Divine Love: Risk and Poignancy


Heather Reichgott asks:

What does it mean to say that God is loving?
Two decades ago, when I was taking tentative steps towards rediscovering a belief in God and therefore reading lots of books on theology, I ran across a reference somewhere (I don't remember where) to a man named W. H. Vanstone. I was deeply fascinated by a description of Vanstone's vision of a God whose non-controlling, self-emptying, and sympathetic love was profoundly affected by the human condition--and I wanted to learn more. I went to bookstores to try to find his books, but apparently all his works were out of print. I subsequently discovered process theology, which took me in a similar but more metaphysical direction than where I thought Vanstone might take me, and as a result I had largely forgotten about Vanstone over the years. However, in retrospect, it is clear to me that reading about Vanstone served as a huge turning point in my spiritual wanderings. And, thanks to the internet, it is fairly easy now to find out of print books, and I recently had a chance to read his small volume The Risk of Love. And I believe that in this book he raises important points about the nature of Divine love.

In the chapter "The Phenomenology of Love" from that book, Vanstone argues first of all that God's love cannot be of such a radically different order from human love that it is beyond our comprehension. Otherwise, he points out, it would make no sense to even use the same word to describe the two phenomena. But what is Divine love, then? While human love may often be limited, Divine love is always perfectly authentic:
If we can describe the form of authentic love, we can hardly look elsewhere for a description of the love of God. If we can say 'what love ought to be', we need enquire no further what the love of God is. (Vanstone, p.42)
The problem is, he argues, that we humans are limited beings and thus not perfectly authentic in our love in the way that God is. So rather than drawing on human experience to describe what authentic love is, he instead proposes three "marks or signs" that describe what authentic love is not.
The first is the mark of limitation. That which professes to be love is exposed as false if it is recognized as limited. (Vanstone, p. 42)
This is an important point that he gets into later in his chapter, "The Self-Emptying of God." God's love is unlimited. It is infinite in scope, it is universal, and it is continual.

He then goes on:
The second mark which denies the authenticity of love is the mark of control. When one who professes to love is wholly in control of the object of his love, then the falsity of love is exposed. Love is activity for the sake of an other: and where the object of love is wholly under the control of the one who loves, that object is no longer an other. It is a part or extension of the professed lover--an extension of himself....

Where the object of love is truly an 'other', the activity of love is always precarious. Between the self and the other there always exists, as it were, a 'gap' which the aspiration of love may fail to bridge or transcend. That which love would do or give or express may fail to 'arrive' --through misjudgment, through misunderstanding or through rejection. Love may be 'frustrated': its most earnest aspirations may 'come to nothing': the greatness of what is offered in love may be wholly disproportionate to the smallness of that, if anything, which is received. Herein lies the poignancy of love, and its potential tragedy. The activity of love contains no assurance or certainty of completion: much may be expended and little achieved. The progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps: and each step that is taken, whether it 'succeeds' or 'fails', becomes the basis for the next, and equally precarious, step which must follow.

Love proceeds by no assured programme. In the care of children a parent is peculiarly aware that each step of love is a step of risk; and that each step taken generates the need for another and equally precarious step. (Vanstone, pp. 45-46)
That's a long quote, but I think it is a very important one. To those who are familiar with process theology, the above passage must surely offer some familiar themes. Divine love, as truly authentic love, cannot be controlling. It doesn't always get its way. It allows complete freedom of choice, and may result in undesired outcomes. Thus there is, as Vanstone points out, a poignancy that is inherent to love. And Vanstone's comment about "tentative and precarious steps" echoes the image in process theology of a God who acts one event at a time, by offering a persuasive lure to us according to the conditions that are in place at exactly that moment. Instead of an "assured program" that maps out our exact future in full detail, God responds to us uniquely and fully at each moment in time; and after we then make our choices in response to both the world and to God's offer to us, God must in turn respond to us again, this time in the light of the new conditions that are now in place.

This is not an image of a God who is omnipotent, who has predetermined our future and who controls events by dint of external force. Instead, we have a God who in the words of John Cobb and David Ray Griffin in their book Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition, is defined to be Creative-Responsive love:
Process theology provides a way of recovering the conviction that God acts creatively in the world and of understanding this creative activity as the expression of divine love for the world. The notion that there is a creative power of love behind and within the worldly process is no longer one which can only be confessed in spite of all appearances to the contrary. Instead it illuminates our experience. (Cobb and Griffin, pp. 51-52).
Note the close relationship here between Divine love and creativity. Because God must respond anew to each occasion of experience, God's love is always a creative response to the ever changing conditions that are in place.

