Chapter 7: The Centrality of Love

The 'Last Things’ in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 7: The Centrality of Love

Almost a quarter of a century ago Professor Dorothy Emmet wrote these words in her The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking: ‘In the great positive religions, and pre-eminently in Christianity, the life of the founder is directly relevant. The religion does not simply grow from developing the content of the founder’s teaching; the life of the founder is held to be one of the crucial moments, perhaps the crucial moment, of history, in which some new relation to the transcendent has been established. The historic religion seeks continually to re-affirm and express this relation; in rite, celebration, meditation, way of life; and its theology makes it the key to an interpretation of the world’ (op. cit. pp. 155-56).

I believe that what Miss Emmet said is of enormous importance; and I wish to apply her words to the contemporary theological situation, especially in regard to the various ‘radical’ movements of our day.

The first point is that in all significant groups working towards the re-conception of Christianity today, Jesus Christ is taken to be ‘directly relevant’. If there is any one fact universally present in today’s Christian thinking, in all quarters, that fact is its ‘christo-centric’ character. All too often, it seems to me, the christo-centrism is exaggerated, so that Jesus stands in complete isolation from everything else; He is often regarded as being, not the central or definitive fact, but the only one which needs to be considered. This is a great mistake, for it removes Him effectively from His context, de-historicizes Him, and hence reduces (perhaps even negates) that ‘direct relevance’ to which Professor Emmet refers. None the less, Jesus is taken with utmost seriousness.

Furthermore, thanks to the work of a hundred years of biblical study, we no longer regard Christianity as simply ‘developing the content of the founder’s teaching.’ It is His life -- the whole reality of what nowadays it is fashionable to call the ‘Christ-event’ -- which is seen to be ‘crucial’. So we are delivered from the ‘imitation of Jesus’ type of theology and from that kind of reductionist thinking which interpreted Christianity as ‘following a great prophet’ and nothing more.

All this is on the positive side. But I think that a considerable number of ‘radical theologians’ are not prepared to go along with Miss Emmet when she says (rightly, I am convinced) that the ‘life of the founder’, in this instance Jesus, must in authentic Christianity be seen as both establishing ‘some new relation to the transcendent’ and making that life ‘the key to an interpretation of the world’. It is not only that some of the anti-metaphysical theologians, not to speak of the American ‘death of God’ writers (theologians I will not call them, for to do so is to engage in a contradiction in terms), reject any reference to ‘the transcendent’ and hence can hardly talk meaningfully of a ‘new relation’ to it. What I have particularly in mind is that while there is much talk about taking Jesus as a key to the interpretation of human nature, as it is often phrased, or to the meaning of human life, or to the point of man’s existential situation, there is a lamentable tendency to stop there and not to go on to talk about ‘the world’ -- by which Miss Emmet meant, I assume, the totality of things including physical nature; in other words the cosmos in its basic structure and its chief dynamic energy.

Existentialist theologians, for example, seem to forget entirely that human existence, about which they talk so much, has a location in time and space and in a given part of the natural order. As I have put it elsewhere, all history has a geography. I find that many others, too, appear to be content to see Jesus as relevant to human affairs but hesitate to draw any conclusions about His relationship to the cosmic situation in which such affairs take place.

One of the reasons that some of us have been attracted to process-thought is its emphatic insistence on the cosmic structures and the cosmic dynamic. Process-thinkers have seen that man is a product of the evolutionary movement, just as much as anything else. If that is true, as obviously it is, the natural order must be interpreted in such a fashion that it permits us to account for human life -- and if we do that, we must account also for the fact that in human history there has appeared the Man Jesus, with whom also we must come to terms. Or arguing in the other direction, if we take Jesus as significant for human life and history, He must also be seen as having some relationship to the setting of that life and history -- the natural order -- and hence be as much a ‘disclosure’ of that as He is of man’s existence.

