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Don’t Love God, Love the World Instead

Don’t Love God, Love the World Instead

treehugger-leftI have given little hints here and there to the fact that my experience with God is largely characterized by divine absence, the “real absence of Christ” (to subvert a well-known theological formula). In short, the “every hair of your head” and “not a sparrow falls” passages resonated very little with me, if at all, while the one about his giving sunrise and rainfall indiscriminately to all made more sense.

Shit happens, is what I’m saying. And it’s all pretty random, so don’t try to interpret Providence or expect God to be overly doting or attentive. 

I read something the other night in Peter Rollins’s book Insurrection that made a little bit of sense out of all this: 

In the Incarnation, then, we find a fundamental transformation in the way that we are to approach God, a shift that takes us away from the religious understanding, which treats God as an object worthy of love, to a religionless understanding in which God is found in the very act of love itself. Loving God in a direct way is thus closed off in Christianity. Instead, in the very act of loving, God is (indirectly) loved. In the very mode of seeing that raises the suffering, broken, and excluded to the level of the beautiful, sublime, and absolute, God is present. Not dwelling behind or above, but dwelling in the very midst. The mystery of God is a mystery that is found in the very heart of life itself. 

 

In the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection we discover that God is not something we encounter directly and thus is not some “thing” that we experience. Rather, God is that which transforms how we experience everything, i.e., love. God is the name we give to the way of living in which we experience the world as worthy of living for, fighting for, and dying for. 

 

Traditionally we are brought to love the world because we love God and God loved the world. But once we fully embrace the understanding of God testified to in Christ, the middle reference that stands between us and the world dissolves entirely; we no longer love the world because God loves it, but rather we simply love the world and, in so doing, express our love for God. 

Why is this helpful for me? Well, to the degree that God is some thing that I am supposed to love more than all the other things in my life, to that degree I consider myself an utter failure at this whole Christianity thing I have been pursuing pretty seriously for the last 26 years. Virtually all of my attempts at direct devotion to God are completely hollow.

But with that said, I do find myself profoundly moved by other things: people I love, art and music and films that tug at this or that facet of my soul, physical locations that have become sacred spaces for me, etc. 

Perhaps it is precisely by embracing humanity with wholehearted affirmation that divinity is indirectly affirmed? Maybe it is by an unequivocal, gut-level “Yes” to earth that heaven is experienced? Perhaps (to borrow Bonhoeffer’s suggestion) it is by living as though God doesn’t exist that we finally begin to give him his due? Could it be that we “love God” by “loving our neighbor,” and that the way to the divine Father is through the flesh of the human Christ?

I sure hope so, because if not I am screwed. . . .

 

29 Comments

  1. (forgive me for thinking “out loud” in this comment…)

    I really like his emphasis on loving God by loving people. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments”. And “all the Law and the Prophets hang on” loving God and loving your neighbor. So to love your neighbor keeps the commandments, which is in turn is loving God.

    However, I can’t quite get past his idea that you must reject God’s transcendence to embrace His immanence. God is both. This is a mystery, granted, but I want to maintain it, not resolve it by rejecting the transcendence part. As you know, Calvinism wants to do the same thing with the mystery between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. They step too far in an attempt to resolve the mystery. It is the classic both/and vs. either/or her as well, I believe.

    Without the transcendent, doesn’t Christianity devolve into some sort of pantheism?

    I still think there must be some love directed to God as an object. You said:

    But with that said, I do find myself profoundly moved by other things: people I love, art and music and films that tug at this or that facet of my soul, physical locations that have become sacred spaces for me, etc.

    I see this as you coming in contact with God’s transcendence. God is Love; is Justice, is Mercy, is Beauty, is Goodness itself. And when we experience these things, we are experiencing God Himself. When we long for these things, we long for God Himself.

