God’s Unprivileged Love

by Paolo Gamberini

While the great Doctor of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, was working on his book about the Holy Trinity, he walked along the seashore. As he walked, he contemplated thegamberini-author mystery of the Holy Trinity. Augustine saw a boy run back and forth from the water to a small hole on the seashore. The boy used a seashell to carry ocean water to that spot in the sand. Augustine approached and asked, “What are you doing?”

“I am trying to put the whole ocean into this hole,” the boy replied.

“But that is impossible, my dear child,” said Augustine. “The hole cannot contain all the water.”

The boy paused in his work, stood up, and looked into Augustine’s eyes. “It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do,” he replied. “You are trying to comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence.”

This story reminds us of the limits of human understanding before the incomprehensibility and infinity of God. And yet we must do our best, knowing our limits, to speak of God. Theologians often begin with God’s infinity and absolute perfection. God’s Name is, “I am who I am.”

Many theologians continue by adding to this basic view of perfection. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, said God was “Pure Act.” Bonaventure said God’s “self-diffusive love,” by contrast, identified God not as remote or static but rather with an eternal actuality. God is intrinsically related to Pure Creative Act of being.

I’ve come to believe that God’s being is essentially and eternally related to creation. Being essentially related to creation does not mean that God depends on creation in order to be God. It means God is “open” and embraces — eternally and internally — creaturely “otherness.” The internal relation can be defined as love. Love so generously moves God’s being that He does not want to be God without creation.

Unlike God, creatures are finite, limited, and imperfect. Creatures are defined by time and change.

As “Pure Act of being,” God is infinite, whole, and perfect at every single moment. God’s eternity is timeless, because time is concentrated in God’s “now,” ever present.

I believe, however, that God’s self-communication is a loving, creative act that grounds and unfolds itself in the created temporal distinctions of past, present and future. This self-communication is God’s eternal generation.

God speaks His one Word only once from eternity. But the reception of this one Word happens, throughout time and space, in many forms and occurrences. Such reception by faith is the event of God’s personal revelation, which allows God’s one and only Word to become flesh and incarnate.

By saying that God has made Himself “gradually” known, the adverb “gradually” must be ascribed to the human perception and reception of the Word. Any graduality is not the outcome of a divine “preference” for someone. By contrast, God always gives revelation, and this revelation is embodied when people become aware and accept it.

St. Thomas offers the “principle of predilection.” This principle affirms, he says, that “nothing would be greater if God did not will it more good.” In my view, this principle must surrender to “the principle of differentiated createdness.” Something or someone is not better solely because of God’s will or preference. Instead, God loves all people equally and without discrimination. God’s love is the cause of the goodness in all things.

Initially, the people of Israel experienced and interpreted their relation to God as a special “call” and “election.” Later, their religious perception became more universal. God neither predestines nor elects one group instead of another. I believe that free humans must decide whether to receive or reject God’s grace. God does not prefer one person, or group of people, over another. There is no election on God’s side, only the particular reception and discovery of the universal love of God.

The principle of created differentiation allows us to say that God’s love is both unique and universal, both the same and different. God’s love is the same, simultaneous and universal. But our human perception of divine love is unique for each individual, temporally diffused and expanded. The way God’s love is received and assumed by each creature, in each instant, is why we talk about multiple expressions of love.

Creatures experience God’s love unfolding in a crescendo in time. This unfolding does not depend on God’s special and progressive interventions or on God’s discriminating choices.

This view of God’s creative love has important consequences for the question of evil. God does not “intervene” or “thwart” human freedom (and the whole nature in its lawfulness and randomness), because God’s nature is kenotic love. God shares power and lets something else be other than Godself. God’s creative love is the act of defining, of making something definite and distinct from God. Consequently, createdness may be thought of as God’s self-definition.

Søren Kierkegaard argues that divine omnipotence is an act of withdrawing Godself on behalf of another. God’s sovereignty and the presence of evil must be considered within this concept of divine omnipotence. God’s omnipotence is His goodness, for goodness is to give oneself away completely.

The possibility of evil is, therefore, a consequence of both kenotic love and God’s act of creating anything that was “non-God.” The alternative would have been not to create anything at all. All finite power makes creatures dependent; only omnipotence can make creatures independent. The more creatures depend upon God’s love, the more they experience autonomy and freedom.

Paolo Gamberini was born in Ravenna (Italy) in 1960 and entered the Jesuit Order in 1983. He had his M.Phil in Milan at the Sacred Heart University. He studied Theology in Germany (Frankfurt/M and Tübingen). He received his doctorate at the Philosophisch-theologische Hochschule Sankt Georgen working on the concept of Analogy in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel. He has been working since 1985 in the Ecumenical movement especially with Anglicans and Lutherans. He has been attending in 1988, 1998 and 2008 the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury – England as a journalist for La Civiltà Cattolica. From 1992 to 2014 he has been teaching at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy (Naples), and since 2005 he has been Full Professor (professore straordinario). He has been Visiting Professors in many Jesuit Institutions in the US: Loyola University of Chicago, Holy Cross College (Worcester – MA), Boston College-STM and Jesuit School of Theology (Berkeley, CA).

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