The most misunderstood of loves

Photo by Alicia Quan on Unsplash

Gloria loves the stars. Every Saturday night, she immerses herself in the sky using the telescope her parents gave her when she turned 16. She always chooses to stargaze instead of attending some party that other teenagers her age are throwing in order to help them endure the long days of school.

The same ritual plays itself out every time: with classical music in the background, she opens her window wide and points her telescope at the sky. Even if the music is always different, her parents know to interpret it the same way every time: as the gentlest, most harmonious “Do not disturb!”.

“She’s gone on a walk through the galaxy,” her mother says to relatives who ask about Gloria on the phone. She doesn’t know it yet, but one day, not too far away, she will say the same phrase tearfully, wrapping those words with sorrow.

A virus has made its way into Gloria’s DNA, changing the properties of some of her genes. The altered genes affect cell division. Because suppressor genes no longer inhibit cell division as they should, cells proliferate and do not allow DNA repair genes to do their job. As Gloria’s DNA deteriorates, cells that multiply outside of genetic control have become a tumour strong enough to divert nutrients to itself, and active enough to invade other organs. Gloria has cancer.

On almost all of her remaining Saturday nights, a finite and deteriorating young girl—in a way, a fragile universe—will look through the telescope’s eyepiece at an infinite and expansively balanced universe, to which mathematics can only allude. But it is in the mind of this bounded, fragile, and oblivious little universe where the wonders of an entire race meet: How, and why, has such greatness come to exist?

“Love is the key”

In the movie Interstellar, Cooper, an astronaut, arrives in a tesseract—a dimension still unknown to earthlings, in which Time has the properties of space. Using this dimension as a bridge through time, he manages to identify the best moment in the past in which to contact his daughter and communicate information which will save humanity, whose existence was threatened by an inexplicable global desertification.

But until Cooper finds his salutary solution, the viewer experiences an agonising tension, because the entire scene is built to make them empathise from the position of one who realises that they are captive to their own limitations.

The spectator’s encounter with the coldness and severity of Space has the power to awaken latent feelings of existential isolation that would be overcome by communicating with a higher being. And, as long as the character does not realise that he himself built that extradimensional space, the scene works as an analogy for how a Higher Being who does not communicate through our limited senses, but who is interested in the good of people, may interact with us.

The outcome of the scene only amplifies the disappointment that the film does not, in fact, support this analogy. TARS, a robot, asks Cooper how he imagines he will be able to communicate with his daughter, and Cooper has an epiphany: “Love, TARS, love… It’s the key!”. In the end it is a father’s love that holds the key to the salvation of humanity

What else but the greatness or the infinity of the universe, and of love, can evoke in us the thought that there is a God?

God’s worm

The Man Who Knew Infinity—this is the title of a cinematic biography of one of the most spectacular minds that mankind has produced, which brings together two seemingly irreconcilable worlds: those of rigid atheism and resistant faith.

“You see, I am what you call an atheist,” British mathematician G.H. Hardy tells Srinivasa Ramanujan at a time when the genius of the latter had not yet been revealed in all its scientific splendour. “No, sir. You believe in God. You just don’t think He likes you,” Ramanujan replies.

It is difficult to say whether this dialogue actually took place, although history has recorded the troubled religious fidelity of the Indian mathematician. But it hardly matters, because we can recognise the pattern of thinking found within it in various facets of human spirituality.

“If there is no God, everything is allowed,” Dostoevsky said, through his character, Ivan Karamazov. And the British writer Aldous Huxley confessed in the book Ends and Means that he based his entire philosophy of life on a similar idea: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.…the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality.”

Decades later, a remarkable contemporary philosopher, Thomas Nagel, wrote in even more unequivocal terms: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

These are honest and reputable examples that show that while we tend to deny that this is the case, in reality, our faith in God (or “non-God”) sometimes depends very much on the visceral desire for Him to exist, or not exist. In fact, as Pastor Timothy Keller said in a Google talk nine years ago at the presentation of his book, The Reason for God, when we believe or do not believe in God, our conviction is generally a result of three forces. This happens even without us being aware of these forces, and despite the fact that we tend to give credit to only one of them.

