Ted Grimsrud—March 28, 2023
[After a break from writing, I am returning to my blog post series on Questioning Faith. Over the next month or so, I hope to post a number of reflections on some of the questions I have had about Christian faith—picking up on the series from last winter. My general sensibility is that we need to feel free to be honest with all the questions we have, but with the expectation that such questioning will actually strengthen and deepen our faith, leading to a stronger and deeper “questioning faith.”]
In a recent conversation about some of the ideas I have written about in this blog series (see especially posts #2 and #6 in the series, “Why is the typical Christian understanding of ‘God’ such a Problem?” and “Is there a place for prayer in a world with a weak God?”), a friend asked me, “So, is love weak?” I realized that I have a hard time giving a straight answer to that question. It’s a good question, though, and one that directly follows from some claims I have made.
God is love
We may start with a relatively uncontroversial, seemingly simple assertion: “God is love.” This is biblical, widely stated, and a key conviction of Christian faith. Perhaps, more literally, most people mean “God is loving.” I assume that statement is acceptable for all Christians. We agree, I assume, that God does loving things or loves us and the rest of the world.
To say, “God is love,” though, may be a stronger and more complicated assertion than “God is loving.” This seems to be describing a fundamental aspect of God’s character—I would suggest, the fundamental aspect. Is that what we believe? Not all of us, surely. I think saying “God is love” is a different kind of understanding of God than to say, “God is mystery” or “God is perfect” or “God is all-powerful” or “God is Other” or, even, “God is just.”
To say “God is love” means, for me, that God desires the wellbeing of all people—and the rest of creation as well. There are certainly mysterious elements to how God’s love might be expressed and how it relates to so many elements of life that are broken and hurtful. But a God who is love is not mysterious in terms of what matters most in life and in terms of what God’s will might be for human beings. Such a God’s intentions are consistently in favor of the flourishing of life, not mysteriously life-enhancing at one point and life-denying at another point. Intentions that are not in favor of the flourishing of life often have been attributed to God. I would say, though, that if God is love (as I believe), those negative intentions are not actually God’s. A God who actually does intend violence or the infliction of brokenness at times may be loving (at other times), but I would say such a God is not love (all the time).
If God is love, that means for me that God is fundamentally relational whereas a God who is perfect would seem to be, by definition, separate from the give and take, the vulnerability, and the imperfections of creatures who genuinely relate to one another. Perhaps we could say God is “perfect love,” but that seems to have different connotations than thinking of God as simply “perfect,” without weaknesses or flaws. This same logic would apply to the idea that God is Other. A relational God is present and involved in life, not separate from it or wholly above it.
I am not able to imagine an all-powerful God being a God of love. Partly, this is because the world we live is obviously a world where all creatures do not thrive, a world—even—that contains great evil. A God of love wants all creatures to thrive. The failure of universal thriving would indicate that God is either not a God of love or is not all-powerful. A God of love would keep babies from profound suffering and even death if God could help it. Ergo, a God of love in this world could not be all-powerful.
To say that “God is just” is not necessarily incompatible with saying “God is love” depending on what one means by “just.” Often, the sense of “just” used of God has to do with punishing wrongdoers and rewarding the faithful, justice as reciprocity. That kind of justice is quite different, even in tension with, love. However, if we think of “just” in line with restorative justice, “God is just” can be understood as God brings about healing in face of brokenness—out of love.
God is weak
If we take “God is love” as our fundamental belief about God, I suggest, we will be led to affirm that God is, in an important sense, weak. By that I mean that God is not all-powerful, not coercive, not controlling. A God who is love is limited by the dynamics of love and must allow freedom in God’s creation. Such a God will be a God who responds and does not simply act. Such a God’s will can be resisted. Such a God remains connected with and present in a world where evil is present—not as one who in any way wills evil, but as a healing dynamic amidst the evil.
So, to say that God is weak in this sense is not to say that God is powerless. The power of God is the power of love, a power that heals, that connects, that brings life into being and empowers life to continue, a power of creativity. But in all these senses, it is a power that is non-controlling and non-dominating, a power that is not assured of achieving the outcome it seeks.
