The Ambiguous Love of God

Have you ever imagined what it would be like, to be God? Not what you would do, but how it must feel? The question is far beyond me,  but I keep trying to imagine it so I can try to explain what I mean when I say “God”:

Every thought and feeling I have is part of my experience of what it is to be myself. Every day, if I am paying attention, I learn more of the bundle of psychological mess and contradiction that is me. This includes the understanding that I am myself while others are not, the ways I dissociate from my own actions and body, the ways I project my feelings and experiences on what happens around me, etc. I assume you also share that experience, of “watching oneself”. Or maybe you just think your thoughts and feel your feelings without a lot of introspection, which is precisely the point: we are different. What I imagine when I say “God” includes all perspectives, all consciousness: mine, yours, everyone’s. Feeling all the feelings, thinking all the thoughts. I do not picture God as an outsider who can be sympathetic to your experience but does not quite know it, but rather an insider, someone who really knows because they were there and they felt everything you felt, literally.

Imagine being able to fully experience both sides of a conversation: every feeling, unspoken thoughts, impressions, intents, thought processes or impulses behind every nuanced word and gesture. Imagine being on both sides of a kiss. On both sides of every kiss. Knowing, beyond words, the experience of living every life as part of your own. Do we even know where that stops? Include animal consciousness. What if everything is alive? What is it like to be the sun? The moon? The Earth? How does it feel to be one of the microbes inside your stomach, killed in mass by an antibiotic? God is born and God dies every day, yet God remains, being One who is greater than the sum of all parts.

I find this imagination exercise convulsive. I think of the word schizophrenia: “fractured voices”. Yet the voices are true, real, present, colorful. This is what I think of when I hear “we are God/the universe experiencing itself”. This is where my mind goes when I read “In Him we live and have our being”.

What would you feel, feeling everything? Knowing the fears, dreams, aspirations, anxieties, desires, disappointments, hopes, expectations, pride, guilt, love, courage, anger, sadness, joy and sorrow, of everyone? If you saw every point of contradiction, ignorance and misunderstanding, looking through others’ eyes into your selves? Would you try to avoid these feelings and thoughts, to blank them out and preserve your own sanity and sense of individuality? Would you love the voices that please you and hate the ones you dislike, wishing them to end, treating some as more “human” than the others? Would you cry at the weight of all pain, would you celebrate the ecstasy of all joy? Would you clear your mind and become unmoving, stoic, removed, or would you dance with rage and fury as Creator and Destroyer? I get exhausted of handling my own feelings sometimes, let alone everyone’s.

This fascinating thought is an essential part of mysticism: If we are united to the One, to God, and experience some sort of bliss, then God must also be united to all things and experience our not-so-blissful reality.

Christian traditions make this tangible in the way the Apostles and Evangelists wrote about Jesus of Nazareth. He was a subversive Jewish rabbi who taught God will lead a world revolution, telling us to celebrate the fact with feasts, starting with marginalized communities in a Jewish society under Roman imperial control. The authors of John spoke of him as the Life and Light of the whole world (cosmos), the Way, the Truth, the Logos (“word”, or “reason”, from which we have the word “logic”) which brought everything into existence, without which nothing could exist. The disciples wrote: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it […]the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— […] that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” They believed Jesus when he said he was one with God, whom he called Father, turning their world upside down. They experienced something, which they saw and touched, and that was the best way they made sense of it.

Jesus taught us to call God affectionately, “Father”, as he did. He told his disciples the Father loved them just as the Father loved Jesus. He told them that in loving one another like Jesus loved them, they would be One with God, as he himself is One with the Father. I invite you to ponder for yourself, and wonder, about what that means and whether or not the Christian creeds and the inter-religious debates about the divinity or non-divinity of Jesus get the point of his teaching.

I understand Jesus to be inviting me, and you, to consciously and willingly participate in God by loving each other, the same way Jesus participates in God by loving his own neighbors.

God loves us. The same authors of the quote above, when explaining their experience, say “God is love”. Not “God is loving”, which would be an adjective like good, holy, righteous, etc, but an actual substantive, something essential. God also gets called Light, Truth, Life, and Logos, but these nouns do not quite give us a sense of personality, of intention, of emotion. Nothing we can quite relate to in our humanity. Love, however, is essential to us as relational, social beings.

