Thursday Theological Inquiry: God as Self-Emptying

My imagining of God has evolved some over the years as I’ve moved from accentuating figures and terms of power (almighty, omnipotent) to highlighting those of humility (kenosis, self-emptying, weakness).   These days I am drawn to a God found in emptiness and otherness, in death and loss and frailty.

When I say that I have faith, I speak primarily of my desire and will to love when love seems absurd, a love I associate with the divine life.  To live self-emptying love is to live in God’s image and likeness.  Or so I believe.  Such is the lesson I glean from the cross.  St. Francis of Assisi, who’s feast day is today, addressed God as “O sublime humility, O humble sublimity,”  names also well-suited to love.

My question for you is this: does this image of God as self-emptying love make more sense or less sense than the image of God as the Absolute, Almighty Creator Being?   For my part, I find it less intelligible, but more…real.  This sits okay with me as my theological disposition tends towards the apophatic–the belief that God is other than what our images and concepts convey.  Words disclose what cannot be disclosed.  To speak of God is to speak analogously, never literally.  At day’s end, I’m  concerned more about whether I’ve loved as well as possible than whether my analogy “God is love/love is God” can be put into a coherent theology.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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17 Responses

  1. Less intelligible but more real is a very good way to put it, and on first reflection I think I agree. If I’m called to love (which all evidence has shown I am), then it follows that a divine, perfect being would be One-who-loves-better-than-me (not that that narrows the field down, but you get what I mean).

    It is quite a relief to know that we can have more than one image for God, isn’t it?

    [Who is the painter of the image in this post? It reminds me of one of my favorites from the MFA and I’m curious if it is the same painter]

  2. Rodak says:

    I’m sure that you’ve long since wearied of hearing me promote her, but Simone Weil is excellent on the very question you raise here. It is probable that everything she had to say on it can be found in the writings and saying of various Christian saints–St. Francis being only one among others. The difference with Simone Weil, though, is that she is more like us than were most of those saints. Weil was upper middle class, highly educated, privileged, political, and she came of age between the two World Wars. She is our contemporary, not some medieval ascetic to whom we really cannot relate. I recommend reading a biography of S. Weil to any person who has not already done so. And then I recommend reading her published writings–nearly all of which were published posthumousoly by her friends. I find her “Notebooks” to be especially inspiring, but they are not easy to get. The titles “Gravity and Grace” and “Waiting for God” are both easily available, challenging and rewarding.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      No weariness at all, Rodak. I’m glad you keep reminding me.

      • Rodak says:

        Here is another blogger I just found by googling “simone weil, kenosis” who presents what looks to be an interesting and informative take on Simone Weil:

        • Rodak says:

          Two pertinent paragraphs from the blog linked above:

          “She has learned the art of kenosis, art being, as she notes, a disciplining of the imagination, a combination of work and love that leads ‘to something other than itself: to a life which is fully conscious of the pact between the mind and the world,’ which is ‘knowledge’ and ‘exploration.’ (15) She has also discovered that prayer before the Blessed Sacrament facilitates this kenosis through attention; that whatever her legal status in the church, whose threshold has itself become a point of meditation, (16) the space of quiet becomes a table where she and her beloved may sit and eat. ‘My heart has been transported forever, I hope, into the Blessed Sacrament on the altar.’ (17)

          “At the end of her life she writes, ‘There is no entry into the transcendent until the human faculties—intelligence, will, human love—have come up against a limit, and the human being waits at this threshold, which he can make no move to cross, without turning away and without knowing what he wants, in fixed, unwavering attention. It is a state of extreme humiliation, and it is impossible for anyone who cannot accept humiliation.’ “(18)

  3. ppnl says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure how you get any of that from the bible. Are are you really worshiping god or are you just worshiping aspects of yourself that you think are good? Is it more real simply because it is more human?

  4. Burt Likko says:

    Love strikes me as at least a presumptively good thing.

