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|Facets of Love
By P. Engelbert Recktenwald
„Accepting someone as he is, is the ultimate form of resignation”, writes Robert Spaemann in his essay Antinomien der Liebe (Antinomies of Love), published in the commendable collective volume Schritte über uns hinaus II (Steps beyond Ourselves II). This sounds provocative, as we are indeed used to regarding just such acceptance as an expression of love. Love, so we think, must be unconditional. For if I am only loved under the condition that I fulfil certain expectations, then I myself am not loved, but rather merely the ideal which the other has of me. This is especially true of God’s love. That one cannot earn it through one’s own efforts is common knowledge nowadays. If God’s love as pure grace is groundless, then I cannot contribute anything in order to give Him grounds for his love.
Nevertheless, Spaemann’s dictum is true and well-justified, when he adds: “Jesus’s message does not begin with the words: ‘God takes you as you are’, but rather with the words: ‘Repent. Change your ways. Be different than you now are.’”
The contradiction resolves itself when we distinguish between the love of benevolence, that is, of goodwill; and the love of delight, that is, of being well-pleased. God wills the salvation of all people, the righteous as well as the sinner. Here God makes no distinction. In a certain sense, sin even appears to increase this benevolence. Consider for example the words of Jesus, that it is not those who are well, but those who are sick who have need of a physician. A good physician gives precedence to the treatment of the gravely ill over the slightly injured. The good shepherd goes after the one lost sheep more eagerly than after the 99 who have no need of his special care.
But the physician intends precisely to heal the gravely ill, that is, to change him. If he were to accept him as he is, that would mean not only resignation, but a betrayal of his commission. It is only when the ill person is restored to health that the physician will be pleased with him and with himself. We must immediately be aware, however, in view of the latter phrasing, of a distinction in the analogy: God is certainly always pleased with Himself. He has no need to demonstrate His ability. The human physician can succumb to the danger of viewing the ill person merely as a test case of his ability. The more responsible he is, the less of a role this aspect of self-fulfillment plays for him and the more he is unselfishly concerned solely with the health of the patient. In its most perfect form, this holds true for God. He seeks in the purest form of benevolence imaginable the salvation of man.
The physician’s displeasure at the illness of his patient is an image of God’s disapproval of sin, which must not conceal a further distinction. The displeasure is in each case of a different quality. When the physician, faced with alarming symptoms, says: “I’m not happy with that”, this disapproval in no way refers to the person of the patient. This is different in the case of sin, as it falls within the realm of responsibility of the sinner and morally (dis)qualifies him as a person. This displeasure therefore incorporates the person, and is expressed for instance quite blatantly in the biblical saying: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16).
In benevolence God makes no distinction, as He is the father who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). All the more pronounced is the distinction when it comes to His good pleasure. St. Paul for instance writes clearly that God was not pleased with most of the Fathers who wandered through the desert (1 Cor 10:5).
God loves the sinner with the love of benevolence and goodwill, but not with the love of delight and good pleasure. His benevolence distinguishes between the sinner and the sin, so that St. Augustine’s distinction applies: Hate the sin, love the sinner. The aim of this benevolence, however, is the repentance of the sinner, his transformation into that condition, which enables God to be well-pleased with him.
In Spaemann’s text, however, it is not the distinction between benevolence and good pleasure which plays a role, but the distinction between benevolence and desire, that is, between amor benevolentiae and amor concupiscentiae.
In view of this distinction it was long agreed upon that in the case of God only the love of benevolence could be asserted. For desire implies a need, and a need implies a lack. The concept of God, however, as the perfect entity and the fullness of being rules out any potentiality. God is not needy, He lacks nothing. The happiness which He finds within Himself and which ultimately coincides with His being, is incorrupt and incorruptible. What more should He strive for, as though anything were still lacking for His perfect happiness? His love is therefore not a needy love, but rather a sovereign selflessness, goodness as “diffusivum sui” (Bonaventure), which seeks to communicate its happiness to others.
Things look different when we consider the matter out of our perspective of needing absolute love. Naturally we are thankful for the love of the altruistic benefactor. But the happiness of experiencing such love falls short of the bliss of nuptial love. In the latter case, we are loved so deeply by the lover, that he for his part longs for our love in return, and experiences a lack if he does not receive it. If the beloved were to declare his love for us, while at the same time adding that he could just as well live without us, we would experience our own love as being irrelevant for his happiness and consequently as meaningless and held in low esteem. The profession: “I love you, but I do not need you” deals the mortal blow to nuptial love. This love says: “I love you so much, that I can no longer live without you, and I want to be loved by you with exactly the same love.” The love with which I want the happiness of the beloved, is also the source of my wish that it would be my love which would effect precisely this happiness; that the beloved would thus find his happiness in my love.
