On the love of Christ


Last week was awful and this week worse, what with being too nauseous to eat; too fatigued to be up; and too headachy to read, blog, or watch TV.  When I wasn’t actually asleep, I brooded over getting old, over the recent loss of a friendship (and my partial responsibility for its demise), and over my terror of the day that Peggy’s death or mine will separate us. I also grieved over the fact that my life has no “spiritual” dimension, at least none that includes people beyond this blog.

I was so sick that I went cold turkey on every drug that I dared, a state that lasted until yesterday when I finally felt well enough to do yard work. During my time in bed, Brewsky was acutely aware of my suffering but at a loss what to do, so he finally settled on walking into my room from time to time and staring at me. I did manage to read for a few minutes at a time from three books, one of which was Honest to God by Anglican Bishop John Robinson (1919-83), the cofounder of “secular theology,” which I think it would be fair to describe as follows:

“To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home.’”

I would ask Bishop Robinson the same thing I would ask Christ: if you and your neighbor have an infected tooth, and you can only send one of you to the dentist, and you love your neighbor “as yourself,” who do you send? I question that I’ve ever known a Christian who struggled over such decisions. I’m sure some have—Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, perhaps, and maybe one or two of you—but for the most part, such decisions don’t revolve around whose needs should be met but rather what luxuries one can afford for oneself and one
’s family.

I’m not saying that Christians are bad people (many are surely better than I), but rather that they live by an unrealistic standard that appears to have come to them through social inheritance rather than personal commitment. It seems to me that they are obliged to twist themselves into pretzels to rationalize their way out of obeying admonitions that I consider as clear as they are appalling. Yet, I was in my early twenties before I had my first hint that other value systems even existed, a realization that came to me by way of Ayn Rand and Frederick Nietzsche. Whatever their flaws, they expressed what I had long known to be true about myself, namely that my love couldn’t be freely given but instead had to be earned through my faith in the goodness of my beloved, particularly as it related to his or her commitment to me.

When I think of what it must be like to love as Christ commanded, my thoughts invariably go to Peggy because she is the only person with whom I don’t count the cost. For some of the people I know, I might go so far as to give a kidney, but to her, I would give all of my organs and consider even that an act of supreme selfishness because such is my debt to her whom I love more than I love myself. I have even asked myself if there is any amount of torture that I wouldn’t endure on her behalf, but I really don’t know because how could I claim the strength to voluntarily endure for so much as an hour when I’ve known what it was like to count the seconds?

But while many no doubt love as deeply—and as limitedly—as I, how can any of us claim to love everyone with the all-surpassing love with which Christ was said to have loved us, and to which it is surely the duty of all Christians to aspire? I cannot imagine that such a thing is even possible, but if it is possible, it would surely be a case of intellectual assent rather than deepest emotion. It would involve saying, “I will do this (whatever this is) because I know I should,” instead of, “I will do this because every cell within me says that my supreme good lies in it, and that by doing it my existence will be justified.”

When I was a Freemason, I took a vow that I would risk my life to save a brother Mason if there was more than an even chance that I could save him without dying in the process. I don’t know how many Masons would go even that far, but if the Bible is right that, in his mind, Christ freely died a horrific death for people he didn’t even know, then his love for us must have been similar to my love for Peggy. If such a love for humanity as a whole is even possible, I would be surprised, but if I have ever actually known anyone who could even love most of his friends—much less people he didn’t know—that deeply, I would be astonished. I simply know that I could neither do it nor even want to do it, yet it is just such a love that has given my life meaning.

This isn’t to imply that my behavior toward Peggy is worthy of the value that I place upon her, it being, perhaps, easier to spend a moment dying for someone than a year living for her. Truly, if I—being, as I believe, no worse than others—can’t succeed in loving one person well, and this after 43-years of practice (I am far from being modest), I can well understand why a Christian would beat his or her chest while crying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Though I am exceedingly rare among atheists for believing as I do, I agree with the
writer of Isaiah that,

“…we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

22 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

Nauseous? Headachey? Fatigued? That sounds truly awful. And would have made your negative musings harder to deal with.
I hope you find some physical and emotional ease soon.

Snowbrush said...

"That sounds truly awful."

If I'm not greatly improved physically by Tuesday, I'll make an appointment with my internist. As for my emotions, I'm already much better.

Elephant's Child said...

I am glad to hear that one side of the equation is improving.

Linda said...

WHY are you worrying about Christ and all this stuff that you do not follow and believe in? This was a most bizarre post.

