Diagramming Love

I would like to begin this post with a slightly odd exercise. As the title suggests, it involves using diagrams as a tool to think about love. While we might react to the idea of diagramming love, visual models are quite useful for learning about and exploring something that we can grasp with our unaided five senses—imagine learning about atoms without the Bohr’s model or the Electron Cloud model. Of course, visualizing something abstract, like love, has its dangers, for we can always confuse the model for the real thing—real atom do not look like the Bohr’s or the Electron Cloud model. Still I think the exercise will be helpful, as long as we remember that a model is always a representation, never the reality itself.

One ancient author wrote that love consists of a lover, the one who is loved, and the love that moves between and unites them.1 If we were to diagram this division it would look like this:


Moreover, love is often returned by the object that is being loved. (This depends on the degree to which the object of love can return love. A diamond may be loved, but it has no capacity to return love. Dogs and cats return their owner’s affection to the degree that animals are able to show affection. Only humans are capable of returning human love fully. At the same time, human love is riskier because any human may choose not to return love.) Thus the beloved returns love and the lover becomes the beloved and the beloved the lover.


For the lover there is a continual sending out of love and a continual returning of love. For the loved one there is the love that is received and returned, which comes back in a never ending feedback loop. It is a circular system, a self-contained exchange of love. Of course, this diagram is a simplified form of something that is very complex in real life—as all diagrams are. Perhaps the nearest this approaches to reality is when you notice a couple in love who are so fixed on each other that they are oblivious to everything outside themselves and their love for each other.

With this description of love in place, I want to narrow the focus on to theological love and consider what Scripture means in 1 John 4:8 when it says that God is love. One way of understanding this verse is to focus on God’s loving actions: God’s sending of his Son to die for humanity, God’s forgiveness of our sins, God’s material provision for us. The Bible is full examples of the way God demonstrates his love for us, which in turn is our motivation for loving others (1 Jn. 4:11-12). The diagram might look something like this:


God is the lover and human are the ones he loves. The love that travels from God to us are his loving acts to us. We return love as worship, adoration, and obedience. While this interpretation of the verse is true, I want to press the idea that God is love further. This interpretation is anthropocentric (man focused) It focus on us and all that God does for us. How do we understand this verse if humans are absent from the diagram? According to Scripture, humans have not always existed. Our existence is a drop in the bucket compared to God’s existence in eternity. Was God love before we were created? This is more than an abstract theological question. If at some point God did not love, it is possible that at a later point he will stop loving. On the other hand, if love is an essential attribute of God, if he is love, we need not fear that God will cease loving.

One answer to the question would be to say that since God dwells outside of time, he has always loved humanity; humans have always been present in his thoughts if not in the material world. Still, this answer makes God dependent on us for his existence as love. God needs us. To a degree, we merit God’s love because it is the only way he can be Love (God cannot love if he has nothing to love.) Put in a more formal manner, love becomes a contingent attribute of God rather than an essential attribute. God’s existence as love depends on something he creates rather than on who he is in and of himself. God is love is reduced to God is loving as long as he has something to love.

At this point, one might object and say, “Why can’t God love himself, like in the diagram below?”


Here God is a monad, a point from which love comes and to which it returns. This would seem to be the view for believers in strict monotheistic religions if they include love as one of God’s essential attribute.2 This answer reasonably assumes that God’s exclusive self-love is not corrupting as it is for human. In humans exclusive love for self corrupts and alienates them from others. God would be above this because he is fully worthy to be loved.

A very scrupulous monotheist may find a problem, however, with this diagram. It depicts something going out from God and returning to him, making love a sort divine emanation of God. If God is absolutely singular, his essential being will have nothing that goes out from him and returns. Love has to be “internal” for it to be essential from this point of view. God may still love, but if we could see it, it wouldn’t resemble anything like human love. The difference would not be like that between English and a language we hadn’t heard before; it would be like the difference between English and something that we don’t even recognize as a language. God’s love would not be love from the strictest of monotheistic perspectives.

Trinitarian monotheism proposes another explanation. The ancient author mentioned at the beginning of the post recognized a dim reflection of the Trinity in his triad of love. The main problem, in my opinion, with such a triad is that two members are clearly persons, while the third is not. Since popular conceptions of the Trinity often downplay the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the triad reinforces false ideas about God. However, the metaphor of love being once substance containing three elements is helpful in someways, since it is a unity that contains a trinity. I offer instead this diagram of the Trinity as love, which is roughly based on the shield of the trinity:

Here the model looks less like romantic love and more like an ideal community of persons. The Father loves the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son. It is circular since the Father loves the Son who loves the Holy Spirit who loves the Father. Love travels between them and through them in a complex dance. For example, one might say that the love with which the Holy Spirit loves the Father comes from the Father’s love for the Spirit and the love of the Father coming through the Son. Love doubles and triples by being passed around, yet it is one Love, endless shared for all eternity. It is by no means a perfect diagram.2 Every analogy of the Trinity breaks down. We are two-dimensional people trying to describe a three-dimensional reality.

One may point out that this tidy, self-contained diagram leaves out us humans. That is much the point. God doesn’t need us. We are not necessary to God. Instead God made humans out of his unnecessary grace, an overflowing of love from the love that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When God loves us, and we love him in return (we only do so with the love that he has given to us), we are drawn into this Trinity which is Love, an interchange of love that has no beginning and no end. Because it has been going on for all eternity, we don’t have to fear that it will end. Because God is Love, we don’t have to be afraid that He will cease to love because then He would cease to be God. It is only a matter of our participation in this Love. We did not earn it, nor are we necessary to it, yet we are invited to join all the same.

  1. The author is is Augustine in his book On the Trinity, Bk. VIII, 14 and Bk. IX, 2. “Behold, I who seek this, when I love something, there are three, I and what I love and the love itself. Indeed, I don’t love love unless I love loving, for there is no love where nothing is loved. Therefore there are three, the one loving and what is loved and love. [Ecce ego qui hoc quaero cum aliquid amo tria sunt, ego et quod amo et ipse amor. Non enim amo amorem nisi amantem amem, nam non est amor ubi nihil amatur. Tria ergo sunt, amans et quod amatur et amor.] Bk. IX, 2. See also Bk. VII, 6 where he identifies the Holy Spirit specifically with love.
  2. These would include Judaism and Islam. I do not know enough about the theology of either religion to know whether love is considered one of God’s essential attributes, so I will go no further.
  3. As I think about the proper way to state the relationship of the persons of the Trinity to love it make sense to me to follow Augustine’s linguistic formulation and say that the Father is love, the Son is love, and the Holy Spirit is love, yet they are not three loves but one love, i.e. what can be stated about God can be stated singly about each person of the Trinity. Yet my diagram shows each member as loving rather than a love in itself with its three parts. Establishing a Trinity within each person of the Trinity would be an absurdity and maybe that is where the diagram falls apart. Perhaps when we say, for example, that the Son is love what we are really saying is that the person of the Son is God’s expression of love. When we say that the Son is love, or even omnipotent or good, we can’t help but implicitly include the Father and the Holy Spirit; language is fundamentally relational, especially when talking about God. Or maybe it is a little like in Rich Mullins’s song “All the Way to Kingdom Come” when he sings “We didn’t know what love was ’til He came / And He gave love a face and He gave love a name.” Of course, he was talking about the Incarnation and Jesus’s life on Earth and not the divine life of God. Still, it is similar to the way that in God what we think of as abstract concepts may be the same as a person. This are all speculations and can be ignored if they are unhelpful. Thinking about the Trinity is like trying to look at the sun; we mostly do it indirectly. The closer you get to a direct and unaided sight of the sun, i.e. to see the sun as it really is, the more your eyes are dazzled and blinded in its wonderful light. 

A Liturgy of Confession

After my last post, a friend of mine asked me to write about confession in the liturgy. In this post I have tried to fulfill that request. But before I talk about confession, I want to lay out a backdrop for the subject by exploring the formational power of liturgy. While Christian worship is directed at God, the way we worship shapes and informs our lives. Even though Sunday morning church services are not as central to American culture as they once were, they continue to structure our week. The entirely arbitrary division of time into seven day units, with one or two of those days set apart as special, conditions the way we experience the passage of time. Remnants of worship remain in those who leave the faith of their childhood. My friends who grew up in the Catholic church, even those who would no longer consider themselves religious, find the use of guitars and drums in a service strange and a little irreverent, while I, who grew up with this type of worship, find a high Catholic mass to be curiously formal. Ritual shapes our tastes and perceptions in lasting ways.

Such ritual is not limited to churches that consider themselves “liturgical.” Every church has a liturgy, a pattern or model by which they structure and order the parts of the worship service. Sometimes the structure is determined by what has always been done. Other times it is simply copied from the church down the road with higher attendance. For some churches, the liturgy is guided by marketing concerns, the desire to make the church more attractive to “seekers.” Whether the liturgy of a church is formal or informal, the shaping power of the worship remains.