When I affirm that God is weak, I affirm that the dynamics of history—such as the reality of evil, the brokenness and suffering and injustice and oppression—are not part of “God’s plan.” The wrong that oft seems so strong is not part of God’s mysterious ways of exercising sovereignty and making sure that everything turns out right in the end. To the contrary, all the bad stuff is simply part of the reality we live within, and God can do nothing that directly stops it. Nothing, that is, except offer the presence of love and the on-going striving for life that characterizes all living things.
Love is God
To say “love is God” seems to me to go one more step in this process of naming how we understand reality. This is what I think this affirmation adds: “God” symbolizes precisely the life force, the relationality, the interconnection that holds (weakly!) all things together. There’s really not much more to God than that. If we want to find God in the world, we look for relationships characterized by love.
Now, it certainly may be argued that there is more to God than love. However, I suspect that such an argument would require a somewhat different, less comprehensive definition of “love.” I would say that love does encompass concepts that are often attributed to God such as “justice” and even “wrath.” However, to see justice and wrath as part of love does require a careful definition of both. Drawing on biblical imagery, I would say that justice has to do with healing brokenness and providing a concrete context for the outworking of love in human life. We could say that justice is what love does in face of brokenness in order to bring about the restoration of relationships.
Also drawing on the Bible, I would say that “wrath” is not to be equated with outrage or vengeance. Rather, “wrath” is a way of understanding the dynamics of life where negative consequences follow from negative actions. Love is not a kind of dominating power, so when wrongdoing happens, love’s response is to be patient and allow the natural consequences to follow. “Wrath,” thus, is not so much an active intervention as a more passive allowing of events to work themselves out. “Wrath” is pretty imprecise and should not be used of specific outcomes but in a more general sense of the process of negative cause and effect.
What is implied in what I have just written is that other concepts such as “outraged,” “vengeful,” and “punitive” are not part of God—as they by definition are not part of love. To say that “love is God” is to recognize that many of the dynamics of human existence operate outside of the control of God. We cannot say that what is reflects what God wants or what God is like. Rather, we look within the dynamics to find those that enhance life, foster healing, and restore relationships. Those are where we may discern the presence of God.
Is love weak?
Now we get to my friend’s question: If God is weak and God is love and love is God, is it then the case that love is weak? Obviously, if we simply follow the logic, we will have to conclude that love is weak. Which is true, I would say. However, we also often talk about love as powerful. So, to ask the question, “is love weak” points to the ambiguities of our language. We should think, I suggest, of love as both powerful and weak. Thus, we can move the chain of logic backwards and say that God is likewise both powerful and weak.
Love is indeed strong, maybe the strongest force in the universe. But it can be resisted. “Overpowering love” is an oxymoron. Love is not controlling or dominating. It has a winsome, relational, decentralized, deferential kind of power. But it perseveres, it spreads widely, it interconnects, it is attractive. One image of God that I like is that of the “go-between God.” We could thus say that love is the go-between power that facilitates relationships, alliances, communities. If we think of one of the central elements of humanness being that we are “pack animals” who require fellowship with others, then we can start to understand how love is powerful. Love is what makes us human; our need for love is one of our most fundamental drives.
At the same time, though, due to its character, love is non-coercive, non-controlling, possible to reject, fragile—that is, “weak.” Strong and weak. This character of love, I believe, is fully applicable to God. When we think about God’s power and God’s weakness, we should consider the character of love. God is love. Love is God.
Where then is our hope?
One of the questions that seems to me quickly to emerge when we think of God and power and love and weakness in the way I am discussing here is what about “hope”? What about our future? What about our confidence in the good outcome of the human project?
It strikes me that a central element of the Christian understanding of life over the years has been some kind of strong confidence that God is in control, that God will work all things out for the good, that we can be sure that we are headed for the happy ending (let’s call this belief in a happy ending “confident eschatology”). Is such confidence compatible with what I have been saying about God’s (and love’s) weakness? Can we be hopeful in life if we don’t have confidence in God’s “plan” that will result in happy endings to the human project?