Historically the Christian tradition has spoken of Jesus as the incarnation of God, the manifestation of the divine reality ‘in the flesh’. It has not presumed to think that we can get to that divine reality by some escape from the human situation; nor has it taken the view of a friend of mine who once said, to my astonishment, ‘Let’s look at this as God Himself sees it’. We cannot do anything of the sort; we are men and our knowing of anything whatsoever is as men and in terms of human experience. As Aquinas said, all knowledge is ad modum recipientis, and the ‘mode’ of our human receiving is the human mode, which is tautological but none the less true and never to be forgotten. This truth of our human situation is met, in Christian faith, by the claim that God ‘has come in the flesh’. Hence, in St. Augustine’s words, ‘we do not need to climb up to heaven to find him (we could not do that, in any event), since he has come to us where we are’.

But it is God who has come to us where we are, not just the truth about human life in supposed isolation from ‘the transcendent’ and from ‘the world’. I am convinced that until and unless the modern theologians who are calling for a ‘radical’ reconstruction of Christianity recognize this, they will fail us utterly in our need to see Christian faith afresh. The way in which this was done in an earlier day certainly cannot be ours in this time; but the vision, insight, intuition, conviction -- call it what you will -- that Jesus Christ establishes with the transcendent a ‘new relation’ into which ‘in rite, celebration, meditation, way of life’ (to use Miss Emmet’s phrases) we are permitted to enter and to have it made our own -- notice I did not say ‘make our own’, which would deny the divine priority in this event -- is Christianity. And the consequence is a ‘key to the interpretation of the world’ which includes everything and not simply human life in a presumed separation from that ‘everything’.

Somewhere in Appearance and Reality the English idealist philosopher F. H. Bradley remarked that ‘the man who, transported by his passion, feels and knows that only love gives the secret of the universe’, is not engaging in proper metaphysical discourse. That is rubbish, in my view. I do not think that a Christian can for a moment accept Bradley’s pejorative judgement. Precisely that kind of man, ‘transported by his passion’ -- in this case his being caught up into a relationship with God in Christ, although it may very well be true in other ways as well, since to be ‘transported’ by passion is to enter upon the most profound experience possible to human beings -- precisely such a man does feel and know what is nothing other than ‘the secret of the universe’. The secret is that God is love; and it carries with it the corollary that God who is love ‘works in all respects for a good end to those who love him’, in the natural order as well as in history.

Of course this does not mean that everything becomes sweet and cozy; the fact that Love incarnate suffered crucifixion negates any such sentimentality. The ‘good’ towards which God works ‘in all respects’ is not comfort; nor is the Christian religion ‘a research after comfort’ (Whitehead properly denounced such a conception). None the less it is a ‘good’: it is, indeed, the Kingdom of God which is the sovereign rule of love into which those who respond to God’s love are admitted -- and in being admitted given the task of conforming this world of human affairs to the pattern of the Love ‘which moves the sun and the other stars’.

Thus I am obliged to say, with H. H. Price, that theism, at least in a Christian sense, is ‘a metaphysics of love’; and with this, I am obliged to affirm that ‘the world’, including nature in its farthest stretches as well as in the intimacy of human existence, is given its proper ‘interpretation’ only when ‘the key’ to it is found in Jesus Christ. That, essentially, is what Christian faith is all about -- it has a cosmic sweep and is not to be accepted as an affair of human importance only. Its message, accepted on the grounds of faith and in the continuing activity of utter self-commitment to that which is spoken forth in the event of Christ, is precisely that ‘love is all and more than all’, in E. E. Cummings’ telling phrase.

The tragedy of Christian theology is that this faith, this message, has not been given the central place which it not only deserves but demands. For far too many of the great theologies of the Christian tradition, the recognition of love has been a peripheral rather than the central concern. This manifests itself not only in the way in which Aristotelian notions of the ‘unmoved mover’ or neo-Platonic ideas of ‘being-subsisting from-itself’ have been taken to be the proper definition of what is meant when we speak of ‘God’, but also in liturgical language where all too often the basic concept implied or (as most often seems to be the case) affirmed is the utter immutability of deity, along with the rigidly legalistic moralism which it is suggested should mark those who claim to ‘obey’ the divine mandates. Of course I have exaggerated here. There are plenty of instances, in the traditional liturgies, of emphasis on the sheer love of God, His being affected by human attitudes and responses, and the tender relationship which He intends between Him and His children. Yet I think that I do not exaggerate when I say that the chief impression received by an observer is precisely the divine impassibility, the intransigence of the divine demand, and the requirement from men of a servile obedience rather than life in ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’.

