A Christology of Love

And for love he made mankind, and for the same love himselfe wolde become man.
— Julian of Norwich, A Revelation of Love 57

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-born Son.
— John 3:16

[F]or everything that has been done through Christ has been done for our sake.
— Martin Luther, Four Sermons on the Resurrection of the Dead (LW58: 150)

[I]t pleased God to come to aid the lost world, that is, by the death of his Son, in which he allures us to love of God and calls us away from the love of the world.
— Sebastian Meyer, In utramque D. Pauli epistolam ad Corinthios commentarii (Frankfurt: Petrus Brubacchius, 1546), fol. 8r

In these four phrases are the seeds of a whole Christology written around the theme of love.

 

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Repeating Abraham

In his Conferences, John Cassian relates the story of a monk who failed in his discretion. This monk, who remains unnamed, is tempted to repeat the sacrifice of Abraham, who was called to give up his only son Isaac:

Why also should I speak of one (whose name we had rather not mention as he is still alive), who for a long while received a devil in the brightness of an angelic form, and was often deceived by countless revelations from him and believed that he was a messenger of righteousness: for when these were granted, every night he provided a light in his cell without the need of any lamp. At last he was ordered by the devil to offer up to God his own son who was living with him in the monastery, in order that his merits might by this sacrifice be made equal to those of the patriarch Abraham. And he was so far seduced by his persuasion that he would really have committed the murder unless his son had seen him getting ready the knife and sharpening it with unusual care, and looking for the chains with which he meant to tie him up for the sacrifice when he was going to offer him up; and had fled away in terror with a presentiment of the coming crime. (Conferences 2.7)

This reminds me of the comments of Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling, a lengthy meditation on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Fear and Trembling, 30)

What distinguishes Abraham from Cassian’s deceived monk? For Kierkegaard, the difference between Abraham and a murderer is faith. For Cassian, the difference between Abraham and the monk is discernment–or more properly, obedience to the discernment of the elders. But how would Cassian have counseled Abraham? Surely he would have counseled him that he had not heard God properly, that his act could only be murder, that such a sacrifice would not be in faith. For Kierkegaard, the counsel of others is impossible; it must be avoided because it cannot be undertaken:

But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. (Fear and Trembling, 74)

Perhaps there is something to both analyses. On the one hand, by the time God’s command comes to Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he had already had revelations from God on several occasions (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-22; 18:1-33). We could say that he was accustomed to discerning the voice of God; he had developed a habit and virtue of discernment. So then when God comes to him with the demand to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham recognises the voice of God and obeys.

On the other hand, Abraham has faith in the voice of the true God. Cassian’s monk, on the other hand, is deceived by a demon masquerading as an angel of light. In the grammar of Scripture, one can only have “faith” in the true God; to believe in false gods is not to have faith at all. In the case of Cassian’s monk, he fails to discern the voice of the true God, and so fails to have faith; thus his act is “murder” and not “sacrifice,” on Kierkegaard’s distinction.

Nevertheless, this leaves open the difficult question of discernment by individuals in the midst of the community. What happens when a single individual believes they hear the voice of God on a matter, and the “elders” of the community–the wise, and not simply the elderly (see Conferences 2.13)–disagree in their collective discernment? Kierkegaard has no space for yielding to the latter; Cassian, no space to yield to the former. What is the solution when an individual needs to adhere to the guidance of the community? Obedience. What is the solution when the community needs an individual to correct its discernment? Prophecy.

Maximus the Confessor on “the Grace of Theology”

When the intellect practices the virtues correctly, it advances in moral understanding. When it practices contemplation, it advances in spiritual knowledge… Finally, the intellect is granted the grace of theology when, carried on wings of love beyond these two former stages, it is taken up into God and with the help of the Holy Spirit discerns—as far as this is possible for the human intellect—the qualities of God.

If you are about to enter the realm of theology, do not seek to descry God’s inmost nature, for neither the human intellect nor that of any other being under God can experience this; but try to discern, as far as possible, the qualities that appertain to His nature—qualities of eternity, infinity, indeterminateness, goodness, wisdom, and the power of creating, preserving and judging creatures, and so on. For he who discovers these qualities, to however small an extent, is a great theologian.

— Maximus the Confessor, Four Centuries on Love 2.25-26, in The Philokalia, vol. 2, 69.

On Experience

It depends how you define it, but “experience” probably needs to play more of a role in theology than it does. How can it not? Taken at its broadest, “experience” simply means everything that happens, all that occurs, as it enters the field of human awareness. Thus, revelation itself is one particular form of experience–the experience of God showing himself; the reading of Scripture is an experience; praying, being baptized, and thinking about the Trinity are all experiences in this sense.

Typically, experience gets slagged, I think, because of two fears. They are two narrowings of the notion of experience. The first is the fear that granting “experience” a role means granting that an individual’s experiences shape their theology. But of course the individual–along with their experiences–shapes their theology: the real question is whether they are going to shape it apart from Scripture (and the Church and its tradition). So bad theology takes the form: “God for me is more like…” Good theology proceeds in the light of revelation, in the form given to it by particular individuals.