On the one hand, we have intellectual arguments. These are never the only motivation, but they can contribute significantly to our decision. Next, we have the personal experience argument, which Keller says can influence us in radically different ways: a tragic experience may lead some to feel the need to bond with a loving God, while for others, the same experience can lead them to refuse to believe in the existence of a loving God. The third category of forces is represented by the social argument, which acts on the basis of a circumscribed mechanism, says Keller, to that discipline of study called the “sociology of knowledge.” According to this mechanism, each of us tends to consider as plausible the motives of the people we would like to identify with, or the people whose good opinion we’d like to earn.

Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist who made the spectacular documentaries produced by the BBC—the Life and Earth series—said in an interview with a Belgian television show that he was often asked why he did not give God credit for all the wonders he presents in his documentaries. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Why don’t you admit that the hummingbird, the butterfly, the Bird of Paradise are proof of the wonderful things produced by Creation?’. And I always say, well, when you say that, you’ve also got to think of a little boy sitting on a river bank, like here, in West Africa, that’s got a little worm, a living organism, in his eye and boring through the eyeball and is slowly turning him blind. The Creator God that you believe in, presumably, also made that little worm.’ Now, I personally find that difficult to accommodate…”

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Despite what this quotation seems to show, Attenborough is not an atheist. In another televised interview, he distanced himself from the position of his atheist friend Richard Dawkins, declaring himself as agnostic. “I know Richard would say that’s rather feeble, that’s not being very brave, and he’s maybe got a case,” Attenborough said. But he went on to confess that when he lifted the lid of an anthill and realized how absorbed in the complexity of their activities and how incapable of perceiving his presence above them they were, he couldn’t help but think that us humans might live on Earth as if in that mound, in complete ignorance of the existence of a higher being that our senses cannot perceive.

Attenborough, as we may infer from the difficulty he has in reconciling the idea of ​God’s steadfast love with the suffering he sees in the world, is a proponent of scepticism, based on the inevitable occurrence of life situations that raise spiritual dilemmas, and especially in the absence of a theological appraisal of spiritual themes.

Life does not exempt anyone from events that force a grappling with the issue of faith and religion. But, if we are honest, we have to admit that we understand this reason at an elementary and incomplete level. The subject of God’s great love is perhaps the most important of all subjects that require evaluation, and yet, even within Christianity, opinions on it are surprisingly divergent.

A quick overview of the history of ideas about divine love

Placing ourselves at the epicentre of discussions about divine love, we find ourselves surrounded by theologians who fail to fully agree on what this love is and how it manifests itself. This isn’t surprising, because, as we delve deeper into the study of various ideas, we find how easy it is—dependent as we are on philosophical assumptions—to narrowly miss the principles enunciated in the fundamental book of Christianity, the Bible.

Over the centuries, ideas that set the tone for debates about God’s love have been grounded, until late in history, in classical theism. This view sees God as necessary, self-sufficient, perfect, simple, timeless, immutable, impassive, omniscient, and omnipotent. It was not until the twentieth century that a new perspective challenged and redefined the divine attributes settled in the theology of theism. This argumentative current, “procedural theism”, challenged the way in which classical theism describes God. One of its most important representatives, Charles Hartshorne, argued that according to classical theism, there can be no kind of meaningful relationship between such a God and the world, because this God is “not an exalted being, but an empty absurdity, a love which is simply not love.”

What leads to such a harsh conclusion? It is mainly the fact that, following the line of classical theism, a rigorous researcher would finally come to the conclusion that it is impossible for God to love man or for man to love God. Here’s why:

The first, and probably the most influential, non-canonical author (in other words, outside of Scripture) to write extensively about God’s love was Augustine, who could not conceive a free and reciprocal loving relationship between God and man, although he was convinced that “God is love”. Neoplatonism had planted two incompatible definitions in Augustine’s system of thought. Based on Platonic ontology, Augustine believed that God is perfect, unchangeable, and self-sufficient. In addition—still under Platonic influence—he saw love as a matter of desire. Therefore, God could not love people because it would mean that He had a desire, and desires are based on want, whereas the self-sufficient God could not want for anything.

However, Augustine also believed in the biblical principle of God’s love for man, which threw him into a seemingly inescapable paradox. The theologian attempted to solved the problem by postulating that the real love of God is not that of Platonic desire, nor is it Aristotelian friendship, but a unilateral manifestation of beneficence. It is agape—altruistic love—which loyally pursues the good of the other, even willing to commit self-sacrifice for them. This agape love would have awakened love in man, but since man’s love is determined by the way God’s love manifests for them, Augustine concluded that there can be no free and reciprocal relationship of love between God and man.

