” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. ” (Mathew 22: 37-39)
Some long time ago, a friend pointed out to me what she thought was a difference between us. “You love people both for who they are and what they can become, but I only love them for what they can become”, she said. That statement rather interested me because it seemed to explain so much about her.
My friend was someone who typically possessed a sure-footed insight into herself, but much less insight into others. In her case, “loving people for what they can become” did not mean loving anyone’s individual potential. To love someone’s individual potential, you must have insight into them, which she frequently lacked.
Instead, she believed people could realize her ideals for them, and it was that, and only that, she loved about them. In practice, it meant she loved her ideals more than she loved people. And when people didn’t live up to her ideals for them, she didn’t love them at all — but sometimes even hated them.
She was studying for an advanced degree in theology and might have found herself in conflict with her religion had she been a Christian. As the Book of John rather harshly puts it, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen”. (1 John 4:20)
But she was not a Christian and the notion you cannot love your god unless you love your brother was irrelevant to her: She was quite comfortable loving her ideals more than she loved people.
Now, I happen to think the author of John was more or less onto something. If a person has no experience of deity — as John assumes to be the case — and yet loves god, then that person must necessarily love an idea of god, rather than god.
Perhaps it is better for them, then, to love their brother, whom they have seen, than to love an idea of god. For any idea of god, no matter how profound, no matter how subtle, is petty when compared to flesh and blood.
I wonder, though, if anyone ever loves god? Is it even possible to love god? Obviously, the answer for some people is “no”. Without an experience of god, you can at most love only your idea of god. I can say I love France or Germany, but having never been to either country, I am really only loving my ideas of them.
As you might know, I live in Colorado Springs, which is home to a large population of fundamentalist Christians. Many people here claim to have experienced their god. As near as I’ve been able to figure out, most of them mean they have at one time or another had some sort of unusually intense emotional experience.
I’m not too familiar with the details of such experiences, but they typically attribute them to some kind of contact with or experience of their god. It seems reasonable to assume someone could love such an experience of their god, and thus for such people it must be possible to love their god, rather than merely an idea of their god.
I am far less familiar with what the fundamentalist Christians here in town mean by “God”, however, than I am with what certain mystics mean by “god”. It seems that some mystics use the word “god” to refer to the sort of experiencing that occurs when subject/object perception abruptly ends while experiencing remains. (Most fundamentalists are not talking about that sort of mystical experience when they talk about experiencing god, and I only know of one who I am certain is.) Put differently, the god of those mystics is not a being but a kind of experiencing. As an experience, it can be loved, so I think we’re safe in saying those mystics can love their god, rather than merely an idea of their god.
Now, there is an extraordinary difference between loving an experience — as you are experiencing it — and loving an idea or memory of that experience. The difference between those two things is just as great as the difference between loving a map and loving the terrain the map symbolizes. So, when we speak of someone loving god, we need to remember that they can love their god only while experiencing it. Otherwise, they are merely loving the map, rather than the terrain; the memory of their deity, rather than their deity. And that is true for both fundamentalists and mystics.
Assuming all that’s been said is true, I think we can say it is possible to love a god in so far as we are experiencing that god, but that we are deluding ourselves if we believe we love a god we are not experiencing. For, if someone “loves god”, but is not experiencing god, then what do they actually love? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say such a person loves an idea of god?
I sometimes think of my friend the theologian as a rather tragic person, for she loves her ideals of people more than she loves people. Yet, her ideals exist more or less exclusively in her mind, and so she really loves little more than the firing of her own neurons. What interests me about that is she would prefer her ideals to real people. Even the author of John seems to have seen the tragedy in that.