The second fear, closely related to the first, is that “experience” will form some kind of second (or third or fourth) source after and potentially against Scripture. It can. But it doesn’t have to. Certain forms of feminism want to leverage women’s experience against parts of Scripture. But if reading Scripture is itself an experience, then their relationship is a bit more complex. Experience is properly the all-encompassing web–from the human side, for experience too is a creature–within which the reading of Scripture is an event, a particular experience. And further, we should not assume we know what we are experiencing. Only after the resurrection, and then sometimes only gradually, did the apostles discover what they had experienced (John 2:22). Note the past tense. Put starkly, the unbeliever thinks they are experiencing life, but the Christian understands it is really death they know (1 Tim 5:6).

All this is to say: spiritual theology is important. And how did we get here? Well, any spiritual writer worth their salt–Augustine, Merton, those collected in the Philokalia–knows that we are often willing to deceive ourselves about what we experience. We only know in part the realities of which the Bible speaks (1 Cor 13:12). As Merton puts it, “Yet we act as if we understood sin and as if we were really aware of the love of God when we have never deeply experienced the meaning of either one” (A Search for Solitude, 23). And sometimes we know them plain wrongly: in 1966, Merton had an affair with a nurse. At the time he talked of the “mysterious, transcendent presence of her essential self,” but later he was able to see it as “incredible stupidity” (The Intimate Merton, 297, 336). The deception is not always so severe, and sometimes, when we are given the grace, we are able to see with gratitude-inducing clarity the traces of God’s work in our lives.

“Experience,” then, is not something that has to be excluded from theology; rather, it has only to be named. And it can be named as limited, healthy, destructive–more theologically, as “sin” or as “grace,” as “death” or as “life.” Indeed, so objective a thinker as Aquinas can say, that “anyone may know,” at least “conjecturally,” that “he has grace, when he is conscious of delighting in God, and of despising worldly things” (ST I-II Q112 A5). A theologian who does not experience the realities of which he speaks, who is not “delighting in God,” will write a theology that at best sounds oddly hollow, and at worst is false and destructive of faith.

But we must trust that Paul’s prayer is for us as well: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph 1:17-19a).

Merton on the Oddness of Saints

One of the first signs of a saint may well be the fact that other people do not know what to make of him. In fact, they are not sure whether he is crazy or only proud; but it must at least be pride to be haunted by some individual ideal which nobody but God really comprehends. And he has inescapable difficulties in applying all the abstract norms of ‘perfection’ to his own life. He cannot seem to make his life fit in with the books.

Sometimes his case is so bad that no monastery will keep him. He has to be dismissed, sent back to the world like Benedict Joseph Labre, who wanted to be a Trappist and a Carthusian and succeeded in neither. He finally ended up as a tramp. He died in some street in Rome.

And yet the only canonized saint, venerated by the whole Church, who has lived either as a Cistercian or a Carthusian since the Middle Ages is St. Benedict Joseph Labre. (New Seeds, 103)

Julian of Norwich on Hazelnuts and Rest

I ran across this beautiful bit from Julian of Norwich on Katrina Vandenberg’s blog. Though little is known of the life of Julian, she received a series of revelations in which she saw Jesus crucified, and he spoke to her, including these words. The language is Middle English, but makes sense if you simply sound it out:

And in this, he shewed a little thing the quantity of an haselnot, lying in the palme of my hand as me semide, and it was as rounde as any balle. I looked theran with the eye of my understanding, and thought: “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus: “It is all that is made.” I marvayled how it might laste, for methought it might sodenly have fallen to nought for littlenes. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it. And so hath all thing being by the love of God.” [….]

Of this nedeth us to have knowinge, that us liketh to nought all thing that is made, for to love and have God that is unmade. For this is the cause why we be not all in ease of hart and of soule: for we seeke heer rest in this thing that is so little, wher no reste is in, and we know not our God, that is al mighty, all wise, and all good. For he is very reste. God will be knowen, and him liketh that we rest us in him. For all that is beneth him suffiseth not to us. And this is the cause why that no soule is rested till it is noughted of all thinges that is made. When he is wilfully noughted for love to have him that is all, then is he able to receive ghostly reste. (A Revelation of Love 5.7-13, 19-27, pp.139-41)

Spiders, Whales and Providence

We should on no account wear ourselves out with anxiety over our bodily needs. With our whole soul let us trust in God: as one of the Fathers has said, ‘Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you.’ ‘Show restraint and moderation,’ writes the Apostle Peter, ‘and be watchful in prayer… casting all your care upon God, since he cares for you’ (1 Pet. 4:7, 5:7). But if you still feel uncertainty, doubting whether he really cares about providing for you, think of the spider and compare it with a human being. Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect: ‘If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat’ (2 Thess. 3:10)… Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering according to its fancy, always hard at work—nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord, ‘who dwells on high but sees what is lowly’ (Ps. 113:5-6), extends his providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

One who is enslaved to greed may perhaps object: ‘I eat a great deal, and since this involves me in heavy expenses, I am inevitably tied up with all kinds of worldly business.’ Such a person should think of the huge whales that feed in the Atlantic Ocean: God gives them plenty to eat and they never starve, although each of them swallows daily more fish than a highly populated city would consume. ‘All things wait upon You, to give them their food at the proper time’ (Ps. 104:27). It is God who provides food both for those who eat much and for those who eat little. Bearing this in mind, anyone among you who has a capacious appetite should in the future set his faith entirely in God, freeing his intellect from all worldly distractions and anxieties. ‘Be no longer faithless, but have faith’ (John 20:27). (John of Karpathos, “For the Encouragement of the Monks in India,” §§47-8; in Philokalia, vol. 1, 308-9)

I think the journeying overseas bit is my favourite.