Abba – Father as Fulfillment of Cosmic Incorporation

“What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love.” Ludwig Feuerbach – The Essence of Christianity

Ludwig Feuerbach’s notion that God is a projection of human values and needs is a key modern theme. Nietzsche maintains God and religion are a product of the resentments of the weak; Freud teaches us that God-language is really about sex; Marx teaches us that it is an instrument of economics, and Carl Schmitt teaches us that God-language is the structuring principle of the state. Psychoanalysis, atheism, Marxism (Communism and Socialism), fascism, and nationalism, all turn theology on its head, claiming that the theological and divine are really about the human.

The proper theological move is to turn theology back round by reclaiming secular insights: instead of God language being for the weak, weakness is really about God and how God comes to us; instead of God language really being about sex, sex is really about God – the erotic is not over and against agape love but is woven through it and indicates its proper end; instead of religion being an opiate to numb economic oppression, economics and economic justice is all about God; instead of allowing for the modern theory of state to occupy theological concepts and structures, the theological must challenge the sole sovereignty of the state.

This final point, Schmitt’s recognition of the sovereign as the exception which establishes the law and the order of state power, pinpoints the unified theme underlying all of these realms. In each instance, God was marked out as a point of exception, the means of escape, the point of oppression, a tool of legitimation, so that the transcendent concept of God came to occupy the supreme place of power, emptied out of immanent categories and these categories were then turned, in secularism, against his transcendence. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” is not an admission of defeat but a claim of power. The power of state, the power of sex, the power of money, the power of the human psyche, each unleashed from its sun have proven deadly and out of control. Capitalism, nationalism, the state as sovereign, sex as an identity, or simply the manipulation of psychic categories, each have claimed their own legitimating frame in pure power, but in their own way each realm has bottomed out. Which is to say God cannot simply be dropped back into the formula as a continued resource for exploitation. Inasmuch as the God of modern religion is a stop gap, a legitimating source for state power, the exception which establishes the law, the gold standard of capitalism, modern religion is atheistic in its practice.

To truly believe in the Trinitarian God, the Abba of Christ, and the Spirit of love, has economic, sexual, ascetical, psychoanalytic, political, and environmental requirements. God With Us, comes to us in and through the realms of the world and where deity has been evacuated from these realms both God and world are lost for us. Where there is no horizon beyond the economic, the sexual, the ascetic, the psychoanalytic, the political, and even the environmental, this becomes sole horizon. There is no proper ordering of these realms, no telos, but only a random groping as in each instance in money, in sex, in the psychoanalytic, etc. we live and move and have our being and this is not a realm apart or a distinct entity in our life but is our life. On the other hand, to picture God as accessible apart from these realms is not to elevate God, but is to demean him to a projection, an instrument, a justification, an opiate, an abstraction who leaves the world to our power.

The point is not that we understand God on the basis of the categories of the world but the categories of the world are mediated to us on the basis of our understanding of God. For example, we do not understand God as Father on the basis of human fatherhood, but we grasp the meaning of human fatherhood as it mediates to us the Fatherhood of God. But, of course, it is not simply fatherhood per se that pertains to recognizing God, but all things, all categories, all ordering of the world, must pertain to being able to rightly realize the identity of God. We understand what children are, what fathers are, what sex is, what a healthy psyche is, what a proper politic is, and what love is on the basis of rightly integrating God and world in Abba (as in Ro 8:15 and Gal 4:6). I presume the realization of this truth of God and world integrated, is what is conveyed in the proper name given to God, communicated by his Son, and realized through the Spirit. God is integrated into our lives and world, not on the basis of the world but on the basis of who he is in Christ in the world, and it is also on this basis that we receive the world. In the incarnation we receive God in the world and the world and all of its categories are transformed in light of Christ. The world is not too low for God; the womb is not beneath God; eating and working and growing tired and living and dying are transformed by Christ. All that is of the world is taken up by Christ and through the world we are now given divine insight.

God has poured himself into the world and into human experience due to his yearning and love, and he draws all things back into himself through this same yearning. So, for example, we can say with Dionysius, that human desire originates in divine yearning and that the basis and end of eros is agape: “let us not fear this title of ‘yearning,’ nor be upset . . . for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard ‘yearning’ (eros) and love (agape) as having one and the same meaning.”[1] The desire of love pertains to ultimate reality, to God himself, as source and substance (as I have described it here). But this is an understanding that opens up every phase of human subjectivity and experience. The erotic or embodied as agape points to the deepest and earliest phases of human subjectivity as the groundwork of the divine. Just as the erotic rightly ordered is the root of agape, so too all unconscious/conscious origins of development, though we may know only of their disorder, must serve as ground and structure of divine love. As Dionysius puts it, through excessive yearning of his Goodness he is transported outside Himself “to dwell with the heart of all things”:

hence this universe, which is both One and Many; the conjunctions of parts together; the unities underlying all multiplicity, and the perfections of the individual wholes; hence Quality, Quantity, Magnitude and Infinitude; hence fusions and differentiations, hence all infinity and all limitation; all boundaries, ranks, transcendences, elements and forms, hence all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion—in a word, all, that is comes from the Beautiful and Good, hath its very existence in the Beautiful and Good, and turns towards the Beautiful and Good.[2]