I do not believe that understanding love as God requires us to reject the traditional Christian confident eschatology. But it does not support belief that God has a specific plan that is inexorably unfolding. A less confident eschatology is more compatible with an honest reading of human history. It is more compatible with seeing more continuity between history and eschatology than the traditional Christian view typically has. I do not see how we can be certain about the future with any specificity in a world where the power of love is noncontrolling and fragile. This kind of power “wins” by being truthful, not by guaranteeing outcomes.
So, I will conclude, our hope lies in the truthfulness of love. Love is right. Love is real. We are created in love, and we are meant to live in love. When we love and when we make love our most important conviction, we are in harmony with life and its source. Thus, we understand our “end” more as our purpose (to love and be loved) than our outcome (which we must remain uncertain about).
I will call this less confident eschatology “love eschatology.” It is a call to focus on practicing love in the present and basing our hope on the truthfulness of love. And it is a recognition that this love leaves us with a great deal of uncertainty. This love will give us a sense of security about our identity and our purpose and our meaning—but not a sense of security about our safety or about the outcome of our existence.
Is that enough? Let me suggest that it had better be enough because it may be all that we have. Perhaps one of the major tasks of theology now is helping us think through how “love eschatology” can be understood and be a source of encouragement and empowerment in the fragile and failing world we live in.
6 thoughts on “Is love weak? [Questioning faith #16]”
Nice post, Ted. I agree with your conclusions, more or less, except to say that I think that, in the end, “love wins” (even if I can’t confidently articulate precisely how).
A decade ago, Richard Beck wrote an excellent series of blog posts titled “On Warfare and Weakness” in which he extensively explored, inter alia, the question of God’s “weak power”. If you haven’t already read it, I’d thoroughly recommend doing so. You’ll find the first post at http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2013/06/on-warfare-and-weakness-part-1-real.html, and each post includes a link to the following part.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Rob. I find great encouragement in your words of encouragement. I have a post I have already written but that I am saving to be the last in the series where I say more about not knowing about how things end up. I do believe that “love wins,” but I am more confident about applying that idea to the present than the future.
Thanks for the Richard Beck link. I like his stuff a lot, but I haven’t read the posts you cite yet.
You’re welcome, Ted. I’ve been following Beck for a decade or more. I don’t always agree with him (though I often do), but he’s a deep thinker and an excellent communicator, and he always makes me think.
Thanks again Ted, for sharing your theological explorations! A coupe of brief responses come to me. I wonder if the deeper “problem” isn’t with love but with what we mean by ‘weak” and “strong” or “power” and “powerless?” I have pondered a way of characterizing God as the powerlessness of power and Jesus as the power of powerlessness and in their union or integration is a transformed wholeness that reverses most human presumptions about “strength” and “weakness.” I know someone who was at the sit ins in Greensboro, NC, in the early 60s. He was threatened by a tough white male with a knife who told him, “Don’t you know I can kill you.” He responded, “You do what you need to do and I will love you the best I can.” The man’s demeanor changed and he walked away. So who and what is real strength and power? Didn’t Jesus let us know over and over again that we get just about everything wrong and backward?:-)
Ted, this is not directly related to your blog post, but in connection with your ponding questions about God, I thought you would be interested in the following statement (which I posted yesterday on Facebook) by Fr. Gregory Boyle:
My March 9 blog post https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2023/03/the-amazing-gregory-boyle-sj.html was “The Amazing Gregory Boyle, S.J.” I am still slowly reading “The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness,” the third of his books. In it, he tells of talking with a young woman at the request of her father because she had “lost her faith.” But she told him, “Actually, no. I didn’t lose my faith. I knew exactly where it was. I just didn’t want it anymore.” Then Fr. Boyle wrote, “But aren’t we SUPPOSED to lose our faith? It’s not different from our voices changing in puberty or hair turning gray. Like snakes shedding skin, aren’t we always meant to break through to something more expansive? The mystics surely teach us this. Otherwise, we just dig in our heels, get defensive, and get stuck pledging allegiance to our elementary school God” (p. 132).
Good to hear your thoughts again, they keep the flicker of aith alive