Love is the something-more that makes God more than the ensemble of the universe, more than the Oneness of everything, not just a cosmic Thing or Power, but One who is Someone, a Relational Subject, who we can relate to, cooperate with or fight against, be friends or enemies of. On the two sides of a conversation, of a kiss, of sex. On the two sides of a disagreement, of an argument, of violence. The mother in pain giving birth, the stressed doctor assisting her, the newborn entering a confusion of light and sound. The old man dying, the wife holding his hand. The prisoner and the law enforcer. The torturer and the tortured. The murderer and the victim. The beggar and the one who ignores. The beggar and the one who refuses to ignore. The king, the peasant. The worker, the boss. The friend, the enemy. The trusting, the betrayer. All in All, God is deep, intimate, cosmic love.

I think adding love to this picture makes it even more convulsing, schizophrenic, maddening. I cannot make sense of God’s love when I think of all the good and all the evil and I try to put it together. Yet I am invited to believe God loves me, and I am told to love my neighbor even if my neighbor hates me, not just in word but in action. I cannot handle the universe: my neighbor is simpler. Simpler, but still complicated, still ambiguous, because love is always about people, and people are complicated.

Christ loved Peter, James, John. Christ also loved Mary Magdalene, and a nameless prostitute, and his own mother. Christ also loved Judas. Christ loved ambiguously, in Truth and in Grace.

This is not a love that says all sides are equal and makes no choice, making false equivalences without commitment. Christ, loving both sides, still picked one, and stood for it at the cost of his own life. Christ stood for compassion and against indifference, for a kingdom where the poor and homeless are welcome to every feast, and against a kingdom that rewards the greedy and the proud at the exclusion of the humble. Christ stood for the kind of truth where we are compassionate with each others’ moral failures, against the appearance of “truth” that allows for religious authorities to stone someone, as if they were not sinners themselves. Christ stood for a kingdom where both sins and debts are forgiven, where slaves are freed, against all condemnation and bondage. Christ stood for a kingdom where God can walk among us and feast with sinners, who can be one with God, against a kingdom that holds God at a distance, captive to dogmas, ready to crucify a heretic who dares to threaten the rules.

What does it mean to love like Christ? There are no easy answers in the New Testament. There is no prayer you can pray and be fine for the rest of your life, no ticket to heaven, no approved stamp. There is you, your neighbor, a mad God who loves both, decisions to make, and an invitation: love as I love, die as I died, live as I live. One day after the other.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a Brazilian theology student in Montreal, QC. He is an agnostic Christian existentialist who wishes to make progressive theology accessible.

Illustration: The Kiss of Judas, by Giotto di Bondone

Call Center Existentialist

At my job I receive at least ten calls every day regarding people’s estates: the distribution of someone’s property after they die. The company I work for is entrusted with a lot of people’s financial assets; when a “client” dies someone needs to call us to inform us, and it is my job to guide them through the legal procedure to transfer the assets. Usually the caller is a close family member. My first duty is to provide the best possible customer service, which often feels like pastoral care, in the sense that first I need to exercise a lot of active listening skills, then the person expects me to tell them what to do next.

A lot is communicated in between the lines: a middle-aged lady calls because her father passed away last week, and she already has the documentation ready: I can tell her family was diligent and they have been facing the father’s imminent death for a while. Her voice is not shaken, so either she is holding it up, or she mourned his death before it happened. Old age is harsh. Plenty of other people only manage to call a year or two later, and I prefer to believe they needed time to deal with it, rather than assume they were lazy or neglectful. I often speak to old widows who have not touched their husband’s assets for ten years, but are calling now because they are preparing their own estate for the near future.

