Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Leader Resource 4: The Love of God

In the largely secularized culture and language of our time, the subject of this chapter is by no means one that elicits universal interest. To many serious-minded people phrases such as "the love of God," "God's love for us," or "the human response to God's love" are almost meaningless. Yet the subject is actually one of universal concern. This is obscured by the fact that we often discuss it without using theological language and perhaps even without being fully aware of what we are doing.

Even among people who think of themselves as having made a religious commitment, one may not discuss our subject without considerable difficulty. The variety of religious traditions and affiliations in our society create almost as many semantic problems as are confronted in face of the "unbelievers." In addition, the sharp differences of religious outlook that prevail among Jews and Christians present a host of difficulties with respect to both language and content.

Taking this situation into account, the ensuing discussion will assume no explicitly religious commitment on the part of the reader. Therefore, we must as it were begin at the beginning; and we shall go scarcely beyond that beginning.

At the outset an attempt will be made to show that, contrary to the rather generally accepted view, the basic concerns of religion are inescapable; indeed that some sort of religious faith is found among all people. Thus the most significant differences between people will be interpreted not as differences between religion and irreligion but as differences between conceptions of faith and also of the love of God; ultimately, the basic issue concerns the question as to what the most reliable object of human devotion is. Finally, an attempt will be made to show that the decisive differences between conceptions of the love of God become most clear when we determine the social-institutional implications of these conceptions.

The very title of the present chapter will arouse hostility in some minds. Love of family, of friends, of country—these are loves that may be, and often are, frustrated or perverse. No one, however, doubts the reality of these objects of devotion. It is not so with "the love of God." For some readers the word "God" is not the sign of a reality but of a powerful illusion; it epitomizes all that belongs to the pathology of love and dreams. From this viewpoint, the only appropriate intent of the present discussion should be to expose the illusion.

Such an attitude may not properly be brushed aside. The God that is rejected by the "unbeliever" may be an illusion and wholly worthy of rejection. After all, a multitude of conceptions of God, and of the love of God, has appeared in the history of religion; not all of them can possibly be true. Many of these illusions are doggedly tenacious. The absolute sanction of authoritarian faith (both religious and secular), and of the security it affords, protects it from radical criticism; and nonauthoritarian faiths have their own ways of ignoring criticism, too.

Those who are hostile to religion will not find themselves alone in their critical attitude. In much that they reject they bear the heritage of a venerable company of religious thinkers. From even before the times of Amos and Plato there have been prophets, philosophers, and theologians who have devoted a supreme effort to unmasking the illusions of uncritical religion.

But there is also such a thing as uncritical irreligion. The rejection of all belief in God as illusory may be the consequence of a failure to consider conceptions of God more plausible than those rejected. In some instances, moreover, the rejection of belief in God issues from the false notion that theology and religious faith are possible only because people indulge in speculation on questions for which no dependable answers are available. This view can often find cogent justification. But this rejection of so-called speculation is itself a spurious speculation. It may be tied up with an illusion, the illusion that religious faith as such may be dispensed with. Actually, the nonreligious are not themselves without faith, even though they reject what they call speculation. There are many kinds of faith that may be dispensed with. But there remains one kind which no one can live without. We do not need to use the word "faith" to refer to it. The word "confidence" will serve just as well. No one and no culture can for long maintain a dynamic and creative attitude toward life without the confidence that human life has some important meaning either actual or potential, and that this meaning may in some tolerable fashion be maintained or achieved, in other words, that resources are available for the fulfillment of this meaning. This concern with the meaning of life and with the resources available is no merely optional luxury. It is a universal concern. It is the essential concern of religion. In its characteristic intention religion has to do with these inescapable issues and realities, and unless we are coming to terms with these issues our concern is not essentially religious. To be sure, what calls itself religion can be a means for attempting to evade these issues. Irreligion is often a protest against trivial or perverted religion; it may be a way of coming to terms with the serious and inescapable issues. Archbishop Temple perhaps had this fact in mind when he asserted, "It is a great mistake to suppose that God is only or even chiefly concerned with religion."

If we understand the word "religion" to refer to the concern with the inescapable issues regarding the meaning and the fulfillment of life, we may say that there is no such thing as a completely irreligious person. Both the "non-religious" and the "religious" person are concerned with these issues, and they are both somehow believers; they are people of faith, whether they use the word "God" or not. Indeed, the rejection of the word "God" may be only a sign that the word does not point to the ground of faith or confidence. The rejection itself may reveal confidence of some sort; it is a sign of devotion.

We live by our devotions. We live by our love for our god. All alike place their confidence in something, whether it be in human nature, reason, scientific method, church, nation, Bible, or God.

