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.