This week’s piece is experimental. I fully realize that my provisional attempts here put me at odds with much of the formulations of “classical theism,“ but I believe that they must be ventured in order to plumb the implications of God’s becoming-human in Jesus of Nazareth. Thank you for being willing to go on a journey with me into the darkness of our understanding.
Can you tell your lover why you love them?
Neither can God. Love is as much a mystery to the lover as it is to the beloved.
God can’t tell you why He loves you, because He doesn’t know.
Love and the Self-Binding of God
Elsewhere I have described love as a determination about the beloved, not a response to the qualities of the beloved. It is precisely the lover's determination about the beloved which brings forth through a transfiguration those very qualities which make the beloved so lovely in the eye of the lover.
But this determination, which we supposedly take to be free... don't we experienced it like an iron law? Love is a self-binding, but one in which the act of binding happened in an inaccessible past – Love's determination has always-already happened, so to speak. For the moment we realize that it has happened, it is already behind us, and we find that we are already in love.
This self-binding therefore is experienced as a pure compulsion, almost as though we are being forced against our will to love. We love despite ourselves and against ourselves – We cannot not love our beloved. Love coincides with the highest point of freedom for we experience ourselves as love's agent, compelled by something beyond us, the servant of something grander which is coming to fruition in and through us.
The Bible tells this same story about God. Yahweh's faithful love of the Israelites follows this pattern – especially in the messages of the Prophets, Yahweh declares that even though the Israelites have defiled themselves and disobeyed all His commandments that He will still love them because of His covenant faithfulness. His faithfulness to His self-binding promises compel Him to love them.
This covenant – the self-binding of God – acts as the objective mechanism which drives Him back to love the unlovable Israelites moment by moment. We see in Yahweh's covenant faithfulness how love must be externalized into an iron law which then must be obeyed unswervingly. Even when the Israelites whore after other gods, Yahweh will accept them back for the sake of His covenant which He made.
The Prophets are certainly referring to the covenant which Yahweh made between Himself and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, but I do not think that this is the true source of the self-binding. At most, that covenant at Sinai represents a historical manifestation of a self-binding which has already taken place in eternity past (as we have already noticed that all love does).
God called Israel "His people" before they made the covenant at Sinai, for He heard their cries and liberated them from Egypt because of His love for them as His special people. From reading Genesis, we can understand that this covenant love flows from Yahweh's promise He made to Abraham to "make of him a great nation" and that "through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed."
But on what basis did God choose Abram to call him out of Ur and into Canaan? Why this man at this time and in this place?
Here we start to come up short. We begin to sense that something else must be afoot in the mysterious movements of God's love in time and space. This idea of the self-binding of God must take us back to when the whole mess began – when God decided to create.
The mystery of God's decision to create
God's self-binding act of love must finds its primordial origin before creation began, but already in this statement we've encountered a conundrum which needs further consideration. Why would God create in the first place? Why would God, enraptured in the perfect fellowship of the Trinity and wholly complete within Himself, create something else?
There is a famous paradox referred to as Buridan's ass – a donkey is equally thirsty and hungry, and stands equidistant from a pail of water and a bail of hay. The paradox asserts that the donkey will die from indecision because if its desires are equal in intensity and the effort to satisfy those desires is equal in cost, it will not be able to decide whether to walk towards the water or to move towards the hay. Consequently, the donkey will die where it stands.
Would not this paradox also describe God prior to His act of creation? Given the two options of continuing the eternal enjoyment of His Triune being or creating a world in which He will suffer and die, a God who is self-existent, omnipotent, and fully Actual would not be able to decide between these two choices unless something in Him inclined Him towards one of them.
Here we have hit upon something startling – something in God compelled Him to create the world. There is in God a propensity towards this act of creation, towards the sort of wasteful and extravagant love which is required to create another. Did He not experience the impulsion of Love, God would not have been moved to make a world and to fill it with others who would relate to Him as an other as well.
Lacan's definition of love immediately announces itself to us here (it's a strange definition if I've ever heard one, but oddly compelling once understood) --
"Love is giving what we do not have to one who doesn't want it."
I warned you that it was strange, but don't be daunted – let's think about it together by using God's act of creation as an example.
If love is giving what we do not have, then what is it which God did not have prior to creation? We say that God is and was complete within Himself, lacking for nothing, and yet we can surmise that He was lacking at least one thing – an Other! He lacked the creation which could be with Him and become the object of His love.
To create this other, God gave away His lack, and imparted this lack to the other – for now that we exist, we are lacking creatures who emerged from nothing and teeter dangerously on its edge moment by moment.
This is a state of affairs which we never asked for – would we have chosen this arrangement had we been consulted about it beforehand? – which has come about because we were created on account of God's compulsion to love and His giving away of His lack.
Karl Barth talks about election in an odd way which seems to diverge from common accounts, but it bears a striking resemblance to what we've been talking about thus far. Barth says that God's election was His choosing Himself in Christ to be for us. Emmanuel ("God with us") is who God decided to be for us, and in this way God's self-binding love compels Him to "not be God without us."
Where do these impious speculations leave us? We find ourselves as creatures who never asked to be created, who are thrust into life against our will, and yet God's primordial determination of love towards us both grounds and transfigures our creaturely life. God has decided that He can no longer go on being God without us, and so much so that He took to Himself eternally a human body and its wounds in order to enjoy perpetual fellowship with us.
This God who has tumbled into His creation, and become entangled with it... He finds Himself driven by a Love which even He cannot understand or control. Together, both Him and we, are caught up in the adventure which He began long ago, not knowing where it would lead, but sure that He could not avert the journey.
Thanks for taking a moment to sit with these ideas today.
I hope that you had a great Thanksgiving yesterday! I'm thankful for such a wonderful family to spend quality time with, and also for an employer who generously gives me both the time and mental bandwidth to be present with them.
Also, I'm especially thankful for you, dear reader, for allowing me into your life and making me a conversation partner in whatever journey you find yourself on. My hope is that thankfulness would supersede in your heart any temptations towards bitterness or envy which are so easy to indulge and yet are utterly poisonous.
Keep an eye out for this upcoming Wednesday when I will be releasing the last episode of Samsara Audio for this year – I'm excited about this one, and think that it's a strong note to end the year on. In it you'll be hearing from my friend Quinn Whelehan as we discuss the encounter between Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy, especially Nagarjuna and Hegel.