Friday, January 21, 2011

God First Loved Us . . .

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:7-10, 16b-19)
Yesterday I posted a definition of love provided by theologian Thomas Oord.  Oord is at work trying to bring love into the center of Christian theological discussion.  The question is -- how do we understand love.  Oord's basic definition is:

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well being. (Nature of Love, p. 17).

In offering this definition, Oord is not implying that only Christians can love or even that God alone can love, but he wants us to consider what it means to truly place love at the center of Christian theology. 

Two of the theologians that Oord responds to are Anders Nygren and St. Augustine.  Both understand love differently, but in the end they both limit human ability to love.  For Nygren, true love  is agape,   and this love comes only from God, without human involvement.  Humans -- indeed Christians -- are simply tubes through which God pours out love.  Augustine, on the other hand distinguishes between cupidity and charity.  Cupidity is desire, and it is the only form of love humans can express -- and its less than perfect.  Charity is something God alone shares, and that generally is shared with God alone.  It's all rather complicated, but suffice it to say -- we can't truly love either God or neighbor.

But Oord disputes these definitions and wants us to understand that love is central to our relationship with God and to our relationships with neighbors.  Love is at heart relational, even as it's intentional.  That said, the question is -- where does love begin?  And, writing as a theologian, Oord follows John and affirms that love is from God.  Note:
God first loving us should not refer primarily to what God has done in the distant past.  The idea God first loves should refer primarily to God acting first in any particular moment to make possible our love in response.  This idea is what theologians often call "prevenient grace."  It says God's loving action comes before and makes possible our free response.  God is a personal and causal being to whose call loving creatures can respond appropriately.  Creatures could not love if our relational God were not the Lover who initially empowers, inspires, and beckons them.  (Nature of Love, p. 21).
"We love because he first loved us."
In making this statement, when it comes to love, God does not act deistically -- planting the idea of love in the world and then backing off, letting nature take its course.  Instead, God is always involved loving us first so that we might -- if we choose to respond in that way  -- love God and neighbor, but as the letter says --

3 comments:

John said...

Part 1.

I reject the efforts of both Augustine and Nygren to systematize love.

I specifically reject the notion that only God can truly love, on practical and theoretical grounds. 'Even gentiles and tax collectors' love. Shorthand for the truth that those who have never known God are not only capable of love, but routinely express it. Do they do so because they have experienced God's love (even if unawares)? Do they do so because in God's loving act of creation they have been endowed with love and infused with the capacity?

If God made us that way, equipping us with a capacity to feel and express love, then it is so. Does the creative act of infusing love into the human equation constitute itself an act of love? Who’s to say. Love could just be an evolutionarily successful trait. Regardless, the fact that we have the capacity does not lead to the logical conclusion that to equip humans therewith was itself an act of love - though it could have been.

Whatever Jesus urged us to do, I am by faith compelled to believe that it was within human capacity to get it done. The Gospels have Jesus urging us to love one another as he has loved them. Scripture repeatedly teaches us to love our neighbors. It makes little sense to suggest that God set up humanity for failure in regard to this, the prime commandment. However, to suggest that only God is capable of love is to suggest that humans are not. Love is a human emotion, and humans are certainly capable of feeling and expressing it.

John

John said...

Part 2.

Of course we are all limited in our ability to feel and express love fully - but those limitations are not congenital, and I personally don't think they are insurmountable.

At the same time, I have other reasons for thinking it foolish to suggest that only God can love. To do so is to anthropomorphize God, in a sense, making a graven image, or, in modern terms, putting God in a definable box. What God experiences and expresses is known only to God and is by definition comprehensible only to God. Human love, both felt and expressed, is felt and expressed only by humans, and, perhaps by Jesus as a human incarnation of God. It seems inappropriate to me to ascribe human "feelings" to God even if we show some deference by saying that God can experience this imputed feeling in its most perfect form. We are still ascribing human character traits to God - we are still attempting to make a graven image of God.

All of that being said, Scripture does tell us that God loves us, and that God loved us first. Perhaps what is meant is that the attitude which God has for humans is most accurately understood in human terms as "love". But it seems sacrilegious to define God with too fine a point.

What Scripture teaches me is that we have been endowed with this capacity to love, and that this capacity gives to rise to a tremendously creative potential, and if we embrace that potential, we can support and sustain each other through any challenge. Moreover, if we accept the call to apply this capacity to our relationship with God, and to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, we come closest to the perfect form of worship.

Love cannot be experienced or expressed in a vacuum. If love is truly the highest and best of humanity, then relationships are at the core of what it means to be human. That is how we honor our Creator and engage the best that has been infused into us.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

The good news is that Tom Oord agrees with you. He finds both deficient, and that deficiency is one of the reasons why love fails to find itself at the center of theology.