Love as Ultimate Respect

???????????????????????????????????????????We saw that the substance of faith and hope consists of actions on the part of God. (See Faith as Faithfulness and Hope as Inheritance.) The substance of faith is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ fidelity to the Heavenly Father and all humanity in dying on the cross and rising from the dead. The substance of hope moves further back in time, to the beginning of time, in that hope is grounded in God’s adopting all people as adopted sons and daughters to inherit the vineyard God laid out at the dawn of creation. Love goes further back past the beginning of time to Eternity. It is God’s love that was poured out at the Creation of the world. In God’s eyes, the “vast expanse of interstellar space,” as Eucharist Canon C in the Book of Common Prayer has it, is small in God’s eyes, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut” as Julian of Norwich images it. But God loves that little thing and “in this way everything hath its being by the love of God.” Julian goes on to explain, based on her visions, that God loves “that little thing” so much that when that little thing in the form of a servant goes on a mission and falls into a ditch, God sends a second servant to get the fallen one back out of the ditch, an act that causes all of the dirt and grime of the pit to stain the clothes of the saving servant. So it is that Julian is convinced that it was love and pity that motivated the Father to send the servant to suffer for the fallen one and that there was no trace of wrath whatever in the process.

God’s love precedes and quickens God’s deeds. God’s love transcends time and will never end and will certainly never change, but the effects of God’s love in time can change. We see this with the actions of embracing the cross on Jesus’ part and in the process of inheritance. It is this abiding act of love that we are invited to participate in as the means of being clothed in God’s Desire.

Rebecca Adams, a feminist colleague of Girard, offers us a compelling articulation of what God’s love is all about. In an act of authorial generosity (more love in action) Vern Redekop created space in his fine book From Violence to Blessing for Adams to articulate her understanding of love at some length. It was Adams who, noting how Girard tends to stress the negative side of mimetic desire, prodded him in an interview to admit that there was such a thing as “positive mimesis” where mimetic desire works among humans for constructive and humane purposes.

Interestingly, Adams gained her inspiration from a Star Trek episode where the pivotal character is a metamorph from another planet. A metamorph is all mimetic desire to the extent that such a person is incapable of any subjectivity so as to be nothing but a perfect mirror of the other’s desires. Such a culture is mimetic desire gone mad. We can see that however mimetic desire works, it is not intended by God to be the destruction of the core of another’s personhood. This metamorph, a woman, is a pawn in an interplanetary marriage arrangement where she will be married to a callous corrupt official. Captain Picard of the Star Trek crew wants to save her from this fate but she can’t even imagine wanting any other alternative, let alone fight for it. Picard solves the problem by desiring that the metamorph have a subjectivity of her own. Because of her susceptibility, she is so engulfed in Picard’s desire that she does begin to desire a subjectivity for herself and thus achieves the beginning of independence. This is sort of like being the “tiny little thing” becoming a hazel nut with the potential to grow into something large (like the mustard seed becoming a large tree). Picard proves to be a fine model of willing the subjectivity of another person, something he must have been doing habitually with the people in his life all along.

Adams sees this Star Trek episode as providing a third alternative to attempting to be autonomous or having a subjectivity completely derived from another. This relational willing of the subjectivity between persons gives each “the capacity to participate fully in a loving dynamic of giving and receiving in relation to others.” This willing of the subjectivity of another is something that will spread so that if two people “start desiring not only their own and each other’s subjectivity,” they will also “desire the subjectivity of others as well.” p. 267) As opposed to the closed system of mimetic rivalry, we have an “open system of intersubjectivity with its own creative, generative dynamic which potentially could expand to include everyone and everything.” God, of course, already and always wills the subjectivity of all. This helps to explain why I insist that respect is the essential prerequisite to love. (See Respect.) Adams’ vision is a model of love is ultimate respect for the other, a respect that gives the other a self as a gift as we all receive a self from God as gift. When respect reaches this level, we can say that it has become love grounded in God’s Desire. It is also what Paul admonishes us to in Romans 12: 12: “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”

There is one thought that gives me pause. What if the subjectivity of another person is evil. Adams can’t possibly mean to embrace such an evil subjectivity. For one thing, the mutuality is lost because an abuser tries to destroy the subjectivity of another rather than will it to flourish. Besides, Adams says that she has suffered such abuse so clearly she does not affirm this kind of subjectivity. On the contrary, this experience has taught her the importance of respecting the other’s subjectivity as a mutual process. However, the question that poses itself is: does an abusive person have a subjectivity, or much of one? If all of us can truly be a self when that self is received as gift, then anyone who tries to take away the self of another inevitably takes away one’s own self at the same time. This mutual losing of selves is what happens in the dissolution of advanced mimetic rivalry.

