"Do you love me?" by M.B. Hwang
"Do you love me?", by M.B. Hwang
Tibi dixit cor meum, quaesivi vultum tuum, vultum tuum Domine requiram: ne avertas faciem tuam a me. Ps. Dominus illuminatio mea, et salus mea: quem timebo? - Introit for the second Sunday in Lent, Psalm 27
I was once counseled by a compassionate middle school teacher to ask God, "do you love me?" I have been asking ever since, and the question surfaced suddenly and repetitively in my mind as I sat in a theology class last week, listening to a lecture on Luther. Do you love me? I cannot say that I have ever gotten a direct answer.
People have come to me as go-betweens and told me that God wants me to know that He loves me. But God will not say the words to my face. The answer I get is not the unambiguous, total, warm conviction that I crave so much. The answer is never on my terms. The answer I get is the Cross. "For God so loved the world," He says, "that He gave his only-begotten Son..."
How loving indeed. But the Cross is also so awfully problematic when one stops to fill in the blanks about what happened to that only-begotten Son, and why.
Recently I had to read a book in one of my classes, Douglas John Hall's The Cross in Our Context. It is a sort of modern reinterpretation and application of Luther's "theology of the cross." I happen to disagree, often vehmently, with most of this book, and I do not like the author's treatment of history. For example, I took issue with his rather negative assessment of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo. But what really fascinates me about this is that without going into the details of Anselm's soteriology, Hall's reaction to it seems emblematic of the trenchant unsettling potential of the Cross. What usually irritates me seems in Hall's book seems at times to make a kind of ironic sense. Is it not telling that even a historically compelling understanding of the Cross, like Anselm's, seems to inevitably cause some of us to wonder whether God sometimes seems unloving in it?
Another of Hall's centerpieces has to do with Luther's concept of the "theology of the cross." Once again, I quibble with Hall's treatment of it. But this also was a powerful reminder. In that other theology class, the professor had lectured on this "theology of the cross." It spoke of those mysterious aspects of God in which He often chooses to express Himself in the most seemingly incompatible, paradoxical, even grossly disturbing ways, so that on the surface, we perceive the very opposite of what God actually is. Surely, the Cross must be the supreme example, although it is so very easy for me to forget that it is. No matter how one looks at it, there is an element of something seemingly hateful here, a sense that could be intentionally inevitable. If God gives His Son, then where is the Father's love for the Son? If the Son offers Himself, then why a sacrifice necessary in the first place? What is this place of unified contradiction, and where am I in all of this? Even if we focus on Christ's overcoming death and sin, or even, as some do, on the example of Christ's life and death - there remains the question of why gloriously perfect love is revealed in a scandal of torturous agony and cruel death.
Add to this those words of Jesus, "take up your cross and follow Me," or statements like one in Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ," and I feel a kind of terror inside. This is not quite like saying "I love you" by sending flowers or giving a hug. It's more frightening than saying "I love you" by being selfless. This is like saying "I love you" by making me watch an awful train wreck - and then I realize that it was because of me, and that it was for me, and I find myself almost imperceptibly drawn towards it. And if Jesus should ask me, as He asked Peter, "do you love me," I, too, could only answer with a cross. And I want to be horrified and be far, far away. If the Cross is the only answer to "do you love me," it does not always seem to say that "Yes" that the desperate heart is thirsting for.
I believe, as many have, that this apparent reluctance and ambiguity ultimately serves to convey and communicate a "yes, you know that I love you" more substantial than could possibly be conveyed to fallen human beings. But this is possible for me only when I look upon revelation with the eyes of faith. I know many people who know the love of God almost naturally, people who amaze me by the comfort they find in the Cross, people who are possibly innocent of the dread and foreboding that I struggle with. Sometimes I think there must be something horribly wrong me me, that I tremble so much. Yet, if God has not abandoned me to blindness, then I must at least wonder whether it is not God who chooses to reveal this Cross to me in this manner, and if this is true, there must be a vocation in this, somehow.
The Gospel of John suggests that God has always loved His disciples differently. Perhaps some of us are like John, confidently knowing himself as the "beloved disciple," standing with Mary at the foot of the Cross; and some of us like Peter, maybe at least a little envious of the fate of John, but unable to ignore a somewhat stern "follow me" that leads to that same Cross. Our Lord commended Mary to the care of John, and after His Resurrection, enjoined Peter to feed his sheep. Different, but parallel, images? It gives me hope to reflect that it is as if, allegorically, both are being commissioned with the care of the same Church.
Friday, February 15, 2008