A Sexual God
Robert Williamson on
the Song of Solomon
reflections by Jay McDaniel while reading
Robert Williamson's "Forgotten Books of the Bible"
"As Audre Lorde would later write in her clarifying 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”—a central text of second-wave feminism—eroticism is, in essence, both sensual and sacred, self-fulfilling and interpersonal. Spirit plays a central role in meaningful desire, though it need not be named “god.” One word Lorde connects to the spiritual erotic is joy—the rush that comes forth, unnamable, from within. The shimmy dancers of the Jazz Age had few feminist theorists to make these connections explicit, but they felt them. The spiritual erotic also makes room for sadness that challenges people to grow: the vein that ran from slaves’ laments to the “sorrow all on your mind” of Bessie Smith." (Ann Powers: Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music)
I wish I'd been reading Robert Williamson's Forgotten Books of the Bible as I first heard Elvis sing Love Me Tender, or Etta James sing At Last. Or, for that matter, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers sing Islands in the Stream. In our time it is popular music, not the Bible, that introduces us to the sexual side of life.
But this need not be the case. In interpreting the Song of Solomon allegorically, Williamson shows how readers can recognize human yearnings for intimacy with one another as analogs for divine yearnings for intimacy with humans. Indeed, so he seems to suggest, even God "loves us tenderly" and seems to yearn for a time when, "at last," the relationship has been consummated. Sounds like the God of process theology to me: a god who has fallen in love with life and is vulnerable to its suffering and beauty.
But who needs process theology? Let's just go to the Bible. As Williamson explains, from the perspective of the Song of Solomon, "there is in fact something divine about human sexuality. Not only is it good and pleasurable in its own right, but it is also capable of expressing the love between God and humanity. Far from being shameful or unspeakable in polite company, human sexuality gives expression to the passionate love of God for humanity. Nothing else can express the urgency, passion, and intimacy of God’s love for us." MIght we and God, too, become islands in the stream.
In The Forgotten Books of the Bible, Williamson shows how, in the Song of Solomon, the biblical text (1) celebrates sexuality between human beings, (2) offers a positive image of the body, and (3) offers an allegory for thinking about God's relationship to humanity. Here Williamson stands in a global tradition, found in many cultures, which links human sexuality with divinity: the love poetry of Rumi, the Tantric traditions of India, and the Love Mysticism of historical Christianity. Underlying these traditions is a recognition that a human desire for intimacy with another human being both resembles and participates in a divine desire for intimacy with human beings..
Much of Williamson's chapter on the Song of Solomon is music to my process theology ears. Process theology, too, wants to affirm sexuality and the enjoyment of mutual intimacy as something good in its own right. And process theology, too, recognizes that we human beings are embodied beings, and that often our bodies are the very place where the world meet us, and we meet the world, in beautiful ways. (I say "often" because, in fact, sometimes we can feel trapped inside our bodies. Witness disease and decay, witness the many forms of pain. Our bodies are mostly a blessing, but sometimes a curse.) And process theology proposes that the very soul of the universe -- God -- carries within his heart, her heart, a subjective aim or desire for satisfaction or fulfillment, as enjoyed through felt relations with with human beings and other sentient beings. Indeed, at one point in Process and Reality, the philosopher Whitehead speaks of God as having something like an appetite --a hunger, a thirst -- for intensity that can only be completed by satisfying relations with the world.
As I read Williamson on the Song of Solomon, I find myself resonating with the image of God as Lover. Building upon the work of one of his former students, Rev. Marie Mainard O'Connell, Williamson presents two ways of understanding God as Lover: God as the male lover of the text, and God as the female lover. Here is his summary:
God as Lover: Male and Female
For my part, I have only one problem with what Williamson says, and it concerns his treatment of God in the role of the Shulammite, that is, the female lover. In particular it is the idea that, from this female perspective, God's belonging to humanity is God's doing, not ours.
Of course I understand his desire to say this. When we speak of a side of God which desires fulfillment, we naturally imagine a certain kind of vulnerability in God, because the very act of desiring implies an absence and a need. God needs a world in order to be happy. Without a world God is incomplete.
