Friday, January 28, 2005

Notes on reading Bonhoeffer

I have made a couple of breakthroughs thanks to finally spending serious time with Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship.

I've posted my first big reflection over on the blog of The Thinklings, the theological discussion group with which I spend a lot of time.

If you're interested, check it out here.

We'ver already started the conversation.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Unhelpful Experience: The ELCA Task Force Report on Sexuality


This post may be of interest (if to anyone) only to Lutherans. I admit up front that it is pretty parochial, dealing as it does with a Report from a committee appointed by a gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (my Church, hereafter called "ELCA"). Still, I post it here, instead of on a Lutheran (specifically, ELCA-interest) listserv with which I am involved, because I think the issue is one of catholic importance: The issue of homosexuality is hitting or will hit all churchly traditions. In my personal experience, the Anglican fellowship is distraught over it; their relatives, the American Methodists (with whom Lutherans have been invited to share communion fellowship) have faced defrocking trials over the issue (with mixed results); the Presbyterians have faced the issue directly; the Lutheran community is becoming polarized, too.

How church bodies – or preferably, the Church catholic – make/s decisions about how to live out the gospel with respect to that issue (as with all issues) is one of the critical questions we face in this time. So I justify posting some thoughts here because of my sense that this is not just “Lutheran news.”

As will likely appear obvious from what I say here, I think the Report is a major disappointment. It represents, in the words of one friend, a giant crab-style step sideways. (One note on my style: Throughout this diatribe I shall anthropomorphize “the Report,” in an effort to avoid the even more tedious “the authors of the Report.” I think that’s good grammar, even if it is tendentious philosophy.)

The Language of the Report

I want to comment first, not on the substance of the Report’s recommendations, but rather on its presentation. “In the beginning was the Word . … And the Word became flesh.” Our salvation is borne by word (spoken and enacted – or “visible,” to use Augustine’s term). Does this not mandate for the Community of the Word (i.e., the Church) clarity of expression, careful use of language, eschewing of babble? The authors of this Report seem not to believe so. Indeed, the Report is chock-a-block with vague and imprecise words and phrases that seem to convey something, but which, upon closer examination, do not.

For example, much is made of the “God-given mission” of the Church, as though that phrase means something in and of itself. But in the context of this Report, what does it mean? The God-given mission of the ELCA is apparently unaffected by how we deal with the issue of homosexuality, else why would we be free to continue in our current mess for the sake of that mission (which is what the Report recommends we do). Yet, is not at least an aspect of that mission to live in faithfulness to the commandments and will of God? And if the commandment of God is that homosexual conduct is not acceptable and that non-celibate homosexuality should be a bar to ordination (which is at least implied by the current ELCA policies which are affirmed by the Report), then are we not impairing the God-given mission by continuing to allow contrary conduct (and, by one reading, even sanctioning it), as the Report recommends? Or conversely, if there is no bar to the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals to blessing their unions, is it not a sign of faithlessness to the mission to continue to bar the blessings and ordination of otherwise well-qualified and faithful people?

Just what is the mission which the Report’s authors so regularly say they want to support? Is it simply the goal of remaining a denomination, an institution – perhaps so that some of the other “stuff” of Christianity can proceed? Does that mission have anything to do with forming and reforming the “consciences” (the other great buzz-word of the Report) of the people of God? How does one engage in mission that is not tied up with the way one structures one’s life – whether one is an individual or a church body or the Church? In this respect, the Report’s sense of the mission of the Church is vague and garbled, at best, and unacceptably narrow and relatively meaningless, at worst.

Here’s another example of the use of language to massage an idea into acceptability, while pretending that everyone agrees on what is being said: Much is made in the Report of the importance of respecting the "consciences" of those with whom we disagree. (Indeed, one friend refers to “conscience” as a “trump card” over everything else said in the Report.) And I guess I have no great argument with respecting another’s conscience, except that conscience is probably the most malleable aspect of one’s personality. The conscience can be informed and formed just as easily – and probably more easily – by self-interest (see capitalism) or perversion (see much of the pornography published throughout world history) or one’s peer group (talk to my daughter) or intellectual arrogance (ahem!) as by the Church and her teachers. To push the matter, if some one "in good conscience" thinks that black men are unfit for ministry, must I respect that view because of the conscience of opiner? Or if someone thinks that "swingers" are appropriately ordained and allowed to serve any congregation that would put up with their "lifestyle," must I submit?

