God is Love. And We Must Love Each Other
A month or so ago, I became aware (I forget how) of Nick Cave. I had never heard of the Australian singer, songwriter, poet, and author before this, nor had I ever listened to his band (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). Actually, scratch that. His song Red Right Hand is the theme song for Peaky Blinders. And apparently a song called O Children made an appearance in a Harry Potter movie. So, I guess I’ve heard him before, but only accidentally. It wasn’t his music that grabbed my attention a month ago, but the title of his new book: Faith, Hope, and Carnage. Quite a title, that one. The kind of title that might incline someone to do a bit of digging around.
So, I did. And I discovered an in-some-ways typical rock and roll singer, certainly, but also a man of some spiritual depth. A flat out great writer. A man who has suffered incredibly, losing his 15-year-old son Arthur who fell from a cliff near Brighton, England seven years ago—a loss that he says defined and defines him. A man who seems to have tapped into some profound insight into the nature of reality—that life comes out of death, that rebirth and resurrection come out of an “annihilation of the self.” A man who is both deeply suspicious of many of the toxic assumptions and technologies and discursive patterns of our age and yet at the same time remains open and honest and generous to those around him. A rare and hopeful combination, that one.
Next Sunday, I will begin my sixth annual Faith Questions sermon series in our little church. It’s a series where questions asked by members of the congregation set my preaching agenda between Epiphany and Lent (and sometimes beyond). It’s a challenge to respond well to hard questions, but it’s one worth engaging in, in my view. Nick Cave seems to agree. Last week I discovered his website called The Red Hand Files where he simply responds to fans’ questions. Himself. In writing. The questions range from the relatively trivial (why haven’t you posted anything lately?) to some of the biggest questions a human being could ask about God and goodness and grief and loss.
Like this one from Sue in Paris, for example: “In your opinion, what is God?” I’ve been pondering Cave’s response ever since I read it last week:
God is love, which is why I have difficulty relating to the atheist position. Every one of us, even the most spiritually resistant, yearns for love, whether we realise it or not. And this yearning calls us forever toward its objective—that we must love each other. We must love each other. And mostly I think we do—or we live in very close proximity to the idea, because there is barely any distance between a feeling of neutrality toward the world and a crucial love for it, barely any distance at all. All that is required to move from indifference to love is to have our hearts broken. The heart breaks and the world explodes in front of us as a revelation.
All that is required to move from indifference to love is to have our hearts broken. I think Cave is right about this. If I think about the times in my life when I have felt the most attentive to God, the most open to my fellow human beings, the most receptive, the least judgmental and reactionary and defensive, the kindest… it’s been when my heart is broken. When the sadness of someone’s story has cracked me open. When I’ve reached the outer limits of myself and come to realize that there are some things that I simply cannot fix. When I have encountered death in any of its guises.
These are the times when it becomes obvious to me that there is a love that must transcend and transform all of this. There must be a love that is the ground zero for this antithetical response of mine. There must be a love that will one day overwhelm all the carnage, all that is ugly and idolatrous and false in this world and in myself. There must be a love that reduces all of my best ideas and proud doctrines and self-righteous moralizing to ash in the wind. There must be a love that heals all. A love promises that, to quote the great theologian Samwise Gamgee, “everything sad is going to come untrue.”
I read another (much different) post recently called “What You Get Is the World” by Michael Sacasas. It’s an analysis of our increasingly inability to attend well to the world. Sacasas is (quite rightly) worried about what our technology is doing to us, how it is shaping our habits, how it is changing our experience of the world and each other. A quote stood out to me:
We’ve somehow stumbled into a crisis of desire. Our techno-economic order takes the shape of a great engine of desire, training us to want what it offers and encouraging us to forget our deep desire for that which cannot be bought.
That language of “crisis of desire” resonates with me. I think he is absolutely right. I think what people like Nick Cave and Michael Sacasas in their very different ways are pointing to is our desperate need to attend differently in the world. To our lives. To those we love. To those whom God has given us to tend. To our vocations. To the haunting silences that are still possible if we would just unplug on occasion. To our pain. To death. These things all speak, if we would listen. These things all point to the one great and glorious truth of the cosmos (and its corollary).
God is love. And we must love each other. We must never forget or bury too deep these desires for that which cannot be bought.
The last word, in this first post of 2023, goes to Nick Cave:
We set out on a journey, and that journey can be long and very hard, for the light is often buried deep, emerging from the darkness. We labour to improve our relationship with God, whoever or whatever that may be…
We commend ourselves to God and the world as radical beings of value. We stand before the world, in all its majesty and torment, and say, “we mean something”—we, who contribute in some way toward the betterment of the world; we, who have skin in the game; we, who improve matters; we, who care.
The image above is called Encounter by William Butler. It is the image chosen for the season of Epiphany in the 2022-23 Christian Seasons Calendar.