A Conversation on Love vs. Power As At The Heart of One’s Theology and Ethics


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[This post is based on a Facebook conversation I had with friends. It includes the original post and my responses to two questions. I’m pleased with it because it helped me tie together some disparate thoughts I had on a range of issues such as Calvinism, colonialism, inequality, how we become like what we worship, and how solidarity with others is just as important as a sense of duty.]

People deify power. It makes them feel safe and in control. We all crave this, especially in times of crisis.

Much harder, I’m finding, is consistent and utter devotion to Love. That takes risk and sacrifice.

But Love, when perfected, casts out fear. In a roundabout way–a narrower, more arduous way–it leads to a deeper kind of power and assurance.

Love and power can co-mingle, of course. But one or the other of them will always take the lead. Always.

I will have a lot more to say about this in the coming days, because it is absolutely the crux to everything I am about. But I’ll close for now by asking you this:

Do you worship a god whose power and entitlement limit how and to whom his love is expressed? Or do you worship a God whose power is definitively – even essentially – guided by his bottomless wellspring of love?

Choose carefully. We tend to become like what we worship.

Do you treat others as means to getting what you want? Or do you treat them as precious ends in and of themselves?

Do you create hierarchies in your mind of what kinds of people are really important–what kinds of people are worth humanizing; empathizing with; actually engaging in fellowship; and allowed to be the full range of things you might want to be yourself? Or do you treat others – ALL others – as perfect equals?

Stated this way, it sounds like an impossible ideal. Foolishness. Which of us does not miss that mark or need God’s grace?

But there is a movement, friends; a direction and goal you and I are headed. A habit of the heart and hands. One way or the other.

God’s grace is not a cheap grace. It urges change. Because it loves Itself, it loves us, and it loves those around us.

Choose wisely, my friends. As for me and my house, we will choose Love.

QUESTION 1): “I wonder how you are defining power.”

ANSWER: I have a few things in mind.

Perhaps its easier to describe than define in any absolute sense. I guess power in general has to do with the ability to do something. We talk about power a lot in the social sciences. That’s because it has such potential to either benefit (e.g. “empowerment”) or harm (e.g. “oppression”) others.

I guess I’m referring to a negative way that power is often understood and/or used. Often power is viewd as “aversarial, limited, coercive, and potentially exploitive.” I have power over you if I am the winner and you are the loser. I have power over you if I can dominate you and you serve me. I have more power if I can engineer the social system such that I am more likely to start ahead or get ahead based on something like my gender, race, class, or what not. I have more power if I can horde more resources or better control the social network and environment than you.

I think you can see the problem with that way of conceiving power vis a vis humans. Instead, as Jesus said, those who would be leaders are suppose to be servants (Matthew 20:26) who work for the common good – perhaps especially in regard to those on the margins who are most vulnerable. I think that actually fits in pretty well with social science notions of “shared power” and “empowerment.”

The idea here is that humanity is like a connected web. We are all in this together. We all have dignity and worth and unique things to contribute. We should all have our basic rights respected and our basic needs met. If we can focus on our shared identity and keep expanding the web of who we consider as “in” our group or family, so to speak; we begin to see that helping others is like helping ourselves. And helping others really can be empowering, both to them and us. There is a generative synergy and dynamic to love that is real and powerful.

But love can also take risk and what feels like a “humbling” loss of power or privilege. It can feel very “weak” at times. Perhaps in an absolute sense and from a human perspective, it really does sometimes involve a loss of power. That’s why I said that love should be the guiding force. Our power should be guided by love; not our love meted out on the basis of what is convenient or expedient to us. But that is in many ways unnatural and so it takes intentionality and work. All the more so in that social science shows us that people with power or privilege have a hell of a time giving it up or even recognizing it for what it is. Those of us who have various types of privilege tend to see actual inequalities as a “fair” status quo and any increase in the equality of a historically oppressed people group as an “unfair” threat to our power.