Because conscience is so fickle, even if held in “good faith,” I would not want you to live with my strongly-held, conscience-supported stance if it violates “the faith” (by which I mean not just the intellectual content of the Church's dogma, but also her teachings about how to live as a disciple of Jesus). Neither, at least arguably, should I be compelled to live with your mistaken conscience. And yet, after admitting that the matter of how to address homosexuality inspires great passion on both sides, the Report suggest essentially that "we all get along."

Can we seriously agree to disagree about important issues of faith and life if we are to live as one body? How do we discern whether something is important enough to toe the line about it? Are there issue that are so basic to the life of faith that they justify dividing the Church over them?

Lamentably, the Report does not address these concerns.

I could pull out the editorial stop to address meaningless language in the Report (e.g., at one point, the Report distinguishes between its listening carefully, respectfully, and compassionately to voices from hearing the voices), but that would simply be self-fulfillment that would serve no practical purpose.

Background to the Report

In its great concern over the issue of homosexuality – and specifically over whether the Church “may bless” same-sex unions/marriages and whether she may ordain non-celibate homosexual persons (in contravention of the current “rules” regarding that) – the ELCA, back in about 2001, formed a “task force” to study the issue and to make recommendations for what the Church should teach and do about the issues. After years of study (by the task force and by and among congregations of the Church) and input from innumerable quarters (I’m willing to bet that the “friend of the court” briefs presented to the Task Force rivaled what the Supreme Court gets on its trickiest cases), the Task Force drafted its Report and Recommendations. That Report has now been issued (here) for general consideration. The Recommendations now go the conference of bishops of the ELCA, who will decide what kind of recommendations (if any, I suppose) will be set before the ELCA’s “Churchwide Assembly” (CWA) for “legislative action,” to use the Report’s language.

Overview of My Critique

The first major weakness of the Report is that it sets out no new teaching or insight on the matter of sexuality (or of the specific sexuality issues facing the denomination which inspired the formation of the Task Force) whatsoever, except to say that we should all get along in this turbulent time, regardless of what we think and of how important we think this matter is. (This is actually the first Recommendation!) The Report asserts that the Bible can be interpreted in various ways about this matter, but it makes no effort to report on how those various interpretations might be addressed or weighed. I think that lack represents a serious lost opportunity, regardless of the rest of the document. Beyond the assertion that people of goodwill disagree on how to deal with our gay brothers and sisters, which comes as somewhat less than surprising given that a blue-ribbon commission was established to address the issue, there is no help in thinking – theologically or otherwise – about the issues.

The recommendations in the Report regarding ordination and homosexual unions take us no farther. The Report recommends that the ELCA take no action to revise its current policy and strictures on homosexual expression – either with respect to the ban on blessing same-sex unions (this is the second Recommendation) and with respect to refusing ordination to non-celibate gay men and lesbian women (this is the third Recommendation). But then it goes on to recommend that the Church leave up to the “conscience” of congregations and bishops whether those strictures should be enforced. Here, the “traditional” teaching is affirmed – and then it is as quickly discarded by, in effect, saying that it ought not be applied rigorously (if at all).

In that recommendation, I think the committee is being at best naïve and at worst disingenuous – perhaps even duplicitous – by suggesting that in its recommendation that the current policies not be enforced, it has not set out a new policy. I will give the Task Force the benefit of the doubt (beware Greeks bearing gifts – and “Penas” is a Greek name) and assume that their essential foolishness is unintentional and the result of wanting to run a careful middle way. Nevertheless, what is says remains fundamentally flawed logic and ultimately misleading.

At this point, I interrupt myself. I intend to post a point-by-point commentary on the Report that will deal with some of the other features therein. But for now, this overview says all that I anticipate saying at greater length.