All perception, all intuition, all development is in and through and drawn toward His goodness. It is only where this flow and development is stopped short or stunted that the disorder of sin enters in. This principle of sin, a misorientation toward the law, would interject law in place of God and might be described as a misperception of God’s fatherhood. God or the law is pictured as a delimiting factor or a point of proscription. The law is taken as an end in and of itself and God perceived through this law does not beget, desire, or engender but forbids and disrupts. Just as rightly ordering the world is summed up in the realization of Abba-Father, so too the disordering of sin is summed up in the failed orientation of perceiving God through the law.

Without recounting the details of this failure, I presume this stands behind Paul’s culminating point of the Gospel found in the name Abba. The realization of God as Father puts right, not simply the failure of earthly fathers and mothers, but it completes compliments and teaches a true form of subjectivity by locating the human subject in the Trinitarian Subject. Just as Christ calls God “Abba,” we take up this relationship through the Son and the Spirit and this relationship re-appropriates and fulfills the worldly order. This order displaces the monism and pantheism of the world as mother (the law of oneness), and it escapes punishing patriarchy (the binary law of difference). It is in the Trinity, in the place of the Son that brings out the cry “Abba,” through the Spirit. This is not a law-like relationship imposed from outside but describes an interpenetrating realization of true subjectivity. Kittel notes, “Jewish usage shows how this Father-child relationship to God far surpasses any possibilities of intimacy assumed in Judaism, introducing indeed something which is wholly new.”[3]

As John explains, No one has seen God at any time but God the only Son who abides in the bosom of the Father has made him known or explained him (Jn 1:18). As both Galatians and Romans explains it, the Son is born under the law so as to deliver the future sons and daughters from enslavement to sin under the law. In both Romans and Galatians, the shift from slave to adopted child is realized in the heart cry induced by the Spirit: “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6-7). The explanation and the adoption accomplished through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in Paul’s explanation, confronts the lie of sin in regard to the law and defeats the enslaving death dealing orientation. The Abba relationship to God involves all of the work of Christ but it must also involve every aspect of human subjectivity. Paul pictures it as involving the conscious and unconscious self; it addresses the punishing and enslaving aspect of the law taken up into the self and replaces this form of subjectivity with one who is able to imitate Christ.

The Abba relationship and naming of the Father is specific to the work of the Son and the fulfillment of the Spirit, such that to change the name (for example, to Mother) would seem to miss both the universal father problem of the law and the cosmic answer to this problem found in Christ. To erase, evade, or change the name would seem to create the danger of falling back into or failing to be extracted from the original predicament. This in not to occlude the feminine characteristics of God, as it is precisely where we encounter the mothering, birthing, nurturing images of God in the Holy Spirit that the Abba relationship is made possible. This Abba relationship must be a fulfillment of the child’s early concept of mother/father as the unified source engendering one’s individuality. The child’s development is not unlike Paul’s depiction of the Spirit’s (feminine) engendering of sonship as enabling the Abba relationship.

 In conclusion, the development of human subjectivity in all of its stages, known and unknown, along with “all Being, all Power, all Activity, all Condition, all Perception, all Reason, all Intuition, all Apprehension, all Understanding, All Communion” comes from God and turns all things toward God. This pull of divine desire is realized in the Abba relationship, a fulfillment of the specific work of Christ as it overcomes the universal problem (a perceived problem of father) in a cosmic and universal human incorporation into the family of God.    

[1] Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12.

[2] Dionysius, IV. 10.

[3] Kittel, G. (1964–). ἀββᾶ. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, p. 6). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

The Love of the Spirit as Fulfillment of the Erotic

What is up for question or doubt in believing (or not) in the teaching of the New Testament, does not primarily concern the existence of a deity but of immediate experience. What order of experience is true? What is the nature of the reality to which I should entrust myself? God as love, in John’s definition, translates into an immediate ethic and experience. The real question is whether I give priority to this experience. It is not that I do not otherwise have access to the experience but is this a reality which should shape the course of my life, my ambition, my sense of self, my desire?

To state it in these terms, the question is no longer simply an issue of belief in God, as the priority given to a particular experience factors into conception of God and vice versa. Even the picture of God in the Bible might be construed as focused on his righteous requirements, on his honor and respect, or on his omniscience and omnipotence. This focus may give rise to a very different set of ethical priorities and prioritize a very different sort of experiential reality. My “getting right with God” might be such that focus is upon being rightly aligned with the church, being a believer, being upstanding, etc. God might be perceived as beyond experience and experience itself (no matter what it might be) rendered secondary to belief, doctrine, or ethics.