At the same time that Christian theology has so emphatically insisted on the divine absoluteness (taken in the sense which I have indicated), there have always been elements in that theology which have suggested another idea. In some of the greatest of the Church’s teachers there has been a strange ambiguity. In St. Augustine, for example, the personal relationship of man with God, as well as the deepest nature of God Himself, has been interpreted in terms of a love which the theological structure would seem to render almost absurd. St. Thomas Aquinas was also a ‘double-man’, in that while he accepted and sought to develop a Christian interpretation of Aristotelian ideas in which Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’ was given priority over the relational view of God, at the same time in his own sermons, prayers, and occasionally throughout his writings there is the stress on exactly that relational view. This kind of internal contradiction seems to run through much traditional theology; it finds explicit expression in Luther’s dichotomy between the terrible God, who put him not only in awe but in utter terror, and the tender and loving God whom he knew in Jesus Christ as the savior, the loving friend, and the gracious Father of men.

The real question is whether we are to make absolutely central in our thinking the ‘love of God which was in Christ Jesus our Lord’ or in one way or another regard that love as so adjectival to the divine substance that it appears to be irrelevant. Indeed, to talk of ‘substance’ here is in itself misleading; for the use of that term, despite all the protests of the neo-Thomists and others, is certain to bring us to think of God in terms of unchanging and unchangeable inert stuff -- and to do that is to deny, ab initio, the possibility of a God who responds in complete faithfulness and with the utter integrity of His own nature, yet with deepest awareness and sympathy. In other words, we find it difficult if not impossible to move from the model of deity as primarily substantial being, existing in and of itself, to the model of deity as genuinely participant and really affected by what goes on in His world.

It is the purpose of this chapter to argue, from many different sides, that another way is required. This is the way which is provided if we adopt, not the so-called ‘classical’ view of God, but the ‘neo-classical’ view -- a view which stresses the relational aspects as being much more than merely aspects -- as being, in fact the basic reality of God Himself. Unquestionably this will present very difficult problems for Christian theology and especially for the sort of theology which has been conventional during most of Christian history. Yet there is nothing sacred about that theology as such; for what is abiding in Christian faith is not this or that theological formulation, however widely accepted, but exactly what Professor Emmet has said: ‘the life of the founder’, the ‘new relationship to the transcendent’ which that life has disclosed, and hence the total impact of Jesus Christ on men, in all its richness and depth. If this is the abiding Christian ‘thing’, then theologies may be subject to change, as we come to understand more and more adequately what is being disclosed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And what is being disclosed, I repeat, is the utter centrality of love.

We need not blame our fathers in the Christian tradition for what they did, although we may regret much of it and wonder how ever they could have said what so often they did say. What is required is to understand how, under the particular circumstances which were naturally theirs, they took the positions they did. But this does not entail our taking those same positions, especially in respect to such a central point as this one. The requirement from us is to do for our time, in the light of a deeper apprehension of the centrality of love, what in their own way they sought to do in their time. This will mean, I am certain, that we shall be obliged to give up that model of deity which, with the best intentions, they accepted from the general philosophy of the time. But it will not mean that the true ‘intentionality’ (as I may phrase it) which was theirs will be forgotten.

If we have available a philosophical conceptuality which is more congruous with Christian love, we shall be prepared to use that conceptuality in the task of theological re-construction. Yet in doing so, we must have the wit and wisdom to discern that in their insistence on the divine changelessness and even on the divine impassibility, they had hold of something important. We cannot phrase it as they did; but we can see that what they were talking about was the utter reliability of God, His faithfulness to His purpose, His inexhaustibility, His never ceasing to be and to act in accordance with His undeviating purpose of love. If they felt themselves forced to express this ‘intentionality’ in terms of a philosophical concept which for us is incredible, this must not suggest that the between the deepest instinct and desire which was theirs and ‘intentionality’ in and of itself was wrong. There is a difference the particular language (and with that language, the philosophical notions which it entailed) which they employed in stating that instinct and desire.