An outside view of the Report and Recommendations

My friend Pr. Bob White posted this to a listserv that he runs, and I think it's very helpful -- so "right on" and so Garrison. With Bob's permission, I post it here:

For those of you who might have missed Garrison Keillor's comments on
the ELCA report in last Saturday's "News from Lake Woebegon" --

You can listen at the PHC website or trust my attempt at a

A masterpiece of muddling through . . . just a masterpiece. It was a
beautiful piece of writing. It's a case where you take up . . . where
you establish a commission to take up a question where the militants
on either side are waving their bright shining swords, and they're up
in arms about it and you put a commission in there and it takes three
years to work at it and it puts out a report which nobody can
understand. It says that essentially nothing has changed but we don't
approve of that and yet if you went ahead on a basis of conscience
and you did what you wanted to do, don't worry about us coming after
you, because we wouldn't do it. It's sort of a "don't ask; don't
tell; never mind" position . . . and it's beautiful; it's a Lutheran
art to take a controversial subject and to restate the question so
that nobody understands it and then to write the response so that it
has to do with nothing whatsoever . . . and out comes the report, and
nobody can really be that angry about it because it's made up of this
beautiful mishmash and those sentences that are like extruded
marshmallow. And so all of the militants who would be tempted to go
to battle over it; so peace is kept on the basis of confusion. A
Lutheran art to achieve strength through indirection and vagueness.
This is an irritating quality about Lutherans and people become angry
at Lutherans: Why don't you say what you mean and tell us what you
think. Well no! No!


Thursday, January 20, 2005

Another case of "Christ and Culture":

The Marty Center at the U of Chicago (yes, named in honor the inestimable Martin E. Marty) provides a free subscription to its twice-weekly newsletter "Sightings." Marty usually contributes one one-page commentary a week, and someone else provides another. The pieces analyze various aspects of the intersection, the face-to-face, the conflict, and/or the capitulation of faith (not necessarily Christian faith) to culture (usually USAmerican culture, but not always). I encourage you to check it out here. (For those of you acquainted with Marty's incredible "Context", be assured that it is a very different thing.)

In today's post, there is news (from "Sightings" general editor, Jeremy Biles) of Thomas Nelson's new format for marketing the Bible -- magazine-lookalike Bibles, some geared to girls and some geared to boys -- complete with enticing covers, look-alike hooks ("Do you date a godly guy?), a complete lack of religious imagery, and a translation that is devoid of any hard words or concepts.

Now, I know that Nelson is in the business of selling Bibles, and I know that "books" (including the Bible) may be difficult to market in a computer-magazine-MTV culture. But this is a classic case, it seems to me, of so adapting "The Word" to culture that one throws out the baby Jesus with the bathwater. When the agenda of the secular culture is adopted to try to convey the faith, I think it is next to impossible for faith to survive. And I think that is what we are seeing more and more.

As corporation culture becomes more and more that "given" in metaphors, in thought-structures, even in theologizing, then what is really happening is that a new god is being proclaimed. Profit replaces sacrifice; managing replaces service; competition replaces discipleship; "winning" replaces the message of the cross. And I think the same will happen with this Nelson venture.

Now, I'm not so sure that Nelson is any worse than others: The American Bible Society did, after all, come out with "Today's English Version" -- Good News for Modern Man. Note how old I am, that I can remember the original title. But previous versions, however well-meaning or crassly economic they might have been, have at least taken seriously the text (attempting, at least to offer accurate paraphrases, even if that meant difficult language) and the imagery has been of a religious nature (if only, in some cases, sketches). Nelson seems to be undercutting two critical aspects of the faith -- the Scripture (by "dumbing" it down -- and if reducing it to a fifth-grace reading level isn't dumbing down, I don't know what is) and the iconography.

In the case of the iconography, or the visual representation of the faith, I don't think that we need blonde, Nordic Jesuses to keep faith alive. But I do think that we need visual stimuli that bring the stories of faith alive: crosses and Magen Davids and good samaritans and good shepherds and Red Seas and all the rest. If the representations of current culture become the representation of faith to the eyes, then where is the substance? Sure, dating is an issue for Christians (and maybe especially teenage girls -- although I am troubled by the inherent sexism that seems at play in Nelson's work, as well). But is that the way to inculcate the faith -- by stressing moralistic bumperstickers?

At another level, magazines are meant to go out of style and be pitched. Is that the message we want to convey about scriptures? "Oh, there'll be a new message next month, so we don't have to worry about this one." There is something to having one's own bound Bible -- hardcover, relatively permanent, maybe a bit fussy (with its onion-skin paper and gold edges). (I think the same holds for worship books, but I won't go into my diatribe about bulletins and screens here.)

