Revolutionary Love

March 22nd, 2017 / 4 Comments

We need a revolution.  Actually, we need revolutions (plural). The status quo must be overcome.

I don’t pretend to think we will all agree upon the precise strategies that might best overcome destructive ways of living. Nor do I think we will all agree about which dimensions of life, structures of society, or ways of loving need to be set aside.

I do believe we can make progress, however, by thinking carefully about love as the force for positive change. And for those of us who believe in God, it might be helpful to think carefully about God’s role in revolutions of love.

A Constructive Proposal for Revolutionary Love

In this essay, I offer a constructive theological proposal for revolutionary love. It offers a way to think about revolutionary love, and it suggests how God and creatures act as revolutionaries.

Constructive theology’s attempt to speak about God is, of course, inherently risky. Too often, those who speak of God sound hubristic. Constructive theologians can speak as if they know too much. They sometimes come across as certain, or at least overly assured.

With this in mind, I want to be clear that my theological proposal is tentative, speculative, partial, and fallible. I offer my proposals with humility, knowing I likely am missing important ideas and not seeing all of the possibilities. My conceptual capabilities are inherently limited, and my experiences are even more so.

I will also not pretend to be completely objective. I will speak from my Christian perspective, and my particular embodied experience, with a particular history, in particular locations, in relationships with particular communities. All of this shapes my perspective.

I suspect and hope, however, that those of other religious perspectives and with other life experiences will appreciate at least some of what I want to propose in my brief time. I am confident that other religious traditions have resources for supporting the general intuition at the heart of revolutionary love.

What is Love?

Let me begin by trying to be clear about what I mean by “love.”

I have spent much of my academic career exploring the meaning and forms of love.[1] Of course, the word “love” has many meaning and forms. But I find that few theologians, philosophers, or scholars of religion take the time to define what they mean by “love.” Even fewer connect a root or fundamental definition of love with various forms, expressions, or types of love.

Trying to be clear about what we mean by love seems necessary if we want to talk about “revolutionary love” as a particular type. I doubt, of course, that language can ever capture the meaning of “love” fully or even the full meaning of “revolution.” But I’m convinced that language can influence our actions, so I see value in trying to be clear. And if we think revolutionary love is a good thing that should sometimes be expressed, we should have some idea of what it is.

I’ve come to define love in this way: “To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God, others, and creation more generally, to promote overall well-being.”[2] I could do a whole lecture on each part of this definition. But I want to highlight the final segment of my definition – “to promote overall well-being” – because of what it entails for understanding revolutionary love.

Revolutionary Love

Revolutionary love seeks overall well-being.

By “well-being,” I mean shalom, the common good, eudemonia, being a blessing, the good life, or even a broad notion of salvation. “Well-being” speaks to the goodness, positivity, and even healing of all aspects of existence.

My emphasis upon “overall” in well-being reminds us that we should intend for our local actions to promote the good of the whole. Of course, we will have special relations to family, friends, and local communities. And we should love ourselves, in the proper sense. But we should avoid acting for the good of a few at the obvious expense of the whole. As the saying goes, we should “act locally but think globally.”

This eye toward the common good is where we rightly locate the justice aspect of love. Cornel West is fond of saying that “justice is what love looks like in public.” His words fit my emphasis upon love having overall well-being — the big picture, the whole, the common good — in mind, even though it typically acts in relation to the few and the local.

The justice element of love as promoting overall well-being allows me to make sense of “revolutionary love” as a type, form, or expression of love. As I see it, revolutionary love works to overcome, overthrow, and oppose structures, systems, or authorities that undermine overall well-being. Revolutionary love seeks justice in the face of evil, because it wants what’s good for the wider community.

We need revolutionary love when the status quo and the established systems disenfranchise, oppress, and degrade our lives and our planet. We need revolutionary love when elections put into power those whose policies and rhetoric undermine well-being.

Revolutionary love opposes the status quo whenever the status quo does harm and evil, whether at the local, national, or international levels. In his opposition to colonialism, Indonesian scholar of religion, Ekaputra Tupamahu puts it this way: “Love that promotes the well-being of all must be the motivating force that drives every socio-political interaction.”[3] 

God’s Uncontrolling Love

My statements thus far about love, in general, and revolutionary love, in particular, could be affirmed by just about anyone. As far as I can tell, most religious perspectives could support my proposal.

But I turn now to my distinctively theological proposals. I want to make two proposals: one more traditional, the other more radical.

       God is the source, inspiration, and empowerer of revolutionary love.

The Apostle Paul’s use of kenosis can be understood to describe God’s action to encourage revolutionary love. As I see it, divine kenosis is God’s self-giving, others-empowering love.[4]

God acts first in each moment to empower and inspire us to promote overall well-being. When this action is done in the face of oppression, whether structural, institutional, or governmental, we engage in revolutionary love.

This action by the Source of Love provides the ground for hope that our creaturely love responses can bring about positive transformation. This is the God who is with us, alongside us, before us, and behind us. Rather than positioned at a distance, removed, aloof, or uninvolved, this God is the moment-by-moment empowerer and inspirer of revolutionary love. As the Apostle John put it, “We love… because God first loves us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

       God necessarily expresses uncontrolling love, which means God does not control what happens in the world.