Thomas Aquinas developed Augustine’s perspective, further emphasizing God’s impassivity—that is, that He is not vulnerable to “passions”, as Aquinas called emotional feelings. In his vision, God’s love is not touched in any way by its object, as human love is. Divine love infuses and creates goodness. God’s unfailing love is God’s charity towards us.

Regarding the way his predecessors described God’s everlasting love for man, Martin Luther shared the same belief that divine love can only be agape. As for man’s love, however, he had a completely different perspective than other church fathers. Luther was convinced that because of their sinful nature, humans simply could not love. They can be, at most, a channel through which to offer others the love they receive from the One who truly loves, unconditionally, free of charge, and through grace. From Luther’s perspective, the only love that deserves to be called love is the love of God, because it is the only love that does not include any egocentrism.

Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther all used special terminology for the different types of love they wrote about, but only one theologian, far less known than them, Anders Nygren, managed to consecrate these terms Christianity-wide. Nygren postulated the existence of a clear separation between agape and eros, the first being the unilateral, intentional and altruistic beneficence that only God has, while the second is love dependent on desire and possessiveness, in either in a spiritual or vulgar sense, but in any case unworthy of being associated with a perfect and self-sufficient God.

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Charles Hartshorne rebuked these dominant conceptions in theology for denying that there can be a dynamic, reciprocal relationship between God and man. Hartshorne subscribed to the pantheistic view that God includes the world in Himself, but does not limit Himself to it. Consequently, Hartshorne believed that God, who includes everything that exists in Himself, feels everything that His creation feels and changes with it, for example, magnifying Himself as His creation expands, thereby transcending Himself.

According to this perspective, the love that God has for creation is perfect, but never complete. It grows continuously, partly due to the efforts of humans, who contribute, through their existence in God, to the increase of the richness of His life. God’s love can also be seen as self-love when God includes everyone else in Himself. It is, according to procedural theology, absolute—in the sense that it is absolutely relative—since it corresponds perfectly to all the minds it includes. And the God who exercises it empathizes with everyone relatively, loves Himself by loving everyone and showing dynamism in His emotions.

These positions, postulated by theologians who have been highly influential, are suspect because they stem from ontological presuppositions that were influenced by the prevailing philosophy of their time and culture. The aforementioned theologians tried to reconcile their culture with Scripture. However, they reached mutually contradictory conclusions and, therefore, a stalemate. But what conclusions would we reach if the investigative approach started, not from axiomatic attributes of God, but from the canonical text?

This was the question that the American theologian John C. Peckham, professor of Christian theology and philosophy at Andrews University, set out to answer in his highly-acclaimed volume The Love of God: A Canonical Model. He has managed to articulate a coherent system, although he declares it to be subject to continuous investigation. In Scripture, the portrait of divine love is made up of several aspects that are woven together in a complex harmony. This increases the difficulty of systematization, according to Peckham. God’s love is “virtuous, kind, generous, unmerited, voluntary, faithfully devoted, evaluative, profoundly affectionate and compassionate, intensely passionate, patient and long-suffering, merciful and gracious, just, steadfast, amazingly reliable and enduring but not unalterably constant, preferential, but not arbitrarily exclusive, relationally responsive, desirous of reciprocation, and active.”

The most difficult questions about God’s love are only vaguely connected to evil

According to John Peckham, conflicting theological conceptions of divine love can be grouped as answers to five crucial questions. These questions seek to know whether the loving relationship between God and mankind is unilateral or bilateral. In his book, Peckham answers each of these questions, fortifying his writing with biblical references. The answer to three of them, relevant to the present discussion, are summarized in an ultra-simplified form below:

1. Is it a deliberate choice God makes to love us? Or does He necessarily love us all because He is essentially connected to everything that exists?

Peckham argues, based on numerous Bible verses, that God’s love is voluntary. God’s love for humans is not a sine qua non of Him—it is not necessary for His existence. God could choose to not love mankind and still continue to be God, with all His prerogatives. But He wants to love us, although His love cannot be restricted to a mere volitional manifestation.

2. Could God appreciate and receive value (love from people)? Or is He just the creator-giver of value? Is divine love only the exercise of an arbitrary will, is it pure divine philanthropy? Or can it include desire or pleasure?

The theologian argues that the God we find in the Scriptures values ​​the actions of people and can be delighted, or hurt, by His creatures. On the other hand, he says that people have no value to give to God, but God enables people to respond to His love manifested a priori, and to receive their purified intentions and motivations through Christ’s mediation for them, thus conferring value to them. God looks at people through the sacrifice of Christ, and thus sees sinful beings (until their transformation on the Day of Judgment) as sons in whom He can be well-pleased.