In any event, the point of this chapter, intended to prepare the way for further discussion of what I have styled ‘another’ (and I am convinced a better) theological approach, is simply to insist that we can only be loyal to our ancestors in the Christian tradition, but above all loyal to the chief stress in the faith which that tradition has conveyed to us, if and when and as we are ready to put stress on love’s centrality -- and to use that as our key to the whole theological enterprise.

Now almost all Christians would agree that Wesley was correct in writing of God that ‘his nature and his name is love’. It would seem obvious to them that this is the Christian claim and many of them would say, if they heard us stress the absolute centrality of this assertion, ‘Of course, that is taken for granted’. Right there, I think, is the problem. We simply cannot ‘take it for granted’ that ‘God is love’ and let matters rest there. Failure to go further, failure to see the shattering nature of that assertion, is the reason for an enormous amount of misunderstanding and the occasion for an even larger amount of misinterpretation of the Christian doctrine of God.

This was brought home to me not long ago when, after a lecture on the subject of ‘process-theology’, in which I had stressed the Johannine text, a member of my audience rose to put the following question: ‘Of course it is the Christian faith that God is love. But unless God’s love is backed by His power, what guarantee have we that it will triumph in the end and that Mother Julian’s conviction that "all shall be well" will be vindicated?’

The short answer to the question would have been that my questioner obviously did not himself believe that God’s love is very important. If love, in order to be truly effective, must be associated with coercive force -- as he indicated was to him essential -- then it is apparent that love is not recognized as supreme. What is supreme is power. He was saying that love is a very fine thing, that there ought to be more of it, that in some way or other God does care, but that in the long run the really effective instrument in God’s control of the world is His capacity to coerce. It is as if someone offered us, with his left hand, the gift of love; and then, with his right hand, made a fist at us and said, ‘If you won’t accept love, I’ll knock you down’. In other words, in such talk love is not the basic dynamic in the world; it is not the deepest and highest reality; it is not the essential definition of God. And so all the verbal assertions that ‘God is love’ really amount to nothing; they are only verbal assertions, with no genuine grounding in the structure of things and in how things go in the world. In my judgement, this is a denial of the central insight of Christian faith; it is the ultimate treachery.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the meaning of power. If by power we intend to signify, as most often is intended, the use of coercive measures whether these be overt or subtle and hidden, then it would seem that to ascribe such a quality to God as His chief characteristic -- as in fact, if not in word, is suggested when people talk as did my questioner -- is a denial of the point of Christ’s disclosure of God. Yet there is a sense in which love itself is powerful. By this I mean that although love will not use coercive measures, driving people to do what they will not do otherwise, making them (as the phrase has it) act in contradiction to their own freely chosen decision, love is the most powerful of all agencies in the world. This is because love can win response when nothing else can do so; it can lure, elicit, attract, incite -- and in this way it can accomplish its ends.

Yet at the same time the ends which love would accomplish are not the selfish sort which would imply that the lover is seeking his own fulfillment without regard for the loved one. On the contrary, the ends which love seeks to accomplish and which only love can accomplish are always ends which are mutually shared and in which the loved one finds his fulfillment too. In other words, when love is central to the picture, we see ends and means to be ‘of a piece’ -- the end is loved shared, the means is the sharing of love.

I believe that considerations of this sort are of quite enormous significance today. It might be said that the history of the past half-century is the story of human attempts to secure world-community, the triumph of righteousness and justice, the establishment of understanding among the peoples of the earth, but always through the exercise of some variety of coercion. The result has been anything but what was initially desired. The utter bankruptcy of power, in the coercive meaning of the word, is apparent.

