Posted by: rogermitchell | June 21, 2010

God took the risk of love

I get Stephen’s comment about God being a universalist and it being us humans that changed the story [see his comment on the last post]. But I still can’t away from the responsibility of the divine “let us make humans in our image.” God knew where that might lead and it was worth it for love. This is why the cross has to be at the heart of the trinity before ever they planned us. Love already cost the divine the cross eternally, understood as the decision to lay your own life down for the other. So the cross was bound to be there in the new relationships that the divine created. The fall simply tested the cross to the limit. Or one might say it materialised it. But if God had not been willing for that, the divine would be a bad lot, for they would have made us for a risk that they would not participate in and that we did not have an original choice in. So I return to the point of boundaries. God is responsible for the decision to love with all its implications. To be love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit have to follow through their decision to create persons for love. This is the boundary that separates them from humans. They have the original responsibility. But for those who choose to become the children of God, the sons and daughters of this kind of love, we are on the divine side of the boundary. Surely this is what John’s gospel is getting at with the statement “He came to his own, and those who were his own did not receive him. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” [Jn1:11-13].

Of course this is absolutely not a boundary of exclusion but rather a boundary that identifies the space for unconditional loving. This is where we are sent, to which we are called, the creation and its people created for love. Presumably this is why Paul follows the great love prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 that Cecil woke up with this morning [see his comment in the last post] by imploring the people of God to grow up and suggests that some of us are particular gifts for that purpose.



  1. Um, doesn’t some of this language come slightly close to painting a picture of a rational God akin to what economists call Homo Oeconomicus? By contrast don’t we humans, in the image of God, normally make other humans out of love, and often out of the irrational? Do parents calculate the liabilities owing from their offspring’s future decisions in their own decision whether to procreate? Very rarely I should say. What if – à la Song of Songs – this love got stirred up before God took account of the implications? (Let that mess with our notions of the omniscient God!) True faith/hope/love keeps on doing its stuff regardless of whether it is recognised or returned and in spite of separation. At no point would a parent exhibiting unconditional love/hope/faith say their child is not part of their family or disinherit them. Some go about the family business, some do not… what we are left with is the question of justice.

    We seem to be meaning different things by boundaries but it’s your blog and I shall defer to your sovereignty here 😉 At this stage I’ll just say that as much as we might not like to call a boundary a boundary of exclusion, it remains one nonetheless.

    • Funnily enough, the ‘calculation’ you refer to was exactly what DID concern me in contemplating offspring and I do see this as an integral part of loving rather than an example of economic rationalism. Your reading of Song of Songs sounds a bit more like a romantic blind passion that I can’t see as “love as strong as death.” And I think a parent’s unconditional love makes positive use of boundaries in the growing up experience along the lines of Hebrews 12:5-8. We are possibly encountering a modern/ postmodern generational thing here which I don’t think should be avoided. Both modernity and postmodernity are, as my thesis suggests, predicated on a mediaevality based on God’s sovereignty. I decisively reject this kind of ontological sovereignty. So we are back to my contentious use of constituted and constituent power! If I exert my blog sovereignty then I think it will be to the detriment of our understanding of love at this point. So no deference please!!

      • I can appreciate that responsible people rationally decide to have children based on whether they can be good parents, provide, educate etc. I have no problem with that and that’s not really what I’m saying. I’m talking about people deciding whether or not to have children based on whether we will like the decisions our children will make. While I imagine this concern eventually surfaces, I’m quite sure it would be an over-analytical few who make their decision to procreate on that basis. But what would I know?!

        Romantic. Perhaps. It is Greek dualism that separates God from our ‘animal passions’ and makes him the supreme rational entity. So I am intentionally pulling in another direction. God did not create out of responsibility but out of passion for the potential of what they had created among themselves. What responsible (risk-mitigating) decision could have ever done so?

        Your substantive point about the generational worldviews is quite right. I’m trying to press it without being too self-conscious and deal with these differences as they arise. Crudely speaking, modernism closes down and settles things whereas postmodernism (whatever that is!) opens up and unsettles things. Trying to be as fair-minded as possible, the current subject has historically suffered from too much closing down. I feel content in keeping this open!

        I’ll maybe respond to the more complex question of boundaries when I’m not writing on my phone!

  2. This is good post. I think still you should add more video and pictures because it helps understanding 🙂

    • Thanks Boris, I agree. I have to take the time and trouble to adopt the simple techniques to do this. Our Chris M if you are following this please advise and get the old man equipped!

  3. Ha ha! Wish I could control my kids decisions, though this would defy the very point of parenthood! If we parent out of anxiety or fear then we do run the risk of becoming very controlling. If we parent out of love then we let the consequences of the choices our kids make do the screaming instead of us! And this is how Dad parents us. Love love love (although He is also a little anxious for us!). And so the natural consequences of life set boundaries for us in which we live and move and have our being. Are the boundaries therefore controlling? I’m not sure they are, they are just there, period. And I’m not sure they are also exclusive. Don’t they merely represent the choices we make?

