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’.” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.
(Join us for our class on the Holy Spirit starting October 18th by registering here https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/student-applications/new)
Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, IV. 12..
 Ibid, IV, 13
 Ibid, IV, 14