    Further, God is Creator; is Holy; is perfect; is Judge, is Lord, is Father. So not only do we “owe” love and devotion towards God (that might be satisfied by loving your neighbor as Rollins emphasizes), but we should also have a repentant and thankful disposition toward God. I’m not sure where Rollins’ theological grid has room for this thankfulness/repentance toward the transcendent Holy Creator. But again, my familiarity with Rollins stops with what you have shared in the blog and on the podcast.

    Does Rollins’ theology make room for a this repentant and thankful disposition?

    That said, God in His second person DID become (take on?) a physical object that we can direct our love towards. Not only do Catholics see a physical reminder of God’s love for us every time we look upon a crucifix, but we also get to communion in His physical presence in the Eucharist (On a side note, have you ever gone to Eucharistic adoration?). So you can direct your love to Jesus Himself. And by loving Jesus for who He is and for what He did for you (as communicated in the Scriptures), you also love the Father who is unseen.

    Also, I would like to point out that, as you know, Faith is an act of the will.

  2. Jason,
    Thank you for posting this. I have been troubled by signs that say “God Loves You”. Do people really get warm fuzzy’s when they read a sign that says “God Loves You”? I feel the only way anyone will really know they are loved by God is by feeling loved by people. I also don’t think that this is only limited to people that are Christ followers. When love is shared, I feel it is up to the one receiving said love to interpret where that may be coming from. Some of the greatest acts of love and kindness I have received, have come from people I don’t know and may never see again. I work as a Funeral Director in a small town and just yesterday I was at a service for a young man that had died suddenly due to a car accident. At this service two of his friends played a drum solo in his honor to start the service. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears by the love and honor showed to this young man. That moment will stick with me for the rest of my life.

  3. Following this train of thought, why is the resurrection necessary? Why does embracing humanity “with wholehearted affirmation” have to be indicative of the Christian god? As an apostate I ironically share traditional christians’ skepticism of the emerging church movement led by people like Peter Rollins and Jay Bakker and Rob Bell. I think they are all just trying to make christianity more palatable to post-modern millennials who are increasingly leaving churches. It just comes across to me as trying really really hard. “WE meet in a bar. WE’RE cool with tha gays. WE question our faith sometimes.” In the end, in my humble opinion, the emerging church movement shares the same goals as the fundy evangelical christians: convince people that there is something wrong with them and the only cure is Jesus. Forget the smoke and mirrors, tell it how it is. Tell me I need Jesus or I’m doomed. If you can’t admit your agnostic or a universalist and we can go from there.

  4. No, none of that is true. You are totally screwed :)

    To tie in with the podcast…. a few choice quotes from mother Teresa…

    I call, I cling, I want … and there is no One to answer … no One on Whom I can cling … no, No One. Alone … Where is my Faith … even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness … My God … how painful is this unknown pain … I have no Faith … I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart … & make me suffer untold agony.

    So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them … because of the blasphemy … If there be God … please forgive me … When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me … and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

    I haven’t ever experienced anything like this so I can’t relate. God has always been an imminent presence in my life. Read less, pray more. Spend less time at star bucks and more time in an empty church spending time with the Lord. I have no idea if God will answer or not, but I don’t know why He wouldn’t.

    If I had never experienced the Holy Spirit in my life I would just be an atheist. You and Teresa are strange creatures. More power to ya

  5. How does Rollins square this idea with Adam and Eve walking with God? Or the experience of David, Abraham, Elisha, etc? Further, how does he reconcile these ideas with Christ and the apostles teaching on the Holy Spirit? The encounter between Paul and the risen Christ? I view Rollins theology as a lame retreat from an even more lame modern view of the world. It’s the attempt at making Christianity “more unbelievable” by making its claims unverifiable.

  6. Last should read “more believable”

  7. Lane,

    However, I can’t quite get past his idea that you must reject God’s transcendence to embrace His immanence. God is both.

    Here’s Rollins on this: “This is why we must, with Bonhoeffer, avoid thinking that God’s transcendence has anything to do with being outside the world. About such things none of us have any insider information. Rather, in Christianity God is an immanent transcendence. In other words, in the Incarnation we find that the mystery of God is not above us, nor is it negated in the world, but rather God dwells as a mystery in the very midst, present in the very act of raising the world itself to the level of the sublime.”