Have I said enough to stake out the ground of my perplexity and my discomfort?

I readily admit to being an old fogey well before my time. I prefer reading to TV, I prefer Bach and Mozart and Berlioz to most of what passes for music in this time, I prefer Harpers to the local newspaper. And I prefer transcendance and awe, reverence, obedience, "fear," and existential tension in the proclamation of faith to happy-clappy, immanence, situation ethics, "doing it my way," and ease. As we lose any sense of that-which-is-beyond-us, this does not seem to me to be a healthy step for a Bible publisher to take.

A new Blog on the Block

For thirteen years, I have enjoyed, every month (with only one or two exceptions), the fellowship of a small group of people around my congregation (some members, some friends of the congregation) in what we call (aptly, I think, since I named the group) "Theological Discussion." As you might suspect, we read significant works of theological import (old and new, books and articles, mainline and fringe, light and ponderous) and carry on an old style conversation -- usually about the work, but freely enough flowing to get us almost anywhere. Members have come and gone, but the core of the group has stayed solid and that continuity has made it possible for us to develop a deep enough friendship that we can welcome newcomers (admittedly, brave newcomers) as members of the family. I have enjoyed immensely the influence of this group on my understanding of various aspects of theology and church history (and ...) as well as on the growth of my own faith.

Well, thanks to the initiative of one of our newer members, Theological Discussion now has its own blog. (I'm not sure how I feel about the competition, but that's another matter.) There, the members of Theological Discussion (whom the blogmistress has dubbed "the Thinklings") can anticipate and follow up on discussions of the most recent (or other related) work. And, even more exciting, people who cannot make the trek from Seattle or Ohio or New York for our monthly get-together get to comment and question and participate in the discussions.

Consider this your formal invitation to check out our new blog. Your observations, contradictions, corrections, and questions are always welcome. Because it is a group blog, you may inspire more than you intend -- but isn't that the great joy of theological discussion? It certainly has been for me.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Epiphany Greetings

Today is the day following the actual Feast of the Ephiphany, so we are now in Epiphanytide. (A former pastor of mine was big on keeping the "tides" in the calendar -- Christmastide, Eastertide. I like it and him, so I emulate.)I wish you health, enlightenment, nourishment, confidence, good wine, happy relationship, and all other good things.

OK, I know that I risk being sued by the Bruderhof for all the use I make of their daily e-mails, one of which appears below. So to assuage my guilt, if not their attorney, I offer this suggestion: Why not subscribe to "The Daily Dig" ? It's a short reflective clipping from an important Christian (and sometimes, nonchristian) that is sent free and every day to your e-mail. It also links you to other resources, including complete books that you can download onto your computer and read at your leisure (which makes then cheaper than the bound copies you can buy in bookstores -- and yes, it's legal; they own the copyright). Check it out here.

Now for today's snippet, from Soeren Kierkegaard:

Only a Rumor

Søren Kierkegaard

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly we may be able to explain every article of our faith, yet remain spiritually motionless. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.

What a contrast! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it spurred them to set out a long, hard journey. The scribes, meanwhile, were much better informed, much better versed. They had sat and studied the scriptures for years, like so many dons. But it didn’t make any difference. Who had the more truth? Those who followed a rumor, or those who remained sitting, satisfied with all their knowledge?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

On-going multi-point conversation

There is an on-going conversation among some of us in "blogdom" that is trying to weave together, while speaking meaningfully about, probably three different strands. The conversation focuses on issues of homosexuality -- should non-celibate people be ordained and ought the Church to bless same-sex unions -- and the "unity of the Church" -- i.e., what is it for the Church to act, how important is the received teaching of the Church, how free is any group or individual to buck the Church and act in its/his/her own way -- and what is the problem that the conversation seems so difficult to maintain -- i.e., why do we seem always to be talking past one another.

Here I wish simply to provide links to others engaged in this conversation (not in a general way, but engaged by referring to each other's thoughts). That means there won't be many blogs, because none of us -- with the exception of Camassia -- gets around much.

I have tried to address the issue a couple of times: here and here.