This confidence finds explicit or implicit expression in belief and disbelief. As Emerson observed, "A man bears beliefs as a tree bears apples."

To equate the devotion one lives by with the love of God may seem at first blush to be questionable. Is this not a mere playing with words? Does not this imply, for example, that an atheist who is utterly devoted to his atheism is thereby expressing his love for God? And is this not absurd?

The absurdity lies only on the surface. It is no mere word play to assert that the convinced atheist loves God, particularly if the atheism grows out of a total attitude toward life. Whoever with seriousness rejects belief in God (as that word is understood) expresses loyalty to a standard of truth or of goodness on which the judgment is made. The rejection implies that this truth or goodness is valid and reliable. For that person this truth or goodness is sacred; it may not be violated. The atheist rejects what appears to be sacred and sovereign for the theist; but in doing so recognizes something else that is sovereign and even holy for him or her. This recognition of something as sovereign, in practice if not in theory, appears in both the serious atheist and the serious theist. The one rejects the word "God," and the other accepts it. But both believe something is sovereign and reliable.

Sacred, sovereign, reliable. Just these are the qualities that have always been associated with deity. It would appear that even when belief in God ostensibly disappears, the attributes of deity remain and are attached to something that is not called "God." Religion therefore might say to the unbeliever, "When me you fly, I am the wings." In other words, if we discover what persons really believe to be sovereign, what they will cling to as the principle or reality without which life would lose its meaning; we shall have discovered their religion, their god. This sovereign object of devotion is not always readily discernible, but it can sometimes be detected by what we might call the "temperature test." When the temperature of a person's mind or spirit rises to defend something to the very last ditch, then generally that person's sacred devotion is at stake. The test is as revealing when applied to the believer in God as when applied to the unbeliever. It may show that the God avowed by the believer is not really sacred to him or her. It can show also that a serious rejection of belief in God may be a form of the love of God in the sense that it is a giving of oneself to, an identification with, something cherished above all else.

This kind of atheism is really a happy, confident atheism. It is in its way an affirmation of meaning. There is another kind of atheism, however, which is far from confident or happy. It denies that there is anything worthy of ultimate loyalty, that there is anything sacred or sovereign. This kind of atheism is nihilism, it takes nothing (not even itself) seriously; it holds that nothing is worthy of love and that love itself is meaningless. This is the anomie that leads to suicide. This perhaps is the only consistent atheism. It asserts that nothing dependable remains.

Whether people call themselves theists or atheists, the issue comes down to this: What is sacred? What is truly sovereign? What is ultimately reliable? These are the questions that are involved in every discussion of the love of God. And even if we do not like to use the words "the love of God," we will nevertheless deal with these questions in any discussion of the meaning of human existence. These are the questions to which we are always giving the answers in the embracing patterns and the ultimate decisions of our existence. Indeed, the struggle between the different answers constitutes the very meaning of human history.

Nihilism, the sense of complete meaninglessness in life, has been vividly depicted by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre in his play No Exit. The setting of this play is hell, the hell of isolation. The author depicts the inferno of human loneliness and despair, the alienation of three souls—a man who had in life been a fascist collaborationist, and two women, the one a strumpet and the other a Lesbian. They are all three imprisoned and condemned to the eternal torture of keeping each other company. For them there is no exit from the torture of loneliness even though they are together. They share no common values that can give them dignity either as individuals or as a group locked in their room in hell. The souls in Dante's Inferno retain some human dignity; they seem to be at least worthy of punishment. But the souls in Sartre's hell have lost even that dignity. The three people struggle for each other's attention but without believing they have anything worth giving and without believing the others would really esteem anything worth giving. In the end, the man cannot decide whether his own spiritual leprosy allies him most closely with the woman who has been and still is a strumpet or with the one who can only give or receive affection from a duplicate of herself. And yet all of them are to remain for eternity without any other companions and without any affectionate, human interest in each other. Finally, in desperation the man says, "There's no need for hot pokers in this place. Hell is other people." The "hell" represented in the play is the "hell" of sitting out eternity in common isolation from one another, again and again making abortive attempts at forming tolerable relationships, or at destroying one another.

The anti-heroes of No Exit live in the void of meaninglessness, for meaning is a shared and enjoyed relatedness. They participate in nothing that forms community. The only thing human that remains in them is the longing for community. Humans are made for relationship, and without it we are of all creatures the most miserable. In this play, then, we have a parable of the human condition, a parable of an inescapable reality. The condition of being human—of being made for community—is a fact that we cannot elude. We belong to a cosmos that is social. Only the despairing nihilist has lost the sense of belonging to it. The confident atheists, in finding some meaning in life (even though it be partly expressed in "atheism"), have the sense of belonging to a community. They even place their confidence somehow in that community. But in doing so they do not characteristically think of themselves as people of faith. They simply take the community, and also its possibilities, for granted.

