I Don't Like Half the Folks I Love
A Process Theology of Love
MY FAMILY REUNION IS GOING ON TODAY.
MY RELATIVES HAVE ALL FLOWN IN
FROM PLACES FAR AWAY.
AS WE SIT HERE EATIN’ CHICKEN
IT HITS ME LIKE A TRUCK.
I DON’T LIKE HALF THE FOLKS I LOVE.
ME AND MY FORMER BEST FRIEND
HAD A BIG FALLIN’ OUT.
I CAUGHT HIM WITH MY WIFE
SO I PUNCHED HIM IN THE MOUTH.
WE JUST CAN’T HANG OUT ANYMORE
BUT I STILL WISH THEM LUCK.
I DON’T LIKE HALF THE FOLKS I LOVE.
GOD KNOWS THEY’RE ALL DEAR TO ME
BUT IF THE TRUTH BE TOLD,
I LIKE IT WHEN THEY COME,
BUT I LOVE IT WHEN THEY GO.
I’M SURE THEY’VE GOT GOOD QUALITIES
BUT THE BAD ONES COVER THEM UP.
I DON’T LIKE HALF THE FOLKS I LOVE.
IN THIS WORLD WE LIVE IN
THIS I GUARANTEE;
WE ALL NEED MORE TOLERANCE
TO GET ALONG PEACEFULLY.
BUT I’M NOT AS NICE AS JESUS,
AND I REALLY AM FED UP.
I DON’T LIKE HALF THE FOLKS I LOVE.
Love Made Gritty
The divine love revealed to us in Jesus’ life bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Always.
But that’s not the kind of love we experience in our relationships with one another. Even with those we truly do love, we’re not always kind, we find ourselves at the end of our rope, resentment can develop over time, and sometimes relationships break. On our best of days, we hope and strive to become more like the lover that God is. But we have to learn to love.
So maybe 1 Corinthians 13 would be truer to human love if it read: love becomes patient, love becomes kind, love becomes less coercive, boastful, irritable and resentful. Love bears more and more things, believes more and more things, hopes and endures more and more things. We have to learn to love. To the extent that we live centered in God’s perfect love, we succeed. To the extent that we live centered in our own ego, we fall short. Either way, though, learning to love is a lifelong project. And it takes a lot of practice.
When I meet with couples who are entering into lifelong committed relationships, I often tell them this relationship will be one of the primary ways they will become the people God dreams for them to be; in other words, it is one of the main ways they will become holy. Somewhere in the midst of jockeying for closet space, experiencing together the disappointments of lost jobs or unfinished dreams, discussions over whether or not it’s OK to use bungee cords to hold the kitchen chairs together, and the changes that inevitably come with age, there will be chances upon chances to learn what it means to be patient, kind, humble and honest, to learn what it is to forgive and to be forgiven, to hope and to endure.
But it’s not just our romantic or family relationships that teach us how to love. Our friendships do, too. As we share our vulnerabilities and our pain we learn that love is trustworthy and steadfast. As we change over time we learn to love with an inherent flexibility. As we laugh together we learn the joy at the heart of love. And our communities help us learn to love with greater humility, seeing past our own needs and opinions to the needs and opinions of others.
We learn how to love from our non-human relationships as well. Our dog Lottie is eighteen years old. She has worsening eyesight and painful joints, and she occasionally becomes disoriented. And now as I watch different members of our family sometimes carry her to the door to go outside, I realize that we are learning the tenderness and compassion that comes with love.
We are also learning even more deeply that a creature is worthy of love not because of what she can do or achieve, but simply by virtue of her very existence. By planting seeds and caring for the soil, a gardener learns that some relationships require consistent care, patience, and above all faith. And our fondness for the places where we grow up teaches us that the things that we love form our identity and make us who we become.
This isn’t to say that we learn how to love equally from these different types of relationships. As a mother with two very young children, practicing medicine and being perpetually on call, I sometimes did a better job triaging patients and medical conditions than I did setting priorities in my personal life. A kind woman at church, a few years ahead of me in life experience, recognized exactly what was going on. And one day she gently said to me: “Teri, remember. Living things first: People, animals, and plants, in that order.” It became my personal triage mantra for several years.
