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Who or what is God?

3 November 2010

‘God so loved the world’ (John 3:16) is one of the most well known verses in the Christian tradition. The question arises for me; who or what is God, and what is this love? I experience in my personal life feelings I might name love, love for my family, my wife, my children. There are people outside my immediate family I feel love for, and I feel compassion which may also be a sense of love for people I do not know, like a stranger in poverty, a prisoner, people who suffer disease or violence. In the human experience we have different levels of feeling love. I find the four Greek words for love helpful here. These four types of love are: ‘eros’, or sexual love; ‘philio’, the love which exists between friends; ‘storge’, the affection between family members; and ‘agape’, self giving, unconditional love. Whenever the word ‘love’ is used in connection with God, the Greek word is an extension of ‘agape’. One might say then that when God loves, God is giving of God’s self, unconditionally.

William Johnston quotes Bernard Lonergan in his book Mystical Theology when he speaks about grades of love. He speaks of romantic love, filial love, patriotic love and love for society ……There is the love of intimacy, of husband and wife, of parents and children. There is the love of one’s fellow humanity with its fruit in the achievement of human welfare. Then there is another love which transcends all these. Longergan says…

There is the love of God with one’s whole heart and whole soul, with all one’s mind and all one’s strength (Mark12:30). It is God’s love flooding our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us (Romans 5:5). It grounds the conviction of St. Paul that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in the heights or depths – nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

Johnston asks how this love is different from the romantic love of other classics such as Romeo and Juliet. Lonergan says that all love is self-surrender but being in love with God is being in love without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservations.

So who or what is God? According to 1 John 4:8 ‘God is love’. Johnston says we do not or cannot understand this for it is mystery. A mystery in my understanding is not necessarily something to be understood conceptually, but it is something that is to be experienced. 1 John4:7 and following says,

“Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love…… Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No (man) one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us….God is love, and (he) they who abide(s) in love abides in God, and God abides in (him) them… We love because God first loved us…And this commandment we have from him, that (he) those who love God should love (his) their brother also.”

The starting point for love is God who loves. But the question is how I experience this God who loves and is love. Is God an object, other, a separate entity, something out there that is beyond myself? Johnston says “I can never say, God is there and I am here, as if I were separated from my source. For God is the core of my being and the core of all beings. He is closer to me than I am to myself.” Johnston says that we can say “God is my being”, but never say “I am God”. So while we can experience love and being loved, when it comes to the question of God, who we may experience as being present when we feel love, and absent when we do not, the question of God is a mystery. The common thread through all the experiences of the fathers and mothers of the church is that God is known in the experience, and that experience comes from a path of being both drawn and called from our heart, or core, and from our desire to know, to move more deeply into the mystery of what is unknown. In my search for God, I am lead then to this experience one might name mysticism.

Johnston speaks continually of mysticism being a journey of love, that it is the answer to the call of love. Bernard Lonergan, when speaking of authentic religious experience, uses the theme of the bride and bridegroom, speaking of otherworldly falling in love and of the union of marriage. He says:

“When a man and woman love each other but do not avow their love, they are not yet in love. Their very silence means that their love has not reached the point of self-surrender and self-donation. It is the love that each freely and fully reveals to the other that brings about the radically new situation of being in love and that begins the unfolding of its lifelong implications …What holds true for the love of a man and a woman, also holds in its own way for the love of God and Humanity (man).”

Johnston says that we know God when our being becomes being-in-love. One in this experience enters into a spiritual marriage. In response to my question, who or what is God; Johnston reminds me that “just as God alone is Being in the full sense of the word, God alone is Being-in-love in the full sense of these words… We can be being-in-love only in so far as we are untied with the Supreme Being-in-love who is God. And to reach this union is a slow and painful process; it is a journey in which one goes out from self into the darkness of the night, suffering the loss of all things, being wounded and beaten, stripped naked …. And journey’s end is beyond the grave when through death one sees God…”.

What Johnston seems to be describing is the Gospel story of Jesus. At his Baptism Jesus has the mystical experience of hearing the voice of God. The Holy Spirit, which is love, descends on him like a dove and he hears that he is the Son of God. Jesus speaks of the indwelling relationship he has with his Father, but this union and indwelling seems to lead him into suffering. Firstly, Jesus is led into the desert where he faces all sorts of trials and darkness. Ultimately, Jesus moves to his death, the loss of his life, the absolute darkness of being abandoned. His journey of union with God leads him to death. Then, as Johnston suggests, his journey ends beyond the grave where he sees God, in the resurrection. It is in the light of this resurrection that the Apostles of the church speak of Jesus as the Christ. In fact, it seems to me that it is in the path of death, burial and resurrection that Jesus actually becomes the Christ. It is in this path that the Christ is born.

The journey of love and the desire to know God seems to lead to the path St. John of the Cross calls the dark night. To know God who is the source of life, the Supreme Being-in-love, I need to awaken to my true self. To awaken to this true self is to lose all things, to labour and enter into one’s own dying, which is the transition to birth and resurrection. I awaken to the one in whom I live and move and have my being. I understand this to be what St. Paul points to when he says that we are united to Christ in his death and his resurrection (Romans 6:5). The desire to know God starts with a call, and invitation. The call is that we are loved, by God who is Being-in-love itself. If I desire to know this love more deeply, I am invited to follow Jesus in love for the Christ to be born in me. The path of discipleship is the path of love which leads me to live with Christ, to die with Christ, to rise with Christ, of being transformed into Christ and being-in-love. This is the labour of dying to our illusory self and giving birth to our true self, the self that was known by God before we formed in our mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5). Like the great father and mothers of the church before me, it is God who yearns for me, who searches for me, who loves me. My heart or core, in turn, desires to be loved, searches for the lover, who loves and in return I love.

God so loved the world. How might I know God? By being-in-love. How will I know if I am being-in-love? At the end of the Gospel of Matthew we hear the words ….when I was hungry you gave me food. When I was thirsty you gave me a drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me. When I was naked, you clothed me; when I was sick, you visited me. When I was in prison you came to me. In as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me. For when we embody love in action we are actually embodying the being-in-love. I understand this to be the incarnation, infinite, divine love without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservations embodied in flesh. God who is infinite Being-in-love is present in the world. Love searches for itself, gives of itself, unites with itself.

Peace be with you


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