This interplay and contrast between power and love is also important in terms of our theology about God. So much of what I see as wrong and harmful in theology has to do with emphasizing God’s power over his love. Let me give you a few examples.

Classical theism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence and invulnerability. God is unchanging, unmoved by emotion, and meticulously controlling and forseeing of every action. A lot of contemporary theology (for example, process theology or open theism) emphasizes a more dynamic and relational view of God. They tend to see classical theism as too beholden to Greek philosophical categories rather than the covenantal Yahweh of the Hebrew scriptures or the incarnate God in Christ of the New Testament. Their resistance to much of classical theism is also because they tend to prioritize God’s love over his power. For me, I probably have more respect for classical theism than some; but I agree with their insight that God’s relationality and love should be emphasized more centrally.

In the middle ages there was a dispute that continues between those who thought that God’s will was the final determiner of what is morally right or whether his will is essentially constrained by a specific kind of moral nature. For those who sided with will; God could literally command that murder, rape, or lying was right and these would be morally binding simply because of God’s sovereign choice and authority. God’s power/will is not constrained by anything inside or outside him. This view is known as philosophical “volunteerism.” It has been rejected by most theologians because it is Biblically, morally, and practically disasterous.

But I believe that Jerry Walls and David Baggett are right that Calvinists (and I think others) fall into a sort of practical volunteerism in trying to justify morally abhorant actions or commands by God as his sovereign right. I agree that God has the authority to command human action, but what is plausibly taken as his commands needs to fit with his good nature, and preiminantly with his love. So many of the harmful norms blindly promoted or accepted in some religious contexts recur because God’s will is emphasized over his love.

I think Calvinism itself shows this dynamic of power over love. Calvinism tends to see God’s sovereignty as his primary attribute, with his main goal as to bring glory to himself. He controls everything toward that end. He forordains and controls people such that they would fall. Some he determines to remain in sin so he can punish them eternally and exemplify his justice, all to his glory. He determines some to be eternally saved, all to his glory. All of this happens unconditionally and irresistably. There are numerous problems with this related to justive and culpability for evil. But perhaps the biggest problem is the eclipse of God’s love by his power. As Austin Fischer puts it, love becomes just another cog in the glory wheel. How different this is from the Triune God who IS love (1 John 4:8) and who humbled himself enough to become incarnate and be crucified because of his love for the world and for their salvation (Philippians 2:5-11; John 3:16; etc.).

I’m going to quote philosopher Jerry Walls and New Testament scholar Joseph Dongell at length here because I think that they capture well this difference of love vs. power as at the center.

“In a fascinating historical study, British theologian Colin Gunton identifies key points at which he believes some central Christian doctrines got of track. One particularly interesting development is that in Western theology since Augustine ‘the theme of love becomes subordinate to that of will.’ Gunton sees this manifested in the way the doctrine of double predestination is understood in some traditions. Part of the fundamental problem, Gunton believes, is a deficient understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity above all shows that God necessarily exists in an eternal relationship of perfect love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s will must always be understood as an expression of his essential nature of perfect love (Mk 1:11; Jn 3:34-35; 5:19-20; 17:20-26). Because he has such a nature, he genuinely loves all persons and genuinely invites them to share his love (Jn 3:16; 14:19-21; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:7-12).

As we saw in chapter five, Calvinist John Piper recognizes the possibility that God may not choose his son for salvation, but he insists that he would adore God in that case…Does Piper’s attitude reflect piety at its best, or is it deeply at odds with God’s character revealed in Scripture? Interestingly, the title of the article in which Piper insists on adoring a God who might consign his son to hell is “How Does a Sovereign God Love?” We believe Piper has the question backward and that that his article reflects the unfortunate subordination of love to will that Gunton identifies. Given the full revelation of God in Scripture, the question we should be asking is, how would a God of perfect love express his sovereignty?

