Love, Defined

Love—as understood by the gospel in contrast to all philosophy—is not a method for dealing with people. Instead, it is the reality of being drawn and drawing others into an event, namely, into God’s community with the world, which has already been accomplished in Jesus Christ. “Love” does not exist as an abstract attribute of God but only in God’s actual loving of human beings and the world. Again, “love” does not exist as a human attribute but only as a real belonging-together and being-together of people with other human beings and with the world, based on God’s love that is extended to me and to them. Just as God’s love entered the world, thereby submitting to the misunderstanding and ambiguity that characterize everything worldly, so also Christian love does not exist anywhere but in the worldly, in the infinite variety of concrete worldly action, and subject to misunderstanding and condemnation. Every attempt to portray a Christianity of “pure” love purged of worldly “impurities” is a false purism and perfectionism that scorns God’s becoming human and falls prey to the fate of all ideologies. God was not too pure to enter the world. The purity of love, therefore, will not consist in keeping itself apart from the world, but will prove itself precisely in its worldly form.

A favorite quote from Bonhoeffer, Ethics

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Writing Cricket Bats

Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels off the field. It’s better because it’s better. …

…He’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Tom Stoppard, in his play The Real Thing, talking about good writing. Of course, getting the right words in the right order isn’t enough if the author doesn’t have anything true to say and much of The Real Thing is wrestling with this dynamic (the “real thing” being discussed in the play is as much art as it is love). The same character later cautions that it’s easy to get good at “persuasive nonsense. Sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it.” But, in the evangelical subculture I inhabit too often authors fail to recognize that the “cricket bat” of writing is more than just a block of wood. They keep trying to bash (very possibly true and meaningful) ideas with ugly hunks of lumber and then are puzzled by the fact that they don’t “travel.” This tendency extends from the popular level to the academic (but I mean, academic writing in general is very often just beating the ball into the ground with a splintery two-by-four, so evangelicals aren’t alone there).

Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

Dickens is so good at first lines.

There is no worthless life before God

There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable. Because God is the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of life, even the poorest life before God becomes a valuable life. … Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of a life lie? In the subjective affirmation of life? If so, then many a genius would be surpassed by an idiot. In the judgment of the community? If so, then it would soon be evident that judgment about socially valuable or worthless life would be abandoned to the need of the moment and therefore to arbitrary action, and that now this group and now that group of people would fall victim to extermination. The distinction between valuable and worthless life sooner or later destroys life itself.

Bonhoeffer in Ethics. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. The idea of what grounds the value of a person, of a life, is in the air more and more as different technological and cultural developments push the question forward. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, earlier this year, and learning about the frontiers of genetic science and the hopes attached to it by some in the field, was sobering (I’m thinking especially of the idea of editing genomes i.e. in a fetus, to eliminate or encourage particular traits). It feels like we haven’t learned the most fundamental lesson from the disasters of early and mid-twentieth century eugenics. Some of the possible paths for gene therapy/editing being explored make it seem as though early twentieth century eugenics was a flawed project because the criteria and methods were abhorrent. The slogan seems to be: 21st century gene therapy, just don’t be a Nazi about it! But, the criteria or the methods used to eliminate “worthless” aspects of humanity and pursue “progress” aren’t the fundamental problem. It’s the whole project. The early twentieth century proponents of eugenics thought they were acting for the improvement of humanity. The lesson that needs to be learned (but we seem unable to grasp with all our technological power) is that a human being cannot and should not be making a judgment of the worth of another person’s humanity (and I don’t see how the prospect of editing genomes avoids the need for such a judgment). It’s a question beyond our capacity to answer and failure to realize this limit will result, as Bonhoeffer says, in destruction.

The more the church holds to its central message, the more effective it is. Its suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the spirit of destruction than the political power that it may still retain.

Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Allowing Space for the Wildness of God

Oh, come on, thinks the believing reader. No need to reinvent the wheel. You would save yourself so much time if you knew how everything was supposed to join up. Quick, someone air-freight this woman a Jesuit! But this is to let ourselves off the hook too easily, two ways round. If someone as open as this, with such a strong working sense of the tragic possibilities of existence, recognises nothing in the descriptions of faith she has encountered, then we are not describing it rightly. If the ‘rage of joy’ she has felt seems to have nothing to do with goodness, then we have been misrepresenting virtue. If what we have managed to extend in her direction seems to be only an offer of authoritarian parenthood, or a resistible politics, then we have made a mistake of our own about the place we allow for the wildness of God.

Francis Spufford, reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God (I read this in his essay collection, True Stories). He’s probably a little too hard on his fellow Christians here, as I don’t think good descriptions are too difficult to find, if a person wants to find them – but the larger point that there are so many bad (tamed, made in our image) descriptions of God, trumpeted so loudly, is a good one.

The Right Kind of Trouble

Oh, I know it sounds crazy, she said. I suppose it is crazy. I don’t know. I don’t even care. But that girl needs somebody and I’m ready to take desperate measures. She needs a home for these months. And you—she smiled at them—you old solitary bastards need somebody too. Somebody or something besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die some day without ever having had enough trouble in your life. Not of the right kind anyway. This is your chance.

From Kent Haruf’s Plainsong