    I’m having difficulty grokking the idea of ‘self-emptying love.’ I know the biography of Francis in broad strokes, and of course I know the story of Jesus’ Passion. The phrase seems to indicate a loss, eschewing, or even the death of one’s understanding of or valuing of oneself — an experience like that of Siddhartha becoming Buddha. Is that what you’re getting at?

    If so, what a wrenching experience! This could readily cause substantial pain to oneself and those around one (as it did to Siddhartha’s family). It does not sound like “love,” even though serenity and enlightenment may await the one who can complete the journey.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Not exactly. Consider being a spouse or a parent, the responsibilities and tasks of which empty one of energy and require one to be receptive and responsive to these people whom one loves. Marriage and parenthood each mean a gift of self and one’s will; they’re humbling and draining experiences, and yet, paradoxically, they build up the self anew. Those who humble themselves will be exalted, so the saying goes. In my own life, I feel that I have become more myself, more a “self,” in loving and giving up for my wife and children: my will prevails less, yet it seems more complete. This love renders me more fragile yet stronger than I was before.

    • BlaiseP says:

      The Self is the ultimate idol. Until we see ourselves as part of a larger world, we’re stuck. We emerge from the world of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. To us, the Self is terribly important. It’s the only person over whom we have any control.

      Emptying the Self isn’t so hard. It’s not a wrench, to quit acting like we’re so goddamn important. We use the expression “full of himself” to describe arrogant, pompous people. It’s more like a process of deflation, seeing ourselves as we are seen, treating others as they want to be treated. Living for the Self is ultimately self-defeating. Whitman:

      I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
      Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
      And am not stuck up, and am in my place.
      (The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
      The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
      The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

      These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
      If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
      If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
      If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
      This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
      This the common air that bathes the globe.

  5. b-psycho says:

    It’d be nice if more theists leaned at least somewhat towards humility, regardless of where they get it.

    (yeah, I know that means zilch coming from me)

    • Jaybird says:

      There are two kinds of theists that I tend to interact with.

      The ones who say “I speak to the Lord on a regular basis and He wants me to tell you to change your life in the following ways (that, ironically, I’m already doing)…”

      The ones who say “I spoke to the Lord and He told me that I needed to change my life.”

      The former always strike me as having a vocabulary problem and had trouble saying “The way you live your life bugs me on a personal level.”

      The latter always make me wonder if, maybe, they didn’t hear something from somebody.

  6. bookdragon says:

    This made me think of an essay on the relationship between kenosis and theosis (deification or divinization):

    …We are not just called to be God’s servant or slave, but indeed to become “partakers” in God’s very nature. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in us. It is very tempting to see this “theosis” as getting in on how cool it must be to be Christ….
    What does this mean? We become partakers of the Divine Nature by surrendering all claim to our own “divinity.” The wisdom of Christ comes to us through the humility of our own unknowing. The joy of Christ is ours when we surrender our own claim to joy (which means — eek — being available to suffering). To experience the love of God, we must simply, lavishly, prodigally give it away.

    Full meditation is here

  7. Dante Aligheri says:

    PPNL, this kenotic view of God may not discernable as clearly in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, some rabbinic theology does move in this direction – especially with God emptying Himself in order to create the world or the concept of God’s Spirit being in Exile with His people until being reunited with Himself in the End. I think this comes from Kabbalah, though.

    Or, think of God’s Spirit hovering like a dove over the waters or God mourning the destruction of His creation by the sins of mankind.

    Maybe a good precursor to this in Hebrew Scriptures is God’s surrender to the human will. For example, He at first floods the world in order to recreate it but then promises Noah never to flood the earth again because men are evil from the beginning – surrendering the ideal to our travails. He did the same with Abram and Moses at Sodom and Sinai respectively. At least according to some rabbis (Ibn Ezra?), He gave into human weakness of heart following the Golden Calf episode when creating much of the Law to be provisional for human weakness. I think Ibn Ezra suggested the Conquest of Canaan to be just such a provision in response to the Golden Calf.

    In these God becomes merciful – that is, moving beyond the Ideal for the provisional. Maybe the idea of divine mercy is not as strong in the Old Testament, but I think maybe love, mercy, and kenosis are all wrapped up together for these Scriptures.