This, I take it, explains the revulsion of so many young people -- to take but one obvious example -- from the political game, their contempt for warmongers and their unwillingness (as in the United States) to participate in a conflict which they feel will accomplish nothing save further suffering. Hence there is a surprising rediscovery of love among modern youth as the only means to the end, and at the same time an insistence that love is also the end to be sought. We may dismiss these young people as ‘idealistic’, even when at the same time they are criticized for being too ‘realistic’ in (say) their approach to human relations, especially in sexual matters. We may dismiss youth as being unwilling to be, as we think older folk are, starkly ‘realistic’ about the fact of power and its necessity in national, international, social, economic, industrial, and other areas of human society. But such criticisms, either of the ‘idealism’ of youth or of their ‘unrealistic’ appraisal of the situation, come very ill from people like ourselves. It is precisely our settling for the use of power, our unwillingness to ‘try love’, and our cynical distrust of the possibilities in love as means towards love as an end, which has brought us to the state we are in.

That force must sometimes be employed is not to be denied -- very likely there was no other way in which Nazism, for example, could have been defeated in the short run; I am not advocating complete pacifism in every situation. But I am insisting that for Christians at least their religious conviction should be clear and the consequences of that conviction in their list of priorities as to means should be equally clear. If we must use coercion, then let us know that we are doing so; let us admit honestly that insofar as this is done we are not obeying the perfect divine will; let us recognize that at best the use of such force is a pis-aller, not the entirely right thing. And if and when force is used, let us not hallow it by thinking of God as essentially such coercive power. Above all, let us be repentant of the use we make of force and let us act, once force has been used, in such a manner that its evil sting is (if not removed then) drawn and the poison which it injects into the life of men is drained Out by the renewed employment of loving action, concern, caring, and self-giving. Only so can we in any sense justify the force which we may have felt impelled to use in this or that given circumstance-we can never glory in coercion.

But I must return to the main point of this chapter, which is that we must decide, once and for all, whether we are to give priority in our thinking about God to the concept of love or to the concept of power. Yet that is not quite the right way to put it, since we are not dealing with concepts (which are abstract ideas) but with what nowadays would be called ‘models’. What model, then, is to be chosen? If we chose power for our model, thinking of God in terms of a person known to us who exemplifies this quality (we must think in this fashion, however anthropomorphic it may appear, although we must carefully qualify’ our model), it will follow that love will be adjectival and in a secondary place. On the other hand, if we decide for the model of love, thinking of God as more like a human lover (but with defects, imperfections, frustrations, distortions removed), it will follow that whatever power is exercised by Him will be loving in its essential quality.

This theological decision has consequences in practically every area -- I should venture, even, to say in every area -- of faith. An obvious instance has to do with the relation of grace and freedom. For centuries, men have worried about this problem: if God’s grace is indeed His activity, coming before and present in every good human act, how can such acts be truly free and responsible acts on the part of the human agent? If God acts, then man’s response is not truly his own. If a human act is genuinely free, then where does God come into it? So the problem has been posed. But surely that way of stating it presupposes that God’s grace is coercive power. The model which has been assumed, before the problem is discussed, makes possible only the absolutely over-riding quality of God’s action, man being only a puppet in God’s hands. Or, from the other side, it is human agency which is in control and God can ‘enter in’ only as a sort of extra.

If the model of God is taken from the realm of loving relationships, however, things are seen very differently. In that case, God does not force His human children, nor do they act in entire independence of God’s concern. The divine love is prevenient to, active in, and unfailingly related to everything that is done by men; but the way in which love works is through the luring, attraction, solicitation, invitation, to which we have referred. God’s action is first, since He always loves men and surrounds them with His loving action -- but it is genuinely loving action and hence not pressure of a coercive type. On the other hand, man too is active, but his activity is also in love; he responds freely to the love which is given him and in that response he knows that he is truly ‘being himself’, for he was intended by his creation to be a responding lover and in no sense a marionette pulled by strings manipulated by God -- certainly not the victim of the divine coercion.

One could go through the catalogue of Christian doctrines and discover how in each of them a radical alteration will follow once we have decided that love, not power, is the decisive fact in God’s ‘ways with men’. It is obvious that a corollary is the recognition that love is always a relationship; and a relationship involves two who are in it -- God to man, man to God -- in which each of them is not only acting in a causal manner but also being acted upon in an affective manner. How different would be our thinking about the Atonement in such a context -- to take but one other example. To take still a third, the understanding of the Incarnation would no longer fall into the dangerous trap of either ‘God-made-man’ or ‘only’ a very good Man who knows and serves God in a unique fashion.

