Inviting the God of love back from holiday to dwell amongst us once more

Click on the following link to hear the podcast of this post and/or download an mp3 (see bottom left of the page): Inviting the God of love back from holiday to dwell amongst us once more - 6 May 2012

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:7-21)

It may once have been sufficient to read this passage preaching that "God is love" and simply conclude by saying, "Amen. Sermon over."

But, alas, no longer, because the words which form the phrase "God is love" have, by my reckoning, been away on holiday from us for at least seventy years. In this address I'll try to show you what I mean by this and also to suggest how we might go about inviting them back home to dwell amongst us.

The teaching that "God is love" had a hugely important place in our liberal Christian tradition. It was *the* theological mainspring, *the* motive power, which drove us to campaign against all kinds of repressive, judgemental religion and offer the world a different vision. Between the sixteenth and early twentieth-century our forbears inherited a theology which saw God as an objectively real and all powerful being, a view shared, of course, with the Protestant reformer John Calvin. However, as this concept played out in the system that came to bear Calvin's name, God came primarily to be understood not as a God of love, but one of judgement who had predetermined most people to eternal damnation and only chosen certain others, the elect, to receive the rewards of salvation. With great courage our forebears said "No!" to this prevailing understanding and "Yes!" to love. The English Universalist, John Murray (1741–1815), attempting to escape the judgemental religious strictures of his own family and country went to the America and there, in 1770, began to preach a gospel of universal salvation. He most famously urged those whom he converted to:

John Murray (1741-1815)
"Go out into the highways and by-ways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision.  You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men. Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."

This powerful message led to the creation of a much more hopeful and optimistic faith which, by the late nineteenth-century, had settled into a memorable form of words written by the Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888) that remained in use in many of our own churches both here and in the USA until shortly after the First World War. It reads as follows:

James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888)
"We believe in:
The Fatherhood of God;
The Brotherhood of Man;
The Leadership of Jesus;
Salvation by Character;
The Progress of Mankind
onward and upward forever."

Clarke's statement began quickly to fall out of use after the First World War because fifteen million dead bodies lying across the fields of Europe and a further twenty million injured people was sufficient evidence to persuade even the most die-hard of liberal optimists that they needed to rethink how an *all-powerful* God of love (and all-powerful is key here) could have allowed something like this to have happened.

In those early post-war years more conservative theologies drawing on Calvin's work rapidly began to develop and gain ground and they began forcibly and effectively to challenge our optimistic, liberal theology. Karl Barth is a name that looms large here and of his influential 1919 repost to liberal theology, his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, the Catholic theologian Karl Adam (in Das Hochland, June 1926, 276-7) wrote in June 1926 that it "fell like a bombshell on the playground of the theologians."

This was particularly true for our family of churches. Artillery shells had succeeded in killing many of our upcoming generation of theologians, and Barth's bombshell of a book simultaneously destroyed our liberal theological playground.

Then, as if all this were not enough, along came the Second World War and the Holocaust which for many put the final boot in to any possible belief in the existence of an objectively real all-powerful God of love, one who could challenge and overcome the all-powerful judgemental God now being propounded ever more loudly by our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Since then liberal theology has never got back either a self-confident footing nor any real power. At the risk of over-simplifying we can say that the only effective all-powerful God left on the scene today (and again I draw your attention to the fact I am saying "all-powerful God") is either the objectively real judgemental God believed in by the religious right (Jewish, Christian, Muslim or other it matters not) or the objectively real God whose non-existence the new atheists are so concerned to prove.

The very few who still believe in the objective reality of an all-powerful God of love have increasingly tended to become involved in more personal, inward, quietist and quasi-mystical spiritualities which, even if they no longer pretend they can change the horrible and brutal external world around them these theologies at least try to offer their adherents a measure of individual psychological well-being and a generalised hope of a final union beyond time and space in a transcendent loving divine unity.

As a mix of approaches this does not make for a healthy public religious landscape or conversation - a fact our society is coming to know only too well. In my public role as a minister and chaplain I'm struck again and again by the need for a grounded, down to earth, perfomative liberal religion that can still root itself in a belief that "God is love." But we can only achieve this in so far as we invite the words "God is Love" back from their holiday and back into our community in an effective, non-quietistic way that might provide us with the motive power to get our liberal religious machinery moving once again. To do this I need firstly to remind you what is meant when I say that the words that make up the phrase "God is Love" are for us still on holiday.