    Good food for thought.

  8. Hey Ben,

    I feel the only way anyone will really know they are loved by God is by feeling loved by people.

    I’m reading Brad Jersak’s book A More Christlike God, and in it he argues that God is by nature kenotic (self-emptying) and therefore exactly like Jesus. One of the results of this is that he simply does not intervene in the world directly, but only through human partners. He takes this in interesting questions (theodicy), but it reinforces your point as well.

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. Mike,

    Thanks for the comment.

    In the end, in my humble opinion, the emerging church movement shares the same goals as the fundy evangelical christians: convince people that there is something wrong with them and the only cure is Jesus.

    Rollins would call this idolatry. The idea that Jesus is the true solution (and all the world’s solutions are false ones) is precisely the lie that the gospel seeks to disabuse us of. The whole point, he argues, is that we have no choice but to embrace unknowing and ambiguity, together with the pain that those involve.

    Watch the clip at the end of my last post!

  10. Kenneth,

    I view Rollins theology as a lame retreat from an even more lame modern view of the world. It’s the attempt at making Christianity “more unbelievable” by making its claims unverifiable.

    But the verifiability of supernatural claims is precisely the lie of modernity, in my opinion. It takes more faith to just say, “I have no evidence for this that will satisfy you, sorry.”

    Faith is not sight.

  11. Jason,

    It takes more faith to just say, “I have no evidence for this that will satisfy you, sorry.

    I’m perfectly comfortable someone abandoning evidential arguments for their religion. But if you ALSO jettison the inner witness of the Holy Spirit there is no longer any warrant to be a Christian. Faith isn’t sight, but it also isn’t “pretending to know things that you don’t know”

  12. Jason, you said to Mike:

    “Rollins would call this idolatry. The idea that Jesus is the true solution (and all the world’s solutions are false ones) is precisely the lie that the gospel seeks to disabuse us of.”

    So last year, I went to the Acton conference sponsored by one of my teaching elders at the PCA church I attended. Their mission: “is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”/ They are ecumenical there were Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and various strips of Protestants in attendance. However it was ~50% Catholic (I met Dr. J. Budziszewski, Dr. Hahn, and Dr. Kreeft there!).

    Anyway, I remember listening to a speech about social principles and how Christianity should engage the culture at large. I thought it was awesome. However, my PCA pastor was really put off by the fact that the “gospel” was not the main point, and that Jesus wasn’t emphasized. This idea that the simple Protestant gospel is all you need to solve all the world’s problems Anthony Bradley has referred to as “gospel monism”. While I would say that it by far too simple, I would say that it part of the answer, or at least the motivation for more detailed answers. However, Rollins calling it idolatry, seems a bit far.

    I don’t know if I can trust someone like Rollins. He speaks too far outside the traditional orthodox positions. Give me the witnesses of the Saints over the last 20 centuries of God’s Church.

  13. Jason,

    Thanks for pointing me to your last post and the Rollins video. I just finished watching it. He’s a bright dude. Very presumptuous, but bright. If I heard him correctly, he basically said his version of Christianity transcends everything. Put another way, everything is Christianity and it exist outside of any narrative or metanarrative. God is love, love is God and if you don’t believe that you’re fooling yourself.

    Maybe I am still missing it but why do I need to be a Christian to experience that “love”? He kind of responded to a question to that effect, something about potentiality and actuality. I couldn’t follow.

    It also seems when confronted with comparisons to other non-Christian religions, he can’t really present a coherent reason why his Christianity is unique except that it exists outside those other worldviews. That’s convenient.
    Also, he’s presuming the biblical account of Jesus’ death is true and that the resurrection actually happened. I would be curious to hear what he would say to me as someone who doesn’t believe in the resurrection. From what I heard him say in the video, it seems like he would eloquently say, with a cool accent, that I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m thinking about it in the old traditional paradigm (that, apparently, was really destroyed by the crucifixion and resurrection). What?

