Monday, September 7, 2015

Love Of God: A Labor Day Rumination

     Love is a word that’s caused both torrid romances and terrible wars. It’s at the root of both human happiness and incredible disharmony. It’s applied variably to persons, pets, principalities, performers, and potables. The arguments over its “real” meaning shortly after Ug dragged the future Mrs. Ug back to his cave by her hair. They haven’t ceased since.

     Which makes the First Great Commandment something of a puzzler for those of us obsessed with exact meanings:

     Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40]

     But as little as we know about loving others, we tend to know even less about how one should go about loving a Deity who:

  • Stands outside of Time;
  • Has always existed and always will;
  • Needs nothing from anyone;
  • Is really not One, but Three!

     Sigh. Supposedly one of the 7 surprising downsides of being extremely intelligent is a tendency to “overthink things.” I’ve been analyzing that for hours and I can’t make sense of it. Still, some questions are simpler than one takes them to be at first blush. Perhaps this is one.

     God is Love, or so we are told. The equivalence relation is has the three essential properties of all such, being:

  1. Reflexive;
  2. Transitive;
  3. Symmetric.

     By that third property, we can see that since God is Love, then Love is God. Does that counsel Man to assume Godlike status so as to love God as He deserves? Not quite.

     God is Love to Man. Not only did He create a universe with stable natural laws so that we could learn and prosper; throughout our lives, He bestows upon us the best of gifts – grace and mercy –at the best of times.

     The proper response to such goodness is, of course, unbounded gratitude. And gratitude to God is surely a component of a mortal’s love for him. But one can be “grateful” in many ways:

     “The Japanese have five ways to say thank you—and every one translates as resentment, in various degrees. Would that English had the same built-in honesty! Instead, English can define sentiments that the human nervous system is incapable of experiencing. ‘Gratitude,’ for example.” [“Older and wiser head” Jubal Harshaw, in Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land]

     The “gratitude” that’s actually poorly-concealed resentment at having had an obligation imposed upon oneself is not the sort I have in mind.

     We cannot love God as He Loves us. (Note the adroit use of capital letters. Aren’t I clever? And yes, I know “aren’t I” is an agrammatical construct. But I digress. I do that, you know.) Nor should we love God in the way we love one another: that is, by elevating His “well-being,” which is permanent, immutable, and requires no maintenance, to a priority equal to our own. He needs nothing of the sort, for He needs nothing whatsoever. But we can be wholeheartedly grateful for His gifts, beginning with the gift of life. And we can indulge in one other emotion: something appropriate to the relation between us.

     awe n. The emotion inspired by something dreadful and sublime; an undefined sense of the dreadful and the sublime; reverential fear, or solemn wonder; profound reverence. [Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 edition]

     We have forgotten the original meaning of that word, though we still experience the emotion. Reverential fear. Holy dread. Coleridge got it right:

     That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
     And all who heard should see them there,
     And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
     His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
     Weave a circle round him thrice,
     And close your eyes with holy dread
     For he on honey-dew hath fed,
     And drunk the milk of Paradise.

     We feel awe in the presence of that which is inherently beyond human scale. Great mountains and powerful waterfalls. The majesty of the night sky. Mighty cathedrals whose construction spanned several lifetimes. Their size implies the power required to create them, which defeats any man who has ever lived or will live. They humble us through our recognition of our relative puniness.

     Just as the original meaning of awe has been lost, so also has the original meaning of awful. That toward which we feel awe is awful. We don’t necessarily fear for our lives in its presence; we do perceive and acknowledge that the power locked within it, placed there by its genesis, could crush any of us to dust.

     Awe, and the consequent total submission, are the appropriate responses to God. To say to Him “Not my will but Thine be done” is the acknowledgement of our relation to Him, for despite all our peregrinations and machinations, it will surely be so.

     As with all these Ruminations, I’m mostly thinking aloud, and principally to myself. I post them on the off-chance that others will get some value from them, not because I think they’re irrefutable expressions of eternal truths. It’s just that the problem of how to love God properly has been much on my mind in recent weeks. I’ve struggled with it, turning it this way and that, seeking a purchase that would harmonize that sort of love with the other contexts in which we use the word and the emotions we imply by doing so.

     The matter confounded me for quite some time. I was on the verge of making an appointment to discuss it with my pastor, but something, or perhaps Someone, stopped me, tickling my hindbrain with the suggestion that this is a problem I had to solve for myself.

     The marriage of absolute gratitude and ultimate awe, and the consequent submission to the Divine Will, capture for me the essence of human love for the Being to Whom we owe all that we are and all that we have. Mind you, these are not “automatic” emotions, even for a devout Christian. They require considerable meditation: on oneself, on what little we can be sure of about God, and on our self-evident inability to do anything “for” Him. Were He to confront us Personally, we would not say “What can I do for You?” Rather we would ask “What dost Thou require of me, Lord?” – and hope that the mission would not be beyond our strength. As usual, C. S. Lewis caught it perfectly, albeit by inverting it through the pen of his devil-protagonist Screwtape:

     [Each man] is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman; and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one half-hour in that day the Enemy said "Now you may go and amuse yourself". Now if he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he is actually in this situation every day.

     And indeed we are.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Weetabix said...

I... er... love these ruminations.

I work to express gratitude. Sometimes I express it semi-humorously at Thanksgiving - for example, I'm grateful for friction. Just try to imagine life without it. But the extent of all that He has given us is amazing in its extent and its complexity. What a wonderful world!

I think I do less well at experiencing awe. You've given me something to work on.

As to what we can do for Him? Jesus said, "Follow the commandments." It's simple, but difficult. He asks it of us every day, as Lewis commented.

Thanks for sharing your ruminations.

Anti-robot comment: I had to choose all the images of sandwiches, but they were all hamburgers. Mrs. 'Bix always objects when I call a hamburger a sandwich. Apparently I digress, too.

Reg T said...

"And yes, I know 'aren’t I' is an agrammatical construct."

Why isn't the expression "AmIn't I" ? :-)

Reg T said...

"Awe, and the consequent total submission, are the appropriate responses to God."

This made me think of the definition of islam. The muslims have perverted this into "islam": supposedly submission to Allah, while in fact it means submission to the diseased tenets of mohammed's made-up pseudo-religion. Complete with child rape, bacha bereesh ("beardless boys"), spousal abuse, sex slaves ("war brides"), and the rest of the litany of horrors that is islam.

It would seem to me that total submission is dangerous territory, due to the notion it might make people open to error from equating submission to God with submission to a Church or the representatives of a Church, who claim to know what they should submit to: like the Inquisition, hatred of Jews ("Christ killers"), love of muslims, acceptance of gay marriage, abortions and such.

Awe felt about a Supreme Being certainly seems appropriate, submission to his will - fine. Knowing his will in all circumstances might pose a problem. I suppose you can only do what you can do. I don't doubt I missed something there that a smarter person, or one of faith, would see clearly.