There is also a love for God which goes so far as to wish not only to be loved by Him without need, but longingly. The lover of God wishes to hear that he is precious to the beloved, and God answers precisely this: “Because you are precious in my eyes” (Is 43:4). Just as he himself desires God, so he also wishes to be the object of divine desire, not merely the target of disinterested charity. It is exactly this symmetry of yearning love which constitutes the singularity of the biblical image of divine marriage.
In every human heart there is an empty space which can only be filled by God. S. Eldredge establishes a symmetry using this saying by George MacDonald, when she writes, “that there is also a space in God’s heart which only we can fill” (in Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul) Closely related to this thought is the idea of the individuality of this love. If it is I whom God loves with this love, then the love which He expects from me cannot be replaced by any other love. Just as God’s love is not an abstract love of humanity, so He does not expect merely a certain quantity of collective love from humanity, as a star delights in the amount of fan mail he receives. Instead, God loves each person with a love with which we are only able to love one person. He loves each individual so individually, that no other love which He receives can completely console Him for the absence of the love returned by one individual person. In other words: Each person plays an irreplaceable role in God’s eyes.
In her diary He and I, the mystic Gabriele Bossis has Jesus say: “Each soul loves in its own way. Do not rob me of yours. I confuse nothing. I savor your particular natures. Since the beginning of the world, no soul has resembled another.” Spaemann expresses it thus: “No one except God can do justice to the uniqueness of each individual person. ‘Only for God is each one of us irreplaceable’, writes Dávila in turn. Only for God does the individual not disappear in the greater mass.”
When God savors my love, then this is the fulfillment of my desire that my love contribute something to his joy. Conversely, God can be robbed of love. The mystic Mechthild von Hackeborn heard the words from God: “Nothing delights me so much as the heart of man, whose service I seldom gain. I am overabundant in all goods, except in the heart of man, which so often slips out of my grasp” (The Book of Special Grace).
Naturally, the truth that God is without need, remains in place. Nevertheless, His love must contain an equivalent of the neediness peculiar to love, which fulfils our aforementioned desire for such love. We are incapable of adequately conceiving of God’s love, because it is endless. But we can assume that the concept of a needy love is closer to the truth than the alternative concept of a love in God which is untouchable by our love.
This conception appears to be now confirmed by the Church: Spaemann points out that Pope Benedict, in his encyclical Deus caritas est, attributes to God the amor concupiscentiae: “God appears to the Prophets as a jealous lover of His Bride, the people of Israel. And in the Incarnation, God even puts Himself into the position of one who is in need of the love of others and dependent on it.”
Benedict uses the terms eros and agape. When he refers to God’s love as eros, then he is setting it against the Aristotelian image of God, according to which divine power is “indeed the object of desire and love for all beings, but it is itself without need and does not love.” At the same time, the eros of God is thoroughly agape, as it is a groundlessly self-giving and even forgiving love.
One could say: God’s love is eros insofar as it finds its bliss in our love. It is agape insofar as it completely seeks our bliss, and not its own. This unity of eros and agape finds its counterpart in creaturely love. Spaemann cites Leibniz’s definition of love: delectatio in felicitate alterius, delight in the happiness of the other. At first sight, man appears to be just as incapable of this pure agape as God is incapable of amor concupiscentiae. Can man ever ignore his neediness and his desire for his own happiness? Blessed Charles de Foucauld could. His notes contain the recurring thought that it is Jesus’s happiness which makes him the happiest and which consoles him for everything else. “When you are suffering” he writes to his sister, “then think of His happiness; tell yourself that you wish for His happiness and not your own, that you love Him and not yourself. And in the depths of your misery (…) rejoice over His infinite and unwavering happiness…”
The love of benevolence seeks the happiness of the beloved, but it does not seek it unconditionally. The only thing which it seeks unconditionally is that the beloved be worthy of happiness. It is only under this condition that his happiness is desired. In other words: God desires the sanctification of man. If he wanted his happiness unconditionally, there would be no damnation. It is only when a person becomes good that he becomes worthy of happiness. The connection between moral goodness and happiness is one of essential necessity and not one which is only brought about by the positive will of God. In other words: God cannot desire the happiness of an evil person other than under the condition of his conversion. Jesus’s call for our conversion is thus an expression of His love, our acceptance by Him is the result of His love being successful.
This article first appeared in German in Die Tagespost on 28 December 2013
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