Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 3

3. God is love
—St. John the apostle, 4:8, 4:16
This may be the most generally accepted definition in the top ten. Plus, it finally got a saint on the list. But, why is it so acceptable? Love, i.e. agapao (compassion, kindness, charity), is a very human trait and applying it to God seems suspicious. "God is love" makes little sense for a monotheistic God. How can a monad be selfless love? Christianity cleverly addressed the issue by positing "three persons in one God." It is that communion of three persons in one that allows love. But that strikes me as a bit of trickery at best. On the other hand, we probably should take a closer look, since any definition that makes perfect human sense inevitably makes a perfectly nonsensical God.

One reason it is accepted is that every major religion embraces love in its center. Sure there are plenty of instances in the various scriptures of violence, racism, bigotry, contemptuousness of women, and hostility toward free inquiry—and that's just from God. But the big picture, at least compared to what else was going at the time, is remarkable in its promotion of love—for one's neighbor and often even for one's enemy. Where does this come from? Currently all things seek a Darwinian explanation, but if we turn to On the Origin of Species we find, on the contrary, an emphasis on competition and natural selection. Darwin himself doubted an "omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Well, most of us would choose different examples of pain and suffering in our world, but Darwin's example works just as well.

But even Darwin states in The Descent of Man: “Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the efforts of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.”

And though it might surprise us that Darwin thought love and morality were more important than natural selection for advancing our species, if we look at our lives, we realize that astonishingly we see love everywhere. Lack of love as witnessed on nightly news is the aberrant exception from our daily associations with family, friends and colleagues.  In fact more than any other idea or concept, our lives could be said to be driven by the love of others and our need to be loved. This obsession with love seems pretty strange in a cold, uncaring universe. Or put another way, our universe appears quite different than the observable universe.

French philosopher Michel Henry recognized this duality of viewing the world. There were two modes of manifestation, he said: 'exteriority', the visible world; and phenomenological 'interiority', which is the mode by which we manifest life. He defines God in a phenomenological point of view similarly to Tillich: "Life loves itself with an infinite love and never ceases to engender itself; . . . Life is nothing but this absolute love that religion calls God."

If primitive man projected an omnipotent and all powerful masque beyond the planets, then today we project the God-dance of love. And nowhere is this expressed as well as in the truly remarkable 14th century anonymous mystic text, The Cloud of Unknowing:

You will ask me, 'How am I to think of God himself, and what is he?' and I cannot answer you except to say 'I do not know!' for with this question you have brought me into the same darkness, the same cloud of unknowing where I want you to be! For though we through the grace of God can know fully about all other matters, and think about them - yes, even the very works of God himself - yet of God himself can no one think. Therefore I will leave on one side everything I can think, and choose for my love that thing which I cannot think! Why? 
For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

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Big Myk said...

I think I see the aim of this project (the top 10 definitions of God), and it comes from something I read by George Santayana:

"Experience has repeatedly confirmed that well-known maxim of Bacon's that 'a little philosophy inclineth a man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion.' At the same time, when Bacon penned that sage epigram... he forgot to add that the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them."

You have delivered up for us a --shall I say, joyous? -- array of views of the God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men's minds.

James R said...

Thank you. While I'm not smart or knowledgeable enough to think that I can succeed in adding a little depth to our views of God through philosophy, I hope that I can at least cause an itch that will provoke a scratch. There are some amazing thoughts by people mentioned here. I'm afraid I have not done them justice.

If there is one idea that sparked this project (other than learning more about these theologians myself), it is a desire to warn against the idea that one can dismiss what one knows little about. We are almost always surprised.

Unfortunately, you may be the only one who 'gets' the list, which lessens it impact since I mostly still consider myself your chela. However, there are still two fantastic, surprising definitions to go!