    Overall, the idea that his particular form of Pauline Christianity is absolute and exists outside any worldview or paradigm is strange. I may be misinterpreting his theology, it’s just what I got from watching. Thanks again for sharing.

  14. Jason,

    I went down a YouTube rabbit hole after watching that Rollins video you posted and came across an informal debate between Rollins and Lawrence Krauss. I know you’ve stated before that you have no use for debates, but I thought it was an interesting conversation. I’m a Luddite and do not know how to embed the video so here’s a link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jy6OT8m25g

  15. It’s a useful debate because it shows what Rollins is really about. Atheism with Christian salad dressing. Krauss calls him on it pretty well. It was telling that Rollins described the traditional Christian Faith as a “failed solution” to our problem. The problem of refusing to look at our ghosts. Oh, and becoming a martyr is actually cowardly because the saints are only using their convictions s a way to avoid their own demons. Brilliant.

  16. Lane,

    I don’t know if I can trust someone like Rollins. He speaks too far outside the traditional orthodox positions.

    Fair enough, and I don’t think he would disagree. After all, he is a philosopher before anything else, and he is seeking to instigate conversations about alternative readings of the tradition. I find it pretty refreshing.

  17. Mike,

    Maybe I am still missing it but why do I need to be a Christian to experience that “love”?

    I think he would point to the idea of resurrection as providing the ability to live with the forsakenness of the cross, which sets Christianity apart. But I am not completely sure.

  18. Jason,

    Have you ever tried Catholic spiritual practices? These are the best three Catholic books ever written on Catholic spirituality.

    The three ages of interior life
    By father RGL

    Uniformity with God’s will
    By liguori

    Transformation in Christ
    Dietrich Hildebrand

    Radtrad favorites. They will rock your world and hopefully we will read some posts in the future on your vibrant walk with God!

    You should definitely read these before you die…. Or before Christian dies and you throw yourself off a bridge to satisfy the death pact :)

  19. Haha, deal!

  20. Thanks Kenneth, added them to my amazon wish list!

  21. Jason email me I have news but can’t get a hold of you

  22. Just did, you get it?

  23. Jason, it’s been a while. I don’t know if I’ve ever commented on this site but check in occasionally.

    I understand how difficult it is to love a God who although is ever present can’t necessarily be felt or seen.

    I think the loving God aspect can best be seen in your children. if I may make the assumption that your children love you, you may ask how you know that. Well, I’m sure they say it and may give you a hug but the best example of love they can show to you is for them to grow up and be the children you want them to be.

    You have expectations and they work towards those expectations. Do they meet them? Maybe…maybe not. But there are certain things they do…work hard…study hard…love others…have a family. And all of what they do is a reflection of how you raised them.

    So it is with God. It’s not necessarily an “active love” (albeit that doesn’t hurt) but rather a love where what God has taught you through Scripture and the Church is reflected in who you are. Do you meet God’s expectations? Maybe…maybe not…but the love God has for you (like your love for your children) isn’t diminished any less. All that being said, we cannot ignore God like your children cannot ignore you. We are still expected to have a relationship with Him the way your children will have a relationship with you as they mature and move out of the house.

    I like the quote from Rollins. I think my thoughts tie in closely to his.

  24. You folks are the ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth described in the scriptures. I’ve never read such a load of bull crap in my life. You act as if these heretical ideas are new and ground shaking. Insurrection. …..oooooohhhh so cool.

    You have the typical protestant mindset. Gee if I read one more book all the answers will be there. Especially a heretical one,right? You people are as unstable and manic as Luther was.

  25. You have the typical protestant mindset.

    I’m Catholic.

    PS – You sound like a really nice person.

