In recent weeks there have been mini-furors in the worship music world concerning the song Reckless Love which has been making the usual rounds. Front and center are primarily reactions to the appropriateness of the term “reckless” vis-a-vis God’s love, and whether such terminology has its place in corporate worship.
The author has weighed in, explaining the meaning behind his use of “reckless,” which basically comes down to “it means something different than what the word “reckless” means.” Something along the lines of extravagantly wasteful or obsessive from the perspective of humanity.
I have my own thoughts about this sort of equivocation, but foremost in my mind is not really how infelicitous such a term may or may not be, but rather how- even though many inveigh against such terminology- if we are really honest, in most of our modern worship and liturgies and proclamation we tend to take this view of God’s love irrespective of the words we use.
And that is really what the problem is. Not that we use the wrong terms, but rather that we’re thinking about the wrong kind of love altogether.
For we humans, love begins as natural desire. We apprehend some object as good and desire to rest in possession of it. It doesn’t matter what the object is, the same movement of love born of desire or passion compels us to seek after it. This natural love has no moral content in and of itself; it is simply desire in and of itself.
Importantly, this love arises from the animal part of our nature. A physiological-cum-psychological mixture of chemicals and conditioning, love ebbs and flows based on changes in our physiology, in our environments and in the various stimuli that surround and influence us.
In this respect we are no different than puppies, and it is perhaps altogether appropriate that we describe certain types of love as “puppy love.” My two puppies have very tell-tale and predictable responses to certain stimuli. If I offer them their favorite treat- marrow bones- each will respond appropriately. Luna will start drooling uncontrollably, while Buddy will get very excited and sometimes spin in circles. But for each puppy the response is wholly conditioned on their natural desire for that good of the treat (how it tastes, its crunch, that I am giving it to them, etc.) and of how I have conditioned that very response in them.
Importantly, they have no rational apprehension of the good of the treat. It is all a mixture of conditioning, chemical responses, present mood, etc. I could keep feeding them treats until they puke, and they will keep devouring them and desiring them, perhaps giving up only after exhaustion.
Sometimes their desires for love can even lead to destructive behaviors. Buddy is prone to anxiety, and if he ever gets physically separated from me (the object of his love!) by a barrier, it will often send him into panic attacks. This has from time to time caused him to attempt to get to me via (dare I say it!) rather reckless attempts at jumping over gates, almost falling off of stairs, getting caught under things, etc.
He doesn’t possess the capacity to understand that his desire is not always good or that seeking it may harm him, not even in a remotely inchoate manner. Rather, all he can “know” is desire fulfilled or unfulfilled, and it is this desire that forms the actions he takes towards any particular good or object.
In this respect we are no different than our furry friends, in that our natural love born of desire operates in precisely the same manner. Our passions are as subject to change and are as malleable by our environments. However, we humans differ in an important respect in that we are not only an animal nature, but rather are an animal with a rational nature. We still retain the animal passions and love, but with the ability to abstract desire from its concrete object and apprehend it in relation to universals.
In other words, we don’t just feel desire and have to have it; we can understand the good of the object we desire and perceive how it pertains to the good of our being as a whole. We can both existentially desire ice cream as a good and rationally determine that eating only ice cream is not the greatest good, even though in the throes of desire it may seem so. Our rationality is meant to proportion our desires to that of our good, which means that in many respects what feels good as love is very often actually not good.
There is thus an ennobling aspect that rationality brings to bear upon love, in that it can purify desire and direct it towards something greater and better. Love for rational creatures thus is not just obtaining the object of desire, but even more importantly in discerning what the greater good actually is.
This is the rub where our race can both reach its natural heights of self-sacrifice and selflessness but also stumbles so shamelessly into mere hedonism and brutish animality, all in the name of “love.”
It is here where notions like “reckless love” become such poor parodies of God’s love. We tend to treat God like a puppy who is so desperate to find its owner that it will do absolutely anything. If you read the words to the song, this becomes clear:
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah.
There’s no shadow You won’t light up
Mountain You won’t climb up
Coming after me
There’s no wall You won’t kick down
Lie You won’t tear down
Coming after me.
In fact, the first time I read these lyrics I couldn’t stop thinking about the old movie “Homeward Bound” in which two dogs and a cat literally climb mountains to come after their owners.
But is that really the kind of love we want to envision that God has for us?
After all, this “homeward bound” kind of love is a love that is truly reckless, that throws caution to the wind and is truly wasteful.
To be sure, there is a natural sweetness to this love that has a sort of sentimental purchase. It illustrates the heights of natural animal love that has a certain draw since we share a similar nature. It is important to understand, however, that while we can perhaps allegorize from this kind of love cataphatically, we always have to bear in mind the limits of natural love.
Simply put, our natural animal love has no transcendence. It loves what it loves because the object of its love compels it to do so. There is nothing higher than that, even if it taken to its extreme. A dog can lay down its life (so to speak) for its owner, but that act of love can never rise beyond instinct and chemicals and conditioning, as much as we might try to impose a deeper meaning to it. As much as Shadow hurts for his boy, it can never be more than the pain of sensation and the desire of instinct, nothing that transcends stimulus and response.
Yet this is the type of love we tend to sing about to God, whether we call it reckless or not. We take the natural love that belongs to the beasts as well as to men and make it writ large to apply to God.
God thus becomes akin to a desperate puppy who just has to be with us, who will go on his own Homeward Bound journey to find us, and we’re happy to superimpose our experience of natural love onto God because it’s what we are familiar with and understand.
