I Will Seek Him Whom My Soul Loves
After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends. – Wallace Stevens
Like the time you ran away/I turned around and you were standing close to me. – Yes, “Awaken”, lyrics by Jon Anderson
I often feel we never quite “get” the whole God’s love and grace thing. For far too long, the whole “born again” idea, taken from St. John’s Gospel, in Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, has been understood – both far too literally (which was Nicodemus’s problem) and far too narrowly – as defining and describing what it is “to become” a Christian. Even St. John’s Gospel offers other metaphors and stories to describe the process of redemption.
Part of my problem with the whole “born again” message, while still important and necessary, is it becomes far too final. One either is or is not “born from above”, at a particular time, a particular event proscribing the “moment” one “accepts” Christ, or one is not. Far more in keeping with both the tone and narrative of the whole of Scripture is the idea that ours is a life spent in various stages of a pursuit, like the lover and beloved in The Song of Songs, to be captured, then escape yet again.
Taking the whole of Christian Scriptures and Doctrine seriously, both Old and New Testaments present God as passionately, selflessly desiring only one thing: to be in a loving relationship with Creation, with first the children of Abraham as those through whom this message of Divine Love would be made manifest, then in the Incarnation the definitive statement of the lengths to which God’s love will go in order that our relationship with God is real, that God’s love is real, and that God never ever gives up on us.
The redemptive “moment”, if you will, is the whole Passion Event. It always moves from God to us. That includes the Divine “No”, as Karl Barth (and Wallace Stevens) called it. That “No” isn’t directed at us as objects of Divine love and grace. It is, rather, directed at all the ways we continue to reject even the possibility of such a relationship. If the doctrine of original sin is to mean anything at all, it means at the very least that God’s constant pursuit of a particular covenant relationship with humanity, as a means toward the end of the final recreation of all things, is too overwhelming, too restrictive, too demanding. Too impossible even to consider. That God begins with a “No”, often with a “No” in response, is hardly the end of it all. It is that “Yes” that always – always – follows that “No” that changes the nature of the relationship. That “Yes” dogs our heals, invades our hearts and minds, has us turning our head left and right. We reject the “No”, but too often we also reject the “Yes” as well. Our refusal, however, is never the end of the conversation. It is, in fact, just the beginning of a pursuit that continues, even after we might give a tentative “Yes”.
I admit this is no less incomplete, and no more definitive, than the whole “born again” idea. It is, however, a too often neglected aspect of our lives as Christians. It is the source of the church’s insistence on compassion and mercy defining our justice; on our ministries even to those who have committed the most heinous crimes; and so much Christian spirituality that comes to see ourselves as insignificant precisely because that first “No” always haunts us. The Divine pursuit of humanity, as the Scriptures narrate it, is endless; it is the love that is more powerful than death, the passion that is as boastful as the grave; it is what the Incarnation is all about. To view the Christian life as a series of non-repeatable events, limited in time and space – including to a human lifespan – is to ignore the weight of the testimony of Scripture; it is to devalue the meaning of the Incarnation to a once-for-all event, a take-it-or-leave-it moment of decision that leaves us bereft of any help. Compassion, Divine agape, dry up and disappear if we insist that God’s offer is only once; that our acceptance and rejection at any particular time are definitive for our eternal fate. This capricious God is not the Divine Lover of the Bible; it certainly isn’t the Triune God revealed in the Incarnation, a Godhead whose very Being is mutual, interpenetrating, selfless love that nevertheless respects and holds intact the distinctions among the Persons. Unless we understand grace as the central component of the Divine-Human encounter, a grace that is always before us, around us, and ahead of us, we will never really hear the Divine “Yes” that pursues us all the days of our lives and beyond.