  26. Jason,

    On the one hand, the rather common notion of God as another object or “some thing” (just higher than “all the other things in your life”,), is a kind of atheism, which Catholics rightly reject. (See Bishop Barron’s talk “Why the New Atheists are Right.” The medievals taught that God is in no genus. So if our concept of God is of something in a genus, then God [in that sense] does not exist, and the ‘atheistic’ denial of that God is also true, and Catholic. There is no box or category in which to put God, or capture His essence. He is not a thing higher than the other things. Hence even the WLC definition “God is a spirit …” is in this way technically incorrect, except inasmuch as it denies that God is material. This is why I think what you’re getting at here is a kind of via negativa; any ‘captured’ God is not God. That’s not atheism per se, but it is a kind of atheism. And from a Catholic point of view, that kind of atheism is true. (See the Fr. Barron talk.)

    On the other hand, the other point that stands out to me in what you wrote is the sacramental character of love. Eleonore Stump talks about this in the last three minutes (i.e. 4′ – 7′) of “Our Heart’s Desire.” We love God by loving all these creatures around as as His “gift.” Notice what she says about how humans are different from angels in how we love God. Knowing what you’ve gone through in order to follow your conscience regarding what is the Truth, if that is not love for God (even if under the aspect of Truth), I don’t know what is. Here too I suspect that what you’re bucking against, perhaps, is sentimental/affective notions of love and piety. In the Catholic tradition, love isn’t fundamentally about feelings or emotions or squishy spirituality, but fundamentally about action and habit. Isn’t this all throughout the NT, some teaching about if you love me you will keep my commands, etc.? When you sacrifice yourself for the Truth, you’re loving God, whether you have the touchie-feelies or not. When you go to mass, take care of your family, same thing. Of course affection and ‘consolations’ are a blessing. But they are not the essence of love. So perhaps you’re less screwed than you think you are, not only because you’re loving God through loving His creatures, but because that habit at the very center of your soul to follow the Truth (the Logos) come what may, is just what loving God is, and, is so much at the inner center of you [note the parallel here to what I said above about God being so at the center of all things that He is not a thing among things], that this love becomes rather invisible when you look inside yourself for your ‘love’ for God as some kind of sentiment or passion, and find nothing.

    Man it feels like its been years since I’ve written on one of your blog sites. Good times.

    Peace brother,

    - Bryan

  27. Hey Bryan, thanks for the comment and kind words.

    Here too I suspect that what you’re bucking against, perhaps, is sentimental/affective notions of love and piety.

    Yes, that is certainly part of it. But I am also reacting (as best I can) to my own experienced sense of the real absence of Christ (to subvert a well-known theological slogan).

    I just have never felt God to be this immanent and ever-present help in times of trouble, but have instead found him to be more remote and aloof. So in some ways I have been (and am) grasping for ways to still believe despite how things have turned out for me.

  28. Jason,

    I don’t have the Calvary Chapel background that you do. But I do have a Pentecostal background. Of course we both went through a substantive Reformed period. But it took me some time to realize that some remainders of that original spirituality lingered on, a tradition in which spiritual experience in its subjective phenomenological sense, is extremely important, and is the measure of one’s closeness to God, perhaps even the very measure and ground of one’s faith. That made people in my tradition very susceptible to the sort of church-shopping that offers such an experience on any given Sunday morning. And there is even a hint of that in the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of subjective assurance, and the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit, etc. But in the Catholic tradition, you may receive “consolation” early on, but that’s just a bonus that God ordinarily withdraws soon after, so that you walk by faith. The ordinary Catholic life just is the long dark night of the soul, the experience of the “real absence of Christ,” as you put it. That’s not the problem; the problem is the expectation (we) bring to it, that it should be otherwise, that we should regularly feel or experience God’s presence or immanence, or that such consolation is the basis or ground or sustainer of our faith. See the last chapter of Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm. I don’t know if that’s at all relevant to your situation, but it was for me. I had to learn a very different way grounding and evaluating faith and growth. I had to give up seeking or expecting felt experiences. This is one more dying to the self, one more way of taking up the cross.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

  29. Thank you, Bryan. I appreciate it. And I also appreciate the “realistic” expectations that Catholicism seeks to instill. If I were a Lutheran I’d call it theology of the cross rather than a theology of glory. . . .