The theists believe of course that they belong to a community of meaning; but they believe also that this community is not ultimately their own, either in its actuality or its possibilities. They believe that as human beings, they possess some freedom to choose the ways in which they will participate or not participate in the social cosmos in which they find themselves. But for them, the human condition as creatures longing for fellowship and as creatures possessing some freedom is a gift. In religious parlance, it is a gift of divine grace. Fulfillment of freedom is seen also as a divinely given task—and peril.

Here a positive parable of the divinely given community of meaning, the parable of the prodigal son, may with profit be added to Sartre's parable regarding the negation of community. The latter is a parable of the lost community; the former a parable of the community lost and found again.

The parable of the prodigal son is not primarily an ethical parable teaching right behavior. It is, we might say, a metaphysical parable, a picture of the social cosmos of divinely given community, of the divinely given human freedom, and of the divinely given task to fulfill that freedom in all its venture and risk. In short, this is a parable of the nature of existence and meaning, and of the love of God—of His love for humanity and of the human response to that love.

It is not possible or necessary here to spell out all the significant details of the parable. But we should observe that its principal religious import resides in the parable as a whole—in its assertion that the total human condition is to be understood as a manifestation of God's love and that participation in community is our responding love for God. Each of the elements of the parable must be understood in this context, the dignity of the creature by virtue of its participation in the social cosmos, the community of relatedness in freedom ("Give me my portion," says the son), the isolation and frustration that issue from the breaking of fellowship, the possibility of new beginning, the enrichment and fulfillment of community that comes from reconciliation. And we should add that this whole picture depicts not only the loss and the regaining of community on the part of the son; it presents, in the image of the father, the attitude of love which all must take toward each other in the re-formation and transformation of community.

It is just at this point that our earlier questions become pertinent. We have suggested that we may determine anyone's conception of the love of God (including the atheist's) by answering the questions: What is sacred for him? What is considered sovereign, what the reliable object of devotion? If we pose these questions in relation to the parable of the prodigal son, we may secure highly significant answers. But this will require that we take note of another figure in the story. So significant is he in this parable that it has been often suggested that the story should be named "the parable of the elder son."

The elder son in the parable corresponds to the antihero of Sartre's play. He manages not only to lose participation in community; he also fails to regain it. But here the resemblance stops. His failure is due to the fact that he is a "good" man. He does the evil as well as the good that "good" men do. He does remain at home, and (unlike the prodigal) he helps to maintain the fabric of the community. But when the prodigal returns, the brother becomes the defender of morality, of law and order. He makes his ethical principles sacred and sovereign. But they turn out to be unreliable, for they would make the community exclusive; they have in them nothing that goes out to greet the prodigal who has come to himself and wants to be a part of the community again. In the mind of the teacher of the parable, the sovereign good, the sovereign reality, is not an ethical law. It is the outgoing power that transforms and fulfills the law; it is the creative element in the law that prevents justice from becoming self-righteous and unjust. But it cannot work here because it is resisted by the "good" man. And the consequence is that the "good" man is undone; he becomes alienated in isolation from the affectional community. He depends upon something undependable.

The love of God, then, is the giving of oneself to the power that holds the world together and that, when we are tearing it apart, persuades us to come to ourselves and start on new beginnings; it is not bound to achieved evil, and it is not bound to achieved good. The prodigal escaped from the one, the elder brother was bound to the other.

And why is this sort of love alone reliable? Because it alone has within it the seeds of becoming, even in the face of tragedy and death—when it keeps confidence, saying, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." This love is reliable also because it alone can engender respect and love for the necessary diversity of men. Through this love which is a self-giving to a process of transformation rather than to a "law," all persons, in their relation to each other and in their diversity, become mutually supporting and enhancing rather than mutually impoverishing. Here the antagonism between egoism and altruism is transcended in the devotion to the good of others, which is at the same time the fulfillment the good of the self. In the fellowship of the love of God one loses life to find it. And yet the loss and the finding are more than the process of self-realization. We become new creatures. This is the work of God that brings the self to something more than and beyond the self, beyond even the "highest self."

This kind of love, however, promises no rosy path. It may lead to what Thomas a Kempis calls "the royal way of the cross," a way which God as well as man traverses, not for the sake of suffering in itself to be sure, but for the sake of suffering, separated mankind. A comprehending mutuality rooted in immemorial being stirs and allows itself anew to heal and unite what has been wounded and separated.