And for us, more importantly, it is the easiest love for us to manufacture in our worship. It is easy to produce emotions in others via the way a song is structured, the way the lighting changes, the manner in which the environment is set up. If this sounds like how you would condition a dog to behave in certain ways, it’s precisely because we also have an animal nature and respond to certain stimuli in certain ways.
It is no accident that popular types of worship have substantially similar looks and feels, or that set lists tend to follow certain dynamic trajectories, or that certain types of people tend to be the ones on stage leading. One does not even have to take a cynical analysis of this; it simply is part of how we cultivate desire and love in our natural state.
The problem, of course, is that this kind of love also can have absolutely no transcendence. The emotions that may be aroused or elicited in worship are the same combinations of chemicals and conditioning and environment that cause my dogs to drool or spin around when they are offered a treat. This doesn’t make the emotions wrong, but it also doesn’t give them any transcendent value.
The real danger with how we imagine God’s love is that we conflate our natural love with God, and thus we give the emotional and physiological components of our response a value that it simply cannot have in and of itself. It becomes easy to elide the distinction between experiencing a certain feeling in response to certain stimuli with a good that actually pertains to our entire nature.
Thus, we can begin to think of God’s love in wholly base terms, akin to the desires and loves that arise from our animal nature. We thus form a closed circle in which we are singing songs about ourselves back to ourselves, because our loves can actually reach no higher, no do the conceptions of them we impose upon God leave any room to ascend.
The biggest problem is that we eventually settle for a love that really just isn’t good enough, but then in all of our worship try and tape feathers on it so it can fly a little higher, without even getting as high as Icarus dared.
Even in the more ennobled form of love that can result from reason ordering desire, there is still a natural limitation. It can apprehend the good as it relates to our nature, and even inchoately perceive that love must culminate in the Ultimate Love, but that’s as far as it can go. It can reach beyond, but it can never lay ahold on its own. For that, we require a supernatural love that can only come from God.
We can only but analogize between the love we know and the love God actually possesses, but in purifying our concept of love so as to gaze upon its heights we have to let go of all our natural ideas and experiences of love. The Homeward Bound kind of love that is reckless is just not a good enough love, and will be as fickle and feeble as the being who possesses it, being conditioned on change and instinct and the like.
God in his being is impassible, meaning God does not have emotions as he is not liable to change. Many find this a sterile and unbelievable image of God, imagining this entails that God somehow lacks something that is constituent of who we are. But the reality is the exact opposite; God does not have emotions not because he lacks them, but because he is the fullness of being itself, having no lack whatsoever.
This means that God’s supernatural love is not conditioned on stimuli or environment or any of the things that compel natural love in creatures, and we should absolutely rejoice in this. Some find this a cold and sterile conception, as if only a God whose “heart could break” for us is a worthy object of worship, but if one peers deeper, one can begin to see how this is merely substituting sentiment for substance.
God’s love is constant and eternal, predicated on the fullness of himself in the mystery of his eternal essence. The eternal union of the Trinity in love flows from beginning to end and end to beginning until the words have no meaning behind their termination in the ineffable expanse of God’s own existence.
In our natural desires and loves we feel that love only means something if we really feel it deeply, if it could have been that I didn’t have this but now I do. To repose in possession of love means my going from a state of lack to fullness, and the desire is eased and the love taken hold of.
But for God, there is no logical distinction between desire and possession, since God is the fullness of being and love itself. The great mystery of creation is that absolutely and unequivocally: God does not need us. There was nothing in creation as a good that compelled God to create. He wasn’t lonely, he didn’t need glory, none of the reasons that we sometimes assign as perhaps fitting ends form any reason for God’s act of creation. Rather, it is hidden in the depths of his being, knowable only to himself.
The absolute gratuity of our being should be a cause of joy and mystery, for while we will never understand it, yet it is and we are. God’s love in its supernatural essence is the reason for everything, from the most unfathomable object to the most mundane particle. This love isn’t a lost puppy searching for its owner, but is the ocean of beauty and wonder upon which all of creation in its immeasurable magnificence rests.
And even deeper down is the mystery that this supernatural love is precisely what we were created to partake in.
Understood in this way, it really is a sad commentary on ourselves that we too often choose to be content with loves that are simply not good enough. We were created to participate in God’s nature, as St. Peter tells us, but all the time choose to cuddle with puppies instead, because their love is easier for us to understand and grab ahold of. Even a natural love that will scale mountains and kick down fences isn’t good enough, because nothing but God’s very love itself is good enough for us, precisely because that is what we were made for.
Yet how often does our worship or do our liturgies actually reflect this reality? How often do we double-down on emotions and sentiment rather than allow ourselves the space to lift our gaze beyond our own natural loves to something higher? What we do in worship becomes an indication of what we believe about God, and if we only end up singing songs to ourselves about how great we are, what does that perhaps say about what we think about God?
It is here that the sacraments can begin to pull us out of our natural love into God’s supernatural love. In an incredible mystery, God takes the very stuff of which we are made and transforms them into conduits of his supernatural love, the means by which we are brought into union with him in his own life. It is not an action we are capable of in ourselves, but is wholly a gratuitous gift by which God’s sheds his love- his actual, real, substantial, eternal, unchanging, ineffable love- abroad in our hearts through his own action and initiative.
God takes the part of us that is of earth and desire and brings about its own transcendence. All the echoes of love that our natural love may speak to in faint whispers find their ultimate desire in him, and through the sacramental mysteries we are finally able to draw near to that for which we are destined.
The songs we sing and the experiences we craft and all the like simply are not good enough for us, when so much more awaits and is available.
To settle for anything less than God’s love itself is what is truly reckless.