Month: May 2021
“You are my friends – if you keep my commandments.” You can be my friend, as long as you do what I tell you. Is this what Our Lord is saying? If so, he sounds like the kind of friend you would tell your children to avoid.
And if, as Archbishop Michael Ramsay put it, there is nothing unChristlike in God – that is, if God is like this – then I can understand why people want to avoid God, too. In my favourite Irish comedy of the 1990s, Fr Ted, the eponymous protagonist is accused of fascism. “I’m a priest, not a fascist,” he retorts. “Fascists go around dressed in black telling people what to do.”
There’s a serious point here: are Christians the friends of a fascist God in the sky who tells us what to do? A lot of people do seem to think that the God of Christianity is basically an all-powerful dictator.
To define God primarily in terms of power is not new. Sceptics like Rousseau, Marx and more recently Foucault have conditioned the Western mind to see the world primarily in terms of the exercise of power. God, if he existed at all, would simply be the most powerful entity among many, dominating by sheer force of will. To be like God, on this view, is to exercise the greatest possible freedom of one’s own individual will.
Follow Rousseau’s thought to its conclusion, and any external impositions, anything like commandments, just get in the way, whether from God, the Church, our parents or our society. Following Rousseau, the Marquis de Sade and the murderous revolutionaries of France found God an unwelcome hypothesis; Napoleon, an unnecessary one. By the time of Sartre, God was not worthy of mention, and hell was other people.
Rousseau and his followers did not make this God up. The roots of this caricature can be found in Christian theology. Calvin, after all, was very much focussed on the sovereign will of God. Before him, the 14th century Franciscan Friar William of Ockham, famous for his razor, was so committed to the freedom of God’s will that he insisted God could have reversed any of his commandments: He could have said, “thou shalt murder,” “thou shalt commit adultery,” even “though shalt hate God and hate thy neighbour.” And if God said so, that would make it good. What is good is whatever God wills, and our intuitions and reason have nothing to do with it. Just think of Abraham and Isaac. For Ockham, being God’s friend really did mean doing what you’re told.
So yes, there is a tradition of what we call “divine command theory” in Christian theology – but it is only a fairly recent development, around 700 years ago, and one particular to Western European theology, at that. It is not without strengths, offering an uncompromising answer to the problem of evil: something may seem bad to us, but it is willed by God and for the greater good. Yet this raises more problems, not least the question of why God would imbue us with reason and the cosmos with the appearance of rationality if the truth were ultimately entirely inscrutable. It leaves us with that dictatorial God in whom, it seems, much of the world has lost trust, and with an ultimately incomprehensible and irrational world subject only to the strongest will. Much in the history of Western abuse of technology, the environment and empire is grounded in this conception of God – in my view, a misconception.
A god defined purely (or even mainly) in terms of power and command has little to do with the Triune God revealed in Our Lord. So: “you are my friends, if you keep my commandments.” What are we to make of those words? The mistake, in my view, is that our modern obsession with power dynamics leaves us so outraged by the condition of commandments, that we fail to look at what those commandments are. We focus so much on the fact that Our Lord wills something, that we ignore what it is he wills. The result is that, like Ockham, we separate the divine will from the divine nature: what God wills from what God is.
But if we look at what it is Our Lord commands, we will find in him a God very different from the whimsical dictator. The night before He died, at the Last Supper, Our Lord left two commandments: “love one another as I have loved you,” and “do this in remembrance of me.” Not just to keep commandments as a matter of principle, but to keep these specific commandments, is what makes a friend of God.
St John focuses, characteristically, on the first: “love one another,” and here is the emphasis: “as I have loved you.” Note the order of love here. God loves first. It’s not an arbitrary love, like the love proclaimed on the radio waves in pop songs. This love is a response to God’s prior love for us, made manifest in the self-gift of Christ on the Cross for our sakes.
It isn’t even freely chosen. As the icon in the chapel of my theological college professed, “you have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” This could lead to big-headedness in some seminarians: “look, God chose me!” Its meaning is quite the opposite. It is not about me. It is not about my worthiness. It is not about my choices. It is not about my calculations of personal benefit. It is not about independence, but absolute dependence: on God, and on one another.
Mutual dependence is not something God merely commands. It is what God, as Trinity, is. The power of the Father, the Wisdom of the Son and the Love of the Spirit cannot be dissected. For God to will anything against love and reason would contradict his nature, the nature in which everything which comes from him shares.
At this point, we should consider Our Lord’s second commandment: “do this in remembrance of me.” Our remembrance of Christ is not merely a short-term memory of his death upon the Cross, which the Lord instituted to prevent mass amnesia. Rather, this remembrance is a recollection of the deep memory which lies in our hearts and in the heart of all things: the memory of God who is, as Dante writes in the final canto of the Paradise, the love which moves the sun and other stars. Through the Eucharist we celebrate here today, our high priest, Christ, pours out the love of the Holy Spirit not only into humans but into the entire cosmos. The sun and rain give growth to wheat and grapes, harvested and formed by human hands, and offered up by Christ through Holy Church to return to their source in God. Remembrance in the Eucharist is not just a mental image, but an action effected through material things to lift all creation up to its immaterial source. That source is the mind of God, which we know incarnate in Jesus Christ.
These two commandments of Christ, to love another as he loves us and to celebrate the Eucharist, are not whimsical directives of a despotic divine will. It is not out of loneliness or bossiness that he craves our friendship, but out of his divine nature as love: for, as Meister Eckhart neatly concludes, the divine will is the divine nature.
When we look at the Cross, and see God giving himself for the sake of the universe, we are not looking at something God happens to choose to do: we are looking, as far as our dim senses allow, at what God is. When we take part in the Eucharist, we are not just doing what God tells us: we are being lifted up, through and with one another, into the rhythm of the sacred heart which beats at the centre of reality. Through the Eucharist, God gives us the grace of forgiveness and thanksgiving which reinforces our dependence on one another, on our world, and on Him.
“Thy will be done” and “give us this day our daily bread” are not two prayers, but one: a prayer that God will perfect this world with his love. Let us make that prayer with all our hearts today.