plead with Beatrice to unveil her face.


                        By your grace do us the grace of unveiling

                        your mouth, (that) he may behold in you

                        the further beauty that you hide.[liii]



Dante loves the woman Beatrice, but she is more than herself, more than Beatrice, more than a woman. She is Marion’s saturated phenomenon. Likewise Dante is more than a man. Carpenter says, Dante and Beatrice are themselves and yet more than themselves . . . .[liv] That’s why their encounter is so charged. Each individual is indeed a unique individual, but each exudes or rather resides within a penumbra of the universal. Each is the image of God. 


            Despite Von Balthasar’s profound admiration for Dante, he does find a central point missing, the Cross. In The Divine Comedy, Dante suffers Hell and Purgatory to reach Paradise where Christ dwells, transcendently beautiful. Dante’s Hell is the absence of God’s Love. He has forgotten Jesus’ descent into hell to harrow it with his love. Von Balthasar insists, I would say with Unamuno, that God’s love descends to the depths of suffering with us.[lv] For Dante, we suffer into the truth of Transcendent Beauty; but Unamuno and Von Balthasar insist God suffers with us, meets us on the road.


            So where do Keats, Marion, and Dante look for God? Out there, but they do not look at what they see, they look through it. What kind of God do they find? A God who is at once revealed and concealed by the world and people. We see, a God who is as personal as a friend, a lover, a parent, a child, a brother, a sister – as sensible as a stone, a flower, a symphony. One thinks of Thomas Wolfe’s immortal word from Look Homeward Angel


 stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.


We encounter the stone, the leaf, but the door is unfound and the faces are forgotten. We love the stone and the leaf which we can sense and enjoy, but our love extends beyond them to the door which is unfound and so we long for it as the way through our exile, out of our exile, to an encounter with the forgotten face of our Beatrice. 


            How do Keats, Marion, and Dante love God? Through savoring things we sensibly experience, but with an awareness that they are a transitory foretaste[lvi] of an eternal Beauty. We long for that Beauty, desire it, need it as Augustine did. But for Marion particularly (and implicitly for Keats and Dante), it is to want that Beauty to exist and to wish it well as we want our foretastes to exist and we wish them well. 


IV.            A PERSONAL NOTE


            As much as I am loath to show Freud right about this, and as much as it surprises this old man who for decades has borne the guilt of having failed to respect his father enough, I may be admitting to have introjected a bit of Jewell Sumpter Edwards into my God image. At a minimum, he showed me something about love and do we not say God is love?


            My father was not a demonstrative man. Such was not the way of our family. I do not recall him saying he loved me or showing anything recognizable as affection in my youth and childhood. But from the time I was a pre-teen until I left for college, every Sunday morning, he shined my shoes. Then whenever I came home for visits, even as a middle aged man with my own children, my father shined my shoes. 


            Perhaps it was his sense of impending death. Perhaps it was a stroke that disabled just slightly the brakes on his emotional expression; but toward the end of his life, my father said he loved me. I am as constrained in my ability to express affection as he was. So I wasn’t at all capable of dealing with his declaration. I said I knew and that I loved him too. That’s what you say. But I really couldn’t take it in and I didn’t really know how to respond from my heart. When I remember it today, I am still not at ease with his words, though I do not doubt for a moment their sincerity. But when I remember him shining my shoes, that brings the tears. 


            Stepping back to the safer place of intellectual interpretation, what does all that say? I don’t know. Perhaps our emotional restraint had something of the hiddenness of God in it. Perhaps it preserved something of the Beauty kept behind the veil. But the shining of the shoes means a world more than shiny shoes and hands smeared with shoe polish. 




            How then shall we undertake to love God? We have seen that God has been loved in different ways at different times by different people. From Scripture we have seen love as faithfulness, as keeping one’s vows, chiefly by dealing justly with others. And we have seen love as an unconditional hospitality to the world our Creator sets at the threshold of our perception. 


            Sometimes the world leaves us lonely, lost, fragile. We feel like the Psalmist in Psalm 39, everyone is but a puff of wind. Then like Augustine and Pascal, we turn within and find an open space in which something longs for us as we long for it. We do not know so much as wish and wonder. This is a kind of loving.


