Self-Love and Events of Grace

Posted: October 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 24A
Matthew 22: 34-40

Self-Love and Events of Grace

It matters if someone loves us. It matters that we love ourselves. It without question I think that there is no human experience more fundamental than the transforming ‘event of grace’ that we name as being loved. And; there is a considerable body of theological opinion which claims the very heart of the Christian message is that Jesus of Nazareth shows the unconditional and gracious love of God. In the music from ‘The Man from La Mancha’ I think the quest for God and for life is aptly described. “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with the unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go; Here is the engagement with mystery, the foolish expectation, the sharing in the pain and having the courage of faith and beneath all this energy sapping reality is the engagement with change and specifically the importance of understanding what we can and can’t change. Change itself is the basic and only absolute face of life, change as the process of questioning, of evolution, and of creativity both artistic and novel.

Change is inevitable within this understanding and so we wrestle with unwanted change and change we can’t make and it is here that we engage with another paradox. We are called to imagine an unchanging God of love or more correctly God who is love and in doing this we affirm the inescapable reality of change, uncertainty and mystery. Here we can acknowledge that God can be understood as a symbol representing the evolutionary process. Or God as a symbol of the very process of creation itself (serendipitous creativity). While at the same time saying that the only thing that never changes is God’s steadfast love, not because that love is outside above or over humanity but rather because we are saying that the reality and importance of contingent (interdependent, fluid, and changing) relationships never changes. Since God 9like a rainbow is an image and not a thing, since God does not exist but is being itself (the ground of Being) then transcendent reality is about relationships (loving oneself and ones neighbour), especially those relationships that involve compassion and love. Contingency is about every-changing relationships, whether quantum or personal. Our existence will always involve relationships and this relational quality of life never changes so long as there is life. So, change itself is the unchangeable reality of life, and spirituality is about coming to terms with this reality. In his book ‘Meeting Jesus again for the first time Marcus Borg describes the spiritual journey as ‘Moving beyond belief to relationship.’ He sees himself not as a believer but as an aspiring mystic or Spirit person and he talks about his experience of the great mystery as entering into a relationship with Mystery/Spirit/God, a relationship that involves one in a journey of transformation. When he talked about change he called it a transformation that gives us the unconventional, the compassionate wisdom to oppose harsh divisions of economic, status, race, culture, gender and sexuality, divisions and boundaries which are a part of the/purity/holiness systems typical of ethnic/cultural groups we still find in our world today.

What does this love look like? Well, it has to look like God Godself and it has to look like creative change. Sacred transformation or Grace as the name of this process frees us from the kind of narrow-minded or pathological conventionality that tends to demonize anything or anyone it perceives as different. It also puts hold on the pathological individualism that cares little about promoting the general welfare. This transformation is about ‘believing in Jesus’ not in the sense of having got anything right, but in the sense of becoming more and more compassionate beings like the Spirit person Jesus. As the Bach cantata says, “If Jesu’s spirit be not yours, ye are not his.”.

Some scholars would have us say that if God is love then we cannot reverse it and say Love is God. I like others think this is wrong, even if it is partly about semantics and when we say Love is God we mean that we think that when we remain clear about the most valuable in life we will be surrounded by the Mystery of Compassionate Love, both individually and collectively as long as humanity survives in the universe. It we understand how important and effective it is to give love, to love ourselves as we do our neighbour it is more likely that we will receive love. Compassion begets compassion.

This leads me on to deal with the love of self and the dangers of narcissism and a self-love without neighbour. We know from experience and from scientific discovery that “respect and acceptance of our own integrity and uniqueness, is bound up with self-awareness and we understand that love for and understanding of our own self first, cannot be separated from respect and love and understanding for another person”. I think that John Calvin and his fundamentalist followers today who claim that self-love is selfish love got it wrong. I think that the radicalness of Jesus’ statement is that self-love is not the same as selfishness. A selfish person is interested only in him or herself and wants everything for him or herself; they can see nothing but her or himself. This is also a way of claiming that a selfish person does not love hers or himself too much, but rather too little. There is a fear of not measuring up that drives the need for more for oneself and the outcome is that there is little left for selfish people to love others. They are incapable of loving others because they are incapable of loving themselves.