My sister Dash, whom I know personally and love dearly, has raised the issue here.

Her great friend Julesrud has posted to Dash's blog here. (By the way, we need to encourage Julesrud to set up her own blog, so she can get her thoughts out more spontaneously and quickly -- and share the vulnerability that some of us experience).

And, last but not least, Camassia has said these things, here.

Follow links, of course, to get to other discussions.

There is an amazing lot of stuff on the Pontificator's blog, but I won't cite particular posts because he hasn't really referenced this particular conversation. Still, I have to say that his blog is one of the most amazing sites I can name.

(Jim has been vocal in the conversation, but I don't know that he has a blog himself. If you do, Jim, give a reference and I'll visit regularly. I appreciate your involvement here.)

We all need input, so here is your golden opportunity.

I'm currently thinking about how to address the issue of why we speak past each other. I am convinced that the reason has to do with some fundamental split in Protestantism (which is, I think, the "tradition" of all the people I mention): We have so come under the spell of frontier evangelicalism. (Frank Senn is the one who really helped me identify this, because of its implications for the liturgical life of the modern church.) Frontier evangelicalism set aside much of the theological heritage of the Church -- many aspects of which Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the Anglican divines, and even Zwingli (I am told) would despair of losing. Among those aspects are several highlighted in the Creed -- specifically, the Church. From a "res" -- that is a living entity "outside of which there is no salvation" or "life within which is salvation," to paraphrase old constructions -- the church became a voluntary association of like-minded and -experienced "christians" who had worked out their individual salvation with the their individual God to their individual satisfaction. The result is that the notion of the "unity of the Church" -- i.e., of the universal oneness of the Body of Christ through all time (its "diachronic," or "through all time," dimension) and all over the globe (its "synchronic," or simultaneous in time," dimension) -- became psychologized and platonized. It ceased to have concrete form or content and became, instead, a matter of "getting along" and "respect."

To think that the universal Church has any ultimate authority over me or my group, then, became nonsense -- it simply didn't fit the scheme of things. (The Reformation, which understood itself as a reform movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, came to be understood as establishing a new approach to religion -- denominationalism, in which one could "attend the church [sic] of his or her choice [sic]", as though religion were a matter of choosing a supermarket.

One of the consequences was the acceptance of the Enlightenment's great proposal that there is no authority over one that is located outside of oneself: We are our own authorities -- which, if you parse it carefully, means that we are our own gods (but I'm not going to go off on the Enlightenment today). That gives rein to all kind of individuals and groups' deciding for themselves how to live consistent with the gospel, as they determine it by "their own lights." Sure, we may read the Bible, but we read it in our own language, through our own filters, with our own worldview -- irrespective of the fact that the Bible is the Church's book and really can't be understood apart from the "institution" that settled its content in the first place.

Now, there I go again: assuming lots and explaining little. Let me unpack for a moment: Lutherans especially (because we claim it was Luther's principle) and protestants in general insist that every person can be his or her own interpreter of the Bible. But that is not, for some of us, correct. What we call "Bible" does not comprise everything ever written involving the Lord of Israel and his Son. Instead it is a rather carefully culled, (yeah, yeah: I know there is dispute about this -- not least from Luther on James) settled collection of those works that adequately and accurately "drove Christ." It was an edited collection; it was a pedagogical collection; it was a collection with an agenda determined by the then-powers-that-were, the bishops of the Church. And what was selected by the Church was to be interpreted by the Church. And as the great councils of the Church made clear, "interpretation" was not an individual matter; it was something subject to the veto of the Church meeting in assembly (and once again, that ecumenical council assembly represented both the diachronic and the synchronic consensus of the Church's teachers).

Note that when Luther, for example, attacked Rome and the papacy, he did so not by saying "it seems to me," but by saying, "the Church through its history has said, and now you're changing or damaging things." He understood, contrary to our popular understandings, that the Bible means what the Church says it means, not what Martin Luther or even -- gulp -- Dwight has to say about what it says. (This is the great failing of the Jesus Seminar: It fails to understand -- or it willfully ignores -- the Churchly context of the scriptures. It tries to deal with them as "literature" or "history" or as just another secular book. And that is fraudulent; it misreads the genre of the Bible. And it's probably not a surprise that most of the guiding lights in the Seminar are in secular universities -- where the Bible is often the object of "study" without any reverence.)