I don’t claim that self-giving, others-empowering love for revolution is something God may or may not provide to us.  I believe that self-giving, others-empowering love is essential God. In terms of kenosis, I propose that kenosis is necessary to God, not some voluntary choice on God’s part. God’s kenosis is essential rather than accidental, to put it philosophically. In fact, I call this view “essential kenosis.”[5]

To put this more technically: self-giving, others-empowering love is logically prior to choice in God’s nature. God does not and did not voluntarily choose to set aside controlling power, as I God could have created a universe of robots, fully controlled by God. Rather, by nature, God expresses uncontrolling love.

This means God necessarily expresses uncontrolling love. God must self-give and others-empower. And God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide to creation freedom, agency, and existence. I’m not saying that force outside of God constrains God. Nor am I affirming voluntary divine self-limitation. My claim is that God’s own loving nature is uncontrolling love.

To say God must love and God cannot withdraw, override, or fail to provide freedom, agency, and existence will strike some as radical. Some may ask, “Who are you to say what God can or cannot do!”

This is a legitimate question. But let me remind us that I’m making a speculative proposal. I definitely admit to being fallible! I don’t know what God is like. I see as if looking through a darkened glass, to use language in my Christian tradition.

But I propose this way of thinking – that God must love and divine love is necessarily uncontrolling — in light of the world in which we live. It’s a world with both good and evil, justice and injustice, beauty and unnecessary suffering. And I propose this way of thinking in light of the world we want to be. A world in which love reigns supreme.

A year ago, my latest book The Uncontrolling Love of God was released. In it, I explain in greater detail the view I’m proposing today. Since the book’s release, I’ve received numerous notes from those who find attractive my view that God cannot control. Some of those notes come from scholars and students. But others come from victims of abuse. Many of those sexually abused say my book allowed them to believe God loves them but neither caused nor allowed the evil they suffered.

Janyne McConnaughey puts it this way: “Outside of an understanding of an uncontrolling God, there is no potential for truly transcending the human experience of trauma, for living life abundantly, and for worshipping freely. The God who controls could not be my anchor. But the God who loves me, comforts me, brings me support by prompting the actions of others, and guides my choices most certainly can!”[6]

Overcoming the Status Quo

If God is controlling or could be controlling, one should conclude that abuse and oppression by individuals, systems, institutions, or dictators are what God either caused or allowed. This means individual cases of mistreatment or the unjust aspects of status quo are either caused or allowed by God. If God is controlling or could control others, God is culpable for causing or allowing evil.

Furthermore, if God is capable of control, any attempt to overturn oppressive systems, governments, or institutions might rightly be thought to oppose God’s wishes. After all, it’s hard to feel motivated to express revolutionary love if we believe God set up, endorses, or allows the unrighteous status quo.

However, if we believe that God is necessarily uncontrolling, which means God cannot control others and cannot act as a sufficient cause or unilateral determiner, we need not think the status quo is God’s design. If God cannot control, we need not think repressive systems and tyrannical leaders are divinely endorsed.

Theology that Supports a Love Revolution

Most of us know we ought to love. We know and want to be part of a love revolution. Despite the theologies of omnipotence we have inherited, we intuit the call to persuasive love.

We need a theology that supports the love revolution we desperately need. I propose that we who feel called to express revolutionary love should set aside the view that God is in control or even could control others. We should instead believe God is the source, inspiration, and empowerer of the loving actions that oppose injustice and promote overall well-being. This is a God who calls for revolution for the sake of what is truly good.

Combining the view that God self-gives and others-empowers, along with the view that God is not in control and cannot control others entirely, we can be motivated to express revolutionary love and thereby promote overall well-being.

Thomas Jay Oord

 

Notes…

[1] Among my published works on the study of love, see The Altruism Reader: Selections from Writings on Love, Religion and Science (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008); Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2010); The Many Facets of Love: Philosophical Explorations, Editor and Contributor (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 20070; The Nature of Love: A Theology (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice Press, 2010); Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love, with Michael Lodahl (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2005); Science of Love: The Wisdom of Well-Being (Philadelphia: Templeton Press, 2004); The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity, 2015).

[2] In many of my publications, I expand and deepen my reflection on this definition of love. See especially, Defining Love.

[3] Ekaputra Tupamahu, “A Decolonial Love of God,” Oct. 25, 2016. https://uncontrollinglove.com/2016/10/25/a-decolonial-love-of-god/ (Accessed 12/23/16)

[4] I expand and explain this claim in greater detail in The Nature of Love, ch. 5 and Defining Love, ch. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Janyne McConnaughey, “When God is Not in Control,” Nov. 10, 2016. https://uncontrollinglove.com/2016/11/10/when-god-is-not-in-control/comment-page-1/ (Accessed 12/23/2016)

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Comments

Libby Judge

Hi Thomas! This essay speaks to my soul! Thankyou so much for writing it. I am a teacher from New Zealand – passionate about the teachings of Montessori and working with at-risk youth. I am just starting to explore a research project on ‘love as pedagogy’, and I would love to know what books you would recommend reading? – Libby, a fellow lovist.


thomasjayoord

I’m so glad to hear this, Libby! Thanks for the note!


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