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

Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

This is a long text. I build on different concepts and I suggest reading one thing at a time. You can jump to each section clicking here: Ritual and Myth, Sex and Marriage, Marriage and Sin, Early Christian Marriage, Love, Imago Dei/Imitatio Christi, and The Law of Love. I hope that after reading you will understand in a deeper level what the bible means by marriage, and how the gospel of Jesus radically changes our relationship to one another: even our sexual relationships.

Ritual and Myth

The work of theology is, always, to assign meaning and symbolism to things that were already there from the beginning – or if you prefer, not to assign it, but to reveal it. Theologians are mythical storytellers, not inventors. In telling stories that communicate who we are, where we are from, and what our purpose is, theologians form, inform, or challenge, the symbols and the imaginary of people’s relationship to God and to their own lives; our image of God, after all, shapes our own image.

The process from a spontaneous thing or event to a systematic ritual and theory is organic: as people ask “why do we do this?”, the leaders explain things the best they can, often with a good amount of imagination and best-guesses, and that process slowly shapes a community’s theology and symbols. That is exactly what the author of Exodus tells us Moses instructed the elders of Israel to do when he established the ritual of Passover (Easter):

…You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’… (Exodus 12)

This ritual, Passover, defined the people of Israel and still defines modern Jews, as they celebrate it every year, retelling the story and remembering that day of liberation. Passover was central to Christianity because on the year Jesus died, on Passover, he was having the special supper with his disciples and he asked them to continue doing what they were doing, but in his memory (he was not specific about how often), presenting them with bread – something everyone eats – and wine – something most people drink. He said the bread was his flesh, and the wine was his blood, and they ate and drank. In a few centuries of Christianity developing, between Jesus’ Passover supper with his friends and his friends doing the same thing over and over again, teaching their own disciples to do the same, and then their disciples asking new questions, and they coming up with answers, we found ourselves a thousand years later debating whether the bread in communion is literally Jesus with the accidents of bread or just sort-of-Jesus united to the bread, or just a symbol, getting complicated in philosophical terms Jesus never used. Not only did we get complicated on defining what was once the simplest of rituals, we actually persecuted and killed each other because of it.

There we have it: an event (Exodus), then a story and a ritual that gives meaning to it (Passover). Then again, a new event (Jesus’ last supper) that changes the original meaning of the first, and establishes a new story and a new ritual (Eucharist/Lord’s Supper) that gives new meaning not just to Passover, but to eating bread and drinking wine with your friends.

One of the main questions studying the bible, for theologians, is whether these stories, which are called myths – like reading 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 – tell how something new started, or if they were simply adding new meaning to something old. For example, baptism was a Jewish tradition: Gentiles who wanted to enter the Jewish community were baptized, Jews have several different washing rituals for different reasons, and John the Baptist, a popular Jewish prophet, had started a movement of purification asking all Jews to baptize themselves. Then came Jesus and asked his disciples to baptize both Jews and Gentiles, once and for all, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, promising a mysterious new baptism “with fire”. This was a scandalous and new, subversive addition to an old ritual. Now the idea of baptism is associated mainly with Christianity, even though Jews still practice Mikveh.

Thinking back on the Eucharist, it would be ridiculous to read the gospels and think Jesus instituted the eating of bread and the drinking of wine, or that bread and wine are God-given things that humans should not be allowed to enjoy outside Christian guidelines. We very much understand that celebrating communion is one thing, and drinking some wine while enjoying a French baguette with a friend is another, even though the only real difference is what we think we are doing. The difference is not in the bread, or the wine, but in our own thoughts, words, and feelings.

Similar is the question of sex/marriage: how do we distinguish the lines between what has happened in human history, what is told in the bible, and what we tell ourselves through theology and culture?

Continue reading Autophagy #5 – On Love, Sex, Marriage

Resolution of Love

New Years is coming soon, and it is kind of fascinating. We invented a celebration based on how many rounds around the sun we made; in our minds, a new year brings along new hopes: Hope that the next turn around the sun will carry less mistakes, less hurts, less disappointments. That we will find our calling, our ideal career, our soulmate, or the perfect movie story that will entertain us forever until the next one comes out. We make promises and resolutions, we look back at what we accomplished, and we tell ourselves next year will be better. It is quite silly, but it is fun, and it keeps us going.

For many this is a season of decisions, of delineating goals and how to work on them. For most of these people, it also stops there, and life will go on as normal next year… which is ok, at least we can be consoled by thinking that if we wanted to, things would be different. Continue reading Resolution of Love