    • I think there are at least three definitions of ‘boundaries’ going on here which makes most of the statements we are making both true and and at cross purposes. I might be able to respond along those lines tomorrow unless someone else gets there first.

      • Yes please! Let’s have those clarifying ways of seeing,

  4. OK – tried not to write an essay… and failed.
    I almost wish I hadn’t been the first to use the word boundary in my response to Cheryl in the “What blogging can’t do” thread. That’s because it’s a pretty clumsy word with too many meanings to cope with (most of them metaphorical) in a complicated conversation. As a result, I think there are 3 main usages going on in this discussion (apologies in advance if I’ve been ungenerous):
    (1) Boundaries that delineate choices. This is Roger’s main but not exclusive usage. It’s like the idea of a line in the sand. If I’m on the one side I am for one thing and if I am on the other I am for another thing. This is a really clear concept and I do agree that it is central to humanity’s engagement with God, creation and ethics. This boundary is never infringed as such; it is, however, crossable (pun intended).
    (2) Boundaries that constrain choice. This is the main (but, again, not exclusive) usage adopted by Andy and Cheryl and Roger’s secondary usage. Unlike (1) above which is not about constraints, these boundaries are set for people, whether by parents for their children or as in the concept of law. As much as I agree with both Andy and Cheryl that these boundaries are absolutely necessary in the context of our world in which we do not all have wisdom or unconditional love and responsibility for the other, it is important to recognise that reality is a result of (1) above. Humanity’s decision to be on the other side of the line from God (to choose self-interest rather than kenosis etc.) necessitates these sorts of boundaries to mitigate our ‘state of nature’ as Hobbes would have it. In this arrangement, the breaking of these boundaries permissions someone to exert their power over another.

    (3) Boundaries that mark identity/difference. This is my main usage and perhaps the least familiar idea. My thinking here follows a school of thought that says identity and difference are interrelated. A person’s identity is framed in response to the difference he perceives in others. Thus, crudely, to be Irish is to be not English, because we have a need to fall down on a particular side to defend the self. These psychological, political and cultural divisions are at the core of human consciousness and behaviour at all levels. Indeed, these are the only things which cause us to make actual physical boundaries in this world like borders! I therefore think this lies at the heart of the dilemma of ethics. What I’ve been trying (clumsily) to say is that the choice at (1) above (to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) did not just translate us into the world of the boundaries at (2) above but that it firstly did something more fundamental in terms of identity/difference boundaries.
    Why does this matter? Several reasons. Firstly, it provokes a rereading of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as not bringing in law but bringing in this difference-consciousness which in turn necessitated law-like boundaries as a mitigating tool. I see the tree as representing an ethics structured around the doing of good and evil rather than God’s universal ethic of unconditional and unlimited faith/hope/love and responsibility for the other which had been the status quo. Secondly, it exposes the way that most inter-personal and inter-group dynamics cannot readily escape this identity/difference conundrum, forcing us to exclude what is ‘other’ to us so that our own identity is secure. Thirdly, interfaces (boundaries) such as inside/outside, our community/their community, believers/unbelievers, saved/damned, people of God/other peoples show themselves to have the same self-protecting logic at work in them to varying degrees. Fourthly, such boundaries are subject to deconstruction in the light of God’s universal unconditional ethic of love etc.
    The ultimate point is that the task of crossing Roger’s boundary at (1) is also to deconstruct this difference-consciousness, rendering questions of who is in and who is out as irrelevant as possible. The boundary at (2) is tantamount to meaningless as far as our engagement with God is concerned – God tolerated law as a means of getting us across the line (1) for a time and it was found lacking. For sure law-like boundaries are unnecessary in the full exposure to God’s ethic. I don’t suppose for a minute that the boundary at (1) is deconstructible. I’m saying that *that* ‘boundary’ has had lots of the type (3) ‘boundaries’ superimposed on it, obscuring the choice and getting us all concerned with who is in and who is out which inhibits our ability to take up God’s ethic. I’m saying that most of our thinking here is littered with type (3) problems which need to be addressed. This is the task of reconciling all things.

    That’s enough for now, right?

  5. Alles klar! Danke schön und gute Nacht

  6. Amazing Stephen! Thanks. Orientalism by Edward Said (although exceptionally dull and hard work in places) is very good on the type 3 boundary stuff.

  7. Stephen, my concerns have been mostly aligned with yours about identity and exclusion based on identity. I did a blog on Monday on Martin Scott’s site about the ‘purity’ test that we often impose on others. That is, we check to see if the ‘other’ passes our inner rules for good behaviour or some other sort of purity (it can be racial, ethnic). In a world where there is no knowledge of good and evil this purity stuff cannot exist (well, I draw the line at polluted water and moldy food, and those kinds of purity).

    However, I recognize that the human brain loves to take shortcuts in order to reduce its energy load (it already uses about 20 percent of our daily calories). One of the way our brain takes shortcuts is to categorize things. We understand groups of things/people to be good or bad or to have other properties that then determines our behaviour. That way we don’t have to think hard every time we meet someone new. All we have to know is that they are from Australia, for example, and a whole lot of things click into place unless we are otherwise corrected.

