God’s being Love reveals a structure of mutual dependence in our universe
Christians believe that God has made known something about himself. In a nutshell it comes to this: God is Love.
God is Love. We could be forgiven for thinking: What’s the big deal? What difference does it make? In this chapter I will tackle this question. I will show that understanding God as love does, indeed, make a great difference.
To make myself clear I will dispense with the niceties of theological language and paint a picture in starkly contrasting colours. I use the comparison with `painting’ deliberately. You will remember that when we speak about God, we can only do so in images. Anything we say is like a painting that resembles God more accurately, or less so.
Roughly speaking, there are two ways in which we relate to other people. There is the relationship of power or the relationship of love. We either control and are controlled. Or we share in a friendship that involves give and take. The same applies to God and God’s relationship to us.
Traditionally, people have defined God in terms of power. As the absolute Creator, God was thought of as exercising absolute control. Being infinitely greater than we are, God was thought to be utterly removed from us. Nothing we did, could really harm him. As omnipotent and patriarchal ruler, “he” could do with us as he liked. If we opposed him, we would face eternal punishment which would still be to God’s greater glory. For everything that happened, was to God’s greater glory.
This was the picture of God as the Boss. God’s nature could then be summarised in the phrase: God is Power. Everything was seen in the light of God’s omnipotence. Our basic relationship to God was expressed in terms of dependence and fear.
It is hardly surprising that human beings constructed this basic image of God. As we have seen earlier in this book, our experience of living a fragile existence in a hard world tends to highlight our dependence on God. God was judged by the hard realities of life: the earthquakes, droughts, famines and disasters that befall us. Since there is no escape from such a harsh treatment which was ascribed directly to God’s detailed decisions, God was reckoned to be a hard taskmaster.
But that was not all. In previous centuries practically every form of authority was exercised in a paternalistic and autocratic manner. Emperors and kings ruled their countries with a heavy hand. Fathers and grandfathers dominated their families with strict control. Small wonder that people expected God, the King of kings, to wield power of the same kind.
Another influence derived from Greek philosophy, which left a deep mark on religious thinking in the Middle Ages. Since the Greeks considered everything material as inferior, God was conceived of as infinitely superior to, and removed from, our material world. God was not really interested in the universe as such; all he was after was to receive the worship and praise of `purified’ human souls.
The image of God as the Supreme Power, though pre- Christian in origin, thus succeeded in casting a lasting shadow on the spirituality of many Christians.
The voice of the Lord bellows upon the seas.
The God of glory thunders.
His voice echoes on the ocean.
The voice of the Lord resounds with might.
The voice of the Lord reveals majesty.
Jesus Christ, however, revealed a totally different picture of God: God is Love. If we love another person, and it is genuine love, there are some important consequences.
God is Vulnerable
The first implication of love is that we relinquish control. We cannot fully love a person and yet retain the final word about what that person should do or say. Genuine love implies such a respect for the person we love that we may not overrule that person, or manipulate him or her to make the loved one do what we want. A parent, who may have to restrain a child for some time for its own good, will ultimately grant the child the support it needs to become a free, autonomous person.
If God is Love, if love and not power is God’s basic relationship to us, we should expect exactly the same attitude. And this is precisely what is the case, as we can see from the way God deals with Conscience. It was God who, in his creative love, made us evolve into free and autonomous human beings. God gave us reason so that we can work out what is right or wrong for ourselves. God does not dominate us. He respects us. He allows us freely to respond to the opportunity of becoming moral adults.
If we love another person, we also lose some of our independence. For the other can disappoint us or hurt us, as well as please us and make us happy. Love makes us vulnerable. It is impossible to extend genuine love and goodwill to someone else without running the risk of being wounded in the process.
The belief that God is Love implies precisely the same for God. Since God loves the universe which God creates, he/she invests part of his/her own being in the outcome. Speaking in human terms, God rejoices with all that comes out well. God is sad about whatever fails. God triumphs with all successes and suffers with all setbacks.
The extent of God’s Love
When we speak about love in this context, we do not refer to love in a reduced sense: to romantic love, or sexual love, or the way in which people are said to love their porridge, or love their pets. Love stands for our human capacity to reach out to another human person in his/her totality, and to establish friendship with that person – which, obviously, may include romantic and sexual love.. Love aims at the full, authentic self-realisation of each of the two persons. The person who loves, generously gives from his or her own fullness of life and looks forward to receiving from the other the kind of response that makes the friendship mutual.
For penetrating studies on the full meaning of love see A.NYGREN, Agape and Eros, London 1953; G.OUTKA, Agape and Ethical Analysis, New Haven 1972; M.D’ARCY, The Mind and Heart of Love, New York 1947; R.HAZO, The Idea of Love, New York 1967; S.SAY WILLIAM, The Spirit and the Forms of Love, New York 1968; J. TONER, The Experience of Love, Washington 1968.
The love we talk about is substantial. It embraces the other person in his or her totality and seeks their total well being. A parent’s love for a child, for instance, shows itself in concern for the child’s health, education, social integration, its finding a good job, and so on. The parent feels rewarded in love by the child’s happiness and progress. The stuff love is made of is fact and deed, not only talk and feeling.
The expression `God loves the world’ (see: John 3,16). should be interpreted in such an all-round and substantial way. It means: God shows that he cares about us by giving us life, autonomy, freedom to be ourselves, space to expand. God cares by giving us others to relate to, and by revealing something about himself to us. By caring about us, God made himself vulnerable.
Scripture uses the expression: God emptied himself. This applies especially to God’s becoming human in Jesus Christ. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of human beings” (see: Philippians 2,6-7.). In a wider sense it applies to the whole of God’s relationship to us. God, who is overflowing with inner fulness, empties himself/herself when creating, because God is a God who loves:
“God, in his love, is totally expended for the being of his creation – so that he is helpless under its weight and barely survives for its everlasting support. In the tragedies of the creation, in its waste and rubbish, God himself is exposed to tragedy: so that the creation is sustained at the cost of the agony of One who is buried and almost wholly submerged with the depth of it.”
W.H.VANSTONE, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, London 1977, p.72.
If God is not a detached Power, but deeply involved in and concerned with the wellbeing of the universe, then God can truly be recognised as the source of our own concern for the universe. Our discovery that ‘God is love’ confirms our own basic responsibility for the welfare of human beings and of the world we live in.
“In this love of neighbour, in its claim for eternal validity and finality, it becomes clear to contemporary people for the first time what is meant by God. They come to see the existence of God in a way that was not required in earlier times.”
K.RAHNER, Theological Investigations, London 1980,vol.9.p.193.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love