3. Can we say that God’s love includes affection and/or emotions that reveal a God interested in the fate of the world, whether compassionate or otherwise?

Peckham says that according to Scripture, “God’s love is ardent and profoundly emotional. God is intensely interested and affected by people; He may be pleased or dissatisfied with their response to such an extent that His quality of life is affected by the situation in the world.

Peckham points out that none of these three characteristics of God’s love—volitional or intentional, evaluative (in the philosophical sense of the term: the evaluation of the self-worth of human actions), and emotional (which reacts emotionally and dynamically to human actions), cast a shadow over the others, but are all co-essential to divine love, complementing and balancing each other.

D.A. Carson, theologian and professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, also used the Scriptures to respond to culturally-influenced theological presuppositions, contrasting the text that has survived the centuries with a contemporary culture willing to get rid of everything it finds uncomfortable about God. God’s love has been “sanitised, democratised, and above all sentimentalised”, writes Carson, accusing us of living “in a culture in which many other and complementary truths about God are widely disbelieved.” Carson refers specifically to God’s holiness, anger, and providence, which he sees as essential to an unaltered understanding of God’s love, not tempered by our personal preferences. The opposite risk is that of building a “God whose behaviour is regular, patterned, and predictable…portrayed in terms of the consistency of His behaviour, of the conformity of His actions to the single rule of love.”

Carson, like Peckham, rejects the inflation of agape love, warning of the attempt to empty God’s love of its emotional dimension and to reduce it strictly to altruism (that is, to the commitment made willingly for the good of another). He says that such a perspective is wrong from at least two points of view:

1) philologically—because the authors of the Scriptures use the term with much richer and more varied meanings than would be plausible for such an interpretation;

2) biblically—recalling the passage from 1 Corinthians 13, which warns that altruistic deeds can be done without love, the theologian shows that truly Godly love is separate from mere altruism.

“God’s love is both the model and the incentive of our love,” says Carson, reversing the perspective of those who might accuse religious people of projecting human emotions onto God (anthropopathism). People love because God loved them first (1 John 4:19), before they showed any sign of interest in Him. “And this, brothers and sisters, we have learned from God as he has disclosed himself in his Son; “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). “Doubtless God’s love is immeasurably richer than ours, in ways still to be explored, but they belong to the same genus, or the parallelisms could not be drawn,” says Carson. On the other hand, unlike human love, the love of God cannot be diminished by external factors. It is unconditional love.

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Carson is convinced that “God loves because love is one of His perfections.”

He invites his readers to look at the cross in order to have a full picture of God’s love and wrath. For Carson, God’s wrath is not an attribute that paradoxically complements His love, but an aspect of His perfect justice. Divine love cannot be separated from divine justice, and if we believe the Scriptures, we see that they have manifested themselves in the Son, in whom God Himself “is well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

And, there is a thought that requires more cognitive effort on our part, far more than the scene of the Interstellar tesseract. It is the thought that the One crucified on the cross was Christ, the Son of God, who is one with the Father. God Himself died for the salvation of the human race—a concept as far beyond the limits of our thinking as the transformation of time into space.

In contemplating the Cross, theological considerations like those we have just read can widen our horizons just enough for us to realize that what we have before our eyes is the culmination of love. This will persuade us to give up the baggage of the caricatured images that we carry with us, by virtue of personal or community traditions. Besides, the meaning of these distorted images have long been forgotten, and, in a happy case, drive us to seek an understanding of true divine love with the same fascination and thrill with which children discover the visible world.

We don’t necessarily need to aim to know infinity; just recognizing its existence is enough. We can realise that the certainty of 1 + 1 = 2 is not only mathematics, just as every sunrise or sunset we gaze upon is not only an aesthetic image, but a spiritual reminder, an invitation for us to recalculate our position in relation to everything that happens to us. That is, we can stop being like ants caught in the throes of our fleeting concerns and becoming aware of our “lid”.

For this we do not need a telescope, or even a ticket to the cinema, but only the courage to linger for an extra second, pondering the miracle of being alive in this universe, which gives us so many reasons to believe in Divinity. Then we will realise, terminally ill as we are, that each of us is Gloria— emancipated in the glory of God.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network, the European version of Signs of the Times A version of this article first appeared on their website and is republished with permission.


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