Yes. According to some theologians, God’s love is little more than a metaphor or an abstraction. Philosopher Jerry L. Martin explains that those views are mistaken and that God really does love us in a full and personal way.
It is not only we who suffer. I sensed that God does too.
“Can You tell me about Your pain, Lord?”
It was as if I heard a deep moan of anguish, loneliness, despair, misery, hopelessness.
“Are those things you feel, Lord?”
“Are they caused by humankind?”
“Is it difficult to love us if we cause you such pain?”
No, not for Me. Even when human beings most disappoint, they are infinitely love-worthy.
I had read Martin Buber’s I and Thou when I was a college freshman and had not looked at it since then. But, when I fell in love and realized that she loved me back, the opening words of Part Three came back to me: “The extended lines of relations meet in the Eternal Thou.” Love between human beings has a trajectory toward the divine.
That recollection rekindled my interest in Buber. Returning from New York, where Abigail still taught, I started reading Maurice Friedman’s highly-praised biography. Buber’s philosophical awakening occurred during adolescence, prompted by “the fourteen-year-old’s terror before the infinity of the universe.” Buber wrote, “A necessity I could not understand swept over me: I had to try again and again to imagine the edge of space, or its edgelessness, time with a beginning and an end or a time without beginning or end, and both were equally impossible, equally hopeless … Under an irresistible compulsion I reeled from one to the other, at times so closely threatened with the danger of madness that I seriously thought of avoiding it by suicide.”
I stopped reading for a moment and, as the train rumbled on, I pondered the “edge of infinity.” I was taken over by a powerful image, visual and visceral. I felt and saw space at its edges, rushing, expanding outward, unfurling itself with vast force and at almost instantaneous speed, without stop, neither a completed infinity nor merely finite. The vision had a tremendous feeling of life-force, of Being unfurled, bursting forth at reckless speed.
Buber was saved from the brink of suicide by reading Immanuel Kant. Unsolvable questions arise, Kant argues, from trying to reason about space and time as if they were characteristics of reality in itself. They are really just forms of our experience, he says, or, as a Kantian might put it today, features of our scientific paradigms or theoretical frames. This reassuring view gave Buber “philosophical peace.”
There now came to Buber “an intuition of eternity,” not as endless time, but as “Being as such.” I moved deeply into myself to get some sense of what this might mean. I felt a great rushing, gushing, like a geyser, welling up inside me and rising up through all tiers of reality, an energy or life-force, creative and growing, but more basic and undifferentiated than these terms suggest, as if it were the very Being of these forces, running through the whole of reality. It rushed, expanded, created, grew not just outwardly but in a vertical dimension as well, from the primordial base up to the creative spiritual edge. It was, in some sense, erotic energy from bottom to top, with no level, not even the most elemental, ever eclipsed. The vision ended. I slumped back, breathing hard.
I wondered what it could mean for Being as such to be a Person, a Thou, as surely, from my own experience, God is. Then it struck me that this rushing Stuff, this force of Being, is also the being of me. And I am a person. So why shouldn’t the rushing Stuff, the Being of—of what?—the World, of Being itself, be a Person writ large? I don’t mean the World merely in a physical sense, since my own being is not merely that of my body. Similarly, the Being that animates everything could be a Person.
Looking out the window at the passing trees, it struck me that their very leaves are full of Being as such, the Being that is also a Person, and that it made sense for them to be a Thou for me. And, more remarkably, for me to be a Thou for them. I felt that Being facing Being, not necessarily speaking but simply facing, is what personhood is.
I slumped back again and put the book aside. Later, I read on for several pages. I was struck by how many thoughts that I had received had also occurred to Buber. He entered a Nietzschean phase with an emphasis on “dynamism” and “a creative flow of life force.” Later Buber thought eternity “sends forth time out of itself” and “sets us in that relationship to it that we call existence.” To achieve wholeness as a person, he said, it is necessary to direct the creative force of the Evil Urge, the erotic energy that I had felt to be at the center of Being itself.
I reached Washington and returned to my apartment in Alexandria, then resumed reading. I had left off with Buber speaking of the quality of “fervor with direction, all the awesome power of the ‘evil urge’ taken up into the service of God, [seventeenth-century visionary theologian Jakob] Boehme’s ‘ternary of fire’ [symbolizing desire] spiraling upward into the ‘ternary of light’ [symbolizing love] without losing any of its power thereby.” This was “one of the truly decisive moments in Buber’s life”: “overpowered in an instant, I experienced the Hasidic soul,” he writes. “At the same time I became aware of the summons to proclaim it to the world.” I knew how he felt.