But although we rightly set priorities among our types of relationships, any connection or bond we experience can call forth in us a greater capacity to love—it is an opportunity to participate in God’s great love, to learn how to love, and to grow into the people we were created to be. In fact, that is the only way it happens, and I believe this is incredibly good news. In an age when the myth of self-sufficiency runs roughshod over any acknowledged need for community, it is good news that the greatest spiritual gift according to Paul is one that can’t be attained in isolation but only in relationship.
It is good news that, no matter how much it may seem that we are at our holiest the first hour of the day (before we come into contact with anyone else), the truth is that the occasion for which we have to ask forgiveness is every bit as important on the road to embodying a more perfect love as a moment of tranquility is—every moment throughout the day is sacred in its potential to change us. And as with anything that takes practice, sure, we are bound at times to fail at loving well. But the good news is that life is a web of connections from which we couldn’t escape if we tried, and so a second chance is always right in front of us—in fact, we have the redemptive grace of a million second chances.
See, life is lived and love is learned in the messiness of real-life relationships—whether in a first century church in Corinth fraught with division, or a twenty-first century church somewhere in the world, or the many learning labs that comprise the lives of us all. And for the comfort that knowledge brings, thanks be to God.
-- Teri Daily, Love Made Gritty
The First Revelation
The divine Presence is a gift God offers to all seekers, to any questing person, to all creation. This manifestation of the Divine itself, known to theologians as Universal Revelation, and in Judaism asgilui ha-Shekhinah, is not contained in any distinct set of words, is available to all. Beyond words, non-verbal in its receipt, this aspect of revelation opens through relationship itself, Presence to presence. “There is no utterance, there are no words, their sound is not heard. Yet their shout rings throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:4-5).”
This mode of revelation is universal because it is not borne by particular cultural symbols, distinct human languages, memories or festivals. Instead, Biblical tradition itself affirms a more expansive, pervasive revelation of God through creation itself. All humanity can claim access to the Divine in this mode, all creation is linked in living fellowship to its One Creator and to the rest of creation itself. Like all stirring relationships, this one is sustained through empathy, imagination, play, memory, experience, and fantasy. Summoning the human arts of feeling, touching, reaching out, this mode of revelation speaks to the integrated whole of who we are as living beings, as mammals, as humans. We need not read this revelation, and it does not speak words. Instead, we open ourselves to the starry skies and awesome wonders of nature, we recognize the divine image in our fellow human beings and connect emotionally to that image in each other, and we nestle within our own interiority, there pulsating with the holiness we find. This is a revelation accessible through struggles and celebration, through tears and laughter, through art and meditation. This revelation, nested in a fundament deeper than speech, cradles our loving embrace: God, world, self.
-- Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Gift of Revelation
Appreciating Slippery Beauty
These lines speak to me of the importance of action and of the loveliness of diversity. Rumi encourages “do” the beauty we love. Participate in it. Bring it to fruition. Chip away at the ugly that blocks the beauty you love. Do it. There are hundreds of ways. Pick a one. Heck, pick a few.
I love the process of doing art—of mixing paint pallets, of cutting up old books, of sketching city layouts. I love overalls and ink-stained hands. I love the rhythm of creating. But my artistic process functions as a means to explore themes beyond balanced composition and color choice. I want to study the “stuff” of life—the heartbreak, the healing, the hope, the circumstances, the circles, the way all of these things overlap and intersect.This often brings me to the subject matter of cities. I like cities because when we look at a skyline from a distance, we see a cohesive and often lovely image (especially at night). We see buildings and lights against the sky and under the moon. But, from afar, we do not see the thousands or millions of people in the city. Not only do we not see them, but we do not know who they are or what they are experiencing. When I look at a skyline, I think: what is happening in those buildings? Who’s hugging and who’s mugging? Who’s making up and who’s breaking up? Who’s dreaming and who’s dying? Who’s loving and who’s lying?
