What God Cannot Love

If we are faithless, He remains faithful;
for He cannot deny Himself.

2 Tim. 2:13

There are three instinctively known things that have been discussed for thousands of years. One: A thing is what it is. Its unique composition of qualities and distinctives, its essence, make it what it is.

Two: “A thing can’t both be and not be” (Bertand Russell). Better, a thing can’t have two different unique compositions of qualities and distinctives, or essences, that contradict each other, at the same time. “[T]he point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a [hu]man in name, but whether it can be in fact” (Aristotle).

Three:  “Everything must either be, or not be” (Russell).There is no state halfway between being and not being; no third option.

These three classical “laws of thought” date at least to Plato, according to the historical record. They continue to be the source of debate and argument at the core of philosophy, sociology, religion and metaphysics. For instance, sociologically, when traditionalists appeal to biological sex as the arbiter of gender, they’re appealing to these laws: A thing is what it is, and it can’t both be and not be.

However, we have a problem, and that problem is knowing in the first place what a thing really is. As social challenges have stripped away the cultural elements of gender, for instance, people have found that much of the broad cultural definition of the thing is fabricated by custom and consensus, not through known essence. A whole other culture has arisen, performing the same old trick in new ways, through establishing new cultural consensus and new customs. Whether that has any better relationship to the essence of gender than the old consensus is a question I leave to the reader’s private consideration.

Hume, Kant, Derrida and many others have made their places in history considering this field of problems, known as epistemics. It’s the favourite trick of the master storyteller, playing with the beholder’s perception in order to manipulate the sense of what a thing is and is not. The more we learn, the more we understand the essence of the matter and reshape our conclusions. That’s the joy of experiencing a story well told.

The problem with reality is this: What are facts? Are they knowable or merely a consensus of perception? When is our perception ever complete? Question that even a little bit, and the brink of madness reaches back toward us. Maybe nothing is knowable. Maybe reality is illusion and invention.

But before we plunge off that chasm’s edge, lo! A cowboy philosopher rides the brink. Once upon a time, my brother wrote,

Things include those entities, propositions, or events that are rational; that is, they conform to what is analytically and formally possible pursuant to the rules of inference and basic laws of logic. For instance, the basic law of thought and rationality, the law of non-contradiction, states that a thing cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same relationship. Any thing that breaks this law is not a thing; it is no-thing.

In short, for thousands of years, people have used these classical foundations to examine whether their sense of reality is realistic. We have an inversion in this day and age, where reality’s realism tends to be questioned, rather than one’s sense of reality. Those sound the same, but they work out of entirely different self-perceptions: One states, I may be wrong in what I know to be real, while the other states, the world is wrong about what I know to be real.

Digging further beneath the surface, we soon find that one view must first assume reality is made up of things, from which we sort the nothings by improving our perceptions. The other must first assume that reality is made up by consensus alone, without any further anchor or framework. If that’s true, we can change reality simply by changing the consensus, either in our immediate circles or in wider society.

But which is a more accurate description of human existence?

A Case Study: Love

What is love? Is it defined by consensus, or is it something discoverable? Does it have a unique composition of qualities and distinctives?

Can love be love, and at the same time not be love? Can it be love when it holds traits that are self-contradictory?

Is there a fading middle between love and not-love? Is there a third option, other than “love must either be, or not be”?

Our culture, for hundreds of years past and even up until recent decades, has referenced the Christian Bible’s “love treatise,” 1 Corinthians 13. It’s been read at many weddings where the couple had no other use for the Christian scriptures, simply because it encapsulates what our culture’s consensus has been.

The traditional romantic legend is that love is discoverable. It has certain essential traits, and when you find someone who treats you that way, (A) you’ve found love and (B) you will live happily ever after.

All the most heartwrenching stories tell us that people meet, and enact this kind of passionate faithfulness to each other, and each receiving party discovers the feeling of truly being loved, even (or especially) if they’ve never known it before. The moral of the story is always, Don’t give up, love is real.

This runs entirely perpendicular to the pop narrative of love as consensus. Maybe love is sex. Maybe love is something you fall into and then out of. Maybe love hurts you sometimes. Maybe self-love is the only thing strong enough to ward off someone else’s love being hurtful to you. The only intersection point with the traditional picture is at the mournful sigh of yet another thwarted rom-com protagonist: “Why can’t I find love?”

Love is patient… kind… doesn’t envy… isn’t boastful… isn’t prideful… doesn’t dishonour others… isn’t self-seeking… doesn’t keep a tally of wrongs… always protects… always trusts… always hopes… always hangs on… love never fails. 

