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How can God Be Love?

We tend to distinguish who we are from what we do. So, I am Jeff, and I am always Jeff. I might be skiing or not skiing. I might be fishing or not fishing. What I do can change, but what I am remains the same. In modern times our names don’t tend to tell us very much about who the person is that bears it, but this wasn’t always the case. Take the famous Viking, Ivar the Boneless. Ivar suffered from some kind of deboning ailment in his legs, identified at his birth and contributing to his name. Ivar the Boneless was always the Boneless, whether he was fishing or skiing. (And yes, I imagine that if he skied, he probably did so on a sled, being boneless!) He could stop fishing or start skiing, but either way he always remained boneless. Thus, Ivar’s name tells us something significant about who he was, not just what he did. His name offers us an essential quality of Ivar, one that never changed, one that always identified who he was.

We find the same thing in the Hebrew Bible very often, where names offer great insight into the natures of peoples and things. Esau’s name means “red-haired,” and he was so named because at his birth his parents noted that he was covered in red hair. So, like anyone else, Esau could ski or fish, or he could choose not to ski or fish, but unlike other people, Esau was always Esau, was always the red-haired one. Thus, we distinguish essential qualities of people and things from non-essential qualities. Their essential qualities (boneless for Ivar, red-haired for Esau) permanently characterize who they are, while their non-essential qualities temporarily characterize what they are doing.

Just as the Hebrew Bible offers us tantalizingly meaningful names for people and places, so it offers us a rich glimpse into the name of God, especially the name God self-revealed to Moses, the great, “I am.” This name tells us both that God is a person (the “I”) but also existence (the “am”). God’s existence is internal to himself, not coming from an outside source. God is the creator, not the created. Everything else depends upon his creation, while his existence depends solely on himself. The Christian texts likewise reveal rich meaning into God’s identity when St. John famously tells us, “God is love.” Notice, it’s not simply that God loves, a non-essential activity that he might do one day and then stop the next (like Ivar skiing or not skiing). No, it’s rather that God is love, meaning that God always loves, is always loving, cannot but be loving, for that is who God is, love.

Let’s explore the significance of this conception that God is love. First, let’s consider God in relation to himself, and second let’s reflect on God in relation to everything else. So, wind your mind back to the moment of creation and for the sake of our own understandings set within linear temporality, let’s take a further step back. At that moment before creation, God was. That is all that was, just God. Now, if God loved non-essentially, then we would say that this moment was one of those times that God didn’t love. Why? Because he hadn’t yet created and so there was no one for him to love. However, if God is love, and his love is thus essential, then God must always be engaged in the activity of loving.

Now, that creates quite the conundrum, doesn’t it? I mean, who or what was God supposed to be loving before He created? If he is love, then he had to have an object to love! If there is no object, then it follows that God is not loving, in which case, God cannot be love essentially. We appear to be forced into a jam, a dilemma, that either we accept that God is not love or we accept that God has always had someone or something to love. But either way, we seem confounded, for if God were uniquely existing prior to creation, then he could not have had anyone else to love. On the other hand, if we admit that God is not love after all, then our ancient Christian sources as well as our Catholic theology is seriously and disappointingly off about who God really is. So, what are we to do about this conundrum?

If you think about that a bit, you’ll realize that the only way that God can essentially be love prior to creation is if there is another person for him to love, but since we have already stipulated that no uncreated persons or things exist prior to creation, it follows that that other person must also be God. Now, you’ll object that there cannot be two supreme beings. Very true, so it follows that that other person must be God in the same way that God is already God. At this point the Trinity will pop into your mind if it hasn’t already. God must be at least two persons in one divine substance, or else he cannot possibly be love essentially. Because God is love essentially, he must be an eternal community of reciprocally loving persons in one divine substance. Notice that when Islam asserts that the Trinity is fundamental heresy about the divine nature, Islam is denying that God is love. You cannot have it both ways. The only way for God to be love essentially is for the divine substance to constitute a multiplicity of persons.

So, what does all this mean for us? Well, we know from the greatest commandment that loving God is our highest possible good and the only way we will ever be completely fulfilled, so learning to love God is the central point of our lives. We also know from the second greatest commandment that our tutorial in learning to love God with all of ourselves is learning to love our neighbors as ourselves. Just as God is love essentially and thus always loves all that he creates, it follows that we human persons, created in his image, must also find our fulfillment in communities of continuous love. We enter directly into the divine community of uncreated personal love through Christ and the Sacraments that he provided to us, and we enter into the community of created personal love through our relationships to the human beings with whom we interact every day. To know God, we must love. God accordingly provided us with three institutional teachers, three Estates within the created human order designed to spur us into that loving pattern of multiplicities of lovers within one substance. God patterned these three estates after the Trinity to teach us to love him by learning to love one another. Let’s explore these three estates next.