I tend to represent the “stuff” happening in these cities not through detailed object renderings, but rather through movement, shape and color. I have found repeating circles to be one of my favorite way of exploring these overlaps and intersections. So, what are the circles? They are people waiting for the subway. They are flashing city lights. They are stars in the night sky. They are puffs of CO2. They are prayers and hopes, whispers and shouts, memories and laughs. After attending a Taizé service recently, I am convinced that the circles are repeated chants of peace swirling in and around the city eventually breaking free and flinging upwards to the sky. The point is, the circles are circular—they are floating, spinning and slippery. But it is our duty to fling up circles that are good for our city—the prayers, the encouragement, the understanding, the activism, the passion, the solidarity.
I love the beauty of slipperiness; this is why I choose abstract over realism and poetry over dogma (and Hebrew over Greek?). This is why I choose feminist theology, where the beauty of multiplicity is tenderly cared for instead of stifled out. Remember, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
-- Molly Bolton, God as the Lure Toward Beauty
The Beauty of Imperfection
Truth is, Plato left to his own devices can cause a great deal of mischief. He believed that every imperfect thing has a perfect ideal in some heavenly realm—and that only those perfect “forms” are truly, truly real. Everything else—actual people, trees, and monkeys are mere shadows of their perfect counterpart ideals. It’s as if there are perfect Greek statues lined up in the heavens—perfect body, perfect tree, perfect monkey—looking down on us in judgment.
And the more divergent something is from the perfect ideal, the less value it has. You can see the disturbing moral implications piling up here. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson explains this particularly well in his book God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology where he takes on Plato’s perfect forms. He says, “A view that elevates the ideal is profoundly mistrustful of any individuality, of people being stubbornly not the ideal, of being irreducibly unique and different. It is also important to point out that if the ideal is perfect and if the physical is denigrated, then how much more so are people who are physically disabled or socially degraded: how inferior are they!” Rabbi Artson gives a compelling argument for both process theology and Jewish thought as remedies for this huge flaw in Plato.
Thinking of Jesus may be another remedy for Plato’s obsession with abstract perfectionism and ideal forms. Jesus much preferred real, earthy, imperfect people—sinners, tax collectors and the “least of these”—to the “perfect” Pharisees. Perfect people don’t have the capacity for love like imperfect people. Jesus knew that; he knew only love is the answer to the mystery of life—not perfection.
-- Patricia Adams Farmer, The Beauty of Imperfection
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.
Springboards for Reflection
What does a process approach to love look like?
Perhaps the best place to begin is by reading a classic text, The Spirit and the Forms of Love, by Daniel Day Williams; and then turning to Defining Love or The Nature of Love by Thomas Jay Oord. Oord has brought together insights from philosophy, science, and theology in an unparalleled way; and he does a remarkable job of weaving together insights concerning different kinds of love: agape and eros and friendship, for example.
So many places to begin
But we need not stop with books. JJB is not a bad place, either. A process approach to love looks like the kind of relational thinking developed by the pediatrician turned priest, Reverend Teri Daily. It does not always have to be Whiteheadian in order to be process or relational in spirit. It can be deeply and delightfully orthodox. That's what Teri Daily offers the JJB community.
You can also begin with the articles by Rabbi Bradley Artson: Love and Justice as the Bottom Line of Judaism and Finding Your Inner Bad Girl. Or with Joanna ES Seibert's food columns: Theology of Montana or Local Food Dating Leads to God. Or with Barbara Mesle's description of one of her favorite teachers: Marjorie Suchocki: The Difference She Makes. Or with the artist Molly Bolton's observations about circles: God as a Lure Toward Beauty. Or with Beth Johnson finding God through the Hindu god Hanuman: The Lure of Hanuman. Or with Patricia Adams Farmers reflections on the beauty of imperfection: The Beauty of Imperfection.
Sometimes you learn more about love by looking at examples of love, and allowing your imagination to float freely, than by seeking definitions. When it comes to beginnings, there is no need to be picky and say only one place is right.