Since everything needs a fancy Latin name, I would call liturgy a forma formans, or a form that forms. Liturgy is a structure that structures the lives of those who participate in it. Participating in worship—liturgy means the “work of the people,” pointing to the active role of the worshipers—shapes people into something, hopefully more fully formed and Christ-like Christians. The liturgy is thus a pedagogical activity as much as it is an act of adoration. Liturgy as a forma formans is a concept that I would like the reader to have in mind as we set out to examine confession in the liturgy since liturgical confession no only gives us the opportunity to confess, it also shapes our attitudes and mindset towards the practice of confession. Since my own experience for the past few years has been in the Anglican tradition, that is the liturgy that I will focus on.

In a building that has some sort of symbolic significance, like a memorial, the arrangement of the parts, the way the structure directs the viewer’s gaze, and the shape of the architecture all convey meaning and value. For example, the 9-11 memorial in New York includes two sunken pools in the footprints of the old World Trade Center towers. By giving shape to the absence of the towers, the pools call attention to the lost not only of buildings but also of life that occurred on September 11th. In the same way that a memorial may be designed to focus on a certain architectural point, so is a liturgical service structured around the Eucharist. Switching from architecture to story-telling, we can see the Eucharist as the climax of a plot that includes an introduction, rising action, and a falling action; it is the point to which the entire narrative leads. That which comes before the Eucharist points to and prepares for its celebration.

Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 that one should prepare for the Eucharist by examining himself for sin. The liturgy weaves this preparation into the service through moments of reflection on our sins and confession. Sometimes the liturgy includes the prayer of humble access just prior to the Eucharist, which uses the language of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:28 and the centurion in Matthew 8:8 to Jesus. The prayer is a new addition to the liturgy, relatively speaking, that gives the worshiper an extra push towards a humble mindset and awareness of sin before taking the Eucharist. It follows older parts of the liturgy that do the same thing. The Lord’s prayer, which includes “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” always precedes the Eucharist. Before this there is also a time of confession and repentance prior to the giving of the peace in which worshipers confess their sins against “God and our neighbor.” These points of confession in the liturgy prepare us for Eucharist, so that we may eat and drink of it in the right way. As Paul makes says in 1 Corinthians 11, eating and drinking the bread and wine in an improper manner may lead to divine punishment.

Through means of these preparations, the liturgy forms us in the habit that confession and repentance are necessary for drawing near to God. Just as repentance is important before communion, a meal with Christ, so our relationship with Christ involves repentance. In a service we physically enact this drawing near to God by leaving our seats and going up to the altar to receive communion. (Communion is brought to those who are physically unable to go up to the altar, a reminder that when we are unable to approach Christ in our weakness, he seeks us out. Because we could not go to heaven, God came down from heaven and took on flesh to save us and bring us to heaven. cf. The Parable of the Lost Sheep). From a pedagogical perspective, this is kinesthetic learning, teaching that reinforces a lesson through motion and physical activity. Through this the liturgy shapes us as individuals and as a community to recognize the importance of regular confession and repentance to drawing near to God. It calls attention to the way that sin can put obstacles in our relationship with him. While the liturgy is forming our vertical relationship, the one between ourselves and God, it also shapes our horizontal relationships, between ourselves and others.

One of Paul’s central concerns in his first letter to the Corinthians is the disunity and conflict that are occurring in the church. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 places that concern in the context of the Eucharist. The Eucharist should be an experience of Christian unity, which it was not for the Corinthian Christians. Our eating of the one body of Christ is a sign of our identity as members of the one body of Christ, the Church (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Sin is an obstacle to that unity, placing barriers in our relationships with others just as it separates us from God.1 Thus in confession we repent our sins against “God and our neighbor,” dealing with the horizontal as well as the vertical.

Confession is followed by the giving of peace. Peace can only exist between members of the church when there is repentance and forgiveness. I think that peace is not the absence of conflict, but a state in which broken relationships and wrongs have been put right through forgiveness. Right relationships are necessary for peace. Righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10b).2 This is what the arrangement of the liturgy teaches by putting confession before the giving of the peace. Service after service, the mindset that repentance is necessary for healthy relationship becomes reflexive. Kneeling for confession adds a kinesthetic element to the practice. Our external posture mirrors what our internal attitude should be. (I think that worship services should be modeled less after academic modes of education where a single person lectures on the Bible to a group of listeners and more on modes that incorporate physical training. This raises the question of how one teaches spiritual truths through bodily motion. While this may sound like a question for children’s ministry, I think it is relevant for adults.) Once we have confessed and repented, we are able to give peace to our fellow members in the body of Christ. Only when peace is proclaimed in our human relationships are we ready to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood in the manner that 1 Corinthians 11 commands.

I think it is important to recognize that simply asking for forgiveness may not be enough. As Matthew 5:23-24 says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” We might also recall Zacchaeus, who repented by restoring his stolen wealth. Repentance may require more than simply confessing in the pew and giving peace. This is something that the liturgy does not do. It does, however, model the mindset and the attitude that is necessary for repentance. I believe that for individuals and for nations, confession and repentance are necessary steps towards peace. In a nation and world that desperately need peace this is all the more relevant.

While doing the work of worship, the liturgy, we are being shaped by the worship; the form forms us, forma formans. I have focused on the Anglican liturgy because that is the kind of tradition I have settled into now. Nevertheless, one can do the same kind of reading of a worship service that is considered “non-liturgical.” How is it shaping the worshipers and what is it shaping them into? We will be worshiping God for a long time, so we better start getting in shape now.

Post Scriptum
My own church journey has grown to be less about finding a perfect church or one with dynamic pastors; instead I look for one that offers a pattern or model for life that resonates with Scripture and Christian practice throughout the centuries, because the patterns I choose in turn pattern me, forma formans. As I grow older I look for form and structure—perhaps it is a literary thing too. Liturgy offers a beautiful and carefully wrought form for worship. Form need not be stuffy or deadening. Dante’s Commedia is highly structured, yet the pattern it offers is alive with motion and beauty, like an intricate dance. I long to find my place in the great dance that is the co-inhering life of the Trinity, the perichoresis.

Edit: Aug. 5, 2018
I have just been reading James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. Many things that he discusses overlap with what I wrote in this post. He discussed confession in chapter 4 and I felt that it is worth adding a important aspect of confession that I missed. As he writes, confession is always followed by absolution. Once we have confessed our sins against God and our neighbor, the priest proclaim’s Christ’s forgiveness. When we sin, God is always there to offer forgiveness when we repent. His mercy is continually available, just as we hear the words of absolution and forgiveness week after week. When we sin, and we will, we must never forget God’s own offer of forgiveness.

  1. I would like to make a distinction about the way sin separates us from God. Because of the sin which we possess as descendants of Adam and Eve, we are divided from God. Unless we accept God’s forgiveness through Christ, we will be eternally separated from God by sin. After we have acknowledged Christ’s forgiveness, there is still the day to day sin, our habits, behaviors, and unconscious patterns that get in the way of our closeness with God. It is a little like a marriage. Even though a married couple may go through seasons of greater or lesser closeness, the state of union, the marriage, remains. Only divorce can end the marriage. Passing over the question of whether one can lose salvation, I think the Bible is clear, from the example of Hosea and the entire history of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel that God will not give up on the marriage.
  2. In referencing this verse, I was reminded that a kiss is the older and more traditional way of giving peace, derived from references to the practice in the Epistles: Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14.


Musings on the Eucharist

I didn’t think much about the Lord’s Supper while growing up. The church I attended as a child and teenager was a non-denominational place with a couple thousand people. We celebrated the supper once a month at most. Typically, ushers passed trays with tiny bread chiclets and miniature plastic cups of grape juice through the aisles, a pastor read a few verses from a gospel account of the Last Supper, and then everyone ate the elements at the same time in their seats. On occasion, when we had a more youthful service, everyone was invited to come to the front to pick up and consume the elements on their own. Those who grew up in different traditions and denominations may find my experience strange, but until my early twenties this was my idea of what it meant to celebrate the Eucharist.

Since then I have gotten a chance to witness celebrations of the Eucharist in other churches. I have seen the opposite of the above at a Latin mass where the priest turned his back to the congregation and prayed before the altar for minutes in a whisper that no one could hear. The host, not the audience, was the focus of the service, and I, who was not part of the Roman Catholic Church, could not eat of it. In the process of getting outside my own tradition, I have seen that the Eucharist has, historically, played a more significant role in Christian worship than that which I grew up with.

A Very Short History
The very day that Jesus rose from the dead, people are said to have gathered to break bread. It is in the breaking of bread that the disciples at Emmaus recognized Jesus’ presence. The words which conclude that passage, “he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” are still important for understanding the role of the Eucharist in the Church (Lk. 24:35). Acts 2:46 mentions that the breaking of the bread was a regular practice of the infant Church. Whether the breaking of bread there was the celebration of the Eucharist or an ordinary meal, it quickly developed into a celebration that was a significant part of Sunday worship.

