Monday, October 20, 2008

Love and Kindness

I am listening to a book that compares the life and works of Sigmund Freud (atheist and father of psychoanalysis) and C. S. Lewis (Catholic apologist and noted author and scholar).

There is much more to say about the comparison, but I was struck by a discussion of C. S. Lewis' confrontation of grief (when his wife, Joy, passed away) and his eventual understanding of pain, life, and God.

I hope that I can do this justice in recollection:

God made the universe, and us creatures. As the Bible puts it, He "so" made the world - that is, He also created the laws that govern it. (In the Narnia books, as the White Witch and Aslan confront one another, they *must* adhere to the laws that govern even the magic.) And while God is omnipotent, there are things, as Lewis points out, that even God cannot do, such as answer nonsense questions. And in general, God does not interfere with the laws of the universe that He has created.

Wishing for us, his creatures, to choose to love and serve Him, God gave us free will, thus introducing the possibility of "un-good" into the universe. "Un-good," or evil, is choosing not to do the will of God.

Above all, God wishes to love us - that's why He created us. But He wants to love creatures that are worthy of that love. Now here is an interesting problem - modern culture tells us that unconditional love is the ideal. That is, "I love you just the way you are." And to an extent, that is true. If you love someone, you are supposed to love him without trying to change him.

But that is not the same thing as love which demands the best from the beloved - the perfection of the beloved. If I love you, and I see you gaining weight rapidly, I am concerned for your health and wish you to stop this. Or if I see you drinking excessively, I might interfere. And in both cases, certainly in the latter, if your behavior persisted I might withdraw my love - or at the very least the expression of it - if you could not stop the behavior.

Lewis points out that there is a difference between the human notion of "kindness" and the Godly idea of Love. Anyone who has contemplated the problem of human suffering and pain cannot have escaped the question: "How could a loving God permit such a thing? If God is truly all-powerful and all-good, why would He let His creatures suffer so?" I used to ask this question in terms of my own parenthood - "I would not let my children suffer like this, how can God?"

Lewis says that what we are experiencing is kindness, not love. Love, he says, is "more splendid and more stern." Love wishes to perfect the beloved. Love demands that the beloved be the best he can be - thus a parent who is being kind to his child might give way to his fear of the dentist, but a parent who loved his child would insist that he go and deal with the fear and pain.

So in our daily lives, we will experience pain and suffering, and we use this as a means of perfecting ourselves. We find the reason for it, or we endure it. The Catholic Church (at least, when I was a child) suggested that you "offer up" your suffering to the suffering Christ - Jesus suffered profoundly, and His human nature even cried out to God in despair as He hung on the cross.

So in our own lives we urge those we love to be their best selves, and we do nothing to interfere with them becoming their best selves. We do not use kindness as an excuse to fail in our love for them.