The Affirmative Way

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyIn Christian theology and much more so in mysticism the negative or apophatic way and the affirmative way are posited as a fundamental contrast but actually they are two sides of the same coin. We can’t get anywhere if we can’t say anything about God and yet everything we say about God has to be wrong. God isn’t a rock on somebody’s front lawn any more than God is Pure Being. The dark cloud on Mount Sinai, the Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night all indicate negation and yet dark clouds and dark nights are still images that have to be denied. With that said (or unsaid) I will focus on the affirmative way even as I have to negate it at every turn and I will relate the affirmative way to mimetic theory.

Many see God in nature.  Even unbelievers tend to feel some reverence when they see mountains and trees and squirrels scurrying about.  The stars in the sky and stones and lakes and growing things all resonate with God’s Desire. God has profound respect for even the smallest pebble and hazel nut because God willed them to be. The more we participate in God’s Desire, the more we also will respect what is in nature and, although we must use nature, we will use nature in a sharing way rather than dominate it. Nature does not grasp at anything. It just is. This is why nature can teach us to desire in a non-rivalrous way.

The affirmative way is often experienced in human relationships. We see Christ in other people even though they do not always (or often) act like him. While the lilies of the field do not strive for the things of tomorrow, people do. In marriage, at least when it works reasonably well, one’s spouse is the primary image of God to the other. There is nothing romantic here as each partner knows very well the foibles and vices of the other. In community life, such as in a monastery, there is not, of course, the focused spousal relationship (except with God) but we have daily opportunities to see Christ through the struggles and kindnesses of others in the community. The image of Christ in the Gospels helps us straighten out the distortions that other people create even as Christ plunges us deeply into his presence within them. Learning to resonate constructively with the desires of other people is part and parcel of learning to resonate with God’s Desire.

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One way we participate in God’s image is by creating art. No Lilly pad looks like a painting by Claude Monet but the dissolving images of lily pads on his canvases cause us to resonate with the inner life of these lily pads and to see them in real life in ways we never would otherwise.  The flowers in Georgia O’Keefe’s painting are atomic explosions. Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his Ents we know how God feels in the rumbling roots of trees. Our sense of the sorrows of others is never the same after seeing any of the mournful clowns in the paintings of Georges Rouault, not to speak of the overwhelming agony in his paintings of Christ. We resonate with a certain deep level of Christ’s love through Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son.

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Probably no person experienced Divine Love through a human being as the fictional Dante did with Beatrice in The New Life and the Divine Comedy. In real life Dante seems to have had no more contact with Beatrice beyond being waved at while passing in the street. But in Dante’s imagination the ever deepening smile of Beatrice as she leads Dante to the heights of Paradise transfigure the smiles of those we love on earth.

Music is quite apophatic in that, in itself, it has nothing to do with images and refers to nothing beyond itself. Although music might be set to words, it resists being explained in words. There is a sense of mystery caught in the motets of Thomas Tallis that is not caught in any other way. The constantly shifting keys and moods in the Schubert piano sonatas defy explanation. Music is, however, highly sensuous and it resonates deeply with our mirror neurons. Simple hymns are magnified throughout our bodies when sung in congregations.

Scripture, and not least the Gospels, are filled with images that must both be posited and negated. We know God is not a fretful woman who loses her money and people are not small round metal objects. But the Parable of the Lost Coin teaches us how solicitous God is for us and how precious we are in God’s sight. In John, Jesus says he is the bread from Heaven but resists being taken as only a distributor of bread.  In the Eucharist, we know Jesus is not bread and wine and yet we taste Jesus in the bread and wine and are fed by him so that Jesus penetrates into deep layers inside us that we will never know of except through a glass darkly.

Love as Ultimate Respect

???????????????????????????????????????????We saw that the substance of faith and hope consists of actions on the part of God. (See Faith as Faithfulness and Hope as Inheritance.) The substance of faith is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ fidelity to the Heavenly Father and all humanity in dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The substance of hope moves further back in time, to the beginning of time, in that hope is grounded in God’s adopting all people as adopted sons and daughters to inherit the vineyard God laid out at the dawn of creation. Love goes further back past the beginning of time to Eternity. It is God’s love that was poured out at the Creation of the world. In God’s eyes, the “vast expanse of interstellar space,” as Eucharist Canon C in the Book of Common Prayer has it, is small in God’s eyes, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut” as Julian of Norwich images it. But God loves that little thing and “in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.” Julian goes on to explain, based on her visions, that God loves “that little thing” so much that when that little thing in the form of a servant goes on a mission and falls into a ditch, God sends a second servant to get the fallen one back out of the ditch, an act that causes all of the dirt and grime of the pit to stain the clothes of the saving servant. So it is that Julian is convinced that it was love and pity that motivated the Father to send the servant to suffer for the fallen one and that there was no trace of wrath whatever in the process.