This is why, even with regard to the universe as a whole, it is best to recognize that it has many beginnings, not one. God does not create the universe out of nothing but rather out of beginningless chaos, and chaos has its agency, too. Even in the beginning there were many beginnings. It was all new for God, too. This is part of a process approach to love. It recognizes that the very love of God is, and always has been, persuasive not coercive, working with other agents.
If you gather wisdom from some of these sources, you will get thirty-three good ideas, each of which can be a lure for feeling, a springboard for further reflection. Here they are:
1. The difference between love and like. It is nice to like people, and many people are eminently likable. But it is not necessary to like people in order to love them. Some people are not easy to like. And even when you like them, you can get tired of them or need time alone. Family reunions need to end as well as begin. And when alcoholics offer you another drink in the interests of fun, just say no.
Friends don't let friends destroy themselves.
2. The value of healthy self-love. We must love ourselves, too. We can love ourselves by taking care of ourselves and trying to become better selves in the future, but we do not always have to like ourselves. Sometimes not liking ourselves – being critical of ourselves – can be a better path to creative transformation. Healthy self-love is usually a combination of healthy self-criticism and positive self-regard, relative to context.
3. The power of creative transformation. If you ever find yourself not likable; it is important to know that you can become likable. We are not fully defined by the past or present. We are always who we can become, too. This is part of the good news of process theology. We can always become more than we have been.
4. Helping people grow. Other people are not limited to who they have been, either. They are also who they can become. We love them, not by liking them all the time, but by liking what we can like; by seeking their well-being quite apart from questions of likability; and knowing that they, like us, are not finished products. If, after listening to them and understanding who they can best become, we help them grow in that direction, that is love, too.
5. Forgiveness as willing the well-being of others. When we harm another and they harm us, forgiveness is healing balm. Forgiveness does not require liking another person. If they have done something terrible to someone we love, we can even, if we must, hate them for a time or maybe even forever. We are human. But we can will their well-being; we can want the best, even for them, and try to understand what makes them do what they do. Forgiveness is an act of love.
6. God's Forgiveness. Sometimes it is harder to accept forgiveness than to forgive. We do not feel worthy of forgiveness. This is one place where God’s forgiveness becomes important. We can forgive ourselves and others because we know that we all fall short of the glory of God, and that even as we fall short, we are forgiven by God as we forgive others and ourselves. God is not a thing among things but rather an ocean of deep forgiveness.
7. God's Judgment. God may love us all the time and yet, at certain periods in our lives, not like us very much. We are too self-absorbed, too greedy, too angry, too jealous, too controlling, too proud, or, for that matter, not proud enough. Sin is contextual. In imagining God’s love, there is no need to hide from the idea of divine judgment. Sometimes God loves us by liking who we can become, but not who we are. Often there is a contrast in God’s heart, as in our own, between what has been and what could have been, and between what is and what can be. This contrast is part of God’s wisdom, God’s understanding.
8. Taking a break from God. We don’t have to like God all the time, either. There are times in our lives when we grow tired of God or thinking about God. We may need to take a break from God and just smell the roses. God may be a bit tired of us, too. Sometimes, even in the closest of relationships, we need breaks. Admittedly, God probably does not really “break” from us. God is continuously loving, and that is part of what makes God “God.” But God understands our need to take a break from things, even from God. Call it a Sabbath from God. That’s how strong God’s love is.
9. The Need for Community. Most of what has been said above about one-on-one love between persons can be enriched by the idea of community. At a family reunion we may not be able to easily love our uncle, but someone does, and our own absence of love for them can be compensated by their love for them. Or, in the absence of that, God’s love for them.
10. The Law of Three. Community also helps us break out of the idolatry of twoness. The idolatry of twoness occurs when we become so affixed to one other person, or they to us, that we cling to each other as if we are gods, becoming overly predictable along the way. We become so self-absorbed as a couple that we cannot see beyond our small parameters. This is why we need what, metaphorically speaking, we might call a third. The “law of three” is the idea that unhealthy binaries can be broken by the entrance of a third party, whose agency disrupts the binary and adds open-ended surprise.