            Or we may experience a flash of gratitude. It may be a little gratitude for a sunny day, a good meal, fellowship over a drink with a friend. Or it may occur to us to be grateful that we exist, that anything exists, that there is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Then like Bernard, we take half a step outside ourselves to thank the Being of all beings, our Source, our Destiny, our Meaning.


            Or we may engage the world around us, perhaps as the awesome Iguazu Falls in Brazil and see God’s glory suggested in Creation and lose ourselves in a kind of adoration. Or we may look about us and find genocide, famine, wildfires, disease, poverty, domestic abuse, and socio-political oppression. And our hearts may be stirred to compassion for those who suffer. If, as Unamuno and Moltmann argue, God is present in those suffering, then that is already a compassion for God. If we accept their teaching, then we know God’s suffering in the entire cosmos is beyond the reach of our imaginations, and we may feel compassion for the Suffering God we see on the Cross each day.


            Or we may love another person not only for himself or herself as we see and understand them, but also for the mystery that surrounds them, for the greater part of them we cannot know. Suppose we cannot find God but we love our child or spouse or the one that got away as Dante loved Beatrice and Keats loved Fanny. If we limit our love to the person as we know them, we have curtailed our love and diminished our beloved. But if we preserve a sense of wonder at the unknown in them, then is that not a way of loving God?


            There is a kind of love so fundamental that we are apt not to recognize it as love, but everything depends on it. One might call it agape looking or Zen seeing. Donald Revell calls it “the poet’s eye.”[lvii] We look at the other without an agenda, without asking how the other suits our needs, without evaluating them according to culturally prescribed criteria. We just see them as they are – except we know from both phenomenology and Buddhism that we can’t see them as they are. But we can only look toward them in seeking mode. We seek them as they are – not as we would prefer. That letting be, as God lets the cosmos be, is an act of fundamental respect and well-wishing. It is Love 101. And if we accept Christian teaching that each person is made in the image of God, then whenever we let another just be who they are, we are seeking God’s face. We seek God’s face humbly, knowing we are apt to be surprised again and again. 


            We all have a God image in our minds and we will react to that image in various ways. That image may help us love God, especially if we hold it in tension with the objective God images offered us by the teachings of the faith tradition. A God image is a saturated phenomenon suggesting God but not containing God. It is what the Zen adage would call a finger pointing to the moon – not the moon itself. To struggle with, even against, our God image is a seeking and that act of seeking is a loving. 


            Ours is a skeptical age. We might rebel against that skepticism with an intentionally and unabashedly naïve belief. That is not all bad. It has sparks of both courage and humility in it. What if we were rebels like Camus, except instead of rebelling against the meaninglessness of everything, we rebelled against the cultural conviction that everything is meaningless. Suppose we rebelled by taking Soren Kierkegaard’s  leap of faith. Might such a rebellion be a kind of love?


            In lieu of skepticism or reducing love to the sensible, we might adopt a posture of humility and wonder, hoping, desiring the Loving Beauty, the Beautiful Love, implicit in the world but infinitely beyond it. And in our humility, we might shine someone’s shoes, each in our own way, perhaps by performing surgery, fixing brakes, writing a brief, mowing a lawn, or cooking a meal, or just listening as they tell us a joke or a story or a memory. Karl Rahner said Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable word of God.[lviii] It behooves us to listen to one another. 


  I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money.                                           His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.[lix]


       To shine anyone’s shoes, to befriend them in any way, is to respond lovingly to a word of God. Christians see such a gesture as an engagement with Jesus who taught wisdom, employed non-violence to resist oppression, told jokes, wept and suffered as we all suffer. Our responses to the world are our responses to Jesus.


            And what of our love of self? The danger of a twisted Medieval Christianity is self-loathing, which does not liberate us from self. It ties us all the more tightly to self, only with negative chords of judgment. Augustine and Lady Julian show us the opportunity of Christianity is to love a deeper self, the Core Self, the Soul, and to love of all of our self from out of that Core, the Soul, which Lady Julian said is inextricably bound to Christ, and Roberto Assagioli said is inextricably linked to the Soul of the Cosmos. Like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf we each contain many parts, subpersonalities, little selves. Usually we are aware only of them and they are often at odds with one another. But it is possible to look deeper to find the inner Christ, who loves and accepts the rest of us. That Core Self, that Soul, calms and reconciles the rest of us so that our scattered and conflicted personas become integrated into a coherent whole, to achieve what Goethe first called a gestalt. The word Jesus used for salvation was a medical term, not a judicial one. It did not mean pardoned for our crimes or to have one’s sentence commuted. It meant to be made whole. We can be made whole through the love of our Soul for all the random parts of ourselves. Love of our Core Self can be the key to love of God since our Core Self is in God’s image.


