Sunday, October 28, 2007

Friends and Lovers: Sacraments of Divine Love

In my last post, I introduced Edith Humphrey’s 2006 book Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit.

Edith builds her notions of spirituality on a biblical framework (see Article Five of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future). But she focuses primarily on two biblical doctrines: the Trinity and the Incarnation. These two doctrines are keys for understanding what we are called to be.

As we are called to live into what it means to be made in the image of God, the life of the Trinity models many things for us. That leads us to think about family life, because the persons of the Trinity have eternally been in relationship, involving mutuality, cooperation, submission, and sacrifice. The mission of God is at every point the mission of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of them, all the time, not just one or another.

The Incarnation helps us understand that embodiment is not optional for us. It is not something to be regretted (as in some ascetic spiritualities). For Christ to be for us the icon of God (see Colossians 1:15; cf. Hebrews 1:3), he had to take on human flesh. And God did not make us in his image apart from making us embodied creatures. When he made us his icons, he made us flesh. Spiritualities that try to deny the importance of our bodily existence to our spiritual calling miss something foundational.

Early in her chapter “Icons of Love,” Edith inserts an old photo of her daughter Alexandra that illustrates the title of her book: ecstasy and intimacy. The snapshot shows her young daughter playing her violin in a jaunty pose and with a magnificent smile on her face. Ecstasy. Little Alexandra is clad only in her underpants and socks, and her posture and facial expression demonstrate a total transparency to the parent behind the camera. She is holding nothing back. Intimacy.

Refracting the divine nature

Edith spends the rest of the chapter exploring how our human relationships—being friends, siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives—refract something of the divine nature. She says, for example, that the things we experience as friends—“mutuality, equality, exclusivity, inclusivity and absorption in something shared”—help “to enlighten our understanding of God” and are “capable of mediating God’s love and light to us.” This is also true of the particular things we experience in our other human relationships.

Here are a few key ideas from her reflections on marriage:

While the Old Testament uses marriage as “a simple pictorial reminder of God’s desired intimacy with his people,” in the New Testament “it takes on a ‘sacramental’ or iconic significance.”

The Incarnation, the coming of God himself as one of us into our world, has made what was only metaphor a living reality. Similarly, the relationship between believing husband and wife tangibly indicates the life of Christ with his beloved Church; indeed, each marriage relationship that is in Christ itself partakes of this divine mystery.


[B]elievers commend marriage as a special state that is conducive to repentance, healing, growth, and glorification for the couple involved. Precisely here, we say, one can see a refracted picture of the wholeness, the holiness, the love of God in human form, and the glory of humanity.


The married couple will be surprised to find how it is that their growing intimacy, yieldedness, and vulnerability to each other indeed transfers to their relationship with God, the lover of all. ... There is, therefore, a crossover between our embodied condition and our spiritual life that we might never have expected.

Our choice-crazy culture

One further thought. In commenting on both the parent-child and the husband-wife relationship, Edith looks at how these contrast with our culture of choice.

In the case of marriage, contemporary society is historically out of step because we have the privilege of choosing our own spouses. The upside of that is that spousal friendship and romance are far more likely to occur here than in societies where other people make that choice for the couple. But the culture of choice also undermines commitment. Because our society tells us sixteen times every day that we should be exercising choice—and sometimes it communicates that our choices make us who we are—we need reminding that marriage is not a lifestyle choice. It is a window into the divine love and a school for growing more like God.

In the case of parents and children, the “givenness” of the relationship reminds us that, despite “the choice-crazy climate of our day,” some things are for keeps. That “choice-crazy climate” may magnify the difficulties parents and children encounter. The lasting nature of the parent-child relationship (though it grows and changes) reminds us that our culture of choice is not normal.

In her reflections on human relationships, Edith does not ignore the pain and hurt we experience. Because these relationships, as icons of love, reflect the ultimate, they also are the contexts in which we can be most deeply damaged. Families and marriages are dangerous things. And for that very reason, they need to be nurtured and tended with the care due to the icons of ultimate love.

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Edith Humphrey will be speaking at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, November 30 through December 1. Click here for details and registration information.

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