11. Open Theism. For Christians and others influenced by Christianity, the idea of God being a Trinity need not be taken literally, as if there are three agents in the godhead. But it can be taken as an invitation to imagine that, whatever else God is, God is in the business of offering novel possibilities for love to the world, and being surprised by the world as well. This is the wisdom of open theism and process theology. Both say that the future is undecided before it occurs, even for God.
12. The Natural World. All that has been said above about God and human persons, and about relationships between human persons, can and should be expanded to include the more than human world: animals, plants, hills, rivers, mountains, planets, stars, and galaxies. All are lovable and many are likable, too, especially the companion animals. In human life it is alright for people to say “I like my dog more than my uncle, but I love them both.”
13. Religion. The future of life-on-earth probably depends on people finding and widening their capacities for love -- with help from, or despite, the religions with which they are affiliated. Religions can be helpful if they teach people to love, and they are harmful if they inhibit the horizons of love, over-emphasizing or exaggerating their unique importance.
14. Family. Often it takes a community to learn how to love. For some people, this community begins with the family; for others the family is an obstacle to love. The wisdom of East Asian (Confucian-influenced) cultures is that they highlight the value of the family as a context for learning how to love. The wisdom of prophetic traditions (in the Abrahamic world) is that they critique kin-preoccupied religion when it makes a god of kin relations. There is wisdom on both sides.
15. Patriarchy and Beyond. A primary obstacle to love in today’s world is patriarchy. Love cannot flourish amid unequal power relations, in which powerful males (with powerfully male mind-sets) make decisions for others. This is why the salvation of the world’s religions, and probably also the salvation of the world, if possible, depends on the emergence of post-patriarchal ways of living in the world.
16. The Future of Religion. Institutional religion may or may not be of service to love. At its best it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. At its worst it anaesthetizes the comfortable and further afflicts those who are already afflicted: the young, the old, the marginalized, the free spirited. One of the better hopes of institutional religion, all over the world, is for its evolution into post-patriarchal forms in which women have powerful and equal voices.
17. Blessed by Nature. Recovering connections with the natural world can be of service to love. The rocks and trees, the hills and rivers are not only evokers of awe and (in the case of animals) subjects of ethical regard, they are also mentors for the life well-lived. The do not teach in words but in presence and behavior. In their unique ways of being they open up spaces for imagination and play, within the human heart and mind, which allow love to enter.
18. Ethics is not enough. Recognizing the creativity of the natural world is a form of love, too. It moves beyond ethics to awe, and in awe love finds a special home. Awe helps us feel small but included in a larger whole.
19. The first Revelation. Love itself does not begin with a sense of moral obligation, but rather with a more primal revelation available to the senses and the heart. Revelations from books and from human teachers (including Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad – peace be upon all of them) are secondary to the primary revelation of the cosmos. Respect for nature and awe in the presence of other forms of life is a form of love.
20. God is Love. God is the heart of the cosmos: its ongoing life. God's love has two sides: an empathic side that shares in the experiences of every event in the universe, thereby including tragedy as well as joy, and an influential side that responds to what is experienced - moment by moment, cosmic epoch by cosmic epoch -- with novel possibilities for the well-being of life, individual and communal, relative to the situation at hand.
21. Love needs Solitude. If we are to participate in God's love, and be channels of it in our daily and corporate lives, we need solitude as well as community, a quietness of the heart as well as a sense of reaching out to others. If love originates only from our extraverted impulses, it becomes anxiety and freneticism, losing its gentleness. Love always has and needs a quiet side, a celibate core that is free from obsession and at home in stillness.
22. Love needs Craziness. If we are too settled in our ways of thinking, too habituated to what is familiar, we lose our capacities for novelty and adventure, social justice and social improvement. Love needs to be able to say "no" to the way things are and the way things have been, in order to say "yes" to promising futures. Love needs prophets and curmudgeons.