I hope I have made my point, because I don't want to belabor something obvious any more than I usually do.

But my point is that one reason the conversation about homosexuality -- or any sexuality -- is so difficult and so evasive is that the participants speak from different worldviews. Our epistemologies don't match. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) We don't learn the same way (and this is more than the Mars/Venus thing, and it certainly is not analyzable according to some gender distinction). We understand the nature of faith differently. We understand the nature of our place in the cosmos differently. We don't agree on authorities -- or on authority.

For my party, obedience to the diachronic and synchronic, if not consensus then, majority teaching is imperative until those who question and challenge that teaching convince the Church that she has been wrong. It was so with other issues -- slavery, for example.

I admit that the Peter story in Acts, in which he expands the mission to Gentiles, raises the issue of "civil disobedience" as a means to effect change in the Church. And Sister Dash insists that Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged its use in church as well as in society. And there certainly are other instances of people's doing the "wrong thing for the right reason," to put the most negative construction on the matter. And we must certainly talk about that.

But the conversation can only advance when we come to grips with the importance of the Church's tradition -- understood in its most expansive, concrete, and authoritative sense. Thus says my party. I'm not sure what the other party has to say about that. The people with whom my mind "hangs" insist that once we cede obedience to the Church (there's language bound to raise the hackles of most of the people reading this), we may reasonably discuss the forms of that obedience -- and even the faithful employment of disobedience. But my party really can't see beyond this beginning point -- and, frankly, we don't see that we share the same beginning point with the other party.

Now, I must interject that I use the word "party" as a collective for those on one side of a conversation who are engaged in dialogue with "partners," the other "party." So do not read more into the term than I intend. (Anyone who knows me knows that tact is not my prime virtue.)

And to come to terms with the fundamental problem in our conversation, I wonder whether the worldviews are so set that we will have trouble leaving our individual spheres in order to engage the other. I mean this as no insult to the faith, the good intentions, the good faith, the cooperative spirit, or anything else of either party. We must, of course, "come and reason together"; we are simply unable by virtue of the reality of the Church and the Holy Spirit to do anything else. (Those who simply pick up their marbles and go away are making a mistake.) The same has held true in the great ecumenical dialogues of the post-WWII era. The conversations have gone on and on, frustrating to both parties who earnestly desire to get on with the business of bringing the Church back together. It will take time; impatience will result in errors (witness the present conflicts within the ELCA, a direct result of moving too quickly toward merger while ignoring obvious differences in the ways the parties understood "church"), hard feelings, and schism (and, yes, I do fear that schism will grow out of ELCA's action on homosexuality -- whatever it is).

So we shall continue to discuss here, making every effort to overcome the "speaking past each other" of which Sister Julesrud speaks rightly. Be patient with me.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Three Loves


I want to think about love.

The ideas that I begin to explore here came to me as I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean to London this summer. I transcribe them as I wrote them in a journal, with a few “touch-ups” occasioned by a conversation with friends about the Desert Mothers. I’m not sure that in updating my thoughts I didn’t make them even more unintelligible.

Part of my lack of clarity roots in the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about. And part of it is that I was very much influenced by my undergraduate Greek professor, Dr. Olin Storvik (who merits none of the blame for these musings!), and I remember his saying that the “classic” distinction among the three Greek words for “love” really didn’t hold water by his lights. Since then, I have not been able to find substantiation in literature that the supposed distinctions among the three Greek words often translated “love” do not exist, I have had to think harder. Because a dark airplane cabin tends to inspire reflection and remembrance in me, I somehow came around to “love,” and these thoughts resulted.

On to the topic at hand.