Justin Martyr, writing at or a little after 150 AD, gives us a picture of church worship a generation or two after the apostles. Christians gather on Sunday, he writes, “because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead” (First Apology, Ch. LXVII). Justin discusses the order of the service and explains what the Eucharist is and why it is practiced (First Apology, Ch. LXVI-LXVII). His explanation for why Christian’s practice the Eucharist is quite simple: Jesus commanded it to be done. Through the following era of the church fathers and into the Middle Ages, the Eucharist continued to be central to Christian worship. The major change that took place seems to be that its practice grew more prescribed and ritualized, as did many other aspects of worship and ecclesiastical organization.

In the second half of the Middle Ages, adoration of the bread and wine increased as did efforts to officially define what “This is my body” means. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 established transubstantiation as church doctrine, meaning that the substance of the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ, even though their sensibly qualities remain that of bread and wine. It would be tempting for Protestants to view this merely as the heavy handed decision of the church, but the determination reflects a consensus that developed after centuries of debate and discussion. The Fourth Lateran Council simply affirmed a particular explanation of Christ’s presence that drew on the best natural philosophy of the day.

Such a definition may appear to be a theological splitting of hairs. The exact nature of Christ’s presence in the the Eucharist has certainly been a source of division in the church. Reformers like Wycliffe, Luther, and Zwingli disagreed with the Catholic church on it and, in the case of Luther and Zwingli, with each other. Raising the stakes even higher, the Council of Trent, ending in 1563, reacted to the Reformation by declaring that anyone who held a different view about the Eucharist from church doctrine should be considered anathema. Yet these distinctions, and the significance that people placed on them, make more sense when one considers the role that the Eucharist plays in the shaping of Christian worship. It is no accident that Christian traditions that view the Eucharist as merely a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross celebrate communion less frequently than other traditions.

Church architecture, too, is shaped by views on the Eucharist. Historically, the altar on which the elements are consecrated is located at the center-front of the church building. As certain traditions took a more symbolic view of the Eucharist, their layout changed. The altar became merely a table and was moved from the focal point of the church. Modern Evangelical churches typically do away with the altar altogether. At the same time, the lectern and pulpit, which, historically, are located on the sides of the church, became merged into a single pulpit that occupies the visual focal point of the sanctuary. This reflects a change whereby the proclamation of the Word takes priority over the celebration of the Word made flesh. In many contemporary churches, the place occupied by the pulpit is now increasingly being overshadowed by the stage as a space where the worship leader and/or band perform. What this implies, if anything, I leave for the reader to ponder.

The ordering of the service also changes depending on how one views the Eucharist. In traditions that take a higher view of the Eucharist, its celebration comes at the culmination or climax of the service. In churches that don’t celebrate the Eucharist each Sunday, the sermon, which is usually much longer than its liturgical counterpart, takes the position of the Eucharist. Depending on the tradition, some version of “the altar call” may function as the climax of the sermon. Like the change in church architecture, the change in structure of services reflects the prioritization of the speaking of the Word and oration over the tangible celebration of the Word and ritual in worship. The altar call points to the primacy that Evangelicals give to conversion and evangelism in Christian life.

Thus, views on the Christ’s presence in the Eucharist have a noticeable effect on what happens in churches on Sunday. Indeed, the behavior of the priest in the Latin mass that I mentioned above makes sense if one believes that Christ is fully and bodily present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Imagine the reaction to Christ coming and standing bodily in the middle of a contemporary worship service. It is only natural that the worshipers should cease to receive so much attention.

It would be foolish for me to give some sort of finished opinion about Christ’s presence in Eucharist here. The subject is quite deep and complex and I have only dipped my toes in thinking about it. Instead, I will offer a few thoughts about where I am at the moment in my understanding of the Eucharist.

The first is that Is is a weighty word. When someone says “One plus one is two,” they really mean 1 + 1 = 2. When someone says “This work is my life,” they are expressing something more complex than a mathematical relationship. When John writes that “God is love,” our mind struggles to comprehend all that is encompasses. We could and should look at a church history to see how past Christians, especially those closer in time to Christ, interpreted the words “This is my body.” Justin Martyr’s description of the Eucharist above shows a deep reverence for the Eucharist, suggesting that a purely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist is not enough, but his words still turn on that ambiguous is.

There is an old joke that the only words in the Bible that Fundamentalist don’t take literally are the words “This is my body.” Turning this around, I find it interesting that Catholicism, which has a history of allegorical, moral, anagogical, etc. interpretation, insist on a literal, almost mathematical interpretation of “This is my body.” My own view is that legitimate ambiguity in Scripture should be accompanied by charitable disagreement. Scripture does not give an answer to the question of transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation vs. spiritual presence and thus the Church should avoid declaring anyone anathema for not accepting a definition that was arrived at over a thousand years after Christ rose from the dead. Of course, most Roman Catholics no longer see someone as damned to hell for not accepting the doctrine of transubstantiation. I do think that one doesn’t withhold medicine from someone because they don’t believe that it works the same way as you do. A Roman Catholic might respond that those who have not been properly prepared for a medicine may find that it is a poison to them. I would agree with that (see 1 Cor. 11:27-30), but would, charitably, quibble that their requirements are unnecessarily restrictive.

On the opposite side, I find the view that the bread and wine are only symbols or a memorial to be reductionistic. Such a view also ignores the belief of large portions of the body of Christ throughout history. The memorial view also inevitably leads to a diminishing of the importance of the Eucharist that I don’t think is in line with the significance that Jesus put on the practice or the practice’s importance in the early church. For this reason, I find myself outside the memorial camp, yet not ready to accept transubstantiation. Transubstantiation relies on an Aristotelian understanding of matter; I think C.S. Lewis captured the methodology of Aristotle well when he writes “Aristotle is, before all, the philosopher of divisions.” Accidents, for me, are not so separable from substances. I also think that as Jesus could be fully God and fully man, the bread and wine might by fully Christ and fully bread and wine. This leaves open the meaning of “fully Christ” and whether it includes Christ’s physical substance, something that I dare not try to answer. Beyond this I will not go at the moment, knowing that there are others with a richer understanding of Eucharistic theology.

Why the Eucharist?
What I think Christians should agree on is that the Eucharist is important for Christian worship. The Eucharist reminds us that we must worship God with word and body. Reading and proclaiming the Word should be balanced with the eating of the Word made flesh. Eating of the Word is a reminder that the practice of the Christian life is not just a matter of saying the right words or thinking the right things, it is also a matter of what we do with our bodies and with our senses. Tasting, eating, and swallowing are, along with sex, bearing children, and excreting waste, some of the most bodily activities that humans can engage in. (Our bodies and their functions are the site of complex emotions: embarrassment, shame, pride, pleasure, banality, ecstasy). God cares about our souls and minds and our bodies.

The Eucharist is also a potent reminder of Christ’s importance in Christian life. Food and drink is what nourishes us and gives us the strength to go about our daily lives. Christ, likewise, should be as necessary to our existence as food and drink. The more we rely on him and nourish ourselves with him, the more alive we will be. This is one area where a more than symbolic view of the Eucharist is helpful. What we do in the Eucharist on Sundays should be practiced in various ways throughout the week.

The celebration of the Eucharist is also a reminder of the unity of the body of Christ. In the Eucharist members of the church share in one body and one cup, not just in a spiritual sense, but in the physical (bodily) sharing of a food. (This is even more true when the Eucharist is served from one loaf of bread and a single cup.) Along with this is the practice that Justin Martyr mentions of taking the host to people who cannot come to church. People who are physically absence are enabled through this to share in the meal of the Body.

The Eucharist also joins us with Christians that are separated from us by time. As someone who appreciates history, this is one of my of my favorite aspects of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist I am linked to Justin Martyr nearly two-thousand years before and all the Christians in-between. On might think of the Eucharist as a single meal, endlessly repeated, so that we are participating in and sharing the same supper that Christians in the past have eaten. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that history will culminate with a meal when all Christians eat together at the marriage supper of the lamb. The Eucharist is a foreshadowing of and practice for that great feast. Thus, the Eucharist connects our bodies to the here and now of daily life and reaches across space and time.

Lastly, I think the Eucharist is particularly important for a modern generation. I have found that the younger generation of Americans are, in general, not hostile to Christianity; instead, they are profoundly apathetic. It is not that they don’t like Christianity, though they dislike its political baggage, rather they don’t see the point. They common solution to this is that churches try to become more “relevant.” Ironically, the more relevant that some churches try to become in order to break through this apathy, the more irrelevant they become. When a church simply copies the styles of music, teaching, or entertainment present in popular culture, a younger generation may find that they like the popular culture better, without the baggage that comes from religion. I am not against trying to be relevant to an age. The danger is when relevancy is used like bait to lure outsiders into the church where they can be “saved” by the old/timeless teaching. (I have heard the pastor of a church that put a lot of effort into creating a trendy atmosphere describe his method in much this way.) Yet, as fishermen know, fish may come only to nibble on the bait. As soon as a church with more appetizing bait comes along, and it always will, people turn elsewhere. There is also a problem with understanding the form of worship as bait that is somehow separable from the message. The Word made flesh reminds us that, in the words of Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”—something the Eucharist calls attention to. Form of worship and teaching are one, which leads many seekers and perennial church-shoppers to associate the “bait” with Christianity itself. A thoughtful relevancy recognizes this as well as the deeper longing and spiritual needs of a generation and shapes worship to meet them.