"Filthy rags"? Those are cloths women used for their menstrual cycle. Once again, the Bible thinks little of women.

Charles Gramlich said...

I suppose the unrealistic demands of Christianity have much to do with why so few live up to them. They are very different than what we evolved to survive.

Tom Sightings said...

Sorry to hear you're not feeling well. I'm suffering from a headache this morning, too ... but I know exactly what the cause is, from our little party last night. As far as love goes, I think it's incontrovertible that humans have a self-preservation gene that trumps pretty much everything else, except maybe ... I dunno, do you have kids?

PhilipH said...

Dear Snowy,
The first part of this posting was painful to read. Not as painful as your pains of course but nevertheless painful enough for the reader.

Mental pain too. You have seemingly beaten yourself up mentally. I am trying to understand your desire to make sense of religion. You either believe or you don't, or in many instances keep disbelieving and then hopping back to believing, or trying to believe.

I've long since made my mind up and NEVER think anything other than that religion is just a man-made mythology.

As far as LOVE goes, I guess we all love self-preservation from date of birth and then we stumble into a relationship and find a love different from our self-love. Such relationships frequently dissolve and fade away. Some relationships are strong, but one-sided, i.e. one party loves the other much more deeply. There's a nice song by Foreigners: "I Wanna Know What Love Is" and I really like this song.
I've been married for 59 years, come July. Sometimes I feel I HATE my missus, but that melts away soon. Other times I dearly love her, and she reciprocate, even with the hating bit at times. Is this love, or just tolerance? I honestly do not know.

I do hope you are feeling better and less frightened today. Yes, I meant FRIGHTENED because that's how I found your words to be today.

Best wishes

Sparkling Red said...

I'm really sorry to hear that you've been suffering so much.

Peggy is one lucky lady to be so loved. It's this old cliche that I adore: To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you are the world.

Snowbrush said...

I’m limited in time today, so I won’t get to too many comments, and I won’t be able to approve new comments for awhile.

“WHY are you worrying about Christ and all this stuff that you do not follow and believe in? This was a most bizarre post.”

I had every confidence that you would feel as you do, and I very much regret my inability to make sense of myself for you and for others. I do know that you come from a fundamentalist background, and that although you’re rejected fundamentalism, you still believe that, if it has any truth at all, religion must be fundamentalist in nature, and since fundamentalism is untrue, religion is untrue. You might read my comment below in which I do try to explain myself.

“Filthy rags"? Those are cloths women used for their menstrual cycle. Once again, the Bible thinks little of women.”

What you say about “filthy rags” makes sense, but I didn’t know it. Yes, the Bible is often sexist, often ridiculous, and its deity is often appallingly vicious. It would be impossible to say too much bad about the Bible, yet parts of it still rank highly in terms of truth and their beauty. Ecclesiastes is my favorite.

“Some relationships are strong, but one-sided, i.e. one party loves the other much more deeply.”

It has been my experience with Peggy that I don’t care about equality and besides, it’s hard to really know who loves who more until until faced with loss or otherwise put to the test. I know that she will be there for me no matter how bad things get, and that’s really all I need to know.

“I am trying to understand your desire to make sense of religion. You either believe or you don't, or in many instances keep disbelieving and then hopping back to believing, or trying to believe.”

As with Robinson, so it is with various other modern theologians in that they they don’t believe in the supernatural, yet they continue to identify theology with the depths of their lives (as opposed to the heights, as in the Bible and supernaturalist theology), and this makes theology of supreme importance to them. I identify with them moreso than with atheists (as a group) because atheists tend to feel like you in that they posit belief as an either/or, so if I don’t believe, well, I simply need to get over religion. I also identify with some of the modern theologians moreso than with churchgoers because even liberal churchgoers tend to believe in the supernatural, and the only way I can fit in with them is to keep my mouth shut about the fact that I don’t. This leaves me feeling very alone except for the writings of a few theologians.

I know that you can’t understand, but I’ll never stop trying to make myself clear to you, both because I care about you, and because I enjoy the challenge. On the other end of the spectrum (from you) is Rhymes with Plague, who, I’m sure, also doesn’t understand, although he does understand the need I feel whereas I’ve never met a single atheist who did. Contrary to what believers think, the atheists I’ve known were quite content with their atheism and felt no need at all for any sort of religious dimension to their lives.

I know that you don’t, but many atheists would deride me based upon what they would see as their strength and rationality versus my weakness and foolishness. Well, okay, I’m weak and foolish, but then we all are. We’re simply weak and foolish in different ways. (By the way, Peggy completely disagrees with that closing Bible verse, as do you, I should think.)

julie said...

