Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, The Patience of Love

Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, The Patience of Love

Postby Richard Beck » Wed Oct 02, 2013 4:45 am

Final post of four here and on my blog recapping some of of my talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

This post is about love, power, eschatology and universal reconciliation in Christ.

The best conversation I had was actually after the Q&A, a talk with Caleb who had read my series "On Warfare and Weakness" on my blog (it can be found on the sidebar of Experimental Theology).

If you haven't read that series in it I work with the notion (leaning heavily upon John Caputo) that God, being love, is a weak force in the world. Caleb's question had to do with how I reconcile that notion--God is a weak, non-coercive force--with a vision of universal reconciliation in Christ. More specifically, if God is a weak, non-coercive force how does "love win" in the end, especially if evil is a coercive and violent force that will overwhelm the weak force?

Because it seems that if God is going to "make everything right" in the end some sort of top-down exercise of power is going to be needed at some point. Because if love is weakness then won't evil just keep dominating?

How does love win if love is weakness?

It's a great question that I told Caleb I'd been struggling with. In the "On Warfare and Weakness" series I bracketed questions of eschatology and focused on the quotidian, everyday existence. But my thoughts about universal reconciliation in Christ pull me into eschatology so I need to make some connections.

Here's the question to be answered: Is force required to bring about the eventual reconciliation of all things in Christ?

Talking about this afterwards Kevin had a great analogy. He said that whenever people ask him if God has to force people into heaven to make universal reconciliation work his response is often "Does anyone have to force you to watch a sunset?"

The beauty of a sunset, any kind of beauty, is very powerful and forceful. But it's not a coercive force. It's something that breaks your heart and moves you. It doesn't push you. It draws you.

The idea that floated through my head was that love is like the sun and the human heart a vast iceberg. Love melts us.

So I do think there are ways we can think of God drawing us, moving us, melting us in ways that aren't acts of force and coercion. And if so, then the weakness of love may be powerful enough to win in the end.

But there is a catch I mentioned to Caleb. Love is slow. Everything we've just described is going to take lots of time. How long to melt an iceberg, to soften the hardest human heart? It's going to take a long time.

The point being, love requires patience, an almost infinite patience. And if you can't wait, if you want to fix stuff now, well, yes, you're going to have to use force. You're going to have to start knocking some skulls together to make the Kingdom come.

And I think that's the key connection. If God is the weak force of love your eschatology has to extend the timeline of God's salvific work almost indefinitely. Love, to remain non-violent, will require a lot of time. Because if there is a time-limit love will have to shift to force to make everything work out alright in the end. If you put love on a schedule you'll end up with coercion. "Hurry up" is always going to marginalize love and produce violence.

Which is why I think soteriological systems that have timelines, like the moment of death or Judgment Day, are inherently violent. In these systems love hasn't been given enough time to do its work, thus God has to step in with force to get the Happy Ending to come in on schedule. In these visions God has to knock some skulls together to make the Kingdom Come. Because of the soteriological deadlines love is rushed and abandoned for violence.

And what I think all this means is that the belief that God is love almost demands the infinite patience of a universalist eschatology. Grace--the slow, non-coercive unwinding of sin--is expressed temporally.

Love wins in the end because love is infinitely and gratuitously patient.
Last edited by Richard Beck on Wed Oct 02, 2013 5:42 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, The Patience of Love

Postby Caleb Fogg » Wed Oct 02, 2013 5:34 am

Beautiful and fascinating thoughts Richard. Thanks
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Re: Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, The Patience of Love

Postby Username » Wed Oct 02, 2013 7:22 am

I echo Caleb's comment, Richard. A really illuminating post, thank you.

I wonder, have you read any Robert Farrar Capon? He is very big on the way God exercises - or doesn't - his power. The following quote from Capon's book Kingdom, Grace and Judgement: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, gives a ready summary of his view of what he calls, borrowing a phrase from Luther, God's 'left-handed power' (my emphases):

Direct, straight-line, intervening power does, of course, have many uses. With it, you can lift the spaghetti from the plate to your mouth, wipe the sauce off your slacks, carry them to the dry cleaners, and perhaps even make enough money to ransom them back. Indeed, straight-line power (“use the force you need to get the result you want”) is responsible for almost everything that happens in the world. And the beauty of it is, it works. From removing the dust with a cloth to removing your enemy with a .45, it achieves its ends in sensible, effective, easily understood ways.

Unfortunately, it has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless. Oh, admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from the edge of a cliff and not have a broken relationship on your hands. But just try interfering with his plans for the season when he is twenty, and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good. But suppose further that he does it again anyway – and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can’t shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can’t beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till…. But you see the point. At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you – who, on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power – simply refuse to use it; unless, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself.

But such a paradoxical exercise of power, please note, is a hundred and eighty degrees away from the straight-line variety. It is, to introduce a phrase from Luther, left-handed power. Unlike the power of the right hand (which, interestingly enough, is governed by the logical, plausibility-loving left hemisphere of the brain), left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain.

Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. More than that, it is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever. It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts. But then again, it might not. It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you either. The only thing it does insure is that you will not – even after your chin has been bashed in – have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.

Which may not, at first glance, seem like much of a thing to insure, let alone like an exercise worthy of the name of power. But when you come to think of it, it is power – so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch. God in Christ died forgiving. With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There! Just try and get me to take that back!


Thanks again

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