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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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.

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.

Easter Spirit

The following is intended only as a sort of informal “theological sketch” – I’m not hammering out a formal argument here, just doing some exploring. 

I’m sympathetic to the (reasonably common) observation that there is an imbalance between the way many North American Christians celebrate Christmas and the way they celebrate Easter. Basically, the idea is that of the two central celebrations of the Christian year it is Easter, not Christmas, which should be the “big” one (i.e. we wouldn’t be aware of Jesus’ birth if not for his death and resurrection), but for many of us Christmas looms much larger in our imagination and lived experience. The “Easter Spirit” just never feels quite as contagious as the “Christmas Spirit.” The best place for me to observe this is, of course, in my own life as the years cycle through: often I eagerly anticipate Christmas but stumble distractedly into Easter.

There are some obvious reasons for the difference. A main one, much discussed and lamented, is that our culture has figured out ways to harness the iconography of Christmas as a marketing device to sell us a bunch of junk we don’t really need. And, um, we like stuff: we like it so much we usually don’t even realize how much we like it. Consumption is an (the?) idol at the center of our shared cultural life, and to the extent that our Christmas celebrations share in the worship of Our-Lady-of-Perpetual-Deals it is unsurprising that the Christmas holiday feels “bigger.” This again, is obvious, and maybe the answer to our question is that we just need to crucify our consumerism (even as our culture will keep doing its best to commercialize Easter) – but that’s easier said than done.

I think there are other reasons too, ones that are interesting to think about, and perhaps might provide some clues for celebrating better, if not “bigger.” Theologically it may be easier to sing “Joy to the World” at Christmas than “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter because the incarnation is God’s great affirmation and confirmation of creation. In the incarnation God enters into creation, into the particularity of it, and affirms it by being born as a baby. John 1’s echo of the creation story and Luke’s narrative describing the birth of Jesus both make the same theological point regarding the value and goodness of creation. So, there is a certain sort of theological harmony in the festival of Christmas being marked by an enjoyment of the creaturely goods of food, family bonds etc.

But, maybe I’ve just revealed myself to be some sort heretic who diminishes the significance of the resurrection? Isn’t the promise of new life, of new creation that much more powerful of a “yes” to God’s creatures than the quotidian mess of childbirth? If we celebrate a birth, how much more the defeat of death? There’s an existential element to this, I think. We all have some sense of familiarity with birth, and also, perhaps with death, but reports from the resurrected have been … rare. At Christmas we are remembering a birth, a joyful, life-affirming event; at Easter we are remembering a death … and a resurrection. In remembering the resurrection we’re remembering something we anticipate and hope for, something beyond our capacity to entirely understand, rather than something we know happens every hour at the hospital down the street (not that we understand birth and death particularly well, either). And at Easter there’s the horrific death there in the middle – the reality that there is no resurrection without the cross. Good Friday forces us to grapple with evil, death, judgment, suffering, sin, which tends to dampen the festival atmosphere one might find at Christmas. Yes, we find reason for hope in the resurrection, but the reality of Good Friday (and perhaps even more the flat “in-between” waiting of Holy Saturday) often feel easier to identify with than the wonder of the Resurrection Sunday and it would be perverse to try and ignore the importance of the cross in our attempts to celebrate Easter.

So, it’s not straightforward that the solution to a Christmas/Easter imbalance is to just make Easter “bigger.” The pleas from the pulpit on Easter Sunday to “Come on and be happy!” (usually delivered in more pious language) feel forced, at best. I think in part, we (I) struggle to recognize significance and meaning outside a limited emotional range in our shared life together. We can manage happy (Christmas Day – never mind that whole “Advent” thing), we can manage sad (Good Friday – thank goodness it’s only one day a year) and we have Easter (why aren’t you as happy as you were at Christmas?). I don’t think the goal should be to make Easter more like Christmas – trying to generate some sort of emotional response that isn’t really there – but rather to recover a richer, broader range of response as we try and faithfully remember and celebrate what God has done.

Oliver O’Donovan on Pride

But when we are simply ‘proud,’ we have not kept our satisfaction focused on the concrete object, just one accomplishment among many accomplishments, but have taken it into our moral self-consciousness. The achievement drops out of sight; what remains is the standing that it leaves us with. This halts in its tracks the dynamic progress of practical reason from one provisional end to the next, from faith to love to hope and back to love again, keeping faith and hope in play until the final end is reached. Pride thus makes absolute the sins against self, world, and time. Agency is re-founded on what we have made of ourselves, instead of being received afresh in faith as God’s gift. The social world becomes our prey, raw material for our self-valuation. Time is seized and over-mastered, since it cannot be endured. The proud individual, people, or civilization no longer learns or does, for it is always having to maintain its position, scanning the world of appearances for proof of its power, technique, or wealth. At the root of its impotence is a moral vacuum, an intolerable doubt as to the point of existence, an inability to live without a surrogate for the meaning it has lost sight of.

Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest

The Tech-Wise Family – Andy Crouch

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper PlaceThe Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With every article and book that I come across connecting anxiety/depression with smartphones and social media use (and there seems to be a deluge lately), this book seems more and more essential. Highly recommended if you have children (and even if you don’t) and are trying to think through the “proper place” for technology in your family (and really, your life). For a taste, here are the “Ten Tech-Wise Commitments” Crouch explores and defends in the book:

1 We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
2 We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
3 We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.
4 We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
5 We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.
6 We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
7 Car time is conversation time.
8 Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
9 We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
10 We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

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A world in need of amateurs

First, I am an amateur. If that strikes you as disappointing, consider how much in error you are, and how the error is entirely of your own devising. At its root lies an objection to cookbooks written by non-professionals (an objection, by the way, which I consider perfectly valid, and congratulate you upon). It does not, however, apply here. Amateur and nonprofessional are not synonyms. The world may or may not need another cookbook, but it needs all the lovers— amateurs—it can get. It is a gorgeous old place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: It is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom is not neutral—it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness. In such a situation, the amateur—the lover, the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy—is just the man you need. More than that, whether you think you need him or not, he is a man who is bound, by his love, to speak. If he loves Wisdom or the Arts, so much the better for him and for all of us. But if he loves only the way meat browns or onions peel, if he delights simply in the curds of his cheese or the color of his wine, he is, by every one of those enthusiasms, commanded to speak. A silent lover is one who doesn’t know his job.

From Robert F. Capon’s boisterous theological cookbook, Supper of the Lamb