I have never seen this re-creative power of love in its full orb portrayed more tellingly than in a sixteenth-century woodcut titled "The Prodigal Son," which used to be kept in the Durer Museum in old Nuremberg. In this picture the father and the son, with joy and suffering in their faces, are almost at the point of reuniting on the road that leads home. Their arms are extended toward each other, but they have not yet embraced. Yet out beyond them we see their shadows extending as it were into the depth of being. And there they are already embracing. The two had always belonged together. They belonged together in something antecedently given, as on the day of creation when the morning stars sang together and all the children of God shouted for joy. The reuniting of the separated is a re-creation, and thereby a new creation.

The love of God, then, is a love that we cannot give unless we have first received it. Ultimately, it is not even ours to give, for it is not in our keeping. It is in the keeping of a power that we can never fully know, of a power that we must in faith trust. Humanity's expression of it is a response to an antecedent glory and promise, the ground of meaning and the ever new resource for its fulfillment.

"By their fruits shall ye know them" is obviously a test that must be applied to love for God. We learn what is meant by any conception of the love of God by observing what sort of behavior issues from it. Indeed, the principal way to make a religious-ethical idea clear is to show what differences it makes in action. This test of the meaning of an idea we commonly apply in the realm of personal behavior. Love for God, we say, which does not issue in individual integrity, in humility, and in affectionate concern for others, is counterfeit.

But the meaning of love for God must be clarified in another realm besides that of personal attitude and behavior. It becomes fully clear—and relevant—only when we know what it means for institutional behavior, when we know what kind of family, or economic system, or political order it demands. The decisive differences between the old Lutherans and the Quakers, for example, may not be immediately discerned from their words about the love of God, but they become sharply clear in their different conceptions of the family. The one group sanctioned a sort of patriarchal family in which the authoritarian father was the vicar of God in the home, and love of God among the children was supposed to produce instant, unquestioning obedience; the other group preferred a family in which a more permissive, persuasive atmosphere prevailed. Yet both groups avowed the love of God as proclaimed in the Gospels. In general, then, we may say that the meaning of a religious or ethical imperative becomes concrete when we see it in relation to the social context in which it operates. Often the meaning of an ethical generality can be determined by observing what its proponents wish to change in society or to preserve unchanged.

Recently in Greece I visited the remarkable Byzantine church of the eleventh century at Daphni, situated on the ancient Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis. As one emerges from the vestibule into the main church and as the eyes meet the imposing and striking mosaics on the walls of the old monastic church, one senses immediately in this monumental style of Eastern Christendom a powerful feeling for the sacred and the sovereign, the majestic, and the commanding. The eye rises to the dome and one is awestruck by the grim King of Heaven, the All-Ruler (Pantocrator), surrounded by the cruciferous nimbus, holding in His left hand the Book and with His right hand blessing the worshippers. The commanding energy of Christ the Pantocrator in his high eminence above the mosaics of the Prophets and the Feasts of the Church recalls to the worshippers the familiar themes of salvation. But in its time this Pantocrator symbolized also a political idea, the absolute authority and the majestic unapproachability of the emperor. The authority of the Pantocrator was understood in terms of the rule of the emperor. The one buttressed the other. The church and its God have become a department of the absolute state.

Here was little freedom apart from that narrow and insignificant margin permitted by the Emperor-Pantocrator. To the modern man accustomed to the democratic way of life, or to anyone who esteems the community of mutuality and freedom reflected in the parable of the prodigal son, this Caesaro-papism is demonic. The contrast between the King of Heaven (and Emperor) in the mosaic and the Father in the parable highlights opposite ends of the spectrum of conceptions of the love of God.

All the more striking is the contrast if one recalls that the primitive church, the social organization that emerged from the Gospels (which, to be sure, was not a democracy in any modern sense), gave a new dignity to Everyman—to the fisherman, to the slave, to woman, and even to the prodigal. The new fellowship enhanced this dignity by eliciting a new freedom from its members and by assigning them unprecedented responsibility. But, as the Byzantine outcome illustrates, this new freedom and responsibility were soon to be threatened and were later to be submerged.

It is beyond the scope of our discussion here to attempt to apply the spirit and the norms of the love of God (as characterized all too briefly in these pages) to the contemporary situation. Our purpose at this juncture is only to propose that belief in God and the love of God must, as Whitehead has observed regarding the early Christian conceptions, become the basis for principles of social action and organization. This means that those who interpret the love of God as movement toward a community of freedom and mutuality will be able to vindicate the claim that they serve a power that is reliable, only by yielding to that power in the midst of a world that is suffering, divided by the cleavages of race, class, and nation. What is at stake is the creation of a world in which this kind of love of God becomes incarnate in a more just and free society.

Published in On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1976). Used with permission.