1 Cor. 13

If love is defined in terms of what one person’s pride can or can’t bear, is it love?

If love keeps a running record of wrongs, is it love? Worse, if it gives one party survival reasons to keep that record, is it love?

If love dishonours a loved one, is it love? We all betray each other sometime.

If love fails to protect, or to trust, is it love?

If love fails to last… is it love?

In Which Love Falls Off the Cliff’s Edge

This here is what philosophers, cowboy and otherwise, might call the horns of a dilemma. If we answer yes to the above — yes, it’s still love — then love is a consensus issue only. In that case, love can hurt. Love can abuse, it can abandon, and break, and dishonour, without being discredited by anything more than the recipient’s perception that this love doesn’t feel good. Society as a whole has no moral ground on which to arrest abusers, protect children, or prosecute partner rape or murder, other than a consensus that these are bad. The consensus could change if the culture changes, and in fact, international women’s rights advocates are up against that exact problem in many parts of the world. They’re trying to change the reality by changing a consensus that people may strongly believe should not be changed, for cultural or religious reasons.

Consensus does not necessarily protect, does not necessarily honour, doesn’t have to be arbitrated by patience or kindness, and it may fail whenever the wind shifts. Consensus is nothing more than a form of blind power dynamics, arbitrated by whoever controls social influences. Consensus is not rational. It’s in no way obligated to logic or consistency.

To put it in my brother’s terms: Consensus is nothing. In which case, love is nothing either.

In Which Firm Ground is No Consolation

On the other hand, love might be discoverable. That is, it might consist of a unique set of qualities and characteristics that are essential to its being. There might be some standard by which to measure and adjust our perceptions.

But what then? The harsh conclusion waiting to spear us on this horn of the dilemma is that we aren’t really capable of love. We catch glimpses of it. We manage moments here and there. But overall, we aren’t consistent. We don’t measure up to any external definition of love, whether the Bible’s or some other one, because we’re inherently changeable and whimsical.

Eternity Bends Toward Us

The consolation for the Christian is in the starting point of faith: That’s right, I don’t measure up to love. The starting point of Christianity is in the Law of Identity: I am what I am. The next step along the path is the Law of Non-Contradiction: I can’t both be and not be what I am. There’s no pretending I measure up once I know that I don’t. 

And finally, we come to the words of the Pauline hymn: “When we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” This is something we can identify with. Sometimes a person or situation pushes us too far, and we face a choice of ceasing to be who we are — dying inside in some way — or setting a boundary that says, “No. I choose life. Your relationship to me can’t override my relationship to myself.”

That’s identity. In fact, in philosophy, it’s that first law, the Law of Identity.

At those moments, we realize that the Law of the Excluded Middle (the third one) really does apply: We either are, or we aren’t. There’s no middling state, no third option, though we spend most of our existence trying to live within such a fantasy. This is how we find the pieces of ourselves over a lifetime: By dragging them out of the shadows of irrationality and self-contradiction. The Christian scripture calls this bearing the image of God: The fact that our sense of identity is so tied to our sense of life and of death.

And yet, we can deny that image. We can deny ourselves. We can make ourselves no-thing, a self-contradicting irrationality, for a season; but eventually, we become. Either we embrace the no-thing, or (to quote the old poet of Job’s tale) “repent in dust and ashes,” rejecting the nothingness of a contradictory internal world and reaching for the One who remains faithful at all times and seasons.

We are saved by the fact that there are things God cannot love, or even tolerate: things for which He would have to deny Himself, like partner abuse, putting pride over personhood, various kinds of betrayal, indifference to a partner’s emotional and physical safety… all those things that we instinctively know are not love.

God is love, wrote the Apostle John. And so, by condemning sin, God lives up to Himself.

This Is No New Beginning

It’s been four years since I’ve written here. The children have flown, all but one, and that last one is almost underway as well.

A few years ago, I thought that when they left, I’d have to become someone else. I tried to picture that person in my mind. Career Lady. Or maybe Writer Lady. Or Volunteer Lady. They all seemed too detached, too isolated, or too busy trying to fill my time with other people’s problems.

I had no idea, from inside my white picket fence existence, that I had already learned how to live in the world beyond our family’s front gate.

After all those years of sleeplessness, worry, prayer, and patience, I didn’t realize that as my no-longer-little ones spread their wings, they’d be releasing me from our shared nest to be the very person they made of me, too. This is no new beginning.