The great author of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien can help us here. In The Lord of the Rings he powerfully portrays the emptiness of evil in the ringwraiths and Sauron whom they serve. The ringwraiths have enough substance to be covered with black cloaks, ride black horses, and try to seek out the ring bearer who happens to be the hobbit Frodo. But there is otherwise no substance to the ringwraiths just as there is no substance to Sauron who wishes to repossess the ring of ultimate power and bind everyone and everything to his own empty desire. We see the same destruction of hobbithood in Gollum who is just as consumed with desire for the ring as Sauron.

Can one possibly will the subjectivity of a ringwraith or Sauron or Gollum? Frodo does respect the subjectivity of Gollum to the extent that he feels enough pity that he will not kill the creature no matter how painful Gollum’s constant nagging presence is. It is this pity and not Frodo’s strength to destroy the ring, which in the end he does not have, that saves the day, for it is when Gollum grabs the ring from Frodo and falls into the volcano that the ring is destroyed. Gollum is pitiable, but can we try to will subjectivity for Sauron? I would answer “yes” with much trepidation for I can hardly imagine going up to a ringwraith to offer him a dose of subjectivity let alone Sauron. Even Captain Picard would be challenged to be this brave. But God does will that a person empty of a self receive a self as a gift so as to be a self. When God so offer the likes of Sauron a self, we can tiptoe into God’s offer to share in it in our own small ways. At this point, love as ultimate respect is forgiveness, another gift of God grounded in God’s love. Let us not speculate on whether or not Sauron ever consents to receive a self from God. Let us ask ourselves if we are willing to receive this ultimate respect ourselves from God and offer it to others.

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Respect (3)

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe situation of the cellarer of the monastery providing for people who depend on his solicitude is quite the opposite of the person who approaches God in prayer “humbly and respectfully.” The cellarer himself would be on the other end of the stick on this one. Here is the danger of projecting worldly power on God when God is approached humbly and respectfully. If we picture God as a whimsical potentate who grants favors or withholds them in plays of power the way we do if and when we get a chance, then we slip into playing these power games with people who depend on us. This is precisely what Benedict forbids the cellarer to do. Benedict forbids such behavior because it goes against the Gospel.

St, Benedict famously insists that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Benedict goes on to quote Matthew 25 to emphasize the point. Likewise, the cellarer, in attended to fellow monastics and guests should do the same. Benedict also says that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” Once again, Benedict quotes Matthew 25. “The Lord of all things” whom we approach in prayer with our needs, who is greater than “a powerful man” from whom we might ask a favor, identifies with the humans who approach us in need.

We all have a hard time respecting people in positions subordinate to us, especially if they are needy. We instinctively look down on them because we think we are the ones with something to give or withhold. In other words, were are in the winning position and we like it that way. However, if Christ assumes the “losing” position, and Christ is the King whom we should obey, then we should be obedient to the needs of others in a respectful way. We might say that Christ makes other people respectable even if they have no respectability within themselves. The implication of this, of course, is that we also lack respectability within ourselves and it is Christ who gives us respectability.

The theological principal for saying that a person is entitled to respect just for being a human being is that we are each made in the image of God. That is true, but Christ’s identification with each person in need, and we all are in need in some ways at some times, is superadded to our creation in God’s image. This super-addition is based on Christ’s redemption of us, Christ’s having died for us. Since Christ died for everybody, Christ identifies with everybody. By identifying with each of us, Christ takes the rivalry out of the relationship. The way we relate to one another has nothing to do with winning, with having the upper hand in some way. Christ has leveled the playing field. Christ is focused on the needs of each one of us. That means Christ is focused on our own needs and also the needs of the people we encounter. It is doing what we can with another’s needs and having a kind word when we can’t. (And we often can’t fill another’s needs.) In all this, we participate in Christ’s respect for us, which makes us more respectable than we were.