If I can continue my digression for a moment longer, I will give an example. I am surrounded by screens in daily life, the moving images that flicker across them, and the instant access to infotainment. There is the TV in my living room, the computer on which I work, and the ever present screen in my pocket. A church that strives to be relevant in the first sense will include screens, and that which comes with them, in worship. However, a deeper look at our spiritual needs shows how distracting those screens can be and how they pull us away from relationship with others and with God. There is no going back to a time before the digital screen, but churches can model restraint in their use. I have come to appreciate a church service in which the words of a song and the order of the service are printed on a physical piece of paper. It provides a time of escape from the flashy, distracting lights.

This is an example of how digital technology has made a younger generation infinitely more connected than a previous generation, but also more isolated, distracted, and fragmented. Technology has made it possible to listen to a sermon or great worship music without participating in the relational messiness that is in church. The Eucharist, however, is something that one cannot get from a podcast or book; it requires physical presence. Even if someone attends a service through a live stream, he or she cannot take communion that way. Someone must physically bring them the bread and wine from the same meal that others shared. Thus the Eucharist provides something that cannot be gotten elsewhere. It promotes bodily presence in more ways than one. In this way, it shapes a manner of worship or a liturgy, which itself should be shaping the way we live, that a younger generation desperately needs.

Imaginative Theology



At root, all theology is imaginative. God is infinite and humans are finite. There is no way for the finite to grasp the infinite in its totality. In order to talk about God, humans must use representations of that which cannot be represented. Theology, then, also involves the making of graven images. And yet, Christian belief has recognized that there is a difference between idols and icons. While idols lead people to worship that which is not God—and not a few theologians have been tempted to worship the images of God that they have fashioned— icons direct people to the God who is beyond images.

When humans make icons, whether physical or mental, they are doing so in imitation of God, because God condescends to communicate to humans in images. The foremost image of God is Christ. Concerning Christ, the author of Colossians writes,“He is the image of the invisible God” (1:15). The Greek word for image there is εἰκών (eikōn), from which comes the modern word icon. Christ is the visible icon of the invisible God. By looking at him, humans see God. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).

While Christ is the very image of God, the world is full of images that present God’s attributes in visible ways. As Paul writes of God in Romans, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). The Psalms and the prophetic books of the Old Testament would be much duller if images could not in some way represent aspects of God. Humans too bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) We present a myriad of images for understanding the God who is both described in bodily terms and yet which no human can see and live (e.g. Exo. 33:20-23).

Most formal theology done now relies on concepts rather than on images. The preference for concepts over images is an old one in Western thought. People writing and thinking about God from Plato to Aquinas have conceived of God as the good. The difficultly with the good, as with any concept, is that it is difficult to grasp it in the mind as pure concept. It is like holding onto a perfectly smooth ball. An image always needs to be brought in to tack the concept down to something. The same is true for a concept like omnipotence where images of human strength quickly intrude. It is impossible to operate for very long in the world of pure abstract without having to turn to images. Instead of distrusting images, a conceptional types of theology tend to do, imaginative theology proceeds by embracing images.

Imaginative theology is a method that uses images to approach God.1 It is a via imaginis or way of images. In most cases we approach God via images that are like, yet unlike him, or through a dissimilar similarity.2 Images are both like God and not like God. To say that God is like a lion is not to imply that he has a golden mane and eats meat (cf. Hos. 11:10). Imaginative theology then is fundamentally a creative act. Generally it involves using existing images—there are really no new images—and arranging them in a new way, of making new connections between them and God.

In the following, I have stuck to examining imaginative theology in literature, particularly medieval literature, because that is my background. One could potentially look at imaginative theology in any type of art: painting, sculpture, dance, or music, to name a few. Literature is in some ways the easiest medium to look at for imaginative theology because its images are presented in words, the medium of most theology.3 Literature also resembles parables, which are familiar to students of theology. In uttering the words “the kingdom of heaven is like” Jesus was practicing his own imaginative theology.

The Divine Comedy

Dante’s Divine Comedy is imaginative theology par excellence. Dante’s journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise is full of vivid imagery placed within a systematic theological and philosophical framework. The poem’s encyclopedic nature, along with its reliance on Aquina’s Summa Theologica, have led it to be called a summa in verse. The Inferno is probably the most well known book of the Comedy because of its shocking and terrifying images. Who can forget the grove of the suicides where branches drip black blood or the damned who are frozen up to their eyes in ice? Yet Dante is also aware of the limits of images. The closer he moves to the dwelling place of God, the more his images starts to break down.

While Paradiso has some incredible imagery, it lacks the materialness of the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Speeches play a greater role in Paradiso, reflecting a shift from images to words. Light, something intangible, becomes a significant element in Dante’s descriptions. As he moves upward, Dante must continually apologize for his inability to fully describe what he is seeing. This change is only natural since Dante is trying to explain things that are beyond his earthly experience. To imagine hell, one only has to take the evil present in the world and intensify it. Showing perfect and untainted goodness is a more difficult imaginative task. However much one multiplies earthly goodness, it will always contain some imperfection.

Dante’s vision must be continually purified and strengthened as he moves higher, reflecting the view that we need God’s grace in order to see God. Even so, the things he sees can sometimes overwhelm his ability to take them in and at the end of Canto XXV Dante goes blind and must have his vision restored. He does at last have a vision of the Trinity and prefaces it with this apology:

From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails—
and memory fails when faced with such excess.
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 55-57)4

The images that confront Dante are beyond his ability to fully remember or put into words. After further apologies he finally gives a description of the three persons of the Trinity. He see them as three rings of light of equal circumference but different in color. In the midst of one of the rings, he sees the human image and tries to grasp with his eyes the dual nature of Christ.

and my own wings were far too weak for that.
But then my mind was struck by light that flashed
and, with this light, received what it had asked.
Here force failed my high fantasy (l’alta fantasia);
-Canto XXXIII, (Lines 139-142)5

The closer we get to God, the more our images break down. And yet, it is only by images that Dante reaches the height that he does. He has had an earlier glimpse of the nature of Christ when looking at a griffin (half lion, half eagle) reflected in Beatrice’s eyes (Purgatory, Canto XXXI).6 The higher does not stand without the lower and the lesser image prepares the way for the greater.7

The Dream of the Rood

Aristotle is sometimes criticized for basing his theory of tragedy solely on Oedipus Rex. Oedipus Rex becomes the perfect tragedy by being the definition by which all other tragedies are measured. For imaginative theology to exist as a category, I must show that it is not isolated to Dante or his Divine Comedy. If we move to the roots of the English language, I think we can do so.

The Dream of the Rood is potentially the oldest surviving poem written in Old English. It, like the Divine Comedy, explores theological ideas through images. The Dream of the Rood is a dream-vision in which the story of the Crucifixion is told from the perspective of the cross, i.e. the rood. Scholars have often examined the way the poem synchronizes one of the centrals event in Christian belief with a culture that would have looked on that event as a great shame. That the God of Christianity would allow himself to be executed on a tree by enemy soldiers was a difficult concept for the warrior mindset of the Germanic tribes to accept. Accordingly, the anonymous poet presents the crucifixion as a kind battle. Christ is a young hero who willingly mounts the cross, ready to face his enemies, while the cross acts as a member of his warrior band, ready to fight to the death at the side of its lord. Though the death of the Christ is presented in a more heroic light than in the Gospels, there is another layer to the imagery in the poem.

As it is still called in old hymns, the cross in the Dream of the Rood is frequently referred to as a tree. In four of these instances, it is simply called treow, while in a fifth it is called gealgtrēowe or gallows tree. Trees and gallows have a special resonance in Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. The most important tree in Norse mythology is Yggdrasil, a giant tree at the center of the cosmos. The name Yggdrasil seems to mean Ygg’s Horse, with Ygg being an alternate name for Odin and horse being a kenning for gallows.8 This relates to a story about Odin contained in the Poetic Edda, a collection of Norse mythology. (Odin’s name in Old English, Wōden, is where we derived the name Wednesday from). In the story, Odin/Othin hangs on a tree for nine nights in order to gain runes, which give him secret and powerful knowledge.

I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
all of nights nine,
wounded by spear, bespoke to Óthin,
bespoken myself to myself,
[upon that tree of which none telleth
what roots it doth rise.]
Neither horn they upheld nor handed me bread;
looked below me—
aloud I cried—
caught up the runes, caught them up wailing,
thence to the ground fell again.
-“Hávamál” (Sts. 138-139)9

The parallel to Christ’s own hanging on a gallows tree is clear. It is so similar that it has raised suspicions as to whether this was an original part of Norse mythology or only developed on contact with Christianity. Since most of our written information about Germanic religions come via Christian authors or long after Christianity was prevalent, it is probably impossible to answer this question with certainty. Still, if we suppose that the story of Odin hanging on a tree at least dates back to early interactions between Christianity and the Scandinavian world, an interesting comparison is set up. Malcolm Guite draws attention to this in his discussion of the two poems in the book Faith, Hope, and Poetry.