When love is subordinated to will, then the fatherhood of God, which is emphasized in the Trinity (Mk 1:11; Jn 1:18; 5:19-20; 17:20-26; 20:17; 1 Cor 15:20-28), takes back seat to the image of God as King or Ruler. God’s essential relational nature as a being who consists in three persons becomes secondary to the notion that God is a sovereign monarch whose will cannot be thwarted.

Without the benefit of the New Testament, such a perspective is perhaps understandable. This is not to deny that God’s love is revealed in the Old Testament (Lam 3:22; Hos 11:1). However, the full meaning that God is love was revealed in its clearest light only with the incarnation (Rom 5:8; Gal 2:20; 1 Jn 3:16; 4:9). In the brilliant light of the incarnation, we learn that from all eternity there was love between the Father and the Son (Jn 17:24, 26). Moreover, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost revealed that God’s eternal dance of love included the third person of the Trinity as well (Rom 5:5; Gal 4:6; 5:16, 22; Eph 3:16-19). That is why love is not merely an activity of God – it is his very essence.

In a nutshell, our case against Calvinism is that it doesn’t do justice to the character of the God revealed in Scripture. It does not accurately portray the holy One who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps 103:8), the God for whom love is not merely an option or a sovereign choice, but who is such that his eternal nature IS love (1 Jn 4:8)…

By subordinating love to will, Calvinism fails to glorify God as he has revealed himself in history and ultimately in the incarnation of his Son. The love of God as revealed in the incarnation is not a matter of mere words but the Word made flesh who actively seeks the well-being of his fallen children. A love that truly and passionately promotes the well-being of the beloved, even when it is costly, is the sort of love that has existed from all eternity in the Trinity and was revealed in the life of Jesus. This is the kind of love, moreover, that God commands his children to demonstrate by following his example (1 Jn 3:16-18). Because God loves all sinners in this fashion and actively works to promote their eternal well-being, there is rejoicing in heaven when one of them repents (Lk 15:7, 10). A God who commmands this sort of love and who positively delights in the repentance of sinners surely has no need or desire to show his sovereign power by passing over some fallen humans, nor would he truly glorify himself by doing so.” (“Why I Am Not A Calvinist” 218-21).

I hope that this illustrates more what I mean. I think there is an intimate and important connection between the emphasis in theology and in ethics – between who we worship and who we become. If we view God as good in a way that is primarily loving and only secondarily judgmental, there is an organic link between God with his character and what we are seeking to become, how we are to live.

But many view God as a tough judge who sees us as scum, who could explode in anger and judgment, who is furiously wrathful with us, who loads burdons on our backs, who demands right doctrines/beliefs, a micro-manager, a bully, authoritarian to the core, etc. But he wants US to be loving. His justice is different than our own. His love is different from our own, self-serving. This either creates a yawning gap between the God we are suppose to love and the commands he gives us or, I think more often, it creates leaders and people who become like this idol they have made God into. Is it any wonder that this view often creates nitpicky, authoritarian, egotistical, rigid, narrow minded Christians? And it is no coincidence that it is Calvinists who emphasize God’s authority who are most likely to be obsessed with the authority of males over females and with Christian privilege in American government.

In the anthology “Global God,” theologian William David Spencer has an interesting chapter entitled “God of Power versus God of Love: United States of America.” The book charts various global perspectives on God, comparing them with how the authors see God as revealed in Scripture. Spencer’s chapter is one of two on God in America. Spencer argues that throughout American history, Christians have tended to emphasize an “imperial” view of God that has propped up their colonial greed and sense of “manifest destiny” granted by “Providence:” “Those who saw themselves called by such a God also saw themselves as invested with a portion of that absolute power to subdue the land and its inhabitants as ‘Providence’ so willed.” He argues that if they would have seen God’s power as essentially guided by love and as calling us to mimic that love, especially as exemplified in the person and teachings of Jesus, the history of the Americas might have been very different.

I could give other examples or find other connections, but I think you can see what I mean.