I've missed reading you....
sending good vibes from CA..

kylie said...

You make a lot of good points, Snow. I am aware that I cannot possibly love everyone as I do myself but i think the key is to do as the Holy Spirit instructs us so if we become aware of a situation where we are asked to contribute, then we must do that regardless of our own estimation of the cost.

Obviously talking about the Holy Spirit is jargon-y and I cant expect an atheist to take that kind of comment seriously but I think this is where Christians fail. They dont obey and they dont have the faith to believe that they will be taken care of in the wake of their obedience.

CreekHiker / HollysFolly said...

I'm so sorry you aren't feeling well Snowy!

I don't think I've ever been in love...but I do know the loss of friendship. Sometimes I think it sting more because I chose a flawed friend than the loss the relationship.

Linda said...

You said:
"I do know that you come from a fundamentalist background, and that although you’re rejected fundamentalism, you still believe that, if it has any truth at all, religion must be fundamentalist in nature, and since fundamentalism is untrue, religion is untrue."

Actually, every thing you say above is not true at all about me or my thoughts. I make no connections or thoughts you ascribe to me. I never even thought that the church was fundamentalist, a word foreign to anything I thought. No, I do not think "religion must be fundamentalist in nature." No I do not think that 'since fundamentalism is untrue, religion is untrue." I think maybe these are your thoughts and conclusions.

Snowbrush said...

“I think it's incontrovertible that humans have a self-preservation gene that trumps pretty much everything else, except maybe ... I dunno, do you have kids?”

No, no kids, but cats and dogs. I’ve heard of people dying for their dogs, and I know I would risk my life for my pets, but I wouldn’t do as much for them as for Peggy, certainly. Yes, genetics seems to trump religion, and, in the case of Christianity anyway, religion is most often an expression of the survival instinct, and therefore has nothing to do with the values of its founder. I would even go so far as to say that the values of most Christians are brazenly, appalling, stupefyingly un-Christian, and I think that this is is reason. Whatever the movies with which Christianity was founded, it has long since moved far from them. For example, just look at the wealth of the Catholic Church and the militarism of American evangelicals.

“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you are the world.”

I hadn’t heard that—thank you.

“Obviously talking about the Holy Spirit is jargon-y and I cant expect an atheist to take that kind of comment seriously but I think this is where Christians fail.”

I never take your thoughts as jargon-y. Have you read Harvey Cox’s book, “The Future of Faith”? I recommend it because it’s educational (both about the historic church down through the centuries and the current day church the world over) yet very easy to read, and I think that you and he are on the same page. He’s not a supernaturalist, that I can tell, but he does seem to try very hard to use his religion in service to others, and he does seem to take it very seriously.

“They dont obey and they dont have the faith to believe that they will be taken care of in the wake of their obedience.”

People who obey sometimes die—think Bonhoeffer returning to Germany to help people, being imprisoned by the Nazis for a year or two, and then hung. In light of this, I don’t consider it realistic to expect service to Christ to result in being “taken care of “ in any physical sense of the word. Do you? I ask because I respect your thoughts.

“I do know the loss of friendship. Sometimes I think it sting more because I chose a flawed friend than the loss the relationship.”

Yes, I have the sense that I was stupid to have trusted, and I wonder where I went wrong.

“Actually, every thing you say above is not true at all about me or my thoughts.“

I erred because it seemed to me that you invariably (in my memory) tested my assertions from what I took as a fundamentalist perspective—by which I mean a literalistic interpretation of the Bible.

kylie said...

When I talked about obedience, I had in mind obedience to the Holy Spirit, not necessarily to other people. Do I expect to be taken care of because of my Christianity? well, to an extent yes. I need to explain myself here, I'll give you an example.
In my current financial state I feel the need to be extra conservative about cash but when the earthquake happened in Nepal I believed that I was instructed to give to that situation. As a Christian who believes they are being instructed to do something it is my responsibility to make the donation, not to second guess and wonder where my next pay cheque is coming from. Many of the Christians I know would just assume that they couldnt afford to donate and that is where I feel they are mistaken.

Having said all of that I know that there are very many devout Christians who live in abject poverty and it would seem that their commitment has failed them. I cant explain that, I just think that if you are going to make claims to having a faith you must be prepared to act on it, even and especially when you might have reason to fear the outcome.