I know a feeling that sometimes comes of being loved – a fullness of heart that threatens to stop its beating or to hinder breath; a solemnity and satisfaction that can only be voiced in a sigh or a groan; a “take-me-God-I’m-ready” sense that roots in the sense that life may not ever be better than it is at the moment. I have known that feeling when my wife stands by me in my foolishness or talks me back to earth when I am flying blind; when my daughter sidles up to me to sit in my lap at home or entrusts me with a confidence while I drive her to school; when my godson rushes squealing into my outstretched arms, his own held above his head in holy joy; when incense in a Benedictine monastery mass one time sang “requiem” to my almost overpowering guilt and grief; when a long-time friend, from whom I had been separated for years and with whom I have recently reconnected met me at the airport and kissed and embraced me as though seven years had not elapsed since we last embraced; when a beloved local friend, who had been absent for a couple of weeks, flashed me a smile, eye-to-eye, that said, “We’re here together, Brother,” during the procession at mass on the Sunday before I left for Europe.

I say, forget the inherited (from whom? Anders Nygren?) typology of love – eros, philia, and agape – and face facts: Love is the dynamic interchange of or among all three “types” of love. To use this common understanding: Love is fundamentally erotic, with or without sex, in that it seeks fulfillment, manifestation, culmination in something larger than itself – something organic, interpersonal, imaginative. And it is also philic, even between lovers, in its desire to accompany, to defend, and to celebrate as equals, in a mutuality of concern and interest. And it is agapaic in its striving for the well-being of the loved one, even at great cost to the loving one. Agape can be rather one-directional, manifest in service and self-giving. Philia can be utterly mundane, tied to the here-and-now and known in commonality, comity, and mutual regard. Eros can tend to the ecstatic, to going out of self, in which the self loses some of its individuation in a movement toward some reality greater than the self.

In day-to-day affairs, this typology may describe our experience (except: how often in day-to-day experience do we know agape?). But in theology and those aspects of life affected by theology (by which I mean the whole of the Christian’s life), love cannot be segmented and the common differentiation has only heuristic value. It’s illustrative and descriptive, perhaps, but not normative – and ultimately it is a hindrance.

In Christian understanding, love cannot be segmented. In trinitarian fashion, love is what happens in the interchange among the three personae/faces of love. It may be that in this sense that God is love, God is in love, God loves. Love is not God, of course. (Neither logic nor revelation requires the truth of the obverse of truth.) But that love is dynamic, generative, self-fulfilling (in the sense that the self is brought to its fullness; not in the sense that it is generated by the self), sacrificial, sacramental – this is revelation; this is what has been shown.

God is love, then, in this sense. God is what we name the erotic-philic-agapaic interchange (or “relationship”) among Father and Son and Spirit, for love is what binds God within God. But God became human and, in the resurrection and ascension of Love Incarnate, drew humanity into the Godhead. The benefits run both ways, so that in love among creatures, something of the Godhead – the very life of God – is known and felt. Thus, not only is God love, but also in love is God.

Love between and among God’s people – which is to say, all people – is thus to be celebrated; it is the fulfillment of the Creator’s intent. For love cannot exist apart from God: God is love and apart from God there is no love. Atheists, non-Christian, doubters may dispute. But we may rely on what has been revealed – and thereby worship.

To be “in” love is not necessarily to be “in love.” That is a distinction often lost in wedding preparations and in best-man toasts at wedding receptions. Love is not (just or even primarily) an emotion; it is a state of being: One lives in the state of love. (Madeline L’Engle makes a different, but complementary point in saying that love is a “policy.”) And thus one lives in love – as one lives “in God” or “en Xristou” (in Christ). The Scriptures seem quite clear to me that this is the meaning of salvation – to live in the reality which is God, a reality which is love, the same reality that binds God-in-God. (At some point, I want to try to think through the Finnish Lutheran scholarship on Luther’s understanding of “faith” – that it involves being “in Christ” and Christ being “in” the believer – and connect it to this theory of “love.” I suspect that these reflections on “love” have been inspired by that most enlightening scholarship. It’s off the point, but I feel compelled in this connection – since I cannot include footnotes – to say that had I not run across this branch of Luther scholarship several years ago, thanks to the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, I likely would not be a Lutheran today. But I digress.)

Of course, emotions may be implicated in love – a point that seems at least suggested by my earlier discussion. One simply knows somehow, and sometimes the knowledge is pointed and telling. And one certainly cannot live in love without acting it out to and with the loved one. That will often result in pleasure, even physical pleasure (yes), for both parties. (Cf. my comments above about Finnish Lutheran scholarship on “faith.”)