The first of these three estates is Marriage, initially a community of two loving persons in one substantial unity that we call a Family. Remember, human nature is constitutive, meaning that it takes two to complete it —a male and a female together in the habit of lifelong, self-giving sexual fidelity. You alone as a male or as a female are not entirely human. Humanity is personal community, just as God is personal community. We were made to be lovers by divine design, a design that established other-gendered personal love and knowledge as the basis for fulfillment and fruitfulness. Just as God eternally begets the Son, so we married males and females beget our children. The fruitfulness of personal love establishes the substance of the first Estate, Family. You can see why the Church is so focused on the nurture and care for families, because families are our first tutorial on what it means to love one another. In fact, if you think about the whole of your lives, nearly every significant love relationship role is familial. You were born as a child to parents, born into a family as a sibling, born into a wider family as a grandchild and niece or nephew, grew up to marry your spouse, bore children with your spouse into the world, and then eventually became grandparent and uncle/aunt to their children and relations. Notice that all of these relationships (save marriage) are born. They aren’t chosen. They are given. They are blood. And marriage is supposed to become the permanent consummation of bloods, of the unity of twin DNA into one, instigating a new family. The result is both simple and catastrophic: we are “forced” into having to love these fellow persons just because of our blood relationships to them. Had we better moral sense, we would realize the gift that this truly is, but unfortunately, from Cain and Abel at the beginning to the present day, the history of human familial relationships is fraught with discord and devastation. However, this terrible legacy was not the divine design. We could all choose to love one another, just as the Holy Family gave themselves for one another in love. It could be done. It should be done. We’d all be much happier if husbands and wives loved one another, if parents loved their children, if siblings loved one another, and if children loved their parents. But we’d have to choose it, again and again, every single day. In that way, it would become a habit, a habit of love that would come to characterize who we are, naming us truly as lovers. So, that’s the first Estate God patterned after the Trinity, the Family, two other-gendered persons in one reciprocally self-giving, loving marriage producing the fruit of future loving personhood.

The second of these three Estates is the State, a community of many persons bounded together by common civic interests and unified in one substance that we call Citizenship. For many people in the world, the State is nothing more than officially sanctioned tyranny, since States employ coercive power both in the application of criminal codes and in war-making. When those two activities are done without the sanction of Justice, tyrannies result, leading to the bloodshed that has bathed our world. As a result, many people find thinking of the State as a divine institution designed to promote our love for one another rather hard to swallow. Yet when disasters strike us here in the United States, it is remarkable how our other countrymen so quickly jump to our aid. If a hurricane swamps New Jersey, for example, economic relief, emergency equipment and personnel, and personal care packages of all kinds surge into the hard-hit areas. Civic centers start blood drives, religious centers gather essential survival supplies, people open their homes and schools to the displaced, and community organizations rush to enlist the needed sorts of people to send to aid in the rescue, cleanup, and rebuilding. Emergency workers, too, come in from all over the country, firemen, vacationing doctors and nurses, police, ambulance, and utility workers from both neighboring and far-flung regions—so many, from so far. We remember that we are all Americans. But such heroic efforts would not be possible for mere families, so God created the State to widen the spectrum of brotherhood to include multiple bloods into a trans-tribal community. Americans can be proud, very proud, of the way they rush to the aid of their fellow-citizens, but not just their own, but the world over. For America leads the way with many other countries with similar charitable cultural histories to offer massive relief to stricken peoples everywhere. And so, the State is the second Estate, a community of reciprocally loving persons in one substance that we call Citizenship.

The third of these three Estates that God patterned after the Trinity to tutor us in interpersonal love is the Church, yet another community of even more persons though this time not connected by family, ethnicity, language, culture, geography, or nationality yet still united together in one trans-national and, yes, even trans-temporal unity that we call the Body of Christ. For whether we live or die, we remain members of that one Body, functioning in love and in prayer for one another, caring for and nurturing one another in the faith and in human love. The world had never seen anything like the Church before Pentecost. And it’s owing to its divine origin that it survived the centuries of challenges that lay ahead. But, for all its faults (and it has had many), at its core the Church tells us that God loves us and that we can, accordingly, love one another, that brotherhood reaches beyond both blood and flag. Through all three of these Estates—Family, State, and Church—God yearns for us to understand the value of love and habituate that value as virtue, to transform us to become love ourselves so that we might finally become the sorts of persons fit to know and love him, the one who is uncreated eternal Love.

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