For though Odin hung on Yggdrasil, though he visited the dead, though he gained the power of resurrection, he was no saviour. He could not meet or deal with human pain and alienation. Through his suffering he acquired personal power and magic knowledge, but he emerges in his resurrection as an incalculable one-eyed god exercising the power he learned from the runic alphabet, entirely at and for his own behest, not as a self offering to take away the dreamer’s sins and win him heaven.10


A reproduction of one of the 10th century Jelling runestones. The image is of Christ wrapped in the branches of a tree, though the similarity to Odin is clear. From Wikimedia.

The anonymous author of the Dream of the Rood is not only presenting a more heroic Christ through the use of creative images, he is also presenting Christ as a superior alternative to Odin.

The Dream of the Rood brings up one potentially controversial aspect of imaginative theology; imaginative theology often makes use of imagery from non-Christian and pagan sources. Can Christian art draw on pagan images without smuggling in pagan ideas? Some Christian traditions try to isolate themselves from the world because of this fear. Yet such a fear takes a low view of God as creator, for if God is the source of all that has been made, all symbols and stories ultimately derive from him. The raw material with which cultures and religions throughout history have constructed their myths come from God. When Christians incorporate them into imaginative theology, they are re-appropriating and redeeming them. All points back to God in the end.


British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) f. 038 recto (illustration to Pearl)

An illumination from the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript which contains Pearl.

If we work our way up the tree of English literature, we come to another piece of poetry that uses images to do theology. Like the Dream of the Rood, Pearl is presented as a dream-vision. The Middle English poem begins with a father grieving at the grave of his young daughter. Exhausted, he falls asleep on the spot and is transported to a paradisiacal landscape where he sees her. A river separates them, but they are able to talk and he asks her questions about her current state. Some of the poem deals with questions that a grieving father might have, like why was an innocent girl allowed to die so young. Most of their discussion surrounds the nature of heaven and the afterlife. In a reversal of roles, the daughter lectures her father about how God rewards people and what society is like in heaven.

The poem is layered with symbolism, particularly relating to gemstones, with the titular pearl being the narrator’s daughter. (Pearls carried the idea of purity in the Middle Ages.) There are modern translations of the poem available, though they will probably never do justice to the original. The poem’s combination of alliteration with a complex rhyme scheme and an interlocking pattern of repetition are difficult to retain in Modern English.

At the Back of the North Wind

I have focused so far on medieval literature because that is where I am most comfortable. However, it is well to note that imaginative theology is not limited to the Middle Ages. Moving closer to our own time up the English tree, we find that many of George MacDonald’s works can easily fit into this category. Novels like Phantastes and Lilith show an imagination that was alive to the power of images. Since MacDonald was a pastor, his images are often inseparable from his theological ideas.

While the above novels are aimed at adults, At the Back of the North Wind is one of MacDonald’s children’s stories. The protagonist is another gemstone, a lower class boy in Victorian England named Diamond. The story centers around Diamond’s many adventures with the North Wind. Like Pearl, death is a theme in the narrative. At the Back of the North Wind goes farther than Pearl does in looking at how a good God who is all powerful can allow evil to take place. It is a testament to MacDonald’s incredible imaginative ability that he can present a theodicy in the midst of a children’s story.

At the Back of the North Wind was written at a time when literature aimed at children was becoming its own distinct genre. Imaginative literature became increasingly associated with this developing genre. Many of the great works of children’s and young adult literature during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are imaginative or fantasy literature.11 In contrast, works written during this same time period that are considered adult or serious literature by critics are overwhelmingly realistic fiction. Thus, for the modern era, realistic fiction became the primarily domain of adults and serious readers, while imaginative literature was written for children. This is not to say that their weren’t authors writing imaginative or fantasy literature for adults at the time. Rather, their works of imaginative literature tended to receive recognition and sales only when they were directed at children. This is certainly a long way from Dante calling his Comedy “l’alta fantasia.”

Fantasy literature geared towards young adults, like the Harry Potter series, but popular among adults, have opened the way for the popularity of fantasy aimed at adults. (Would the conversion of George R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series into the “Game of Thrones” TV series have been as successful without Harry Potter?) Comic books, which were originally associated with children and teenagers, are become blockbuster movies and popular TV shows. TV itself seems to be breaking away from realism into shows about vampires, zombies, superheros, the supernatural, and sci-fi.12 Of course, the popularity of imaginative stories do not mean that more writers are doing imaginative theology. American Authors, like Americans in general, are less likely to be familiar with the rich theological frameworks that Dante and George MacDonald had.

The Shack and the Future of Imaginative Theology

The most recent work of what could be considered imaginative theology that I am aware of is The Shack. In many ways, it is a modern version of Pearl. However, it produced an explosion of criticism from certain areas of American Christianity when it was published. The criticism it received has merit. However, one must consider the imaginative work that the author was trying to do. Portraying the Trinity is tricky business, even for the great writers. Dante played it safe by prefacing his description of the persons of the Trinity with multiple apologies and then portraying them as equal circles of light. Whatever Milton’s actually theological views were, his portrayal of the Father and Son in Paradise Lost will always make him vulnerable to accusations of Arianism. If William P. Young failed, it was because he dared to take his imaginative portrayal where one should fear to tread. The closer we get to God, the more our images tend to fail us.

And yet I sympathize with Young because he tried to write an imaginative work for adults about a difficult theological subjects. His book should have spurred a response in kind and we could have had some great works of imaginative fiction about the problem of evil and the Trinity, but it is far easier to criticize imaginative theology than it is to write it. I fear that to much and the wrong kinds of criticism of The Shack has the potential to discourage such work. It is also far easier to sit on our imaginative laurels than it is to try new experiments.

If we rest content with the works of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien, authors who have had an incalculable influence on my life and thought, imaginative theology will die. (Lewis himself was not without criticism for his work). Every new generation of Christians needs to exercise its imagination and that may mean going, like Bilbo, out of what is considered safe and proper in our insular communities. This is not the casting off of all restraint that it might appear at first. We may find ourselves, like Bilbo, being guided by a considerable amount of luck along the way.

  1. Imagination comes from Latin imago meaning image. Col 1:15 in the Vulgate begins “qui est imago Dei invisibilis”
  2. cf. Pseudo-Dionysius, “The Celestial Hiearchy,” in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 151–53.cf. also Charles Williams’s Dionysian ideas:Two spiritual maxims were constantly present to the mind of Charles Williams: ‘This also is Thou’ and ‘Neither is this Thou.’ Holding the first we see that every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, truly followed, will lead back to Him. Holding the second we see that every created thing, the highest devotion to moral duty, the purest conjugal love, the saint and the seraph, is no more than an image, that every one of them, followed for its own sake and isolated from its source, becomes an idol whose service is damnation. The first maxim is the formula of the Romantic Way, the ‘affirmation of images’: the second is that of the Ascetic Way, the ‘rejection of images’.C.S. Lewis, “Williams and the Arthuriad,” in Arthurian Torso (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 151.
  3. I also can’t help noting that Christ is not only the image of God, but the Word of God. Imaginative literature combines word and image.
  4. Dante Alighieri, Paradiso: A Verse Translation, trans. Allen Mandelbaum, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, pt. 3 (New York: Bantam, 1986), 299.
  5. Ibid., 302–3.
  6. Just like the sun within a mirror, so
    the double-natured creature gleamed within,
    now showing one, and now the other guise.
    Purgatorio, Canto XXXI, lines 121-123

  7. What would the Comedy be without the image of Beatrice, or as the title of Charles William’s book puts it, The Figure of Beatrice? Dante would still be stuck on the ground.
  8. Lee M Hollander, trans., The Poetic Edda (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2011), 36; Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.Kennings are a couple word figure of speech in Germanic poetry that function a little like riddles. One could refer to a ship as a wooden horse or a sword as a battle-light. In a darkly humorous way, a gallows can be referred to as a steed or mount on which the condemned “rode.”
  9. Hollander, The Poetic Edda, 36.
  10. Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination (Farnham, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 39.
  11. Imaginative literature and fantasy literature can, in many cases, be used interchangeably. Fantasy derives from Latin phantasia, itself from the Greek φαντασία. The idea of an appearance or image is contained in both. However, the term fantastic theology doesn’t have the same seriousness that imaginative theology does.
  12. Simultaneously there is a shift from a primary consumption of stories through written mediums to performative mediums. The shift away from consumption of written stories is in one sense a medieval trend. While people in the Middle Ages didn’t have TVs, they did have stories that were designed to be read aloud in a dramatic manner, with or without musical accompaniment.