    Of course, this is what functions for racism, ethnic identity, nationalism etc. We also use it to make assumptions about age, gender, physical well-being, etc. It is really a deep thing in our brains though we can consciously override it.

    A few years ago I realized that in Christ I was not to know the difference between good and evil, ie, a post-tree existence (there are no rules!). That means the only way to live is in close relationship with Christ, daily and moment by moment knowing what to do and how to behave in relation to others. I can’t take the short cuts anymore.

    Two interesting examples of this:
    1. I just began a book set in the southern US in 1962 (pre civil rights) and the story is about black maids in Mississippi. Right at the beginning of the book there is a discussion amongst their employers about having a separate bathroom for the black maid in the house as the white people don’t want to share a toilet with them. I guess they found it icky. That is one of those identity boundaries that comes from your #3 boundary.

    2. There are a number of immigrants here in Italy from Africa. A number of the young men tend to beg near my home. Being a Christian I assumed upon my arrival here that I was to give to them. I tried to be ‘humane’ about it by engaging them in conversation each time. They became aggressive, actually chased me down the street one day for a donation. I became uncomfortable. So I began praying. Was I to give to the Africans just because they are African? God’s answer was ‘no’. A resounding ‘no’. In fact, he has put a wall between us, his words, because the relationship could not be a right one. Ummm, interesting. I’m still sorting that one out as it violates my understanding of good and evil – ooops there is that tree again.

    I think one of the major things Jesus did was toss away the purity test. He was willing to eat and share with anyone. The only people who ever failed his test were the Pharisees who failed for lack of love while claiming to represent God.

    Seems to me most of the time we get it all backwards. Thanks for you comments – they have helped to clarify things we all struggle with.

    • Great thoughts, Cheryl. On the purity question, it seems to me that this is one of the identity/difference boundaries that is principally used by evangelicals/charismatics to demarcate the difference between the holy people and the profane others. Taking the approach I’m advocating, this collapses in in itself quite dramatically because it fails to see the bad in the good and the good in the bad. As you put it, it categorises in an oversimplistic fashion based on the values of the insiders (centre). The call to the margins is then precisely the rejection of this centrist categorisation with it’s vested interests. Instead, is the ethic of God to be found? Even a little? If the firstfruits is holy, is the lump not also holy? Or do we need people to pass our private members’ club initiation rules? Venn diagram anyone?

      • The only think I don’t like about my iPhone is that it always assumes I want “it’s” instead of “its”, dammit.

  8. One of the things I find really interesting about Jesus is how he does collapse those inside/outside boundaries. Those boundaries are natural to us in terms of self identity and identity of a community. We believe we have to have boundaries and that they must be defined. But then along comes Jesus who blows those boundaries apart – holy/unholy, law abiding/lawless, in the community/outside of the community, gender divisions of appropriate activities (think Mary here sitting at his feet learning), included/excluded, gentile/jew, and many others. And that is the legacy to us. The church is supposed to be a new kind of community – one that does not recognize those kinds of boundaries in order to know its identity. Amazing. In fact, all are welcome at the table with Jesus. We are only constrained to avoid greedy people (that is in one of the epistles but I can’t remember where right now). Why? Because greed breaks community.

    So now that we find our identity with and in Christ we are freed of all those other boundaries. I guess that is what Roger means by a post-tree life. We are called to head past those boundaries, and not even see them, as they have no meaning anymore to us.

  9. This discussion makes me think of Jesus and how he works his way through our boundaries… When he writes on the ground for the Pharisees I believe he draws out (literally) their boundary and simultaneously deconstructs it: let him who is without sin cast the first stone – everyone involved must move on from the fixed boundaries of pure/unpure based in skewed ideas of difference and judgement (messed up ethics to use Steve’s phrasology). I see this as a mode of interaction to both expose our (and other’s) boundaries (for they must be) and at the same time open up alternative choices. In this then I see a mode of living. Surely as we live, work and play we are the Pharisees, we are the adulteress and, indeed we must be Jesus. If so, let’s move from writing on the wall to writing on the ground;)

    • Totally. So Jesus “who had no sin” crossed the line (1) into our difference-consciousness, ‘becoming sin’ (and a rock of offence and a stumbling block to the insiders) for us so that we might know the righteousness (totally different ethic) of God.

  10. This is fasinating stuff.
    I believe we have to journey through our boundaries.a long time ago at a conference with Rog I remember being challenged y the spirit about my attitude towards the “English”.Here was a boundary of race and border tha

  11. Sorry pressed the wrong button Argggg .Anyway reading this post has made me think of all the boudaries God has asked me to cross over.And the more I cross ove the larger the space I find myself in.
    This can be unsetteling to the extreme.Is there something in me that needs boundaries.Why do I feel more and more vulnerable ,why is it when I meet folk who have remained within some of those boudaries ie purity it makes me want to cross back over.
    There have been times when I have thought about all of these boundaries and wondered if I will ever cross them all.
    If we can at least understand that we have the choice (thanks Cheyrl )thne perhaps we can show the world at least a glimpse of a love with no boundaries.

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