Every month I spend a few hours at the hospital receiving a dose of antibodies, donated by other people, so my body is able to function and not crumble under whatever disease comes my way. I am grateful and indebted to the kindness of everyone who put a system in place that has allowed me to live past 23 without driving me into bottomless debt. I know that in other places, not far from where I live, my condition would not only make my life difficult but also drive me into increasing debt and poverty, making it even harder to want to keep going yet another month. When I think about it, receiving antibodies is not too different from receiving food, clean water, and shelter, thanks to everything people around us have done and built. Most of us would not survive long if thrown into the wild: I would just die faster. In the end, we all die. Yet the time we do live is meaningful, to ourselves and to those who love us. We have this time to live thanks to one another. Every person has received so much not just from nature or from God, but from humanity, from every neighbor, from our collective ancestors. Much for honor and gratitude, but also much to be ashamed and to regret. We have much to learn from each other, but also much to unlearn. In all this ambiguity, we are living life together and we need each other if we want to keep doing it.

Yet this is all so easy to forget every day. When I receive calls, all I have is a voice coming from a machine, without a face, without a past or a future aside from whatever concerns our business. A voice that can be angry, kind, or simply collected, without eyes to look into, without skin, without wrinkles or laugh marks. Myself, I become an excellent customer service agent, asking precise questions, reformulating them if they are not understood, saying thank you for everything and using words that communicate utmost respect. Most people ask my name, but I only give my first name. I do not really exist in their world, I am simply the voice of the company I work for. My personality, attentiveness and clever quirks are reduced to the great service by Corporation Inc.; I am paid to do that thirty five hours of my week.

It takes a lot of effort to remain conscious of the human being across the line, someone whom I just met, even if impersonally, who needs my help to get something important done: if anything, something important to them. I have done this all day for the past few months, while they are often calling for the first time. I know every detail of what they need to do next, but they have no idea, and I need to discover what they do not know before I explain it to them. It takes a lot of effort to not let that experience be soiled by remembering that even though I am the only contact many people have with Corporation Inc., being crucial to its functioning, I am expendable. I am paid its lowest wage since it is an “entry-level job”, and there are plenty of people receiving the surplus of the value I generate, through profit distributions where those who have most receive the most, accumulating all the wealth with those already wealthy. It takes maybe even more effort to not grow mad knowing that none of this would be in place if we just stopped taking it seriously; that we are inflicting this on ourselves and each other by believing it is the only way; justifying lay-offs, wage stagnation and exploitative measures that exploit poverty in the name of “corporate needs”, even though Corporation Inc. does not even exist, much less have needs. Like the ancients who sacrificed their own children to idols they built from wood and stone, we serve imaginary entities we created with paper and pen.

So I focus on my experience, in the now, at least until my shift is over. Here is someone calling who needs my help. It is up to me to decide if I will acknowledge them as persons or reduce them to just a “client” or an obstacle to get over with. The other day a man called for his father’s account, and when I asked his legal authority to deal with his father’s business, he answered “I am his son”. Of course, being a son is no legal authority, specially in the financial market, so I insisted until he reluctantly said: “dad passed away; I am the estate administrator”. It was up to me to be annoyed at how he made me waste time instead of being to the point, or instead, choose to acknowledge how hard it must have been for that human being to voice that painful fact out loud. It was up to me to drift through the call and just get things done, or remember there was a divine human on the other side, with feelings and hardship, whether he also acknowledged me there or not. As for telling them what to do, all I could do was explain their situation and their options. I cannot decide for them.

I need to believe life and human relationships as I know them are not as good as it gets. That helping others is a better motivation than greed. I need to believe life can be better, that it is possible to serve God and not Mammon.  Even just serving my neighbor is already good enough. I know my neighbor needs it, because I need it. I need to believe this to face next month, even as I am reminded, at least ten times a day, that plenty of people won’t.

 


About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Who has the right to theologize?

All theology is sexual, said Marcella Althaus-Reid. Theologian-men are afraid of sexuality, afraid of the body. In the words of Rubem Alves: the body cries out! Then all run in fear, dreading what the body can do to theology.

The body tears the veil between us and the Divine. In the body we are the Divine, we penetrate and we are penetrated by God’s sensuality, we become one flesh, we grab God’s butt-cheeks and we enjoy the mystical pleasure of christhood.

Can the body speak? The subaltern body? The body that is sexuality? The body that comes with pleasure? Does that body have the right to do theology? Or is theology this dry thing, without the lubrication of affect, love, and pleasure?

We go round and round and end up in the same errors! A Christianity called progressive putting bodies and desires in closets. I am really sorry, Marcella, if your work seems to have been in vain. Rubem Alves, I also apologize to you, for they have eyes but do not see, they have ears but do not hear!