Thus we can see that many, if not all, the most difficult questions in theological discussion have been vitiated by a peculiar variety of what Gilbert Ryle has taught us to call the ‘category-mistake’. We have taken a set of ideas from one category -- the force category -- and have applied them almost without qualification to another category -- the God-man relationship. What we should have done is to see that in the ‘Galilean vision’, as Whitehead called it, we have the clue to the proper category for use in the God-man relationship; the category is ‘love in action’, the divine Lover acting and the human intentional lover acting too. And then we should have found that the situation was very different from what it seemed to be when power was used as the interpretative key. Once accept the disclosure of God in Christ (and in all that is Christ-like in human experience, for we ought not to be exclusively christo-centric in the narrower sense); once take that disclosure with utmost seriousness -- and then God as ‘pure unbounded love’ becomes central in our thinking. It makes all the difference-and in my judgement, this difference is what Christian faith is about.

To take that key with such utmost seriousness and to use it with equal seriousness in the re-framing of Christian theology, will obviously require some very drastic changes in our ways of envisaging what the theological enterprise is all about. We may fear such changes; there is a tendency on the part of theologians to like things to continue as they have been. Yet risk is an element in life and it is also an element in all faith that is worth anybody’s having. But on the other hand there would be a wonderful release of energy in thus accepting love’s centrality, since love is a releasing (as well as a demanding and dangerous) matter.

Let me close with a little story -- one which happens to be true in essence, even if there is a bit of embroidery in the way in which it was told to me many years ago. Perhaps it will illustrate my point about love and at the same time show that this emphasis is not entirely new in Christian thought.

In the reign of Charles I there was in Scotland a covenanting minister Samuel Rutherford, who was minister of Anworth in Galloway. One Saturday evening he was catechizing his children and servants. There was a knock at the door. He went to it, and the stormy wind blew in so that the tall tallow candles flickered and he could hardly see a venerable old man who stood muffled up in the rain. ‘May I come in?’ said the old man, ‘And wouldst thou give me shelter for the night?’ Rutherford at once said, ‘Yes, right gladly. Come in and we will give thee porridge, but not before we finish our catechism.’ ‘I thank thee’, said the stranger, ‘and I shall be glad to take my share in the catechism with the others, if thou wilt.’ So Rutherford went on asking questions around the family circle. It so chanced that when he came to the stranger, the question was, ‘How many commandments be there?’ ‘Eleven’, answered the stranger. ‘Alas, sir’, said Rutherford, ‘I had thought that one so wise and venerable of aspect would have given a better answer. There be but ten.’ ‘Nay, kind host’, replied the stranger, ‘in truth there be eleven commandments.’ Said Rutherford, ‘But that cannot be; there are but ten.’ The stranger then went on, ‘Hast thou forgotten? There was One who said, "Behold, I give you a new commandment, that ye love one another."’ Rutherford sprang to his feet. "Who art thou?’ he gasped. ‘I am James Ussher’, said the stranger, ‘and I have come hither in private that I might have speech with thee.’ It was the famous Archbishop Ussher, Primate of Ireland and one of the most eminent scholars of that day. ‘Welcome indeed thou art’, said Rutherford, ‘thou wilt remain here, but tomorrow thou wilt preach in my church.’ ‘Yes, gladly’, said the Archbishop; his eyes twinkled as he added, ‘I think I have chosen my text already. Shall it not be from St. John’s Gospel, Chapter 13 verse 14?’

The text which Archbishop Ussher proposed runs like this: ‘If I, then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ It is found in that place where the Fourth Evangelist gives the account of the foot-washing in the Upper Room and where he cites the words of Jesus about the ‘new commandment’. It is based on, indeed made possible by, the earlier words which the Evangelist writes as he begins this account: ‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he came from God and was going to God . . .’ And that sentence assumes the truth of the even earlier words in the gospel narrative: ‘Jesus . . . having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. . .’

The Lord came from God precisely in order to love, in order to be the humanly visible instrument of the divine Charity. Christian theology, in my conviction, is nothing other than the explication and application of what that statement means.