I probably could have said all this much more efficiently but I needed to write it all out to get clarity :)

Snowbrush said...

“I just think that if you are going to make claims to having a faith you must be prepared to act on it, even and especially when you might have reason to fear the outcome.”

The church I grew up in considered pledge cards to be indicative of a lack of faith on the part of the church as a whole. I hadn’t thought of this in years, and don’t really know why it came to mind.

“I probably could have said all this much more efficiently but I needed to write it all out to get clarity :)”

I thought you explained it very well. As I understand you, you probably wouldn’t have sent that money had you thought you would go hungry as a result, yet sending it in the belief that you wouldn’t go hungry was hardly the same as expecting to get rich from sending it, which is how many people here would regard obedience. It’s almost as if they regard God as their buddy who will help them out if they help him.

kylie said...

i didnt expect to go hungry but i do expect to possibly exist on lentils and soup for a while. there is certainly no expectation of getting rich

Snowbrush said...

“i didn’t expect to go hungry but i do expect to possibly exist on lentils and soup for a while.”

Lentils AND soup? What kind of soup? I love soups, and you can always make some cornbread to go with it. Still, I think you should try Ezekiel’s diet from Chapter 4: 9-15?

You, gather some wheat and barley, beans and lentils, and millet and spelt. Put them in a bowl and make your bread from them. Eat it during the 390 days that you lie on your side. At fixed times you will eat your food by weight, fourteen ounces a day. You will also ration your water by measure, drinking a sixth of a gallon at fixed times each day. Eat it like barley bread, and bake it on human excrement while they watch.The Lord says: In this same way the Israelites will eat their unclean bread among the nations where I am scattering them. And I said: “Ah, Lord God! I’ve never been unclean! From my childhood until now I’ve never eaten anything that wasn’t properly slaughtered,[c] and no unclean meat has ever entered my mouth!” He answered me: “Then I’ll let you use cow dung instead of human excrement. You can make your bread over that.”

All Consuming said...

"“I do know the loss of friendship. Sometimes I think it sting more because I chose a flawed friend than the loss the relationship.”

Yes, I have the sense that I was stupid to have trusted, and I wonder where I went wrong." - Ok I have to just check on this one, because you haven't actually replied to my comment saying I wasn't leaving or mentioned the subject, or the card explaining, though I fully, and I do mean FULLY appreciate you have been too ill to be dealing about such things, for cold turkey alone I have found to be hell on earth with my medications, and you have been in such pain, but I'm glad to hear in some ways you're feeling better, and you have commented on my blog which bodes well - but basically - are you talking about me and our friendship? I'm a bit confused about it all. You're both lucky to have found each other without doubt, for many end up alone and deeply sad as they get older, I know a good few myself. As for Brewsky - I'm glad he's there with you. Just back home now, I'll post anon. x

lotta joy said...

I'm reminded of my sister and brother-in-law. She served, and served, and served, others - because the lord required it. She served to her own exhaustion, then realized she SHOULD do it JOYOUSLY, because the lord required it. Her husband used his own money and company to build churches for free. Build pews. Provide organs. Built orphanages. etc. because the lord required it.

An all powerful god sure seems to expect a lot more than he requires of himself, and it should also be done with JOY.

The last I read, Jesus was crying tears of blood and didn't laugh on his way to the cross.

Sorry. I'm just feeling too honest for my own good today.

rhymeswithplague said...

I'm a little late here, sorry.

Thanks for the compliment upline in the comments, at least I think it was a compliment.

Lastly, the quote at the end of your post is not from Ecclesiastes, it is from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6). And Isaiah did not write Ecclesiastes.

Snowbrush said...

“The last I read, Jesus was crying tears of blood and didn't laugh on his way to the cross.”

At least some Jewish scholars give his words (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) as an argument against his Messiahship because they regard the statement as a complaint, and they say that the Messiah would be too devoted to serving God to entertain a complaint. The Trinity is a very odd concept, and Jesus always comes off as looking ever so much like God in a bag of skin. “All God” I can fathom. “All man” I can fathom, but both at once? To this day, I really can’t tell you if my boyhood church believed in the Trinity because although we sang “Holy, holy, holy, God in three persons…” I don’t recall ever hearing a sermon about the Trinity; the Church of Christ was big on “where the Bible speaks, we speak, and where the Bible is silent, we are silent”; and the Trinity isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

“the quote at the end of your post is not from Ecclesiastes, it is from the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6).”

Isaiah it is. I don’t know why I wrote Ecclesiastes, but thank you for pointing it out.