QUESTION 2): “…By whose measurement should we make everyone perfectly equal? I mean, I agree that we should all be granted the same rights and have the same access and opportunities to succeed (and fail) in life. But…I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a state where you could treat every person the exact same way, and I can see how bad things would get trying to accomplish that.”

ANSWER: I don’t mean exactly the same. I just meant that we would treat everyone the way we would want to be treated; that we would (ideally) see everyone as family. This implies the equal rights and equal access to opportunities that you mentioned. It implies the end of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, extreme class and wealth differences (I recognize that there will always be some differences there, that people need incentives to work hard) and all other socially constructed forms of discriminatory difference or oppression. It involves a spiritual sense of brotherly and sisterly love that I believe transcends even this and (I believe) can only divinely given.

Allan Johnson captures some of what I mean in his book “Privilege, Power, and Difference.” He writes about how what he calls the do-a-good-deed approach of moral principle has a limited ability to motivate dominate groups to give up their privilege in seeking a truly fair world. What is truly needed is a sense of collective ownership and family. He writes,

“It [the do-a-good-deed approach] depends on an impulse of generosity toward others, and this impulse tends to rise and fall depending one how secure the privileged feel in their own situation…

The do-a-good-deed approach also rests on a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’–the ‘us’ who help and the less fortunate ‘them’ who get helped. The problem is that the former feel very little reason to identify with the latter. When ‘we’ who are not poor or with disabilities, for example, help out ‘those people’ who are poor or with disabilities, there can be a real seperation and distance even at the momen of reaching out to help. In fact, the act of helping – of being able to help – can reaffirm the social distance between the two groups and heighten everyone’s awareness of it. Thus every such act of giving to others is always a statement, intended or not, of one group’s ability to give and the other’s inability to get along without it. And in a society that counts independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency among its highest cultural values, it’s impossible to avoid the negative judgments attached to those on the receiving end and the status-enhancing judgments conferred on those who give.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more than to people, which can lead to disconnection rather than connection. I take care of my children for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection with them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their welfare. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsible I’ll feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor. It’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience then as ‘others’ whom I decide to help because I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and can’t be part of without paying attention to what goes on in it.

Another problem with acting merely from a sense of principle is that part of the appeal is the good feeling it gives people about themselves when they do it, which can motivate them only in the short run. Confronting issues such as sexism and racism is hard and sometimes painful and even frightening work, and feeling good about being virtuous isn’t likely to sustain people over the rugged course of it.

What can sustain them is a sense of OWNSHIP, that the trouble is truly THEIR trouble and not someone else’s, because this means their responsibility to do something no longer feels like an option. It isn’t something they can choose to do if they’re feeling in a generous mood or can “afford” to at the moment. It is, quite simply, one of the terms of their participation in the world they live in, however large or small they define it. Without that sense of ownership, serious work on issues of privilege will always be what Roosevelt Thomas calls a ‘fair weather’ item on the agenda” (p. 72-73).

I know that this sense of humanity as one connected family or “in-group” is not natural to humans. We have evolved to value our children and biological family over others and our immediate in-groups vs. other out-groups. That’s why I say it is an ideal to be progressively sought. That’s also why I suspect it can’t be fully obtained without becoming connected with God.

In saying it is an ideal, I acknowledge that there can sometimes be ethical dilemmas. For example, in a life-and-death situation were we have to choose between our family living and some strangers living, we’ll likely choose our family. And I think if that’s truly the case, we should! But more often the choice is between great privilege and wealth for our families and a little less of that to help others who desperately need it. Between giving those in our family or in-group an extra leg up over others and sacrificing to give that unfair advantage up so that everyone can have an equal opportunity.

This article contrasting Donald Trump and Pope Francis’ contrasting visions might also help show you the vision I have of the world I’d like as well as the difference between the ideals of “vulnerable” connected power and personal “invulnerable” power. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/09/28/4320668.htm


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