‘You’d never guess that God is love to the point of death.’
Bishop Barron, speaking on The Daily Wire’s Sunday Special podcast this weekend, used these words in relation to the question of rationality and faith. We cannot conclude the Gospels as a result of rational reasoning, the Bishop argued. He likens revelation to human friendship.
The analogy is as follows: if you were to slowly get to know someone, eventually becoming lifelong friends with them, at some point in the course of that relationship, your friend might reveal a fact about themselves that you would have never guessed. At that point, you would have no way of finding conclusive proof of the said fact, but most of us can imagine accepting such a fact. It would be an act of faith, but it would not be a blind ‘leap’, the Bishop explains, this is a mischaracterization of faith as completely opposed to rationality. We would still appreciate the fact as congruent with the rest of what we knew about our old friend – we wouldn’t merely believe whatever they told us about themselves.
Love to the Point of Death
It is the same with the Gospel: we would never have guessed, Bishop Barron says, that ‘God is love to the point of death’ – that is to say, if we had theorised about the nature of God in a vacuum, we would never have come up with the narrative of the Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection. And yet, when it is revealed to us, so many of us intuitively feel that it is right and true– that it makes sense within our greater understanding of and relationship with God.
Quoting Dostoyevsky, Bishop Barron reminds us that ‘real love is a harsh and dreadful thing’ that is ‘love to the point of death’ must not be confused with ‘tolerance’ – the ‘modern virtue’, which is in fact not the virtue Christians are called to (that virtue being ‘love’).
Tough love is ‘a face of love’ that we must sometimes undertake as part of, in Aquinas’ phrasing, ‘love the other as other.’ The Bishop repeats this phrase a lot throughout the interview, speaking in part against the ‘sentimentalisation’ of love. Loving the other as other means making demands of the other, not accepting the other’s failings as inevitable, instead of holding others to divine standards. But also, loving ‘the other as other’ means loving our enemies: wishing the best for them, for their own good, not because it is in our interest to do so.
This is difficult to do today. ‘Kindness’ is hailed as ‘the only thing that matters’ – and it is not a kindness like the one we witness in the Gospels. It’s a kindness grounded on tolerance, on the ironing out of creases, on assimilatory impulses and gravitation towards political homogeneity. Today we are not encouraged to get to know ‘the other’, in fact, we construct virtual communities where we can be sheltered from ever encountering the other: where we can speak with like-minded individuals about the things that draw us together, not the differences. And while this is good and necessary – it can become dangerously unbalanced when not supplemented with in-the-flesh encounters with those who are very different from us, those who we do not agree with – even those who we deem to be in opposition to everything we are called to protect, our enemies.
Loving ‘the other as other’ thus requires a fundamental commitment to seeing the face of Christ in the other – no matter how clearly they look like a sinner. This means seeing the face of Christ in our neighbour who commits wrong – rather than thinking it’s loving to tolerate lifestyles and actions that draw us further from God. It also means seeing the face of Christ in the people we least like, even those who cause profound harm to us or to those in our care. Loving the other not in so far as he is familiar – loving the other in their full ‘otherness’, the alien difference that pushes us away from them.
What better time to practice this than the run-up to the celebration of the Nativity. As God comes to us as a helpless child, he is Incarnate in another: the God of Christmas is not a faceless source of energy, an anonymous spirituality, a ‘Universe’. He is a child who comes to love us ‘as other’. He is a child who will be sacrificed, out of sheer love, love to the point of death. A child with a body and a face that belongs to another – reminding us that we are all called to a love so radical that will mean our own death.