However, if we are made for love, and it is in love that we come to know the ultimate reality of God and ourselves, this means if we miss this, we have been duped about our immediate experience. We are accorded the opportunity to enter into the presence of God, to experience the very depths of glory, to know the world as a paradise, and to fail in this is the human tragedy.

If we read the Gospels in this light, then the various episodes and characters can be read as opening the facets of the problem and cure. So, for example, in John the episode of Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman are set side by side, with the Samaritan woman at a marked advantage over Nicodemus, from which we can draw definitive conclusions.

Nicodemus, a “teacher of Israel” a “leading Jew,” seems incapable of understanding the language of desire, conception, and new birth. He is at the height of success and he seems to be an example of why those shaped by the norms of society are the most deceived. One must earn a living, find security, achieve fulfillment and success; this “immediate reality” does not lend itself to cultivating love or the traits and characteristics aligned with love. Jesus requires of Nicodemus a radical change (which he fails to make according to the end of John), where the Samaritan Woman is depicted as entering immediately into belief.

Her thirst/desire problem is not an obstacle per se, as it is her thirst which causes her to share a cup with Jesus and by which means he directs her to himself – the singular means of quenching her thirst/desire. In a sense, she is well prepared for hearing Jesus’ message as she has been looking to fulfill her desire. Maybe she has presumed sex or marriage are the ultimate means of satisfaction, when she needed to look further.

As Dionysius the Areopagite notes, there is no necessity to keep eros and agape separate: “let us not fear this title of ‘yearning’, nor be upset . .  . for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard “yearning” (eros) and love (agape) as having one and the same meaning’.”[1] Physical love or eros, according to Dionysius, may be “partial” and “divided” or a “lapse” falling short of divine yearning but nonetheless it is a point of entry into agape love. “The fact is that men are [initially] unable to grasp the simplicity of the one divine yearning, and, hence, the term is quite offensive to most of them.”

In fact, doesn’t this describe the difference between the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus? His is a repressed desire, such that he is totally cut off from the inherent reality – the divine reality contained in the erotic. Her open desire is easily directed to Christ. “The divine Wisdom” teaches what true yearning is through erotic love: “it is clear to us that many lowly men think there is something absurd in the lovely verse: “Love for you came on me like love for women.” Where discussion of sex and marriage lead naturally, in the woman’s discussion with Jesus, to having this desire of hers fulfilled, there is no such opening in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus.

Though her yearning may be misplaced or divided (between five men), Dionysius teaches that “touched thereby” with desire one no longer belongs to themselves but have come to belong to the object of their affection. The trick is locating the proper object and source of affection. Dionysius pictures Paul’s statement “I live, and yet not I but Christ liveth in me” as the end point of being constrained by the “Divine Yearning”: “true Sweetheart that he was and (as he says himself) being beside himself unto God, and not possessing his own life but possessing and loving the life of Him for Whom he yearned.”[2]

This sort of yearning is not simply human but has its origin in God:

we must dare to affirm (for ‘tis the truth) that the Creator of the Universe Himself, in His Beautiful and Good Yearning towards the Universe, is through the excessive yearning of His Goodness, transported outside of Himself in His providential activities towards all things that have being, and is touched by the sweet spell of Goodness, Love and Yearning, and so is drawn from His transcendent throne above all things, to dwell within the heart of all things, through a super-essential and ecstatic power whereby He yet stays within Himself.

The desire of love pertains to ultimate reality, to God himself, as source and substance. To love is to experience God. So, even divided and partial yearning is a primer to this undivided and complete reality. “In short, both the Yearning and its Object belong to the Beautiful and the Good, and have therein their pre-existent roots and because of it exist and come into being.”[3] In the one instance, “God is the Cause,” “Producer,” and “Begetter,” and in the other he is the thing itself: “He moves and leads onward Himself unto Himself.” He is the Object of Love and Yearning, as the Beautiful and Good, but he is also Yearning and Love – the “Motive-Power” leading all things to Himself. Dionysius pictures an endless circle “for the Good, from the Good, in the Good, and to the Good, with unerring revolution, never varying its centre or direction, perpetually advancing and remaining and returning to Itself.”[4]

It may be, as with the Samaritan Woman, desire needs to be redirected and reordered but hers was an experience upon which to enter into the “endless circle of love.” Certainly, her conception of the erotic is turned round – sex is no longer ultimate but is a pointer to God. Desire for unity, love, merging with others, is a more basic reality than sex and gender but the ontological reality toward which she/we are drawn is interwoven throughout the earthly and physical.

It is Christ that transforms and redirects the erotic to “spiritual worship,” summed up by John as love and made possible by the Spirit: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). And “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13) – the Spirit of love.

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[1]Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12..

[2] Ibid, IV, 13

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, IV, 14