Yesterday a shy teen or 20-something girl (I can’t tell these youngsters apart anymore) came up to me in the fast food place and asked me in a wee little voice if I could ask them for a wet wipe for hands for her. When the counter boy came back, I said, “Could we have a wet towel for hands, please?” I didn’t really think about it. It just seemed right to use the we I’d use for one of my own. I handed it to her with my mom smile. She lit up and smiled back like she’d just made a friend.

I saw so many children I’ve known and loved in her smile. My own kids. Sunday School students past. My darling little music students. Without a word, she told me something that resonates forward into the years to come: Everyone needs a mom.

And I learned something else in that moment. Contrary to many a feminist complaint, this is not who I am in relation to my children or my husband. This is who I am.

Until we surrender to what true love makes of us, we can’t possibly envision how strong it makes us, or how universal its utility in the world we move through. If there’s a culture war out there, then this is my armour and my weaponry.

I don’t need to go and invent interfering ways to nurture people, as if nurture is there to meet my emotional needs. They’ll walk up to me and just need the sort of kindness that feels like home for a second in a pressurized world.

I don’t need to meddle in my children’s lives or fuss over them. I’m free to occupy my time, and to exist. I’ll always do so as the person I became when someone else’s life sheltered within my body. A space of safety, with a heartbeat that surrounds the one who needs it.

Mom Lady, Career Lady, Writer Lady, Volunteer Lady… vocation is beside the point. My children have sent me out into the world, just as I’ve sent them. Together, we go.

The Greening

What is this grey? My morning’s window is a minor river, and the sun and sky are blanketed by a never-ending fleece. Late into the season, the trees still stand naked. Their fight to burst forth leaves has been in vain against the cold. A hundred-year chill.

Still they’ve stood trembling in the winds, budding defiantly. I think if they are forced to wait any longer, a mutiny will occur.

The rain comes down, and in the hour I’ve sat by the window, the world has changed. White poplar trunks are no longer quite so pale. Instead of the sallowness of winter dormancy, a faint hint of pale green tints them.

The grasses are dark gold, rich with autumn’s leftover colour and devoid of its lively variety. Grey road, dun world.

I wait a little longer.

Over in the corner of the yard, the tangle of chokecherry and willow is no longer a black scribble on a monochrome world. Red stems reach high like arms stretching to be lifted out of an underground prison.

All across the woods, leaf buds swell, bronzing the treetops. It’s that weekend. The one of resurrection.

What is this grey? Why is the sky weeping?

It’s just what happens at this time of year. Always has been and ever will be. Against this backdrop, the Paschal lamb and a dark night’s flight from slavery to promise. Against this New World thaw, the Roman occupation of the world that was, and the type of military efficiency that could invent a way to torture transgressors for days without requiring its soldiers to engage actively in the extended cruelty.

Crucifixion: An early example of automation, if you will.

Here stand the trees on the other side of the earth, raising fingers toward a sky that’s weeping. This week, of all weeks, spring finally shows herself.

She arrives at a rock wall with a hole hewn into it, expecting to find a decayed corpse well-flayed and left to rot. Death has happened and it’s done. Leaves have fallen. Cold has settled in. Limbs are icy. And it seems that it will stay this way forever and forever, all rumours to the contrary.

Instead, something has happened in the night. A sun’s ray of a soldier has removed the seal of death. Deep in the heart of the earth, a sudden breath is taken. The flaying and the icy cold are irradiated as the world tilts on its axis toward its source of light.

He has no remarkable appearance. Just a man. In the darkness, he unwraps the cloth from around his head, shakes it off, and leaves behind the bindings, neatly folded.

The seal is broken open.

She arrives, prepared to grieve what was and isn’t anymore. A promising and remarkable life, over. A disappointment to outlast all other heartbreaks.

Instead, she finds the Gardener.

Who else would be about so early in the morning dew? Just a man whose daily job is nurturing creation. Through tears she looks at him and past him, still looking for scars and wounds and the first signs of decay. He stands there, upright and with his dignity evident and unassailable, while she’s still expecting defiled nakedness.

She comes looking for an ending. And it is.

Winter always ends.

Deep in the woods on the other side of the world, the snow still lies thick and sodden. Last year’s foliage is crumpled on the ground like discarded newspaper. It has seemed that the resurrection forgot us this year.

The life I lived for the last decade and a half is over — in a way. Re-beginning, in another. It’s just so late. And I wonder if those years were wasted. Sometimes it feels like the biggest mistake I could have made.

But whether they were wasted or not, things are starting over. Always something new to try, something else to learn, some other wonder to see.

Even death won’t change that. This world struggles against itself, tearing down edifices and doing battle over great achievements. What about that other world, when this one’s strife and disappointment melt away?

A greening that will be.

There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.

-George MacDonald