            But even if our Core Self crafts some wholeness out of our humanity, that humanity is still mortal, fallible, and unreliable, a puff of wind.[lx] This brings us back to Augustine’s and Pascal’s sense of a hole in our hearts longing for what is beyond our kin; or perhaps to Schleiermacher’s feeling of dependency on God. This is not a sentimental affection. The vicissitudes of life are mostly beyond our control and throw our wellbeing into the hands of a God we cannot see. Such love is a trusting because what else can we do?


            Love can be compassion, delight, gratitude, longing, trusting, wonder. Do we not all experience these things? Some experience more of one than the other. But I do not believe God requires of us a love foreign to our own personal nature which God has formed or at least permitted. As we are each a unique, irreplaceable word of God, we are each a unique, irreplaceable word to God. We each love in our own ways and that is part of the wonder of the Love that is in us, beneath us, above us, around us, and beyond us. 


            I close with a word of assurance and a word of challenge. The assurance is this: Like Lady Julian’s hazelnut we exist because God loves us. We are already filled with God’s love, so loving God is not an option or a decision. It is our breath. We all love God, whether we know it or not, whether we even believe in God or not. The challenge is that our love, like Dante’s, is never consummated in this life, never complete. It is a foretaste of the Infinite. It is not only our love. It is a love letter from God.                                                 

[i] Matthew 22:38

[ii] 1 Corinthians 13

[iii] Deuteronomy 10: 12; Joshua 22: 5; Matthew 22: 37; Mark 12: 30; Luke 10: 27. We will save the more complex treatment of love in John for its own section. 

[iv] Psalm 39 v. 12.

[v] Donald Revell, “Plentitude” in Beautiful Shirt, p. 27.

[vi] Christianity often places mortality at the heart of the problem. What we fear most, they say,  is oblivion. See, e.g., Miguel de Unamuno, Treatise On Love of God, p 66. “Religion is the yearning not to die and is faith in immortality.” But a broader reading shows that death is the capstone atop a pillar of futility poetically lamented in Ecclesiastes. Scripture refers repeatedly to the problem of futility. Job 7 3; Psalm 78: 3; Psalm 89: 47; Ephesians 4: 17; Romans 8: 20; Isaiah 49: 4, etc. Salvation is not from death alone but from futility. That salvation comes from dying to the futile self in order to live in Christ. Galatians 2: 20; Ephesians 4: 22-24; Philippians 3:8. 

[vii] The common assumption that original sin has to do with sex is not without foundation. The first Christian theologians wrote in a Greco-Roman philosophical milieu that regarded the material world as fallen and inferior to spirit. But if one reads Augustine carefully, his notion of original sin, though mixed up with carnality, is fundamentally about pride, self-absorption. In St. Bernard of Clairvaux we will see that is even more clearly the case. The human predicament is imprisonment in an unsatisfactory self. 

[ix] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5 ll 17-28.

[x] This notion of agape is notably similar to the Epicurean notion of pleasure in simple being. 

[xi] Acts 17: 28

[xii] I John 4: 8

[xiii] To this must be added the seven “I Am” statements of John’s Gospel, since “I Am” is the name of God, so all the “I am statements” in the 4th Gospel tell us critical truths about God.  ‘I am the bread of life.” “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the gate.” “I am the vine.” Our seven metaphors from the Gospel are brought to clarity in the direct “God is Love” statement in the Epistle. So these seven metaphors tell us things about Love. “Love is the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the good shepherd, the gate, etc.” So this tells us something about the object of our love but also something about our own love. Interestingly, since the 16thCentury, God has most commonly been understood as having his Godness constituted by Power. The New Testament speaks of God investing power in us, but certainly does not make his divinity rest on Power.