In Darkest Winter—Light


‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1646)-Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
-Luke 1:76-79 (ESV)

The Bible gives no clear indication as to what part of the year Christ’s birth took place. Some argue that Christians chose Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to compete with pagan solstice festivals, while others see the Christmas celebration at this time of year as something that rose up independently at a early date. However Christmas came to rest on Dec. 25th, winter is an appropriate time of the year to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Dec. 25th is only a few days after the winter solstice, when the sun spends the shortest time above the horizon. The decline in daylight and the stormy weather combine to make this period one of the darkest times of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As a consequence, light takes on greater significance and beauty during winter, whether it be from a surprise sunny day or rows of twinkling Christmas light. Light breaking into darkness is often connected with the coming of Christ in Scripture, the Song of Zechariah above being one example. The song itself points back to a passage in Isaiah which looks forwards to the coming of Christ. Preceding the well know passage which begins “For to us a child is born” are the lines:

And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
-Isaiah 8:22-9:2 (ESV)

The connection between Christ and the coming of light made its way into the O Antiphons, which date back to the early Latin Church and are traditionally sung in the days leading up to Christmas.1 The O Antiphons are often known today in their reworking as the verses of the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The O Oriens antiphon says,

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Rising Sun, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice:
Come, and illumine those sitting in darkness, and in the shadow of death.2

This inbreaking of light in the midst of darkness may also draw our imaginations to the story of Creation.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

-Genesis 1:2-5 (ESV)

On the first day of Creation, God brings light to the unformed world which is covered in darkness. During the remaining days of Creation, the world is given form and filled with living creatures, plants, and human beings. Winter is the season of the year when the world most resembles the unformed world of Genesis 1:2. Trees appear dead on the outside while smaller plants shrivel up, leaving only seeds behind. Many land mammals sleep underground in hibernation like creatures in a tomb. The ground may be covered with formless masses of snow and the sky by shapeless gray clouds. Mid-winter can feel like one long slog through dark and cold days.

The arrival of Christ in the dead of winter is a reminder that Spring is coming. Though the world may live in death and darkness, a light has dawned. Days will grow longer and the green growth of Spring is coming. This making or re-making is not merely on the level of nature. We humans who live with death and darkness look forward at Christmas to Christ’s Spring in the world. The incarnation signals the swinging into action of the long awaited plan of redemption. Simeon’s exclamation at seeing Jesus in the temple combines the imagery of the coming of light with celebration at the end of waiting.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
-Luke 2:29-32

The focus of the celebration of Christmas often revolves around Christ’s coming to save us from our sins. This, of course, is perfectly true. In another sense, Christ’s coming in the dark of winter is the first act of his plan to re-create the world. Christmas is day one of the Re-Creation story. The re-creation of individual human hearts is central to this, but the plan of creation does not stop there. In the end, the re-creation of the world and the destruction sin will remake not only human beings but all creation.

Humans, since they are spirit and flesh, are amphibians, participating in the natural and supernatural world. By participating in the natural world and time, we draw the natural and physical into the spiritual and supernatural. Natural, temporal phenomenon, like the changing of seasons can be embedded with spiritual and eternal significance and made to reflect supernatural realities. Christmas coming in the dark of winter is just once example, but a particularly relevant one as we celebrate God coming in the flesh.

1. Some people trace the O Antiphons back to the sixth century because of wording used by Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy. The reference in question is “Est igitur summum, inquit, bonum quod regit cuncta fortiter suauiterque disponit” Therefore, it is the highest good, she said, which rules all things strongly and arranges sweetly (Book III, Prosa 12) which is similar to the lines in the O Sapientia antiphon, “attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia.” Reaching from end all the way to end, strongly and sweetly arranging all things. It is very possible however, that Boethius shares a common source with the antiphon, Wisdom 8:1. In the Vulgate Wisdom 8:1 runs, “Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter, et disponit omnia suaviter.” Therefore it reaches from end all the way to end strongly, and arranging all things sweetly. Boethius’s wording is no guarantee that he knew of the O Antiphons.

2. In “O Come O Come Emmanuel” this is:
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.


My computer contains a few half-written posts on the subject of depression. I write a paragraph or two and then abandon the work. The problem comes when I try to describe how I felt when I was in the belly of the monster. Sensations and feelings that I have been keeping a constant guard against show their dark faces. I simply become too afraid to continue. Still, something is better than nothing in this case and what follows is what I’ve managed to cobble together.

Mental injuries, for in one sense that is what depression and anxiety are, are much more subtle than physical injuries. A glance can tell you that your leg is broken. That your synapses are taking in more serotonin than they should is not so obvious. Neither are the mental distortions which take place with depression and anxiety. Is that sense of an overhanging threat or listless related to real things in the world or is it “all in your head?” Blood and broken bone is straight-forward and matter-of-fact compared to a faulty twist in your perception of reality.

When the psychologist asks if I am feeling down I am tempted to retort, “Down from what?” “What is my baseline emotional state?” The question of what it means to feel normal takes on an added difficulty.

And as skilled as we are at treating physical injury, treatment of depression is still an inexact science. Aspirin, morphine, etc. provide quick relief from pain. Treating depression would be easy if the effects of new medication and a particular dose were noticeable the next day. Instead, it may take a month to know if a particular medication will be effective. When it is effective the question of normal returns. What dose is needed to return a person to “normal?” One must not forget that sometimes it is healthy to feel sad. At what point do anti-depressants prevent someone from feeling the full-range of human emotions.

It is nearly impossible for a person who has not been depressed to understand what it feels like to have depression. Kind, well-meaning people, will tell you that they too have felt down or anxious for a time. But that is like telling a solider that you understand his experience of war because you went through basic training. Major depression is a whole different beast from regular sadness or feeling down. Perhaps they are on the same continuum, but there is a chasm in between. Being depressed is rather like being an emotional black hole which swallows up all happiness. Cheering up a person with depression is like trying to fill a black hole with a star. It simply sips down the light and asks for more. Not that depressed people like being emotional vampires or that no one should try to cheer them up. Rather one must avoid thinking that there is an easy fix.

Sometimes it is like a switch has been flipped in my brain or the throttle stuck open. A part of my brain is telling me to panic. Recognizing that this impulse is incorrect is half the battle. Still it doesn’t deal with the impulse which is surging in my mind. It is like someone whose equilibrium has been thrown off trying to walk upright. He or she knows that the sense of level is off. There is a constant expanding of energy to compensate. But how much do you compensate when you no longer know what vertical is. The very realization that your senses are lying to you is itself terrifying because it signals a separation from reality. Depression and madness are in this sense closely linked.

People often respond to suicide by a depressed person with confusion. It’s incomprehensible to them that a person could kill themselves, when his or her external circumstances aren’t that bad. I do understand why a person might prefer death to life. There can be a pain so bad, regardless of external conditions, that death seems the only possible relief. In the first book of Paradise Lost Milton’s Satan says:

The mind is its own place, and in it self

Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. (254-255)

In these lines Satan is attempting to ameliorate his banishment to hell. He believes he can overcome the hell around him by creating a heaven in his mind. Of course, the reverse is also possible. In book four, when Satan has left hell and is on his way to tempt Adam and Eve he laments:

Me miserable! which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;

And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep

Still threatening to devour me opens wide,

To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven. (73-78)

This became vividly real to me once. I was hiking in a beautiful place in the mountains, but in my mind was a sensation that I can only describe as a glimpse of hell. Sometimes the feeling takes on an almost physical sensation. I feel like there is a giant crack in my head, a vast gaping void. Other times my brain feels like it is being squeezed in a vise.

Relationships are equally effected by depression. On one hand, depression is invisible. People can be perfectly helpful in the case of a visible physical injury, but there is little they can do when they don’t know there is a problem. For people who do care and want to help, it can be difficult. The solution is often not simple. Furthermore, it is hard to watch someone you care about suffer. People who try to help, but in doing so reinforce the negative mental feedback loop, can cause more harm than good. I think the best that the friend of someone who is depressed can do is to be present. Listen to whatever they have to say without judging. (If they are Christian they may be thinking and feeling things about God that are usually get swept under the rug.) Reinforce the positive, not trite sayings or hallmarkesque statements, but positive truths. Push against the currents of negative thought without making the person feel guilty.

Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist is good, probably the most important thing a person with depression and/or anxiety can do. People suggest things like exercise, eating more protein, getting more sunlight, etc. All these are positive and healthy, but they are not cures. They are a part of a complex web of factors that include brain chemistry and interpersonal relationships. Care for depression is care for a person as a whole. Awareness of this goes a long way.

Reading Like a Monk or Church Father

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the importance of Scripture. The authority of Scripture and the way that Christians interact with it continues to be important to me. The most interesting interpreters of Scripture, in my mind, are the church fathers and their followers, medieval monks. The primary methods of writing about Scripture that I learned in school and seminary were explication and the use of proof texts. Both methods shade into each other, but in general they approach Scripture either as something to be explained or as a point in a proof logical. The works of medieval authors and church fathers use both methods, but they also display another, richer form of inclusion of Scripture. Biblical phrases and allusions slip naturally into the works of these writers. It is difficult to give a succinct example of this because the borrowing of Biblical language only make sense within the larger context of the passage. Authors don’t call attention to these allusions because they are not their focus. Such borrowing stands out in modern editions of books because because an editor has taken time to mark them. This usage of Scripture reflects minds that have so internalized the language of the Bible that it becomes a natural part of the the way that writers express themselves. Interesting phenomena often prompt me to ask questions. What is different about the way that these writers read and interacted with Scripture from our own? What caused Scripture to become embedded in their consciousness? From there I did some informal research to come up with answers.

