God’s “liking” and the unbound conscience

James Alison continues with his theme of God liking us in chapter 7 of On Being Liked (available online here). While the title indicates that Alison’s principal concern is with “unbinding the gay conscience”, much of what he says is applicable far more widely (and regardless whether you agree with his main thesis). And it’s that wider application – of “the relational nature of conscience and the importance of being set free from double binds” – that I want to look at in this post.

This question of unbinding the conscience is where the word “like” can become more useful than the word “love”:

[T]he word “like” is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than the word “love”, because we know when someone likes us. We can tell because they enjoy being with us, alongside us, want to share our time and company.

Well, what I would like to suggest is that if our understanding of love does not include liking, or at least being prepared to learn to like, then there’s a good chance that we’re talking about the sort of love that can slip a double-bind over us, that is really saying to us, “My love for you means that I will like you if you become someone else”.

Alison uses the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 as a demonstration of how our answer to the question “does God like me?” affects our conscience and hence our actions:

The first two servants clearly imagined their master being away as an opportunity to do something delightful. Because they trusted that their master was the sort of daring fellow who would do rash and crazy things for which there was no script, would dare, would experiment, would risk losing things and so would end up multiplying things greatly.

In other words, they perceived their master’s regard for them as one of liking them enough to be daring them and encouraging them to be adventurous, and so, imagining and trusting that abundance would multiply, they indeed multiplied abundance.

By contrast, the third servant is paralysed by his imagination of his master to be “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow”:

His perception of the other was of one who did not like him and thus had put an impossible burden on him, and so all he had done was simply sulk. He had been bound, the living dead, moving neither forward nor backward.

It is no wonder that in Luke’s version, the master says, “Out of your own mouth I will condemn you, you wicked servant”, because it is in fact the servant’s own perception that has bound him.

Alison reaches a very Lutheran-sounding conclusion from this:

Someone of unbound conscience can dare to get it wrong, because they don’t have to get it right. If you have to get it right, that means that you don’t dare to get it wrong, which means that you are afraid of what will happen to you if you do get it wrong.

But the Catholic and Christian understanding of conscience is that because we know that we are liked we can get it wrong, and it doesn’t matter, because we are not frightened of punishment, but able to learn from our mistakes.

So a good conscience is “not a feeling of self-satisfaction at having got it right”. Rather it is:

…the excitement of being a son or daughter who is on an adventure, not the contractual precision of a slave who has to get something right because he has no sense of being on the inside of the project of whoever is in charge, and merely senses the other as arbitrary and capricious, as someone who will glower at what is not perfect.

As Alison continues, “consciences are unbound for a doing and a becoming”. It is not “what must we do?”, but “what do we want to dare to do?” Or to put it another way:

What would it be fun to present our master with on his return?

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4 Responses to God’s “liking” and the unbound conscience

  1. Matt J. says:

    This is good stuff. I see it as another, potentially more helpful way of explaining the gospel to those weighed down by the law. That is also the best reading of the parable of the talents I’ve probably ever heard. Way different and way better.

    However, I think the very idea of “unbinding the conscience” scares the crap out of most theological types. Something along the lines of:

    “Unbound to do what? Feel OK about gay sex? See, I told you this was a bad idea. Too dangerous to talk about the gospel this way.”

    I would love to be able to communicate this without some of the specific stumbling blocks Alison brings to the table.

    • John H says:

      Matt: on one level, that’s what I’m trying to do in my posts about Alison (though in this case the title made the “stumbling block” unavoidable).

      Equally, though, the uncomfortable challenge is not “Is this requiring us to feel OK about gay sex?”, but “Why are we afraid to be wrong, or to let other people be wrong, about same-sex relationships?” Is it because we know our Master to be a hard man?

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    When I was in a Greek class years ago, a student said he had been reading a famous evangelical author on hermeneutics. The student related one principle in a very stern tone, “And you don’t get doctrine from parables!” to which the professor quickly responded with an indignant, “Yes you do!”

    It was a great moment. “Jesus taught them many things by parables” (Mark 4:2). And a doctrine is a teaching. Sometimes what can be gleaned from a parable is not in the list of what we think are important teachings. But perhaps we aren’t the best judges sometimes.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    “Is it because we know our Master to be a hard man?”

    This one is probably worth unpacking in greater detail. On the one hand it seems deeply insightful. If God deals with all of us as we imagine he might deal with this group, we are all in a heap of trouble. On the other, I can immediately think of an “orthodox” response.

    The response would be that according to the Law, we know God to be strict. And this is something other than the “hard man” in the parable. In the parable, “hard” seems to imply “unjust.” Is it right, even according to the Law, to say that God reaps what he does not sow? No. The strictness of divine law is not hard in this sense.

    And if the strictness of divine law is not hard in this sense, then those who would not want to err here are not themselves guilty of thinking of God as being a “hard man” when they imagine him strict here. They might even not see this as God being hard, but reality itself being inflexible. We break ourselves against the Law when we go against it. To be wrong on this is to fail to put up warning flags.

    I’m not sure whether or not I like this as a response, but when it comes to mind this quickly, I think it is worth noting.

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