The phrase (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations §38) is used to mean that our philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. My favourite literary illustration of this can be found in an essay called "Civilization" by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). In it he wrote the famous sentence that has since then become endlessly anthologised and quoted as an aphorism:

"Hitch your wagon to a star".

This sentence has come to mean that men and women should have high ideals and great aims and hopes. But, if in your mind you now say it to yourself most of us will quickly discover that in our current sceptical culture it's effectively become an empty platitude. When we say the phrase, "turn its handle" so to speak, ask yourself if it is attached to any real machinery? Whether anything real has been moved?

We may still be seduced by what these words seem to SAY but I imagine that most of us here will doubt that it says anything real at all - it's just a platitude we can throw into a conversation to make us and others feel temporarily good, just like the phrase "God is Love". But if we go back to the context in which Emerson introduces the phrase - i.e. when it wasn't on holiday - we can see how its USE gives it real meaning. Emerson writes:

Tidal mill at l'île de Bréhat
"I admire still more than the saw-mill the skill which, on the seashore, makes the tides drive the wheels and grind corn, and which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron. 
Now that is the wisdom of a man, in every instance of his labour, to hitch his wagon to a star, and see his chore done by the gods themselves. That is the way we are strong, by borrowing the might of the elements. The forces of steam, gravity, galvanism, light, magnets, wind, fire, serve us day by day and cost us nothing."

I hope you can see that Emerson’s phrase, in context, has a very real meaning because it is tied to the work it is supposed to be doing, which is pointing at an example of how we work in and with the forces of natural world. In the actual context of Emerson's essay 'hitch your wagon to a star' is not a bunch of words on holiday, a handle turning no real machinery, but words which have real meaning and motive power because they are connected to the turning of a real wheel, the water-wheel of a tide mill.

Our theological mistake, during the four hundred or so years of our existence, was slowly to allow the words "God is love" to be taken out of context and let them go on holiday. As they came to lounge on a some sandy, sun soaked metaphysical beach we began to build on them increasingly high-flown abstract theologies about the metaphysical nature an all-powerful omniscient God and, most importantly of all, what we thought was his basic metaphysical characteristic, namely, love. We did this, of course, in an attempt to make our theory about the nature of God more powerful and persuasive than that offered up by our opponents. Before I continue I want to make it clear that I'm glad and proud we did and I do not want to deny how important this was for us and those whose lives were immeasurably improved by us trying to give people not hell, but hope and courage by preaching the kindness and everlasting love of God.

But today is not yesterday and, as I have shown, two-world wars revealed that, for all our good intentions, our former way of using those words are no longer able to turn any effective machinery.

Are we, then, pushed back into theological despair? No, I don't think so, not if we take time to put "God is love" back into context just as I have done with Emerson's words.

As you read the passage from John it is vitally important not to let the words, God, love, Jesus, atoning sacrifice, sin, saviour, son of God etc. go on holiday and for you to reject (or accept) them on the basis of your theories about what they mean. Keep them in context. When you do you will begin to see that these words do not form some free-floating, airy-fairy theory about an abstract metaphysical all-powerful God of love but are words being uttered by community that is struggling to speak about how it saw and still *sees* something in action - here and now, in their world. What this community saw was, and is, as real and tangible as any tide-mill, namely, love in action.

They first recognised, pointed at and named love in action in Jesus' life and teaching and, of course, in his death. They saw something trembling in that event that made them say "There! Now *that* is what we mean by God!" Importantly, they saw something that was *not* all-powerful and omniscient, something that was merely a theological mirror image of their opponent's all-powerful conception of God or the gods. No, instead they saw something smaller scale, gentler, weaker even, that called them irresistibly again and again into simple acts of loving service - no more and no less. After the first Easter, whenever, wherever and in whomsoever they saw love in action they discovered that they could continue to say "There!, Now *that* is what we mean by God!"

It's a disturbingly simple thought - especially to a highly rational, intellectually driven tradition like our own - but it seems to me that if we genuinely want to reconnect with the motive power that historically made us the effective, liberal presence in society we once were we need to do nothing more, nor anything less, than what John suggests. We need to drop ALL our metaphysics and simply return to the need to love one another and, whenever, wherever and in whomsoever we see love shown and love received, to proclaim to the rooftops, "There! Now *that* is what we mean by God!"