Talking about love (Home pp 106-230)

The characters in Home always talk about love without ever explicitly talking about love.

If you were a graduate student in theology in the nineties or early aughts, you almost certainly spent some time discussing negative theology. This classical Christian idea holds that any discussion of God must be apophatically, that we cannot say “God is good,” for example, without at the same time recognizing that God’s goodness is far beyond our own understanding of goodness. Isaiah’s words that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts are important here, as are Paul’s words that we know in part and prophecy in part. Some of the most important theologians in this tradition are Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In the eighties and nineties and aughts, Christian theologians and scholars in religious studies saw affinities between Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive method of reading texts and this tradition in theology. (For some excellent studies, see Jean-Luc Marion’s God without Being, Kevin Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign, and Mark C. Taylor’s Nots and About Religion.)

The first letter of God tells us that God is love, agape, not eros or philia. The love that God is is self-giving and self-emptying. And so if God escapes our language, we should not be surprised that love does as well. We must always talk about love, around it, obliquely, knowing that we can never talk about love, concerning it, capturing what it truly is. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob rebuffs human attempts to comprehend him, as we see in the burning bush of Exodus, the storm of Job, and on the cross of Christ.

As always, the comments on my last post have helped me see things that I would have missed.  Mark and Chris and Flavia and Jim all addressed in some way the loneliness that the characters in the novel face. I think that loneliness is real. And I think that loneliness comes from the inability to avoid talking about love. We see this when Glory watches Jack outside the house after she buys him clothes:

Why hadn’t she bought clothes for him weeks ago? Because he was a stranger she was afraid of offending with so personal an attention. Because her buying clothes for him would allude to his poverty and offend him. Because it might seem like a subject of conversation for people who saw her buying them and this would embarrass and offend him. Because he was vain, and particular, and Jack. … She saw him check them, too, then walk over by the orchard, pick a fallen apple off the ground, throw it up on the barn roof, and wait and catch it when it came down, and throw it again. Her brothers all did that when they were boys. Jack looked a little stiff, as if he were making an experiment in attempting this lonely game after so many years. Tentative as it was, it might have meant happiness. (194).

Jack’s actions aren’t the only things that are tentative. Glory’s thoughts are too. They lack the language to describe their relationship, and they lack a form of life that would enable them that language. Home challenges us to think through what love in families looks like.

In Gilead, Rev. Ames recounted his discussion of predestination with Rev Boughton and Jack. In Home, we see this discussion from another perspective.  When Jack asks Ames, “My question is, are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?” (225), he is really asking whether or not he is loved. Ames thinks that Jack is trying to trip him up, to catch him in a theological contradiction. And so Ames misses the point when he responds, “Scripture is not really clear on this point.” We don’t know the reason why Jack doesn’t experience God’s love and the love of his family. What we do know is that the language of love escapes the characters. And because this language escapes them, as Flavia mentioned, the characters are opaque to us and to each other.

In this vale of tears, agape is apophatic.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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