It all seemed intolerably bizarre. I thought I should talk it over with the wisest people I knew. One, a distinguished medical ethicist, responded, “First of all, this is not weird.” Nothing he could have said would have been a greater relief to me! Another, a well-known author, said, first, “That’s great—now you know there is a God,” and then added, “You have had a Kierkegaard moment,” recalling that philosopher’s question, “If you encountered Jesus on the streets of Copenhagen, would you follow him?” A prominent lay theologian said he was “touched” by my story and suggested some reading while I waited for my “big” assignment.
While there were also cautionary responses, no one seemed to think I was crazy or a fool to take the voice seriously.
Still, I was not prepared for the next experience.
I want you to enter My heart.
“Enter God’s heart? This is weird, Lord, and scary, like out-of-body travel.”
I will protect you.
For moral support I asked, “Lord, first give me Your love.”
Let Abigail love you. You will feel My love through her.
“Then strengthen me, be with me, for this.”
He took my hand, as it were, and led me into the “heart of God.” I had expected it to be an overpowering, perhaps terrifying experience. But it was more like the eye of a hurricane. I was at the center of something vast and powerful, but here it was quiet, calm, and peaceful. I surveyed the things I feared—the end of my career, loss of reputation, financial insecurity, and a book that went nowhere. In that calm that is God, each concern disappeared.
Any person who believes in God has to confront the problem of human suffering. Why does God permit it?
“Lord, does suffering have any purpose or meaning?”
Of course, suffering is what makes life serious. Imagine a world in which actions never resulted in suffering. Imagine a world without the pain of regret, without feeling bad about doing something wrong (or) shameful.
“But disease serves no moral purpose.”
Now you are fencing with Me on “the problem of pain.” Just listen. You will never learn from fencing.
Disease, disaster, aging, death are essential aspects of suffering. “We” live in a physically vulnerable world. That is the essential condition that makes life serious.
“All that’s rather abstract, Lord. What exactly does disease do for us?” I thought of Job’s boils.
Suffering is the test of your humanity. There is no greater test than pain—how one copes with it. It is easy to be nice, faithful, and such, when things are great, but very hard under adversity.
“But, Lord, that just seems perverse—or cruel.”
No, that’s not so. Think about your own times of physical suffering—in the hospital, for example—the shots, the clumsy aide, the itch, the nurse about urinating, those were full of growth.
Those examples brought back memories. A couple of years before these prayers began, I suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to the intensive care unit. They took blood tests, day and night. There are a limited number of places from which blood can be drawn, and the same spot cannot be used again right away. The wrists are ideal, but mine are sensitive and a needle there smarts. One does not have much power as a patient, but safeguarding my wrists became my prime imperative. One after another blood drawer would come, and I would plead, argue, wheedle, and insist they find some other place to puncture me. Each resisted, then managed to find a spot.
I was transferred to another hospital for the surgical procedure. I was met by a technician who said his name and stuck out his hand—while looking the other way and standing on my oxygen tube. When it was time to go into the operating room, he snatched away my blanket with so violent a jerk it would have ripped out the intravenous insertion if I had not by now been on high alert.
Once in the operating room, I was placed on a slab with my arms flat at my side. Medical equipment loomed above, posing an impressive threat. “Don’t move!” I was told. My nose chose that moment to itch. The itch grew intense, then more intense, dreadfully intense, until nothing existed but me and that itch. Then I understood. I can’t fight it. I just have to live with it, until the procedure is over. I don’t know if the itch went away or what—I forgot all about it.
The procedure went smoothly. I watched the monitor as the surgeon snaked a catheter through an incision in my groin up to a major coronary artery where a stent had to be placed.
Opening an artery is a very serious matter. Bleeding can be life-threatening. The patient has to lie flat and immobile for twenty-four hours. Nurses at my first hospital had been angels in white, but here I was attended by Nurse Ratched’s less charming twin. She seemed to resent patients needing her help. Finding it difficult to manage the bedpan flat on my back, I asked for assistance. She acted as if it were a dirty-minded request and responded by threatening me, “If you can’t manage the bedpan, we will catheterize you!” Finally, I did manage, and it was time to close up the artery. Another patient had told me the closing could be dangerous as well as painful.
“Who is to perform this delicate operation?”
Nurse Ratched gave me the grim news: young Mr. Sizzorhands, the technician whose previous efforts to hurt me had been foiled, would now have another shot. I asked for someone else. “He is the only technician available.”
“I am not going to let that guy lay another hand on me.”
She made it a battle of wills. We went back and forth. Finally I said, “Let me speak to the doctor.”
She said she would see what she could do and, after a time, she returned with a young Asian-American attendant. He had magical hands. I didn’t feel a thing.