God’s love precedes and quickens God’s deeds. God’s love transcends time and will never end and will certainly never change, but the effects of God’s love in time can change. We see this with the actions of embracing the cross on Jesus’ part and in the process of inheritance. It is this abiding act of love that we are invited to participate in as the means of being clothed in God’s Desire.

Rebecca Adams, a feminist colleague of Girard, offers us a compelling articulation of what God’s love is all about. In an act of authorial generosity (more love in action) Vern Redekop created space in his fine book From Violence to Blessing for Adams to articulate her understanding of love at some length. It was Adams who, noting how Girard tends to stress the negative side of mimetic desire, prodded him in an interview to admit that there was such a thing as “positive mimesis” where mimetic desire works among humans for constructive and humane purposes.

Interestingly, Adams gained her inspiration from a Star Trek episode where the pivotal character is a metamorph from another planet. A metamorph is all mimetic desire to the extent that such a person is incapable of any subjectivity so as to be nothing but a perfect mirror of the other’s desires. Such a culture is mimetic desire gone mad. We can see that however mimetic desire works, it is not intended by God to be the destruction of the core of another’s personhood. This metamorph, a woman, is a pawn in an interplanetary marriage arrangement where she will be married to a callous corrupt official. Captain Picard of the Star Trek crew wants to save her from this fate but she can’t even imagine wanting any other alternative, let alone fight for it. Picard solves the problem by desiring that the metamorph have a subjectivity of her own. Because of her susceptibility, she is so engulfed in Picard’s desire that she does begin to desire a subjectivity for herself and thus achieves the beginning of independence. This is sort of like being the “tiny little thing” becoming a hazel nut with the potential to grow into something large (like the mustard seed becoming a large tree). Picard proves to be a fine model of willing the subjectivity of another person, something he must have been doing habitually with the people in his life all along.

Adams sees this Star Trek episode as providing a third alternative to attempting to be autonomous or having a subjectivity completely derived from another. This relational willing of the subjectivity between persons gives each “the capacity to participate fully in a loving dynamic of giving and receiving in relation to others.” This willing of the subjectivity of another is something that will spread so that if two people “start desiring not only their own and each other’s subjectivity,” they will also “desire the subjectivity of others as well.” p. 267) As opposed to the closed system of mimetic rivalry, we have an “open system of intersubjectivity with its own creative, generative dynamic which potentially could expand to include everyone and everything.” God, of course, already and always wills the subjectivity of all. This helps to explain why I insist that respect is the essential prerequisite to love. (See Respect.) Adams’ vision is a model of love is ultimate respect for the other, a respect that gives the other a self as a gift as we all receive a self from God as gift. When respect reaches this level, we can say that it has become love grounded in God’s Desire. It is also what Paul admonishes us to in Romans 12: 12: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

There is one thought that gives me pause. What if the subjectivity of another person is evil. Adams can’t possibly mean to embrace such an evil subjectivity. For one thing, the mutuality is lost because an abuser tries to destroy the subjectivity of another rather than will it to flourish. Besides, Adams says that she has suffered such abuse so clearly she does not affirm this kind of subjectivity. On the contrary, this experience has taught her the importance of respecting the other’s subjectivity as a mutual process. However, the question that poses itself is: does an abusive person have a subjectivity, or much of one? If all of us can truly be a self when that self is received as gift, then anyone who tries to take away the self of another inevitably takes away one’s own self at the same time. This mutual losing of selves is what happens in the dissolution of advanced mimetic rivalry.

The great author of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien can help us here. In The Lord of the Rings he powerfully portrays the emptiness of evil in the ringwraiths and Sauron whom they serve. The ringwraiths have enough substance to be covered with black cloaks, ride black horses, and try to seek out the ring bearer who happens to be the hobbit Frodo. But there is otherwise no substance to the ringwraiths just as there is no substance to Sauron who wishes to repossess the ring of ultimate power and bind everyone and everything to his own empty desire. We see the same destruction of hobbithood in Gollum who is just as consumed with desire for the ring as Sauron.

Can one possibly will the subjectivity of a ringwraith or Sauron or Gollum? Frodo does respect the subjectivity of Gollum to the extent that he feels enough pity that he will not kill the creature no matter how painful Gollum’s constant nagging presence is. It is this pity and not Frodo’s strength to destroy the ring, which in the end he does not have, that saves the day, for it is when Gollum grabs the ring from Frodo and falls into the volcano that the ring is destroyed. Gollum is pitiable, but can we try to will subjectivity for Sauron? I would answer “yes” with much trepidation for I can hardly imagine going up to a ringwraith to offer him a dose of subjectivity let alone Sauron. Even Captain Picard would be challenged to be this brave. But God does will that a person empty of a self receive a self as a gift so as to be a self. When God so offer the likes of Sauron a self, we can tiptoe into God’s offer to share in it in our own small ways. At this point, love as ultimate respect is forgiveness, another gift of God grounded in God’s love. Let us not speculate on whether or not Sauron ever consents to receive a self from God. Let us ask ourselves if we are willing to receive this ultimate respect ourselves from God and offer it to others.