Imagine a young woman who decided to go for a walk around her neighborhood. Imagine further that this woman encounters a young man, one who is interested in courting this young woman. The young woman is quite flattered when she notices that she has caught the eye of this fine imaginary suitor. She is prepared for him to say something quite charming, but is surprised to hear him say “I love you. Now you love me…or else.”
This imaginary encounter disturbs us. If a young man actually said those words (“Love me…or else.”), we would suspect that he was rather unloving and even more than a little evil. Now here’s the troubling thing: It seems like this is precisely the sort of encounter we have with the god of orthodoxy.
Before we move on, let me say that from this point on, this conversation is likely going to be very uncomfortable for any Christian readers. Let me assure you, my dear spiritual sibling, that the discomfort is felt in me also, for I too am a disciple of Christ. Let me urge you, however, not to spoil this discomfort with a hasty dismissal of what is being discussed here. In my experience, it is precisely the moments during which we feel most uncomfortable that we rightfully run into the arms of our Creator instead of trying to pretend we don’t desperately need the Divine. Theological discomfort is no different in this regard, and it is my hope that this unsettling exploration will effect us in the same way as all deep discomfort does.
Now then, let’s unpack the above analogy. We are human beings that are loved by God, yet God threatens terrible things if we do not love Him back. If we do not love God, we are tortured forever, so it seems that God might say to us in the moment just after He confesses His love towards us, “Love me or I will torture you forever.”
Of course, the orthodox man will say that I’ve completely misunderstood our encounter with God. He will say that we currently approach God not as young women but as whores who were supposed to be devoted to God and justly deserve God’s anger. Perhaps he is right in his accusation of my lack of understanding, but I can’t quite see how he could be right even if we change our imaginary character from a young woman to a whore.
Even if we are most properly considered spiritual whores, there was a young woman once who had an encounter with God similar to the one we’ve outlined above. This young woman, of course, was not a woman at all. She was Adam. Now, Adam, according to the orthodox interpretation of the story, choose to rebel against God in eating the forbidden fruit. His actions spoke the words “I do not love You.”
Typically, it is assumed that Adam later repented and will somehow be reconciled unto God by Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice that atones for past, present, and future sins. We can easily imagine, however, that it was logically possible for Adam to remain unrepentant, and if he did, he would be in precisely the same situation as our imaginary young woman.¹ Adam could have said “no” to the suitor who declared His love for her, and she (Adam) could have continually sought after another man (i.e., he could have continued to sin). God would have responded with curses that were even worse than the ones that he dished out for the repentant(?) Adam.
Analogously, if a young man were to somehow find the young woman who spurned him, lock her in his basement and torture her for as long as he pleased, we would consider this young man to be nothing less than a spawn of Satan.
The orthodox man may, at this point, reject the love metaphor all together as simply another metaphor that “breaks down” when taken too seriously. (If the orthodox man “slides” his complaint from the first objection to the second, then we might suspect that he is indeed trying to cheat himself out of theological discomfort and thus deprive himself of genuine reliance on the Divine.) They might instead say that we should imagine our with God as Paul sometimes did, which we will discuss shortly. Although metaphors usually break down at some point, this rejection would seem inappropriate.
It seems inappropriate because the central idea communicated by the metaphor is precisely the love that God has for us. We cannot reject a metaphor as breaking down at the point at which it communicates its central idea for this reason: it ignores the author’s intent in constructing the metaphor. Suppose that when our young man first approached the young woman, he said to her “You are a rose.” Metaphorically, the young man likely meant that she was beautiful and delicate.
If the young woman, however, was not comfortable with the fact that this young man had taken her fancy, she might similarly argue that the young man did not actually mean that she was beautiful and delicate. Instead, she might argue, the metaphor breaks down and we should not take the metaphor so serious as to suppose that the young man was complimenting her on her beauty. The girl’s reasoning, in this example, appears quite problematic in that it ignores the young man’s intent in constructing the metaphor, and I suspect that something analogous is going on when the orthodox man rejects the love metaphor.
There is at least one other move that we might make in order to avoid the discomforting conclusion that we are considering. We might suppose that the love metaphor applies to us only after we have “received salvation.” Prior to this moment, we might say that we are most properly thought of as “enemies of God,” which was Paul’s suggestion. If this is the case, we could express this before and after dynamic with another metaphor.
Suppose that instead of our young woman innocently strolling the streets and encountering the young man, we imagine her as a rebellious woman who stole from a local convenience store. The owner of the shop rightly considers her as an enemy because of her actions. Now, she is faced with the same choice but with more specific consequences “Love me…or else I will not forgive you for stealing from me, and that means that I will torture you in my basement for 1000 years.” This metaphor also represents those who reply to this aforementioned problem with “Yes, God is loving, but God is also just.”
This response raises all sorts of questions, however. What sort of justice are we talking about when we say God is just? And more importantly, is this conception of justice even compatible with love? If love has anything to do with a wishing for the best for another person, then it is quite unclear how torturing them in a basement for 1000 years could be at all compatible with such wishes. If it turns out that love is incompatible with God’s justice, then we’re stuck with a God that has conflicting motivations, which is not a conceptual option that I wholly disqualify. For the orthodox man, however, this God is likely unavailable, for it paints a picture of God that is quite human, one that is plagued by an imperfection: God cannot seem to satisfy both of His conflicting desires.
It may be bold, at this point, to presume that the above remarks have had any truth to them. I may be even more bold in presuming that these remarks have been wholly persuasive², but this boldness is born out of precisely that desire which I mentioned from the outset of these musings: to bring the reader to place of aporia. For aporia is, in my mind, a fertile soil in which the Divine plants Its seeds.
I am probably wrong to be puzzled by such thoughts. Perhaps the reader will show me where I have erred. To escape puzzlement in this instance, however, is, for me, merely an invitation to seek another one.
1. I suppose that this is only true if we think that we have freewill. The fatalists will have quite a different picture of a suitor encountering a young woman. The compatiblists will have still another picture, a picture which might be the most accurate one.
2. In fact, I consider it likely that an astute reader will find many conceptual stones left unturned. I urge astute readers to turn those stones over charitably, that is, to turn them over in a way that still leaves the possibility open for there to be reason to be uncomfortable.