True love: limitless, precarious, vulnerable

What is the church for? And what is the love of God like?

These are the questions which W.H. Vanstone seeks to answer – and to connect to each other – in his book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, which I’ve been reading again recently.

W.H. (“Bill”) Vanstone has been described as “one of a brilliant post-war generation of Anglican theologians”. However, he turned away from the prospect of a glittering academic career in order to pursue parish ministry on a council estate near Rochdale – believing that there is no higher calling than that of a parish priest. (For more information about Vanstone, see the Independent’s obituary from 1999 and this moving post by one of his friends and parishioners, Revd Jean Volt.)

Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense is the result of Vanstone’s attempts to understand the church’s purpose in a society that no longer needed the social ministries that had inspired him in his childhood and youth, and where assertions that the church worked “for the glory of God” seemed at odds with the triviality of the church’s actual existence. Vanstone came to see the church’s purpose as being the human response to God’s love.

That then raises the question: what does it mean to talk about “God’s love”, or to say that “God is love”? Vanstone dismisses the claim sometimes made by preachers and other Christians that God’s love is “altogether different from” human love. If it is “altogether different”, then give it a different name.

Very well, then let us say that God’s love is the perfect and authentic love of which all human loves are (at best) a highly imperfect replica. Vanstone then identifies “three marks or signs which are recognised as denying the authenticity of love”. If God’s love is authentic love, then those “marks or signs” must surely be absent.

The first of these marks is the mark of limitation:

That which professes to be true love is exposed as false if it is recognised as limited. Another name is given to it – the name of “kindness” or “benevolence”. “Kindness” under its own name is usually welcome: but it becomes an affront when it masquerades as love.

Christ teaches us that love expresses itself “in endless forgiveness”:

Whereas a kind man will forgive seven times, a loving man will forgive times without number.

Authentic love implies “a totality of … self-giving”: no less than offering one’s whole self. Anything less than that exposes love as limited and inauthentic.

The second mark is the mark of control:

Love is activity for the sake of an other: and where the object of love is wholly under the control of the one who loves, that object is no longer an other.

This means that love is necessarily precarious and risky, containing the potential for tragedy and the necessity of waiting. It “proceeds by no assured programme” (I’ve previously posted the full quote from which that phrase is taken here).

The third mark that denies the authenticity of love is the mark of detachment, of “self-sufficiency unaffected and unimpaired in the one who professes to love”.

Love gives the beloved power over the one who loves:

…power to make angry or to make glad; to cause grief or joy; to frustrate or to fulfill; to determine tragedy or triumph.

Hence authentic love is “limitless, precarious and vulnerable”. For us as human beings, those terms are only an “approximation” for something towards which each of us “gropes and aspires” without ever attaining. However, Vanstone goes on to argue that these attributes of authentic love are fully realised in the love of God – as we will see in my next post.

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8 Responses to True love: limitless, precarious, vulnerable

  1. Blair says:

    Hello John,

    delighted to see you posting on Vanstone – in my very limited experience, Love’s endeavour, love’s expense and James Alison’s Faith beyond resentment are the best works of theology I’ve read.

    Will be following your series with interest as I note that in your January, 2007 post on parenting linked to above, you say that Vanstone’s book is “far from perfect”. I should add that it’s almost 10 years since I read it, so will wait to see what your criticisms are – might now resonate with some of them and maybe it’ll help prevent me idolising Vanstone / his work.

    I also note that Peter Ould said on Twitter that he didn’t much care for Love’s endeavour, love’s expense (he’s mentioned that before but I can’t recall the reason he gave) but recommended The stature of waiting, which I too have not read. I have read Fare well in Christ (not as good I felt) and also Icons of the Passion – recommended and still available on Amazon.

    in friendship, Blair

  2. John H says:

    Hi Blair. Are you on Twitter? If so let me know your handle and I’ll follow you. 🙂

    On re-reading, “far from perfect” is too ungenerous. There are elements of Vanstone’s thesis which I’m still not sure I go along with 100%, some of which will crop up in my next post, but overall my second reading “chimed” with me much more than the first.

    Agree with you re Faith Beyond Resentment. Easily Alison’s best book, and that’s saying something.

    Thanks also for the feedback on Vanstone’s other books.

  3. Blair says:

    Hi again John,

    I’m not on Twitter and likely never will be – it’s just that Peter O’s site has a widget that shows his recent tweets.

    Interesting that it sounds like you’re revising your view of the book somewhat; maybe i will dig out my copy and see if I like it as much as I did! If it’s of any interest, I think I first heard of Vanstone and Love’s endeavour, love’s expense through reading John Polkinghorne’s Science and providence which now looks to be out of print (doesn’t seem to be on Amazon). I’ve managed to find my copy of Vanstone but I think all my Polkinghornes are buried in a box at my parents’ – but if memory serves, Polkinghorne was referring to Vanstone because his meditation on love proceeding “by no assured programme” is consonant with the argument JP pursued about God’s action in the world.

    Will keenly await your next post (no pressure) 😉

    in friendship, Blair

  4. John H says:

    Will keenly await your next post (no pressure)

    Don’t worry: I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to refer to “my next post” unless it’s already written! 😉

  5. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » God’s love: limitless, precarious and vulnerable

  6. Insightful. I’ve spent the last few days thinking about the parable of the Prodigal Son (which is my favourite one), and it’s interesting to note how these three concepts are present in the father’s love. He gives everything to his son (limitless) and lets him do as he pleases (precarious). When the son returns, the father’s joy (seeing him at distance, running to meet him, throwing a party) reveals how he (the father) was affected by the departure (vulnerability).

  7. John H says:

    André: +1. Thanks for that, it’s a great application of what Vanstone’s saying.

  8. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » The Church: recognition and offering

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