It’s personal – or not at all

Excerpts from Jan-Olav Henriksen, ‘It’s personal-Or Not at All: On God as Love/r’, Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 2011, 50(1), p. 63-70.

Among the most powerful claims in Christian theology is the statement that God is love (1 Jn 4:8). There is also in the same text a strongly articulated connection between human love and God’s love… this claim may make sense from several different angles, all of which imply basic decisions not only about how to understand God, but also how to understand the experienced world from the point of view of Christian faith and theology (p. 63).

Love as a Pathway to God

Love is thus a pathway to knowledge about God. Experience of love is, in one way or another, an experience of God, even if this love is experienced as finite… Love is the positive experiential horizon within which it makes sense to speak of and relate truly to God (p. 64).

Love is always personal. There is no such thing as im-personal love… to experience something as personal is to experience it as something more than a mere thing. A person indicates transcendence and surplus in addition to what is ready at hand…  If we say that love is God, we miss the chance of holding love in the connection with this personal
character—because it is then only the appearances of love that are identified as God. But when we do the opposite, and say that God is personal, and as personal is also love, this statement means that the lens for understanding God is widened considerably, if not infinitely. God is not finite love; God is infinite love—as and because God is personal love. God’s love surpasses our finite experience, but nevertheless can be experienced in our
concrete finite experiences (p.64-65).

To be a Christian and to believe in a personal God who is love then implies a vision of the
world where we can see all that is as an expression of love constantly at work in concrete acts of creation, redemption, and hope… to have faith in God as love is to live in a specific manner in the world – directed from a vision of love, and oriented with love in mind… A further way of giving the conception of God as love experiential content is to focus on how love in one way seems to be an overarching occupation of humans: we want to love, we want to be loved, we hunger for love, and we desire the love of the other… We are defined by our love-stories” (p. 65).

… To understand God as love is thus not a contingent or arbitrary designation of what we mean when we speak about love: love goes to the core of what faith means as a way of being in the world. In a profound manner this is expressed in an interview with Emmanuel Levinas. He says: “Faith is not the question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.” (p. 66)

… it makes sense to talk about God as both love and as personal, even without introducing elements from Christology, simply because love is such a basic aspect of what orients us and opens us to the gifts of life… With the perspective of love as a basis for living, it makes sense to keep on the quest for justice, goodness, and integrity of creation, without giving in to the powers that are threatening the efforts to achieve these aims. In short: to live as if love is the deepest meaning of it all is to live a meaningful life. It requires faith and hope, but these two are made possible from the perspective of love (cf. 1 Cor 13:13). To allow such an understanding of God to come to work—to preach God as a God of love—is accordingly a way of making possible a specific experience of the world and of one’s own life. Hence, to articulate that God is love allows us to see and engage with the world in a new way” (p. 66)

Christ as witness to a God who is Love/r

… Moreover, to see God as person, and thus as love in a manner that surpasses our experience, allows us also to see the world as the continuous process of a creative love, also where the result is not yet at hand. To relate to the world as such a process makes it in turn possible for humans to find their place in the world as free lovers of the universe where God is at work. It allows us to see the importance of love, the impact of love, and to search for new chances for love also where love is lacking, where love is denied to those who are in need of it; and to be ourselves creative in finding ways for love to be articulated. The model for this approach to the world is found in Jesus, who is the true image of God (Col 1:15) (p. 68).

…There is one element in this love-story that may bespeak the character of love and personality more than anything else: the open-endedness of any love-story—including God’s story with us—implies that the parties engaged are in some ways susceptible to the experience of vulnerability. When God becomes human, God is opened up to the vulnerability of a love-story: God might be rejected, God’s desire for community might be rejected, God’s love may fail to constitute full community. … Jesus’ desire for God is the true answer to God’s love for the world: it is by seeking the kingdom of God prior to anything else that something beyond the world can direct our love and open us up to the impossible, to justice, to something more than the mere calculation and return of favors makes possible… The love for God is what can make our desire and love for the world something more than an expression of our own love, desire, and need. By loving God more than any other, we are enabled to love those whom God loves. By loving others as God loves them, we are images of God, and we are conformed to the true image of God, who is Christ (p. 68, 69).


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