[xiv] Exodus 33: 20

[xv] Psalm 27: 11

[xvi] Jeremiah 29: 13

[xvii] Matthew 5: 8

[xviii] Belief in such god images may be the result of certain capacities for interpreting complex patterns in situations. This is called implicit pattern learning. Belief in God is also thought to be hardwired into us neurologically. These explanations paint belief in a favorable light in terms of it being healthy but say nothing about whether the beliefs are true.

[xix] The Four Quartets

[xx] 1 Corinthians 13: 12

[xxi] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, Book 1

[xxii] Galatians 2: 20. See also Romans 8: 9-11;  

[xxiii] John 14: 20.

[xxiv] Roberto Assagioli, Psychosynthesis.

[xxv] But Augustine does insist with Jesus and I John that love of God includes love of the neighbor. It is as if the spirituality of detachment from the world produced a morality of service to it. Odd as that may seem, Stoicism followed the same pattern – detach from the world because nothing matters but morality which consists of serving the common good (world).

[xxvi] Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

[xxvii] Rene Maria Rilke, Letters To A Young Poet

[xxviii] Domitians who insisted on a perfect purity of the clergy and their lineage as essential to the efficacy of the sacraments; then Pelagians who held that free will made human perfection possible, and since it was possible, it was required for salvation. Augustine’s North Africa has been called the Bible belt of the Roman Empire.

[xxix] I am of course generalizing. There were exceptions. Meister John Eckhart thought of himself as a Thomist but also looked for God within as Augustine did, saying God is nearer to you than you are to yourself. But then Eckhart was also condemned posthumously as a heretic. We will see that Peter Abelard was also an exception to the Medieval norms, but he too was pushed to the margins.

[xxx] Anne M. Carpenter, Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs Von Balthasar And The Risk Of Art And Being, p. 143.

[xxxi] I am using the common terms for convenience. We might speak more accurately of systematic theology (which was metaphysical then) and ascetic theology (which was monastic, liturgical, and intellectual).

[xxxii] The stages correspond to the holy fragrances from the beath of the bride and the bridegroom in the Song of Solomon read allegorically. 

[xxxiii] That did not extend to the Muslim “infidels” who ruled Jerusalem. Bernard was the chief drum beater for the first Crusade. Nor did it extend to Professor Peter Abelard who disagreed with Bernard on some theological points. Bernard was rather obsessed with silencing Abelard. 

[xxxiv] William Ernest Henley, Invictus

[xxxv] I am using language here that would be from Aquinas, not Bernard. Bernard was dead in his grave before Aquinas was born. But I am suggesting the Lofty Benefactor of Bernard’s prayers becomes the Metaphysical Foundation in Aquinas’s theological tomes. They are of a piece.

[xxxvi] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Confessions Of An Inquiring Spirit; Joseph Butler, Analogy Of Religion, Natural And Revealed.

[xxxvii] Thomas Gray, Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard.

[xxxviii] Unamuno, Treatise On Love Of God, p. 11.

[xxxix] Ibidp. 10. 

[xli] Alfred North Whitehead, Process And Reality

[xlii] Von Balthasar’s project is to restore medieval metaphysics of Being and Phenomenology is decidedly not in favor of that part of his project. Still I think there is a harmony between them neither side has acknowledged.

[xliii] Julian of Norwich, Shewings.

[xliv] Matthew 5: 45

[xlv] One cannot help but compare Keats unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne (see Endymion) with Dante’s love for Beatrice Portinari.

[xlvi] Carpenter, 80.

[xlvii] See Donald Revell, The Art Of Attention: A Poet’s Eye

[xlviii] Carpenter, 75,quoting Goethe in Vermachtnis.

[xlix] Carpenter, pp. 177, 180.

[l] Carpenter, p. 61. 

[li] Carpenter, p. 80.

[lii] Carpenter, p. 63 quoting Von Balthasar, Glory Of The Lord, III p. 32.

[liii] Purgatorio, Canto XXXI

[liv] Carpenter, p. 67

[lv] Carpenter, p. 72.

[lvi] Romans 8: 23; Ephesians 1: 14; 2 Corinthians 1: 22: 2 Corinthians 5: 5

[lvii] Donald Revell, The Art Of Attention: The Poet’s Eye.

[lviii] Karl Rahner, Foundations Of Christian Faith: An Introduction To The Idea Of Christianity

[lix] Arthur Miller, The Death Of A Salesman

[lx] Psalm 27: 11.