Forgiveness is held as a virtue by many in our world, in a way which is quite foreign to some other world views. (I recall the shock on being told by a friend in the Middle East that forgiveness had never been seen as a good thing there.) We know we don’t do it, by and large, but we think we should. The result of this, unfortunately, is that we have developed a corollary that is neither love nor forgiveness—namely tolerance. The problem with this is clear: I can “tolerate” you without it costing me anything very much. I can shrug my shoulders, walk away, and leave you to do your own thing. That, admittedly, is preferable to me taking you by the throat and shaking you until you agree with me. But it is certainly not love.
Love affirms the reality of the other person, the other culture, the other way of life; love takes the trouble to get to know the other person or culture, finding out how he, she, or it ticks, what makes it special; and finally, love wants the best for that person or culture. It was love, not just an arrogant imposition of alien standards, that drove much of the world to oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was love, not a dewy-eyed anti-business prejudice (though that’s what they said to him at the time), that drove abolitionist William Wilberforce to protest against the slave trade. It is love, not cultural imperialism, that says it is dehumanizing and society-destroying to burn a surviving widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, or to kill the daughter who has eloped with a man of a different religion or race. Love must confront “tolerance” and insist, as it always has done, on a better way.
When I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’. Without the subjective pole, it becomes mere cool appraisal or ‘tolerance’. Without the objective pole, the celebration of the other as other, it is simply lust, cutting the beloved down to the size of my desires and projects, whether it be sexual lust exploiting another human being or industrial lust exploiting raw materials for profit despite the consequences. A colleague of mine put his finger on the first of these, speaking of ‘the decline of sex’, and explaining, ‘We all know how to do it but we’ve all forgotten why.’ That is exactly the same as the second, the Frankensteinian scientism of our day: we can do it, so why not and who’s to stop us? And this is where Jonathan Sacks’s aphorism comes in again: science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean. And sometimes the meaning tells you to stop pulling them apart. It’s a crisis of meaning that we face in our day, and a crisis of knowledge that brings that into focus; and the answer to the false antithesis of objective and subjective, which has been throttling our culture for too long, is a full-on reawakening of an epistemology of love. We have had enough of the Faustian pact in which we merely ‘tolerate’ one another; ‘toleration’ is an Enlightenment parody of love. It is time for the dangerous gospel notion of love to make a comeback in our culture.
There was once a powerful dictator who ruled his country with an iron will. Every aspect of life was thought through and worked out according to a rational system. Nothing was left to chance.
The dictator noticed that the water sources around the country were erratic and in some cases dangerous. There were thousands of springs of water, often in the middle of towns and cities. They could be useful, but sometimes they caused floods, sometimes they got polluted, and often they burst out in new places and damaged roads, fields, and houses.
The dictator decided on a sensible, rational policy. The whole country, or at least every part where there was any suggestion of water, would be paved over with concrete so thick that no spring of water could ever penetrate it. The water that people needed would be brought to them by a complex system of pipes. Furthermore, the dictator decided, he would use the opportunity, while he was at it, to put into the water various chemicals that would make the people healthy. With the dictator controlling the supply, everyone would have what he decided they needed, and there wouldn’t be any more nuisance from unregulated springs.
For many years the plan worked just fine. People got used to their water coming from the new system. It sometimes tasted a bit strange, and from time to time they would look back wistfully to the bubbling streams and fresh springs they used to enjoy. Some of the problems that people had formerly blamed on unregulated water hadn’t gone away. It turned out that the air was just as polluted as the water had sometimes been, but the dictator couldn’t, or didn’t, do much about that. But mostly the new system seemed efficient. People praised the dictator for his forward-looking wisdom.
A generation passed. All seemed to be well. Then, without warning, the springs that had gone on bubbling and sparkling beneath the solid concrete could no longer be contained. In a sudden explosion – a cross between a volcano and an earthquake – they burst through the concrete that people had come to take for granted. Muddy, dirty water shot into the air and rushed through the streets and into houses, shops, and factories. Roads were torn up; whole cities were in chaos. Some people were delighted: at last they could get water again without depending on The System. But the people who ran the official water pipes were at a loss: suddenly everyone had more than enough water, but it wasn’t pure and couldn’t be controlled.
We in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call “spirituality,” the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.
Many people today hear the very word “spirituality” like travelers in a desert hearing news of an oasis. This isn’t surprising. The skepticism that we’ve been taught for the last two hundred years has paved our world with concrete, making people ashamed to admit that they have had profound and powerful “religious” experiences. Where before they would have gone to church, said their prayers, worshiped in this way or that, and understood what they were doing as part of the warp and woof of the rest of life, the mood of the Western world from roughly the 1780s through to the 1980s was very different. We will pipe you (said the prevailing philosophy) the water you need; we will arrange for “religion” to become a small subdepartment of ordinary life; it will be quite safe—harmless in fact—with church life carefully separated off from everything else in the world, whether politics, art, sex, economics, or whatever. Those who want it can have enough to keep them going. Those who don’t want their life, and their way of life, disrupted by anything “religious” can enjoy driving along concrete roads, visiting concrete-based shopping malls, living in concrete-floored houses. Live as if the rumor of God had never existed! We are, after all, in charge of our own fate! We are the captains of our own souls (whatever they may be)! That is the philosophy which has dominated our culture. From this point of view, spirituality is a private hobby, an up-market version of daydreaming for those who like that kind of thing.
Millions in the Western world have enjoyed the temporary separation from “religious” interference that this philosophy has brought. Millions more, aware of the deep subterranean bubblings and yearnings of the water systems we call “spirituality,” which can no more ultimately be denied than can endless springs of water under thick concrete, have done their best secretly to tap into it, using the official channels (the churches), but aware that there’s more water available than most churches have let on. Many more again have been aware of an indefinable thirst, a longing for springs of living, refreshing water that they can bathe in, delight in, and drink to the full.
Our lines of inquiry, our probing, and questioning, may perhaps lead us in the direction where God might be found, but they cannot break through and claim to have grasped God all by themselves. Just as no spaceship could ever fly far enough to glimpse God, since (if such a being exists, and if he is remotely like the great monotheistic religions have supposed) he isn’t an object within our universe, likewise no human argument could ever, as it were, get God into a corner, pin him down, and force him to submit to human inspection.
It is part of the Christian story that there was a moment when God was indeed pinned down, subjected not just to human inspection but to trial, torture, imprisonment, and death…
A great many arguments about God—God’s existence, God’s nature, God’s actions in the world—run the risk of being like pointing a flashlight toward the sky to see if the sun is shining. Is all too easy to make the mistake of speaking and thinking as though God (if there is a God) might be a being, an entity, within our world, accessible to our interested study in the same sort of way we might studying music or mathematics, open to our investigation by the same sort of techniques will use for objects and entities within our world.
When Yuri Gagari, the first Soviet cosmonaut, landed after orbiting the Earth a few times, he declared that he had disproved the existence of God. He had been up there, he said, and had seen no sign of him. Some Christians pointed out that Gagarin had seen plenty of signs of God, if only the cosmonaut known how to interpret them. The difficulty is that speaking of God in anything like the Christian sense is like staring into the sun it’s dazzling. It’s easier, actually, to look away from the sun itself and to enjoy the fact that once it’s well and truly risen, you can see everything else clearly.