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Love and Prayer: The Transformation of Ethics

Monday, 3 March 2014  | Chelle Trebilcock

Conceived in its broadest and simplest terms, I have come to think of ethics as a vocation to love. I figure I’m on pretty safe ground because of Jesus’ summation of the Law—to love God with all our being and to love our neighbour as our very self—and his ‘new commandment’ to his disciples to love even as he loved. Furthermore, Saint Augustine outlined a whole program for reading the Bible based on this observation, concluding that “anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1).

If ethics is the vocation to love, what does it mean ‘to love’? What does it mean to love God and love our neighbours as ourselves? Most especially, what does it mean to love when the Law (as conceived by Scripture and the Church) stops being a vehicle for love? Love is the summation of the Law: that is, the Law is there to facilitate love of God and neighbour as self (Romans 13); but when the Law ceases to function as a conduit for love, all is not lost, for love can bend the rules.

Love as encountered in prayer

Scholars know that love is notoriously difficult to define, and poets know that love cannot be contained in words, yet all humans know love when we encounter it, and conversely, when we don’t. So, why shouldn’t Christian theologians follow their deepest intuitions and allow their concept of love to arise from the experience of love as it is encountered in relationship with God?

In prayer of the contemplative variety, where the emphasis is on an open encounter between God and our deepest self, we discover the pervasive presence of God’s love within us: we feel it, even in our bodies, beyond what our words can say. We can tell a story about it but it is something that seems to arrive as an existential discovery as God emerges within us in the darkness. We discover the falsehood of a popular twentieth century theological dichotomy: it is simply not true to the experience of prayer that God is agape and humans are eros. In the swish of unitive movement towards the divine, we know God to be Love and, as beings made in the image of God, we know we love. 

Biblical exegetes transformed by silence will read the First Letter of John as a mystical text, the interplay between God who is Love, God’s people who are known by their love, and any person who has loved even before they have encountered the risen Christ, holding together in a unity—love is of one cloth. Love demands the same integration of life that prayer demands and, in fact, we discover here the mystery of God-who-is-Love revealing Godself in the gift of kenotic (pouring out of self) love—God and Love become indistinguishable and, indeed, we cannot know anything about God unless that knowledge is also able to be described as love. This love, transformed through the crucible of prayer, transforms the task of ethics.

The vocation of love, passed through the crucible of prayer

In ‘How My Life has Changed: Prayer as Crucible’ (Christian Century, 2011), Sarah Coakley explains how the experience of silent, contemplative prayer altered her approach to systematic theology. She identified three transformations that took place in the crucible of prayer in her experience. These aptly sum up the transformed task of ethics as a vocation of love, which emerged in my experience of deep connection with God.

First and foremost, as we give up the fantasy of being in control of God and the universe, as autonomous entities in the world, love becomes a question rather than an answer. It is recast in terms of what is best or most loving, knowing that perfect love is an aspiration rather than an imperative. Love is messy and broken and that’s ok because love without freedom is no love at all. Love will be content with ‘making it up as we are going along’. Love, therefore, is recast as a spiritual practice. Perhaps this resonates with what Saint Francis meant when he said, “Preach the gospel always; when necessary use words.”

Second, love is a constant, kenotic event that always maintains a connection between its action and its source, including its location in the human body. In Love 2.0, emotions researcher Barbara Fredrickson argues that love is a set of physiological responses to the human experience of connection. The body’s response is experienced as feeling (emotion), instinctive movement (e.g. eye contact), and motivations for certain actions that aim to prolong the connectedness (e.g. faithfulness).  Love is a complex interplay of feeling, action, and concrete reality—a thing in and of itself.  Consequently, all our different uses of love in the English language are justified: love is a noun - a quality that is a thing in and of itself – that is also (always) a verb – caring action – that is experienced as an adjective – an affective reality.

Theologically, the interconnected nature of love as ‘thing’ and ‘action’ located in the human body becomes important with the dual Christian claims that ‘God is Love’ and that ‘we are made in the image of God’. The consequence, as James Olthius argues, is an understanding of the human person as Creatio ex amore: creation as a whole, is an expression (or perhaps, consequence) of God’s kenotic, self-giving love.

Third, when we love someone, we love them for who they are. Love makes us radically open to otherness: the beloved is loved beyond what they can do or be for us. 

In prayer, love cracks open a willingness to encounter the world without ourselves at the centre. We discover that it is possible for us to love multiple people at the same time, to love God and neighbor as self at the same time, and to love and be loved at the same time, and to do so without fear of either the complexity or absence of answers.

Philosophically, Gillian Rose has labeled this as the ‘broken middle’ of a Hegelian dialectic (between a thesis and its antithesis): love’s work is to dwell in that messy middle that remains open to vulnerability. Rose says, “love is the submission of power.” Sarah Coakley says that prayer is “power in vulnerability.” For me, the vocation of love is the deconstruction of power. Ethical frameworks that have been transformed by the crucible of prayer recognize the distorted and distorting affects of unredeemed power in socially embedded codes of conduct.

A vision for ethics, a vocation to love

My hope is that is that this brief sketch of love transformed by the crucible of prayer casts a vision for a framework for ethics that exists in the messiness of life, and, in particular, helps us to negotiate ethical conundrums in those moments where established codes of conduct offer no guidance. It is a framework for ethical Christian living that strives to be faithful to the tradition by focusing on the telos of morality and ignite an open, non-anxious, expansive phenomenon of love—the kind of love worthy of the name of God.

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