Respect (2)

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[A continuation of Respect (1)]

The importance of respect can be easily seen when we think of routine encounters. Love is too freighted a term for the way we interact with, say, the person at the checkout counter of a store. It is obvious that courtesy and respect are called for but not love as it rests (and twists and turns) in the popular imagination. We all know how much we appreciate doing business with people who are respectful and how much we avoid doing business with those who aren’t. In such cases, respect isn’t much of a feeling but it is a set of actions and a manner of speaking. Although receiving respectful treatment gives us a low grade sense of well-being, disrespectful treatment tends to make us instantly angry and all sense of respect flies out the window or through the wall. Disrespect makes the smallest exchanges seem big and highly significant while we don’t think of much of respectful encounters. The thing is, both respect and disrespect are highly contagious but the latter is especially so. We tend to think we are owed respect just for being people and feel violated if we are not treated respectfully. Yet we are apt to think other people should earn our respect. This looks like a double standard but I can sympathize. This sort of attitude comes naturally to me. However, if God’s unconditional love for us is taken as a model for human relationships, it follows that we should give unconditional respect, which is harder. We can fool ourselves into thinking we only hate the sin but love the sinner, but how about respecting the sinner while hating the sin?

The chapter on the Cellarer of the monastery in the Rule of St. Benedict (Chapter 31) is the most concise and articulate view of respect and courtesy that I know. The cellarer is the monk responsible for providing for the community and guests. To do that, he needs to respect the tools and all other material goods to the extent of treating them as if they were “sacred vessels of the altar.” Here is an indication of the continuum from respect to God in prayer to respect for material reality in one’s work. The cellarer should provide “the allotted amount of food without any pride or delay lest they be led astray.” That is, the cellarer should be respectful of the needs of others and should not take advantage of his position to play petty power games with people the way some bureaucrats will with their tiny turfs. The Latin for “leading them astray” is scandalizaverit which means scandalize, place a stumbling block before the other. “Scandal” is a word imported from the Greek New Testament and is the word Jesus used when he warned against causing his “little ones” to stumble, a verse Benedict goes on to quote. Jesus and Benedict are alerting us to a human tendency that René Girard has more recently pointed to: the human tendency to make oneself a stumbling block for another by making a simple encounter a contest of wills. This is precisely what Benedict wants the cellarer to avoid. (I discuss scandal in Girard and Benedict in my book Tools for Peace.)

On the contrary, if the cellarer does not have a requested item, he should “offer a king word in reply.” When I was guestmaster for the monastery, there were times when I did not have room to accept any more guests and I kept this admonition in mind and tried to speak kindly and give encouragement for coming at another time. If the cellarer should be the one who suffers discourtesy, he should “reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.” The onus is on the cellarer to stem an escalation of disrespect by treating even a disrespectful person with respect.

Continued in Respect (3)

Respect (1)

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyHumility and respect are the two fundamental attitudes that are most conducive to living constructively with mimetic desire and avoiding its more destructive potential. Both attitudes need to be habitual dispositions to be effective. Such habitual dispositions are not automatic the way many habits (especially bad habits) tend to be. They need to be renewed every day, every hour, or they will fall away.

Although St. Benedict attaches great importance to outward action, both in manual work and what he calls “the Work of God,” i.e. the Divine Office, Benedict also attaches much importance to the inner disposition supporting these outward observances. In his short chapter 20, “Reverence in Prayer,” Benedict says: “Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion.” When the Gospel is read at the end of Sunday Matins, the worshippers should “stand with respect and awe.” After each psalm, we should stand in honor of the Trinity.

Humility and respect are so intertwined that it is hard to separate them. They are inseparable in the sense that one cannot have one without the other. However, there is some distinction between them in that respect is directed towards the other, whether God or our neighbor whereas humility is rooted in the self. I want to deal with respect first and then move on to humility.