One of the primary ways that pre-modern reading differs from our own is that most reading was done aloud. There is a famous anecdote from Augustine’s Confessions (Book 6, Ch. 3) in which Augustine describes how his mentor Ambrose read silently. The assumption is that Augustine wouldn’t have taken the time to describe someone reading in this way if it wasn’t unusual. Jean Leclercq’s survey of medieval monastic culture, The Love of Learning and The Desire for God, comes to a similar conclusion about reading in the Middle Ages. In the same way we typically think of reading as silent unless specified as aloud, so medieval and patristic people thought of reading as aloud unless otherwise indicated.

Churches with traditional forms of worship still place a high value on reading aloud or singing Scripture. Scripture itself is full of examples of this. Acts 2:42 describes the practice of the infant Church devoting itself to the apostles’ teaching. After the death of the apostles, this seems to have developed into reading the apostles teaching in churches, i.e. the reading aloud of Scripture or extra-canonical works. Even before the death of the apostles, we see their writings being reading. Acts 15:31 mentions a decision of the apostles at Jerusalem being read in Antioch. Paul’s letters to churches also came with an expectation that they would be read aloud to the congregation and in some cases passed on to other churches for reading (e.g. Col. 4:16, 1 Thess. 5:27).

The reading aloud of Scripture had a long history in Judaism. Acts 15:21 mentions the reading aloud of Moses in synagogues every Sabbath. Since the earliest Christians were Jews, the practice would have been a familiar part of their regular worship and easily adapted to Christianity. Justin Martyr, who lived from roughly 100 to 165 AD, gives us a picture of Christian worship not long after the death of the apostles. He writes that each Sunday Christians gathered, “and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (First Apology ch. LXVII)

Personal reading aloud of Scripture is far less common today, but is still beneficial for Christians to practice. It engages the mouth and ears in a way that silent reading is unable to do. Reading aloud of passages of Scripture helps cement the words in the mind in ways that silent reading cannot. Reading Scripture aloud also brings reading to the point where it intersects with prayer. When we read aloud its words, the desires and attitudes expressed in the text become our own. Prayer becomes the repetition of God’s words back to him as our words. Through this our lives become conformed to God’s own life.
Another aspect of reading like the church fathers and monks is lectio divina. Lectio divina meaning “divine reading” in Latin. Lectio divina is not a form of reading with fixed rules; rather it is a tradition of reading Scripture that stretches back to the church fathers and beyond. Today lectio divina is usually associated with the method proposed by Guigo II, a twelfth century Carthusian monk. His Scala Claustralium, or Ladder for Monks, lays out a four-step process for reading Scripture. These are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. It is hard to say how widespread this four step approach was. However, I think it provides a good starting place for someone looking to practice lectio divina. Many of us needed training wheels to provide us with balance before we could learn to ride on two wheels. Guigo’s work provides this kind of support while we learned to read Scripture in a deeper, more meditative way.

Though it would be far better to read Guigo’s short work, I will give a brief summary here. The reading part of divine reading seems obvious, but it is important. Reading is done aloud. The idea is to read the words, multiple times, even to memorize them, before trying to interpret. Breaking down the grammar may be helpful. When we jump to interpretation before we fully observe a text, we are likely to read our interpretation instead of the text. As Sherlock Holmes says, “You see, but you do no observe.” Meditation flows out of reading. It involves taking the words apart and looking at their meaning individually, then putting them together and looking at them as a whole. What do these words mean and what are they saying? Guigo likens the whole process of lectio divina to eating. Where lectio involves putting food into ones mouth, meditatio is the chewing of that food. As with bodily eating, small bites are best.

Prayer is the response to what has been meditated upon. Guigo gives the example of the passage “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The prayer that springs from the verse is for God to give a pure heart and through that a vision of God for his meditation has already shown him that a vision of God is only reached through purity of heart. Prayer is the extraction of the flavor from the food. Contemplation is the stage that is most foreign to modern readers. In my opinion, and I think in that of Guigo, contemplation in its full sense does not happen every time. It is a gift from God, an experience of him or a degree of mystical union, that arises out of prayer. Contemplation is not a part of the eating process but the sweetness of the food itself. The process of digestion that occurs in lectio divina helps explain the naturalness of the medieval authors’ use of Scripture writings. Its comes from hearts and minds that have throughly absorbed and assimilated the Bible.

Another aspect of reading that applies to monks specifically is the divine office. This is the practice of praying at set times throughout the day. The church fathers likely had set times during the day to pray, but during the Middle Ages these became formalized for people living in monastic orders. Many monasteries in the Middle Ages and today engage in group prayer seven set times during the day. Prayer involved the reading (aloud) of Scripture and the singing of psalms, in addition to listening to the writings of church fathers. The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the standard rule for most monks in the West, proscribes the recitation of all 150 psalms each week. Not only did monks hear and read volumes of Scripture every day, they sang the entire book of Psalms fifty-two times a year. The Bible was embedded in the mind with the persistence of an earworm.

Not everyone could or can live like monks. Those desiring to draw closer to God in secular occupations during the Middle Ages used the practices of monks as models. Movements such as the beguines and beghards, mendicants, and devotio moderna borrowed aspects of monasticism to varying degrees in their quest to grow closer to God within the world. Even today people use variations of the divine office to pray at set times during the day, such as morning, noon, and evening. Websites and apps have simplified what in the past required jumping between different pages in a prayer book. Even if we don’t separate ourselves form the world and live a life of poverty, it is possible to practice a form of the divine office.

There is one final aspect of reading like a monk or church father that I will mention here. It is the interpretation of Scripture with an eye to multiple levels of meaning. By the Middle Ages the consensus was that a passage could have up to four levels of meaning. These are the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. (Dante’s putative letter to Can Grande contains a classic formulation of these four levels, no. 7 especially). Augustine’s own method prefigures this with a two-fold approach. A passage of Scripture could have a literal meaning and a figurative one, which might be allegorical, moral, or anagogical in nature. For him, the literal/historical meaning of passages in the Old Testament was not as interesting as the figurative. As someone who is trained in historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture, I find many medieval interpretations to stretch the meanings of texts.Do the minute details of the Song of Songs really represent specific aspects of the love of Christ for the Church? There is also the fear of interpretive anarchy, making Scripture say anything. Nevertheless, I have come to appreciate the creativeness of the four-fold method, even if I view it with caution.

When Augustine points to the creation of Eve out of Adam’s side as a prefiguration of the creation of the church out of the blood and water which flows from Christ’s side, I hesitate to say he is wrong (City of God Bk XXII, 17).And, as writings in the later Middle Ages show, there are many parallels between romantic love and divine love. The Song of Songs may have something to teach us about the love of God. I also can’t ignore the writers of Scripture who interpreted Scripture in just this way. Paul takes a law from Deuteronomy about muzzling the ox that treads grain and says that it actually refers to ministers receiving material rewards for their work (1 Cor. 9:9-10).

I think this method of interpretation contributes to the freedom and naturalness with which medieval and patristic authors weave Scripture into their writings. It causes them to be more sensitive to imagery, symbolism, and figurative language than modern readers of the Bible typically are. It also grants a greater freedom and creativity to interpreters of Scripture. Since modern critical and interpretive approaches to Scripture, conservative and liberal, have been influenced by modern scientific method, they have the potential to treat the Bible as a fossilized object of inspection. Fossils, while interesting, are dead. They also don’t have the ability to protest the meaning we attach to them. I think it would be helpful to add a little more playfulness, imagination, and creativity into the reading of Scripture. (Mystery plays put on by medieval guilds provide one interesting example.) This ties into my deeper goal in the post. I do not seek to return to some slavish imitation of past practices. That removes creativity and play. Rather, I want to cross-pollinate our modern reading of Scripture with past practices, growing something that is natural and living. In this way our words, and lives, can be more fully saturated in God’s own Word.

Curator of Ideas

This spring I graduated with a master’s degree in Medieval Studies. The attending transition has prompted me to reflect more on the nature of the degree that I spend three long years obtaining. What is its use? What is its purpose? What are the collection of skills that the diploma represents? I could look at these questions from the direction of employability, examining why a company would want to hire someone with a degree in Medieval Studies, but I am seldom so practical. Rather I want to advance the proposition that the degree puts me in a position to be a curator of ideas.

Curators are people who take care of things. Generally, these items are old and need some sort of special protection. Curators are also expected to display the things in their care for others to see. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. There are obviously museum curators, building curators, and curators of collections of book, but there are also curators of ideas.

During a recent flight, I was in the midst of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. A man seated behind me noticed the book and asked if I read the works of Richard Rohr. He informed me that Rohr, a Franciscan friar and author, mentions Julian a lot. Rohr is functioning as a curator, preserving the ideas of Julian and presenting them in a form that is accessible to the general public. Not everyone has the leisure or the skills to find and peruse old books. Through a curator like Rohr, a man who normally might not have known that Julian existed was exposed to her writings. Though I have yet to read any of Rohr’s writings (it is always hard to find time when you have so many other things you would like to read) I was following in his footsteps.