Williamson stands in the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, and in this tradition it is a bit blasphemous to say that God needs anything, much less a world. The Reformed tradition emphasizes God's absolute sovereignty, and the idea that God is incomplete without a world seems to challenge such sovereignty. We process theologians question this way of thinking about sovereignty. We suspect that sovereignty thus understood entails a misunderstanding of power, human and divine. It renders unto God that which belongs to kings but not to suffering servants. Just as Jesus needed his disciples and friends in order to be Jesus; so we believe God needs a world in order to be God. God could not be loving, and thus fulfilled by loving relations, were there not something to love Might Williamson agree? I am not sure. Here is what he writes:
The Belonging to Us is God's Doing, not Ours
Williamson encourages us to keep both readings in mind: the male reading of God longing for us, inspired by our very existence, and the female reading of God deciding to love us, and perhaps belong to us, even before we exist or claim God as our divine companion. He speaks of the second reading as more radical, whereas I myself find the first reading more radical. But that is not my question here. My question is: what might it mean to say that God decides to love us in advance. I can imagine two interpretations;
1. Unilateral Sovereignty: God loves us even apart from any relations with us and could well exist even if we (or a world) did not exist, because God creates the world out of nothing and was perfectly intact, as God, even before there was a world. On this view it is imaginable that God decides to love a world before there is even a world to love. The decision is all God's. God's decision is unilateral.
2. Relational Sovereignty: God has always been related to a world of one sort or another, whether chaotic or otherwise, because from the very beginning there was tohu-vohu (chaos) and God's ruach breathing vibrating over the face of the deep. God does not create from nothing bu rather from chaos. God decides to love a world in response to God's awareness of something other than Godself, the tohu va-vohu. God's decision is relational.
We process thinkers prefer the second interpretation, and some among us -- the Jewish process theologian Rabbi Bradley Artson, for example-- find it more biblical. Here is how Rabbi Artson explains things in the larger context of theodicy, or God's relation to suffering.
There has always been power in addition to God's power
Williamson writes: "The belonging is God’s doing, not ours. We are claimed by God because of God’s love for us, not as a matter of faith but as a matter of divine certainty. God has said so." I prefer to interpret this sentence in the more Jewish (Artson-like) and process way. God's decision to love and God's "saying so" are themselves a response on God's part to chaos and, implicitly, the the possibility that something intrinsically good, namely the creation including human life, will emerge from it. This means that God's own decision is incomplete (unsatisfied) unless and until there is an actual world to be loved, and even more complete if God is loved back. Thus God needs the world, desperately, for the fulfillment of God's longing. And we need God, too, for the fulfillment of our own, because we are ourselves incomplete without the Lover of all things.
Does this sound sexual? Well, yes. Does it sound spiritual? Well, yes. The very dichotomy between the sexual and the spiritual falls away. And does this mean that, in our very longing for intimacy with others, we somehow partake of a longing at the very heart of creation, the longing of God. Well, yes, because God longs not only that we find intimacy with her, but also that we find intimacy with one another.
Williamson says: "There is something divine about human sexuality." From a process perspective he is right, not just allegorically but also literally, physically, sensually. The Soul of the universe has what Whitehead calls "physical feelings" of the world and "subjective aims" for satisfaction amid the feelings. Can we be certain about this? Of course not. Williamson adds: "We are claimed by God because of God’s love for us, not as a matter of faith but as a matter of divine certainty. God has said so." This, for me, is one of the most provocative sentences in the chapter. When and how does God say so? I realize that Christians might answer: "God said so in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus." These events were God's love letter.
But might there be other forms of sending, too? Especially for those of us not in the Christian fold? I suggest that every time we experience the depths of love for another, however healing or distorted, we are hearing the "saying so" of God. Sometimes, as the Sufis propose, there is more love in the longing than in the fulfillment, in the absence than the presence. Can we be certain that God loves us in this intimate way? No. Perhaps God is certain. But we have no privileged access to this certainty. What we have, and all that we have, is faith. The faith at issue is not verbal assent to doctrinal propositions. It is the faith that, at the end of the journey toward intimacy, with another human or with God, there is in fact a wholeness, a fulfillment, for which the heart yearns. It is a faith of passion and of hope. God the Shulammite would understand. Amid her putative certainty, She lives by his faith, too.
If you are interested in process theology in relation to the work of Robert Williamson, you might also be interested in: