There’s a popular urban legend that the Eskimo have many words for snow. It’s kind of like saying “Europeans have many words for water” — there is more than one language among the Inuit, and even within one language, often various words are employed to describe similar phenomena: think of the English words river, rain and ocean, for example. The urban legend persists, though, because it asks an interesting cultural question: how do languages evolve to parse out distinctions in meaning? The Urban legend maintains that there are so many Eskimo words for snow because the Eskimo live in a world where snow is so prominent. If you’re surrounded by snow, so the reasoning goes, sooner or later you’ll learn to distinguish — and name — the differences between powdery snow, wet snow, icy snow, and so forth.
Yesterday I was thinking about one of my favorite Bible verses, I John 4:16:
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
God is love. That just about says it all, doesn’t it? But then, there are all those Eskimo words for snow. Just what do we mean by “love”? And how do we understand that “God” is it?
Forgive me for being rather base in my thinking, but when a hot and bothered sixteen year old boy pants into the ear of his cute girlfriend “I love you,” I rather suspect that what he’s thinking about is somewhat removed from what a mother has in mind when she croons those same three words to her baby. C. S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves in which he considers the distinctions between friendship, eroticism, familial affection, and agape, that Greek word (used by John in the above referenced Bible quote) which Lewis, following the Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, defines as self-sacrificing love. Incidentally, this understanding of agape is not without its critics — see Markus Vinzent’s Agape and the “Christian” Gospel. But whether we agree with Nygren and Lewis or not, plenty of questions arise as we ponder this notion that God is love. Is God all kinds of love? Is God only self-sacrificing love? What is the relationship between God and eros? Is love a “continuum of experience,” where the differences between eros, filias, caritas, and agape are differences of degree rather than of kind? And if so, what then does this say about who God is and how we relate to God?
Parker J. Palmer in The Promise of Paradox minces no words when it comes to this idea that “God” can mean different things to different people:
As far as I can tell, a person who believes that he or she speaks God’s truth in pure, unadulterated form — or believes that some other mortal being speaks that way (e.g., one of the folks whose words ended up in the Bible) — is an idolater, a person who worships false gods, the false gods of human formulation. I want to say to them, “Neither your concept of God nor mine is the same as God. It says so in the Bible, and it’s just plain common sense. So we should learn to talk to each other in hopes of understanding God — and maybe even each other — a little more deeply.”
Phyllis Tickle talks about how about every 500 years or so the church goes through a form of evolution that includes, among other things, re-thinking how we understand authority. I think Palmer’s words are emblematic of this, and signify the dawning of a new, post-Protestant Christianity, that no longer anchors authority in scripture (or in whoever has the most influence in how they interpret scripture).
I’m not sure where in the Bible Palmer sees “Neither your concept of God nor mine is the same as God,” except perhaps the verse that comes just a few lines before the one I quoted above:
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
— I John 4:12
To me, this sums it up rather nicely. None of us have God figured out, but if we focus more on loving one another (and God), we’re way ahead of the game as opposed to the temptation to keep arguing about God, thumping our chests and jockeying to prove who’s right, while love gets thrown out the window. And that’s pretty much every kind of love.
So… I’m not sure what love is, and I certainly have no way of putting God into words. But maybe it’s like “light is a particle” and “light is a wave.” Truth is love, and truth is God. I’m not entirely sure what either of these mean, but the more I explore one, the more it sheds light on the other.