Human beings are forgetful creatures. We are always forgetting that which we really ought to remember, which is why we need curators. Curators serve as the memory of human culture. They remember and recall things in their own little sphere that everyone else has forgotten. The curator’s job is not only to bring these things into the light of day, to present the ideas clearly and plainly, but to provide the context that has been lost. When Julian writes, “Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele,” the curator recognizes that most people won’t know what behovabil means. People may also misunderstand the sentence if they don’t have the larger context from which it is taken.

Before the aforementioned flight, I visited the church I went to growing up. As I attended a couple services, I was struck by a sense of amnesia. Things were done and said without an awareness of the past, of the Christian practices and teachings that have come before. Medieval authors show a keen awareness of and reliance on the past. If a writer doesn’t mention Augustine, Boethius, or some other auctor by name, their influence is not hard to spot. For an aspiring curator, who has a memory of these things, I found the amnesia troubling. At the least the past is helpful, at most it can save us from grave error. Paradoxically, we desperately need an awareness of the past in order to move forward. This is the job of a curator: to remind and to remember so that we never slip into amnesia.

In Defense of Gardening

sun-flowerNo one, as far as I know, is attacking the art of gardening. Still, I though it would be interesting to write a defense or explanation of why I think gardening is important. First of all, gardening, for me, fills a need. Most of what I do in academia is head work. I read books and write papers, all dealing with rather abstract ideas. It is valuable, or else I wouldn’t be doing it, but I seldom produce anything tangible beside a stack of papers. Gardening allows me to work with my hands, to touch dirt and seed. The result is visible and sometimes edible. Gardening is a means of keeping me rooted in the midst of heady academic stuff.

Second, gardening trains me in the art of growing. While it may look simple, growing stuff is difficult. In a world that is becoming more and more based on metaphors drawn from business and computers, we need to know how to make things grow. Growing things takes nurturing, attention, and patience. There are tricks and techniques to make things grow, but it ultimately comes down to learned intuition. This intuition comes in handy in others areas of life. People are organic beings rather than complex machines. Personal or community growth draws on the same nurturing, attention, and patience that go into gardening. Garden then, for me, is an exercise in wisdom or learning about the world from a different angle.

Lastly, gardening is about beauty. I think humans need beauty. (This is an excellent video on the subject). Obviously, we can argue about what is beautiful or whether absolute standards of beauty exists. Still, the more we seek and surround ourselves with beauty, however we define it, the more whole we are as human beings. Not surprisingly, I associate beauty with green and growing things, but also human sculpted nature. Gardening, even if it be in tiny pots, is a way of surrounding myself with a touch of Edenic beauty.

Love and Wax

Love is often held up as the highest good and the solution to the world’s problems. The title of the Beatles’ song, “All you need is love,” written by John Lennon, is just one example. Many Christians would agree with this. There is a story about another John, the apostle John, which Jerome, the fourth century Bible translator, preserves in his commentary on the book of Galatians (6:10). He reports that in John’s extreme old age the apostle could barely speak, but he did repeat over and over again the words, “Little children, love one another.” When asked why he kept saying this, he replied “Because it is the Lord’s commandment and if it alone is kept, it is sufficient.” To say that love is enough is true.

However, one could argue that love is actually the cause of many of the world’s problems. As another popular song says, “Love is a battlefield.” From Plato’s Symposium to any number of country songs, love’s ability to cause suffering is clear. Love of one’s country has also resulted in physical battlefields. Is love then a good thing or a bad thing? The answer must be both. The confusion comes when we turn love into something flat and two-dimensional. Love is complex and we must understand what we mean by love before we lift it up as the answer or blame it for our hurts.

Medieval authors, drawing on writers from the classical era and late-antiquity, recognized the way that love could be a force for good and ill. Love is important in all of Dante’s works, but it is primarily in the last two books of the Commedia that he seeks to define it. Since love structures the topography of the Mount of Purgatory, a place where sins are purged on successive terraces, Dante begins his discussion of love there. He has his guide Virgil speak these words:

My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love natural
or mental; and you know that, he began.

The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.

As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;

but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.

From this you see that of necessity
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.

Now, since love never turns aside its eyes
from the well-being of its subject, things
are surely free from hatred of themselves;

and since no being can be seen as self-
existing and divorced from the First Being,
each creature is cut off from hating Him.

Thus, if I have distinguished properly,
ill love must mean to wish one’s neighbor ill;
and this love’s born in three ways in your clay.

There’s he who, through abasement of another,
hopes for supremacy; he only longs
to see his neighbor’s excellence cast down.

Then there is one who, when he is outdone,
fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor;
his sadness loves misfortune for his neighbor.

And there is he who, over injury
received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy
and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.

This threefold love is expiated here
below; now I would have you understand
the love that seeks the good distortedly.

Each apprehends confusedly a Good
in which the mind may rest, and longs for It;
and, thus, all strive to reach that Good; but if

the love that urges you to know It or
to reach that Good is lax, this terrace, after
a just repentance, punishes for that.

There is a different good, which does not make
men glad; it is not happiness, is not
true essence, fruit and root of every good.

The love that—profligately—yields to that
is wept on in three terraces above us;

Purgatorio Canto XVII, 91-132, Mandelbaum

At this point Virgil and Dante stand on the terrace of the slothful. Virgil explains that every human loves. Where we direct that love, then, makes all the difference. It is good “As long as it’s directed toward the First Good and tends toward secondary goods with measure.” In other words, as long humans place God as their first love and love other good things to the right degree, love goes well. It is when love fails to do this and “choose[s] an evil object or err[s] through too much or too little vigor” that love goes bad. Virgil lays out three ways that love “seeks the good distortedly,” which cause pride, envy, and wrath, respectively. These three sins are purged on the three terraces below them. On the terrace of the slothful, on which they currently stand, love that is lax or lacks vigor is purged by running. Sinful behavior is corrected by a counter-discipline. The three terraces above them purge excessive or profligate love of secondary good things: possessions, food, and sex, which are the sins of greed, gluttony, and lust. Thus human love can go wrong in three ways: it can love something that is bad, it can be too weak, or it can love a secondary good, something other than God, beyond proper measure.

In the next canto, but still on the same terrace, Virgil re-iterates the possibility that love can go wrong.

Now you can plainly see how deeply hidden
truth is from scrutinists who would insist
that every love is, in itself, praiseworthy;

and they are led to error by the matter
of love, because it may seem—always—good;
but not each seal is fine, although the wax is.

Purgatorio XVIII, 34-39, Mandelbaum

Though the wax is good, a seal may be bad and leave a poor imprint. Likewise, though love is good, its application may be bad. Purgatory is the place where these loves are corrected and directed towards good things in their proper order and measure. The right ordering of love is an idea that Dante draws from St. Augustine.

Central to many of Augustine works is the dual command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk. 10:27). For Augustine, the second command, to love your neighbor, flows from the first command. Only in loving God first and most can we love our neighbor rightly. In fact, we love other people best by loving them in God. All other loves are out of alignment if God is not placed first.

The person who lives a just and holy life is one who is a sound judge of these things. He is also a person who has ordered his love, so that he does not love what it is wrong to love, or fail to love what should be loved, or love too much what should be loved less (or love too little what should be loved more), or love two things equally if one of them should be loved either less or more than the other, or love things either more of less if they should be loved equally. No sinner, qua sinner, should be loved; every human being, qua human being, should be loved on God’s account; and God should be loved for himself.
(On Christian Teaching, Bk. I, 27)

Several things flow out of Augustine’s words. First, true love is intimately related to the love of God. If our “love” results in loving something more than God, we must question whether it is in fact love. One of the most subtle dangers is loving a good thing more than God.

Second, love of God entails obedience to God. The same John who declare that love was enough wrote that, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2). Obedience to God and love of God are bound together. Such a view is rather counterintuitive. Obedience would seem to kill love, yet much is counterintuitive when are our intuition is out of alignment.

I write this recognizing that many Christians have a narrow understanding of obedience to God. Sometimes our obedience is not to God, but to our preconceptions of God. If we find our obedience causes us to not be loving, we must seriously question the form that our obedience takes. John writes, “If anyone says, “‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn. 4:20). It is like a möbius strip. We display our love through obedience, but we also display our obedience through love. I find myself constantly having to recalibrate my love and obedience as my understanding of each deepens. When Christians call attention to sin, the ultimate aim is love. Since God made us, only he can tell us how to live a truly happy life. As Augustine wrote of God, “You made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions 1.1.1)

There is this paradox in love. Sometimes love is a scalpel knife, cutting out the tumor; what appears not loving may be the most loving thing possible. As T.S. Eliot writes:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
The Four Quartets, “East Coker”

Sometimes God’s compassion, and ours, must be “sharp.” For this reason, our understanding of love must be equally sharp, for a dull blade wounds more than it cures. It also makes all the difference in the world that the surgeon is himself wounded. When we must cut, we must remember that our surgeon was wounded for the sake of our sickness. God has experienced the blade with which he cuts. And lest we become prideful, the cancer we seek to cure is the cancer we share.