The God who makes himself vulnerable for us

For my spirituality blog this month, I am venturing into a new territory which is as much a book review as a spiritual reflection. The book in question is ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’, by W. H. Vanstone. This has had an enormous influence on my life as a minister and in the way I view the world.

Vanstone begins his account in a reminiscence of two boys who were staying with him over a half-term holiday. The boys were bored and had nothing to do. Then Vanstone had the idea of recreating the landscape, in the form of a model, where he and the boys had holidayed in Ireland the year before.

I suggested that they might make a model of an area around a waterfall in the West of Ireland which both they and I had recently visited: I explained how a model might be made out of stones and twigs and plaster and paint. I offered them a room in which to work, and I told them where they might find the necessary materials.
My suggestion made no great appeal, and it was taken up out of courtesy rather than enthusiasm. Enthusiasm was even less when the two had assembled their rather unattractive raw materials of stones from the street, dead twigs and old paint in dirty cans. Nevertheless they began to work that same morning; returned in the afternoon and again in the evening; and by the end of the day they had something that they wanted to show me. Something was beginning to take shape.

 

The boys carried on working with real enthusiasm over the next three days. Vanstone began to look in on them, observing the process and progress of their labours:

I observed how the placing of each stone and twig was a matter for careful discussion. Each was, as it were, surveyed and its possibilities assessed. One would be split or cut so that it would fit a certain place. It would be placed: and then would come the moment of waiting to see if it was ‘right’. It would be agreed that a certain stone should be painted to give it the appearance of mass: and it would be agreed that a certain mixture of paint was right. But still one had to wait and see whether the stone would take the paint without distorting its colour; and again whether, when placed, the painted stone looked ‘right’… In everything there was the possibility both of ‘difficulty’ and ‘coming right’: and the full possibility of each fragment must be discovered and tried in relation to other fragments.

Vanstone noticed how important the construction of the model was becoming to the boys.

As the model grew and became of greater value, each step in its creation became of greater moment, and was taken with greater intensity of care… The two workers came to have, as it were, less room for manoeuvre: they worked less but watched and waited more.

For Vanstone this was an enthralling process and, even before the model was completed, he began to systematise and theorise about what he had seen:

As I watched this microcosm of creative activity, and as I later reflected upon it, three things gradually became evident to me. The first was that, in such activity, there was both working and waiting. One could say that the activity of creating included the passivity of waiting – of waiting upon one’s workmanship to see what emerged from it, and to see if that which emerged was ‘right’. The second, which followed from the first was that, in such activity… the creator gave to, or built into, his workmanship a certain power over himself. He gave to his workmanship that which, if it were not his workmanship, it would not possess a power to affect himself, to have value, significance or importance for himself. The third which followed from the second, was that in such activity, disproportion between creator and workmanship, or between creator and material, was overcome by the gift of value. That which in itself was nothing was transformed, in the creative process, into a new thing of value: as the work of a creator, it received a new status in relation to the creator. The incongruity between the great and the small was overcome when the creativity of the great was expended in and upon the small.

 

The engagement and concentration of the two boys is what had caught Vanstone’s attention and admiration. He compares the difference between a model made in a factory and sold in a shop, or between the work of a skilled craftsman constructing a well-made model in a few minutes, and the work of the two boys. The first two would be all well and good, but they would not rival the profound attachment and sheer delight felt by the boys in their own efforts and the skill that had been elicited from them in their own self-giving in the model’s construction. Indeed, Vanstone states:

For the self-giving built into the model I could find no simple word or name but love. It was love which had overcome the disproportion between the creators and their workmanship, between human beings and sticks from the dustbin or stones from the gutter.

 

After describing the incident of the model Vanstone goes on to formulate what he calls the ‘Phenomenology of Love’. He begins by contrasting authentic love and inauthentic love.

… we discover three marks or signs which are recognised as denying the authenticity of love. The first is the mark of limitation. That which professes to be love is exposed as false if it is recognised as limited. Another name is given to it – the name of ‘kindness’ or ‘benevolence’. ‘Kindness’ under its own name is usually welcome: but it becomes an affront when it masquerades as love… When love is expected, no kindness, however lavish, satisfies: for it is known that, however much is given, something is being withheld…

 

The second mark which denies the authenticity of love is the mark of control. When one who professes to love is wholly in control of the object of his love, then the falsity of love is exposed. Love is an activity for the sake of an ‘other’: and where the object of love is wholly under the control of the one who loves that object is no longer an ‘other’. It is a part or extension of the professed lover – an extension of himself… Where the object is truly an ‘other’, the activity of love is always precarious… The precariousness of love is experienced, subjectively, in the tense passivity of ‘waiting’. For the completion of its endeavour, for its outcome as triumph or tragedy, love must wait.

The third mark which denies the authenticity of love is the mark of detachment – of self-sufficiency unaffected and unimpaired in one who professes to love… Where love is authentic, the lover gives to the object of his love a certain power over himself – a power which would not otherwise be there…
We have detected three marks by which the falsity of love is exposed – the mark of limitation, the mark of control and the mark of detachment.

Vanstone then goes on to apply these insights to the operation of God in creation. The creativity of God is seen to reflect the direct opposite of these three marks of inauthentic love: the creativity of God is limitless; it is precarious and it is vulnerable. Vanstone sees these three definitions of God’s creativity as being the primary characteristics of God’s self-emptying in creation and in the passion of Christ. Vanstone culminates his analysis of the love of God by linking God’s creation of the universe with the redemption wrought in Christ:

The Kenosis of God (the out-pouring of his love) means that, for the being of the universe, the being of God is totally expended, without residue and without reserve: expended in endless and precarious endeavour of which the issue, as triumph or tragedy has passed from His hands to depend upon the response which his love receives… Redemption, indeed, is a part of creation – it is the task of ‘winning back’ which is ever-present in the risk of creativity: and the Word of God by Whom the heavens were made, is the same Word of God who ‘suffered to redeem our loss.’

 

Vanstone provided for me an incredibly full and rich description of what has happened and is happening in the relationship between God and his creation and between God and humankind, both individually and communally. I have called this the ‘sweaty God’ view of the love of God. Too often we think of God as being aloof and unaffected the human condition. Vanstone points the way to a God intimately involved with us, and capable of being bruised by our sinfulness and by our self-isolation.

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