23. Love needs Imperfection. One of the primary obstacles to love is perfectionism. It causes us to worship high standards at the expense of empathizing with real people, or real dogs, or real landscapes, or a real God. We may rightly imagine God's love as perfect: perfectly flexible, perfectly adaptive, perfectly empathic, perfectly wild. But the good news is that God is not a perfectionist. God loves finitude, and we can love it, too, including our own.
24. Love begins with Empathy. Love does not begin with a sense of righteousness, but rather with a sense of connection, with feeling the feelings of others and wanting their well-being in light of their suffering. Buddhists are right. It begins with inter-being. What makes God "God" is that God is the ultimate instance of, not the ultimate exception to, inter-being.
25. Love does not need to be Happy. As we enter into loving relationships, we naturally share in the sufferings of others and we naturally allow our own agency to be surprised by theirs. Love has nothing to do with being in control and everything to do with risk, vulnerability, and relationships. Love can be unhappy and still be loving.
26. Love is Peace. Even as love is not always happy, there is a peace in love, especially when grounded in a sense that God is love. This peace is deeper than pleasure but filled with creativity. It is a font from which creative action springs in the present and a good night's rest comes in the evening. It is Sabbath. This peace has an inner dimension: peace within oneself and peace with God. It also has an outer dimension: peace with other people and peace with the natural world. Love can be active and prophetic, but it always takes the form of non-violent resistance to injustices, as in Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
27. Prayer is a form of love. Love begins, but does not end, with intentions and motivations: namely that of seeking the well-being of others and oneself, of the natural world and of God. Prayer is a practice by which these intentions can be cultivated and enriched. Prayer can be, but need not be, petitionary. Petitionary prayer adds an opening in the world by which the spirit of God can enter more easily. It does not change God in the sense of making God more loving, but it does change the situation in which God can be active. But other forms of prayer are valuable, too: deep listening, praise, confession, delight.
28. Family and Workplace. For many people the most difficult places to live a life of love are home and workplace. We find it easier to love strangers than to love spouses and co-workers. This is one reason that, in some ways, home and workplace are the best training grounds for a life of love. They are monasteries for non-monastics. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and sanghas can be good training grounds, too.
29. There is more to life than Love. Some people say that the purpose of life is to love and be loved. Perhaps so, but this exaggerates a bit. The purpose of life is to find beauty in life and help others find beauty, too. Love is a form of beauty and in service to beauty, but there is more to beauty than love. There is beauty in taking delight in diversity, in enjoying a job well done, in spending time alone, or in taking a good nap. We can say that "all of this is love," but we might better recognize that the purpose of life is beauty, and that love is a form of beauty, in service to beauty.
30. Love is a beautiful form of Beauty. Still, love is itself a rather beautiful form of beauty, and it is possible that, in human life, it is the most beautiful form of beauty. This is why it is highlighted by so many of the world's religions as life's deepest value.
31. God is Beauty. To say that "God is Love" and that "God is Beauty" are two ways of saying something very similar. It is to say that the universe unfolds in a Life whose harmony and intensity has its own kind of beauty, and that this beauty can be embraced by the whole self: mind, body, and spirit. We embrace God by loving our neighbors as ourselves and trusting that all selves are gathered into the larger tapestry of a divine Embrace. We don't need to like it all, but at some level we can love it all. When we love in this way, we have a small taste of what is like to be God and thus a small taste of heaven on earth.
32. Beloved Communities. Justice is a form of beauty, too. It is faithfulness to the bonds of relationships and a sharing in common destinies. Its primary expressions are care for the vulnerable; allowing all people to have a voice in their destinies; allowing other living beings to have a voice in their destinies; and the building of local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, humane in their treatment of animals, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. Martin Luther King called them beloved communities.
33. Continuing Journey. Learning how to love for the sake of beauty is not often completed in this life. The journey may well continue after death, in one or another dimension of existence, until satisfaction is fully realized, at which point the self on the way to love becomes reabsorbed into the ongoing life of love, otherwise named God. The purpose of the journey is to allow the soul to widen to such a degree that it becomes transparent to the love of God. This is a hope for all sentient beings, animals much included. As Paul Thorn puts it: "There is room for all in the glory train to Heaven."