The body cries for liberty! Yet they insist that bodies and the plurality of sexuality do not have the right to “influence theology”. The body dies for liberty! Yet they insist in reducing the body to a biological experience, denying the multiplicity of experiences and possibilities of the body, discourses that testify the deaths of trans  -men and -women, — “god made a man and a woman”, that theology is “very clear when stating there are only two genders” — discourses that deny a whole life to anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, non-binary, trans, or intersex. The body lives liberty! The body will no longer be shackled by non-libertarian theological categories. Our body transgresses, rebels and theologizes without panties, without underwear or bras. Our bodies do theology naked before the queer Divine, honoring corporeality and sexuality!

The body is sexual, it is sensual, it desires! Bodies that are oppressed by a capitalist system also desire! To exclude sexuality, my dear, is far from having the title of progressive. “Revolutionizing” while denying the body is yet another way to perpetuate a theology of violence. To say who can and who cannot do theology is a colonizing, excluding, conservative attitude. All bodies can and should mess with this dry, un-lubricated theology, which kills, excludes, and abuses marginalized bodies.

Deus não rejeita a obra de suas mãos

God does not reject their handwork

É inutil o batismo para o corpo

It is useless to baptize the body

O esforço da doutrina para ungir-nos,

Doctrine’s effort to anoint us,

Não coma, não beba, mantenha os quadris imóveis,

Do not eat, do not drink, do not move your hips,

Porque estes não são pecados do corpo.

Because these are not sins for the body.

A alma, sim, a ela batizai, crismai.

The soul, indeed, baptize her, chrism her.

Escrevei para ela a imitação de Cristo.

Write her the imitation of Christ.

O corpo não tem desvãos,

The body has no lack,

Só inocência e beleza,

Only innocence and beauty,

Tanta que Deus imita

Such that God will imitate it

E quer casar com sua igreja

wanting to marry his church

E declara que os peitos da sua amada

declaring the breasts of his lover

São como filhotes gêmeos de gazela.

the twin pups of a gazelle.

É inútil o batismo para o corpo.

It is useless to baptize the body.

O que tem suas leis as cumprirá.

The one with laws will fulfill them.

Os olhos verão a Deus

The eyes will see God.

(Adélia Prado)


The Author: Angelica Tostes is a Latin-American Feminist theologian with a master’s degree in Religious Studies (UMESP). She is part of the Ecumenical Youth Network (REJU) and collaborates with the Collective for Libertarian Spirituality, in Brazil. She writes on her blog Angeliquisses (Theology, Art and Poetry), dedicating herself to the themes of feminist theology, body, and interfaith dialogue. //Original Post in Portuguese

 

Christmas Cheer

Last night, Christmas eve, I went to church with my family.

It was a very normal white suburban north-american church, with a stage, spotlights, electric guitars, and a way-too-often out-of-sync PowerPoint with the song lyrics. Fun times for a good Christian family.

The pastor told a few anecdotes in order to try to explain Christmas, and God’s love, and how Jesus is God’s gift to us.

One of them was about a housewife who one day felt burnt-out by washing the same dishes all the time and decided to leave her family and go be independent somewhere. Like a prodigal son but, instead of a rebellious teenager, a burnt-out housewife who dared to be independent. Her husband would call her and her children would ask her to come back, and plead, and she would refuse. Eventually he hired a private detective, found her, and went to pick her up. He found her living above a restaurant, where she would work doing dishes. She followed him back home without a word. At home, she told him that he said that he cared and asked all this time, but, in the end, she was only sure of how much he cared once he bothered to actually go the distance and pick her up himself. The pastor said this is like God, who sent messages to humanity for several centuries, and humanity did not respond, until God decided to come himself in the incarnation of Jesus.

He even talked about sin, in a second metaphor, of how sin is like garbage we carry with us, which smells, and we try to hide it from people, but we can’t hide it forever. We hide that garbage in our basement for years and it fills our house with stench, and people start noticing and keeping away from us. We ourselves can’t even get close to it anymore. Then Jesus, our savior, offers to take it out for free. I didn’t relate a whole lot since I don’t have a basement, I don’t care a lot about what people think, and “Jesus can do it for free” sounds too much like a good business deal, but I trust that people there could relate and it somehow edified them a bit.