One thing we do know is that: no one human alone can create community. “Interactions among humans and between humans and the natural world creates communities “Self-love, the love referred to by Jesus when he said ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ – requires the affirmation of one’s own life, happiness, growth and freedom, because all of us are rooted in our capacity to love.  Then, and only then, can we go on to love our neighbour”. It is as if self-love shapes the capacity to love neighbour.

The notion of Divinity as Love and compassion helps us come to terms with the powerful horrific and destructive aspects of nature without being judgmental about these aspects of reality because without is we would be left with a purely impassive and stone-cold sense of reality. Without the idea of Divinity as Love and compassion we would have a reality that is sterile and one-dimensional. We need images that help us touch the deeply personal and spiritual dimensions of life. So, it is my claim and others that to say both God is Love and Love is God is a step toward embracing all dimensions of the sacred, but especially the good, positive, ideal aspects of the universe that we prefer and deem worthy of worship.

While all the above might sound like I am hailing reason as the answer to everything I want to say that when we love our neighbour as we love ourselves we are not just valuing intellectual insight into the nature of reality. We are actually saying that Mystery is a warm personal experience. Not in the sense of being in any way selfish because we say that Love is God because we want to say that we limit God when we only express love as a personal experience by personifying God. nature or the universe. When we say Love is God or Compassion is divine we are acknowledging that images and metaphors are fully human because they have the ability to create and imagine and that is precisely what being human is about. Only humans create personifications, metaphors and abstract language.

The challenge of today’s talk is to say what your image of God is.  As Gordon Kaufman asks in his book ‘In the Beginning – Creativity”, What is ‘God’ like for you? What picture, if any, do you have when you hear “one of the most complex and difficult [words] in the English language, a word rich with many layers and dimensions of meaning”

Generally speaking, there are at least three different strands to the way the word God has been used in English-speaking societies: (i) the biblical strand (ii) the philosophical strand (iii) the popular strand. So how do we speak about the God in a way that communicates in our culture? I don’t know about you but over the years I have noticed my God-thinking and God-language changing as my experiences have changed. I think I have thought about God as ‘anam cara’ or soul friend as modern Celtic spirituality says.  Or as ‘Caring Friend’, as some Process theologians suggest, a caring friend who nudges, calls, lures, pokes me onward. The traditional church or biblical language for ‘anam cara’ is the word ‘love’ and in recent years I have intentionally added to my thinking. I have found myself going away from using human-like metaphors in addressing God, to using more neutral language, such as ‘creativity’. Creativity in cosmic evolution. Creativity in biological evolution. Creativity in cultural/symbolic evolution.

I have seen this as a priority and in keeping with former theologian Gordon Kaufman suggestion that our God language and God thinking, our ‘theology’ “must take into account what we have learned about the evolutionary character of our world and ourselves”. So, like many progressives, both ‘process’ and ‘creativity’ are the metaphors to use when speaking about or addressing God. And with that change in language has come a host of other changes, all away from the traditional God language
of our upbringing. As I said above both life and religious issues are not only answered intellectually. They are as Karl Peter’s says, answered “with our whole being, with the way we live our lives”.  And that means when we ask: What kind of person do I want to be? We can answer ‘I want to be friendly, loving, caring, compassionate, curious, open to new possibilities, intelligent, and, in so far as is possible, wise. That may not sound new but what undergirds that quest is that it is not so much what I can acquire but rather what I can be”.

What I think he is saying here is that we can become ‘events of grace’ and by an ‘Event of Grace’ I am saying that it is when things come together in unexpected ways “and give rise to new relations of mutual support.” That, I think is pretty close to the self-love and love of others. An event of grace is when one ‘loves a neighbour, just as one loves oneself. Amen.

Fromm, E. The Art of Loving. London. George Allen & Unwin, 1957.
Kaufman, G. In The Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
O’Donohue, J. Anam Cara. London. Bantam Books, 1997.
Peters, K. E. Dancing With The Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity Press, 2005.

Carl L.Jech Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs. Resource Publications 2013

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