Cobb and Griffin describe this process in the following way:
Whitehead's fundamentally new conception of divine creativity in the world centers on the notion that God provides each worldly actuality with an "initial aim." This is an impulse, initially felt conformally by the occasion, to actualize the best possibility open to it, given its concrete situation. But this initial aim does not automatically become the subject's own aim. Rather, this "subjective aim" is a product of its own decision. The subject may choose other real possibilities open to it, given its context. In other words, God seeks to persuade each occasion toward that possibility for its own existence which would be best for it; but God cannot control the finite occasion's self-actualization. Accordingly, the divine creative activity involves risk. The obvious point is that, since God is not in complete control of the events of the world, the ocurrence of genuine evil is not incompatible with God's beneficence toward all his creatures. (Cobb and Griffin, p. 53; emphasis added).
There's that word "risk" again. Vanstone uses this word in the title of his book. Love is not controlling, and it inevitably entails risk.

The third and final mark "which denies the authenticity of love" on Vanstone's list
is the mark of detachment--of self-sufficiency unaffected and unimpaired in the one who professes to love. Love is self-giving: and the self includes the power of feeling as well as power of possession and action. Where love witholds from the other power over the feeling self, there the falsity of love is exposed. (Vanstone, p. 50)
In other words, God is deeply affected by what we do. The idea of God as wholly self-sufficient and unaffected, and thus unchanged, by what we do is inconsistent with the concept of Divine love. God's perfect nature may be unchanging, but God's responsiveness to us means that in certain ways God does change. Note that this dovetails with the notion of panentheism, although I am unaware of Vanstone himself specifically espousing panentheism. As Cobb and Griffin put it,
This divine relativity is not limited to a "bare knowledge" of the new things happening in the world. Rather, the responsiveness includes a sympathetic feeling with the worldly beings, all of whom have feelings. Hence, it is not merely the content of God's knowledge which is dependent, but God's own emotional state. God enjoys our enjoyments, and suffers with our sufferings. This is the kind of responsiveness which is truly divine and belongs to the very nature of perfection. (Cobb and Griffin, p. 48)
The idea that God shares perfectly in all our experiences--"enjoys our enjoyments, and suffers with our sufferings"--adds a huge dimension to Divine love. It means that every time I suffer, God is with me. Every time I feel joy or pleasure, God is also right there with me. The risk of love thus entails poignancy. I believe that the poignancy of risk in Divine love implies Divine pathos: God suffers along with those who suffer. But the upside of risk is also prevalent, and one implication of it is that it brings us closer to God. A while ago, I wrote in my blog about having a conversation with God in which I suggested to God that "we" (that is to say, God and I) might enjoy having some ice cream after a Taizé service. Okay, perhaps a silly example, but my point is that God's companionship and empathy is perfect and all-encompassing; what a comforting expression of Divine love for each of us, to know that God is with us all the way, for all pleasures and pains, both great and small!

I want to conclude by making another point about Divine love. The creative element of Divine love plays an important social role, I believe, in luring and pulling humans towards greater and more inclusive love in our own sphere at all levels of human society. God is constantly calling out to us, in a non-controlling way, to be more loving. The implications of this are huge. Being more loving means being more inclusive and more just. It means not just being individually more loving in our personal relations, but also building a more just society, one founded on inclusion, universality, and equality. It means abolishing oppressive social systems; it means including previously excluded groups--women, minorities, gays--into full equality. It means opposing war, economic exploitation, poverty, and injustice in every sphere. I thus believe that justice is intimately tied to love. You cannot have one without the other.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

Good stuff, very interesting. We used one Vanstone article for Theology 1 class--I may have to go find "The Risk of Love" now!

A common objection to process theology is that because it drops a certain understanding of God's power as "in charge of everything" it must then believe that God is not really that involved with the world. This post refutes that objection very successfully. If anything, this God is MORE involved with the world than the "in charge all the time" God.

Jan said...

I've never heard of Vanstone before, but now must find the book you mentioned. This is a fine and thoughtful writing. Thank you.

Jan said...

I linked this post at my blog. It is so well done.

Katherine E. said...

Wonderful post. Process theology has always fascinated me. John Cobb, Catherine Keller--everything I've encountered from those two especially has just "fit" me so well.

I found you through Jan's link. I'll be a regular reader now, I'm sure.


Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, I find it interesting that they teach Vanstone in theology classes.

Jan, thanks for linking to my blog.

Katherine, welcome! It's always nice to meet other people who are interested in process theology.

Heather said...

**I thus believe that justice is intimately tied to love. You cannot have one without the other.**

I think Judaism functions like this -- that love is a natural result of justice. And I agree. People who pursue just societies are those who have a great love for people.

FranIAm said...

I came here via Jan's Yearning for God site. And I am so glad I did.

What you have presented here is extraordinary and I will reread. This will stay with me.

I know nothing about process theology or Vanstone, but I will begin my learning now.

Thank you.

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Franiam, and welcome to my blog.

John Shuck said...

No more talk from you now that you are not a "theologian!"

Very nicely done. Thank you.