Putting aside the patriarchal and low-key misogyny overtones, the suburban worry of what people might think of you and your house, and the business deal catch of God’s Grace, I appreciate how the pastor still preached a message of a loving God who came down to display a tangible love in the incarnation, a God we can go to, regardless how ashamed or distant we feel, trusting that he will accept us and cleanse us, if only we are humble enough to admit it and invite him in.

Still, I wish he had preached the whole message.

This Gospel, the good news of the action of God in History, humbling himself, taking our sins upon himself, living life with us and suffering our death for us, continuing in steadfast loving-kindness and always ready to forgive, doesn’t end in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are invited to be one with Jesus, and we are called Christian only because we imitate him. The Church – all true Christians everywhere – is supposed to be the incarnation of God on Earth after Jesus of Nazareth.

In other words, if you’re a Christian, Christmas is not a time for you to simply celebrate what God did for you 2000 years ago.

Christmas is a time for you to remember you are invited to do the same. Honestly, that, if you do not do the same, you have very little reason to call yourself Christian.

So, like the Almighty God who became a poor child, humble yourself to be among those who would be considered “less” than you, and leave your privileges behind for the sake of people.

Confess your sins to the people you sinned against, and ask their forgiveness before you ask God’s. Be someone whom people will always know they can confess to, someone who will always be there to forgive.

Love in action, not just in word.

Love as Christ loved you.

Merry Christmas!

Weightless Love

While looking through Facebook memories, I recently came across an old heated argument. The comments were filled with hate. In fact, the phrase “I HATE YOU!” was strewn throughout.

Of course, the proper Christian response to hate is love, or the Christian platitude “I love you in Jesus.” Like clockwork, that love-phrase was said each time a hateful comment appeared.

“I love you.”

Such simple words. It’s a paradox, really: deep meaning imbedded in a simple phrase.

I believe we’ve been fooled by this simplicity. We declare love to strangers without thought or concern for love’s profundity.

Making matters worse is our social media context. It’s easier than ever to say “I love you” or “I hate you.” We don’t need to see people’s faces or know their voices, yet we love and hate them–people we barely know or don’t know at all.

Looking through this old status, I asked myself: is there something deeper and unspoken going on? Continue reading Weightless Love

A Humble Theology

The other day I had an interesting conversation with an anti-religious person and an atheist–both were curious about my studies in theology. I approached the discussion cautiously, not assuming possession of solid theological truth. After all, I am but a man and can only form ideas and theories of what God is.

At one point, the conversation was interrupted by another friend’s stance on predestination. The two gentlemen–the anti-religious person and the atheist–quickly turned from sincerely curious to sternly objectional.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Conversations between religious and non-religious people often turn to debates over doctrinal issues, straying from the humbling mystery that is God.

In the past, I debated over doctrine, like my friend–defending my tradition’s theology. I would argue and argue until I turned blue with rage, failing to understand why anyone could disagree with what was clearly absolute truth. But then, humility hit me in the face.  Continue reading A Humble Theology

Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

“How strange it is to be anything at all!”, exclaims Jeff Mangum in one of my favorite songs.

It is a rather strange thing, indeed, to exist.  Maybe you don’t think so, you might think you have the answers for why we are here and where we are going, walking around with a “road map to life“. That’s ok. Personally, I find it eerie, upsetting, and rather awkward, that without your consent, without a choice, you were brought to existence, born from parents you did not choose, in a country you did not choose, taught and indoctrinated with customs and ideas about everything without ever been given a second to pause and think twice. Time keeps pushing you forward whether you like it or not, with every single choice you make remaining forever a part of your history, impacting you and others around you in infinite collaterality. Everyone who was here before you experienced this constant pressure from time, too. Everything they taught you was the best way they managed to figure out what exactly is going on, but not everyone concluded the same things, and who knows who is right?

Time never gives you a second chance. If you pay attention, you will notice decay and mortality all around you. Flowers blooming and withering, your own body changing, loved ones dying. Opportunities lost. Nothing can ever be undone, only reconciled. Offenses can never be taken aback, only forgiven.

It’s easy to feel insecure. Continue reading Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.