The first question that comes to mind is: Why respect instead of love? Isn’t Love the primary Christian virtue? Yes, love in the sense of agape is the primary Christian virtue but I think we need to start with respect. It is a case of serving milk before solid food to make sure we are ready for it, trained “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). That is, respect is a prerequisite for love. If we try to leapfrog this prerequisite, there is a real possibility of mistaking lust and other noxious attitudes for love. A tragic example in the Bible is Amnon. He probably thought he loved Absalom’s sister Tamar but his use of force to rape her and his callous rejection of her afterwards makes it clear he had no respect for her and therefore no love. Love is often spoken of as a conquest or an attempt at one. Amnon conquered Tamar through a clever but devilish plot. Don Giovanni made such conquests by the hundreds If Leperello is to be believed. But does Don Giovanni show respect for Donna Anna, Donna Elvira or Zerlina in Mozart’s great opera? Not in your life. What erroneously passes for love sidesteps respect entirely and sidesteps love as well.

One never tries to win respect by conquest. There is no contest with respect, neither is there any mimetic rivalry in respect. Whereas love without respect tries to woo another person into conformity to one’s feelings for that other, respect does no such thing. Respect does not require that another person feel the way I do about anything. Respect is about relating to another, not winning anything. Maybe relating doesn’t seem like much compared to conquering another person. Actually, relating is quite an accomplishment because it involves conquering oneself.

Continued in Respect (2)

Respecting All Things that God has Made

buddingTree1The Book of Common Prayer gives us an important focus for Lent by starting the collect for the Ash Wednesday Eucharist with “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of those who are penitent.” So often, we blame the material world for our sins and then hate what God has made which God also loves. In a sense, the material world becomes a scapegoat for our own disordered desires. If we eat too much, it isn’t really the fault of the food, though we quickly blame it for our own lack of self-control. Women, of course, have been blamed for being “tempting” as if it is their responsibility to control the desires of men while men need take no responsibility for themselves.

To complicate the picture, René Girard has demonstrated many times in his books that our desires are intertwined with the desires of others in a dense network of mutual imitation. If we become ensnared in desires for certain things or certain people because others desire them, we are in a frustrating situation and, again, it becomes convenient to blame the other people and other things for the pickle we are in.

We need to remember that God is our model for perfect love for all that God has made. That means that, unlike Zeus and many other mythological deities, God does not lust after humans but loves all humans with perfect respect. The more we respect other people and all things in the world, the more restraint we have in relation to them. So it is that when we repent and turn to God, we also turn to all things and to all people that God has made with new respect and love.

A Way of Meeting with Others

commonRoomOne of the more remarkable and attractive chapters in the Rule of St. Benedict is Chapter Two: “Summoning the Brothers [and Sisters] for Counsel.” Although Benedict was not so democratic as to have matters put up to a majority vote (as most modern monastic constitutions are), Benedict considered it essential that the abbot listen to all members of the community before making a decision. In my time as abbot of my community, I am profoundly grateful for the suggestions and cautions from my fellow monks on numerous occasions. Most writings on the Rule remind us that the first word is “Listen.” Much is made of the need to listen to God and to then to others, especially the superior, as a means of listening to God. Here, Benedict reminds the abbot to listen to the community. Given the toxic atmosphere of much debate in political and religious matters, I cannot stress enough to importance of listening as a first principle to healing the exchange of thoughts and opinions.

We can make it easier for others to listen to us by expressing ourselves in a way that makes it easier for them to listen. Benedict says that we will do this if we “express [our] opinions with all humility, and not presume to defend [our] own views obstinately.” If we take a moment to think about how hard it is to listen to a person who does the opposite of what Benedict enjoins here, we will see the importance of this admonition. More important, when we express our views humbly and without obstinacy, it is easier to be focused on the issue rather than our relationships with other people which, in the course of debate, tend to become more competitive than constructive. Benedict would have us discern the right thing to do, not strive to gain the most debating points.

Even more startling than the foregoing: Benedict says that the reason the whole community should be called together is because “the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.” This is not an over-idealization of young people, but is a salutary reminder that the points of view of marginal people, which includes the young, may prove to be vital to a right discernment. Our tendency is to push those we consider marginal to the margins, usually while assuming that we are not marginal.

Issues such as gun control and immigration reform being debated right now are complicated and require careful thinking and expression that is most fruitfully done humbly with a heart that listens to ourselves, to others, and to God.

These ideas are developed at greater length in my book Tools for Peace.