My body was recovering nicely, but the whole experience—starting with “indigestion” in the night (I didn’t know that was a heart symptom), calling the office the next morning to find out what nearby doctor was covered by my health plan, driving myself (fool that I was) to the doctor’s office, filling out forms and waiting for some time before going up and telling the receptionist, “I may be having a heart attack,” the quick examination and discovery that I was at that very moment in the throes of an incipient attack, an emergency medical team rushing to my side trying to head it off, being shoveled into an ambulance, the sirens, intensive care, the surgery, the whole ordeal—left me feeling fragile, as if I were made of spun glass. A sharp tap and I would shatter.
They (these moments) were not empty suffering; they even had to do with leading you to Me.
“How so, Lord?”
They focused your attention on your mortality, which (led) you to open your heart fully to Abigail because you realized how precious this love was. And it led to your prayer to serve God.
One day I learned more about God’s story when I asked simply, “Where should I begin today, Lord?”
Ask yourself what I am looking for.
Well, yes, but what is that love?
“Interaction, communication, understanding?”
Yes! I long to be recognized, to be understood, and then to be taken in.
I wondered why a great being like God would need to be loved by mere mortals. “Why does that matter to You, Lord? You’ve got it all, just being God.”
That is silly. This is what I am. I am like a function looking for a variable. I am only half the equation.
I looked for a humbler analogy. “Like cement looking for bricks to hold together?”
“Is that connection only what You need or is it also what the world needs?”
Both, obviously. In your analogy, the world is like the bricks that need to be held together.
“But, Lord, I sense that Your yearning is not just a factual incompleteness, like needing a pair of gloves.”
Yes, it is a deep internal dynamic that drives Me forward to do the things I do. I unfurl the world and call forth life and send signals to people. Listen, and feel.
“The feeling that comes to me is Your desire to call into being a corresponding being. It seems a lot like the dialectic of self and other in Hegel. Subjectivity desires to objectify itself, as it does in artifacts, and to subjectivize the surrounding world, as it does in interpretation, and, even higher, to encounter another subjectivity.”
I am a Person, searching for …
“That’s what I wonder, Lord. I can’t quite imagine what You are searching for. Just interaction? That seems too limited and, in a sense, too easy.”
It is not just looking for company. Perhaps speaking of loneliness is misleading. Why does a human being look for love? It is not just for company. That is companionship, not love. You want to pour yourself, your concern, your destiny into another person. And you want them to respond in kind, to understand and recognize and sympathize with and care about you, (and) to share your life story, so that I becomes we. And the result is not just good feelings or good times; it is ontological, it is virtually molecular. You know that, because you have experienced it. Imagine how puny your love is (not to belittle it, but just for comparison) compared to Mine. What is barely ontological or molecular in your case is fully so in Mine. The constitution of the universe is altered by My love and My being loved. You can’t just say “God so loved the world …” Love is a two-way street. Anything unilateral is merely an effort at love, not its fulfillment, not its achievement.
You could tell My story, one version of it at least, through the history of love. What has love meant and been over time? From Abraham’s love for his wife and his son and his God, through the Ramayana and the compassionate Buddha and Jesus and Plato’s philosophy as eros toward wisdom, to Christian chivalry and Buber’s I-Thou—these are stages that reflect My development and My interaction with human beings.
Let’s go to Moses.
Exodus reports that the Israelites “groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their plea from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning, and God remembered [literally, took to heart] His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the Israelites, and God knew.”
“What did You know?”
What I needed to do.
“And what was that?”
Read the next chapter.
“It’s about Moses encountering the burning bush.”
Yes, I had to get his attention. Often I have to put something in people’s paths to get their attention.
“And the Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush, and he saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses thought, ‘Let me, pray, turn aside that I may see this great sight, why the bush does not burn up.’ And the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, and God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’’’
“He reports for duty, ‘Here I am.’”
Moses had the capacity to listen to Me and to obey.
God gives Moses his mission. “And now, go that I may send you to Pharaoh, and bring My people the Israelites out of Egypt.” And Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out the Israelites from Egypt?”
But Moses will not be on his own. “And He said, ‘For I will be with you.’”
Moses protests. “Look, when I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’, what shall I say to them?”
There are various translations of God’s answer, the most revealing of which is by Everett Fox. Moses should tell them “I will be-there” sends me to you. “What does this mean, Lord?”
Several things are going on in that name. I did disclose it and they got it essentially right. Self-disclosure is part of it. Presence is part of it. The fact that I am seen all the time, that I am ever-present to people, communicating with them sotto voce all the time. It is also reassurance, because I am there to help. When you need me, I will be there. It also has something to do with the quality of presence, that I am fully and authentically and immediately and intimately present, as when you say that one person is “more present” than another.
It means that My essence for human beings is that I will be there, be present, that I am a companion and friend and ally; that My very presence is the heart of Me, and is what (the what of Me) human beings need to know, (the what of Me) that matters.
I will be there for you, by your side, in the fight or in the suffering or in the love. I will be a participant and a partner. That is My essence for human beings.