But because love is not an emotion, there is no necessary connection between what one does or has done to/for one and the sensations one experiences. God’s love does not depend on the loved one’s feeling a particular way. Frequently, the fickleness or ambiguity of human emotions requires that the experience of that love be primarily intellectual or based on trust. That, finally, is the meaning of faith, isn’t it?

But this is not to say that the fullness of God’s agape is not found, in part, in the response of the loved one. Otherwise, on the scale of “salvation,” God’s agape is, to paraphrase a friend, cold and impersonal and raw. The point of the dynamic of love is to deny an impersonal quarter to it. Thus, the “forensic” view of God’s love is, for me, sterile and out-of-date. The good news is not found in a judicial decree that I am “not guilty” (although who am I to deny that all of that is true), but rather in the proclamation to me that He who is love (that would be God) has seen fit to draw me into that love and to so invest me with his nature that I might grow in that love with him and with all those around me.

This analysis will help me to re-read the Song of Songs (Solomon) – something I pledge to do. To now, the sensuality – downright sexuality – given voice in that book has given me nothing to preach and nothing to increase my faith. Its inclusion (along with the Proverbs) in the canon has always seemed to me to be a lamentable example of where the good Fathers of the Church took a vote while most were asleep. (Luther thought something similar with respect to the book of James – but with much less reason, I think). But now I’m not so sure. Sister Dash is reading The Good Book front to back – but she hasn’t gotten to Songs, so I may have to prevent her (in the Jacobean meaning of the term: to go before) or pre-empt her on that one and read it and try to figure it out here. (Still, Sr. Dash, read quickly and get to that book so we can share impressions. Perhaps we ought to try reading it with our colleagues in Theological Discussion.)

Love will ultimately involve the full reality of love. That’s a tautology, I realize, but it’s a tautology that has been denied for decades, as we have sought to distinguish among the “kinds” or “types” or “levels” of love. The analysis often takes this form: God loves us in agape; I love my wife – but only legitimately my wife – in eros (although I may be “tempted” towards others); I “love” or lean kindly towards others in philia. But if God’s love for us is more that agape (read Hosea, for example, in addition to Song of Songs), so that it carries some kind of erotic content along with the philic, must that not apply to our relations?

And if that is true of love in and from God, then it must, by virtue of the Gospel’s promise through the Holy Spirit, be true of our lives in this world as well and already.

What does this say, first, about marriage? That’s pretty easy, it seems to me, blessed, as I am, with a spouse and partner who incarnates for me all three “types” of love. Second, what about parents and children? (Can you tell that I cannot seem to divorce my musings from my existential condition?) My relationship with my daughter is filled with opportunities for us to be for each other a companion (I am not saying that I will ever encourage my daughter to be consider me her “best friend”; that’s spooky) and for us to “deny ourselves” for the well-being of the other and for us together to forge a relationship that assumes a kind of reality apart from either of us. That relationship gives me enormous satisfaction – satisfaction (and don’t inform Child Protection on me for saying this) that is palpable.

My friends and I enjoy relationships that involve mutual support and encouragement (as well, in some cases, as mutual teasing and hazing), with a lot of kissing and hugging in the bargain. To put it indelicately, I cannot keep my hands off my close friends. There is, obviously, an “erotic” aspect to the relationship that is different perhaps only in degree from the physicality of my relationship with my wife.

All of this latest gibberish is to highlight the interpenetration of “types” of love across the spectrum of relationships. Might it be said that, in my giving of alms, I have not “loved” my neighbor by simply giving “stuff”; I must also in some way “touch” the hungry person, or the homeless one, or the AIDS patient?

To be frank, I’m not sure where this thread might go or whether it makes any sense. Your comments will help me to see what I need to think through more fully and what I need to give up.

But at this point, I am pleased to articulate for myself a more wholistic perspective on an issue that I have long fought with friends about. The sharp distinctions we draw among the way I feel about a friend and the ways I feel about my spouse and the feelings that I have toward those whom I “serve” – these distinctions are false and misleading. When we wrestle with the love of God, as Hosea should have revealed to me (if not the Incarnation), we’re not just talking about a bodiless, senseless, intellectual policy of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Passion is at the heart of the whole mystery of salvation, and maybe we’ll be better off if we come to grips with that.

To be continued …. I hope.