Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 and Whitehead's Image of God as Friend
Quotes to Get Started
Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making
God is the great companion - the fellow-sufferer who understands.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, (Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
A Line by Line Analysis
Joanne Diaz and Abram Van Engen
The Sweetness of God's Love Beyond Rank and Status
Many of us seek validation through comparison with others, consequently losing perspective and joy. The phrase "Comparison is the thief of joy," attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, expresses this sentiment well. It suggests that comparing our lives, achievements, or possessions with others' can significantly diminish our ability to savor life and appreciate its blessings. Joy is eroded when we perceive others as having more or being more "successful," thus fostering feelings of inadequacy and depleting our happiness.
The Problem of Self-Promotion
What to do? One option might be to fall into the trap of excessive self-promotion. We constantly attempt to prove ourselves, to validate ourselves, by pointing out how much we earn, or how successful we are, or, in the case of academics, how many books we have published. Acknowledging our achievements might seem a natural counteraction; however, excessive self-congratulation only exacerbates the issue. It masks our insecurities, distorts our self-perception, and fosters isolation. People may admire us, but they do not want to hang around us. We are obnoxiously self-promoting.
Shakespeare's Sonnet 29 presents an alternative perspective, suggesting that solace from the distress spawned by such comparisons is not attained through self-glorification or a relentless pursuit of achievements. Instead, it’s found in valuing and nurturing healthy relationships—with family, friends, and, I believe, with God.
Beyond the God of Flattery
However, here, of course, a problem arises. Some depict God as chiefly concerned with being flattered (sometimes called worship) and thus becomes the primary example of, not an exception to, self-glorification. They liken God to a king on a throne or a president in the White House, whose primary concern is receiving accolades. They render unto God that which belongs to Caesar.
Process theology offers a paradigm shift from a self-glorifying God to a self-emptying God, eschewing conventional kingly images of glory. Here, self-emptying doesn’t mean a loss of divine identity; instead, it conveys the absence of a need for constant praise or elevation. God is strong enough not to need flattery.
God is more like a friend than a king. This understanding highlights the fundamental truth that life is fundamentally about authentic, healthy relationships. It's about our connections with others, with the surrounding world, and with the immanent essence, God the Friend, in whose Spirit the universe unfolds. Thus, the essence of existence isn’t anchored in self-promotion or external accomplishments but in embracing the profound simplicity and richness of relational being.
The Gift of Failure
In our culture, there are at least two obstacles to this recognition of God as Friend. One of them, ironically, is an overemphasis on unhealthy or suffocating relationality. By suffocating relationality, I mean a form of connection, especially with other humans, that so absorbs a person that he or she is devoid of healthy self-awareness and a sense of solitariness. Absorbed in this culture, a person is unable to gain distance from the need for rank and status. Reputation is everything.
In order to gain an understanding of God as Friend, a person must disengage himself or herself from competition for rank and status. This can happen, interestingly, when we have given ourselves to the chase for recognition or wealth or power, and failed. In the failure itself, there emerges the possibility of a new way of looking at things: a recognition that we are valued and valuable quite apart from such competition, and that the competition is itself shallow.
A second obstacle is the culture of self-glorification that is part of the capitalist mindset. Capitalism feeds on a culture of envy, where people measure themselves according to levels of fame, fortune, and power, not love and friendship. A person seeking to understand God as Friend needs to critique this culture, to reject it. Here, too, failure can help.
Fortunately, these two obstacles are not insurmountable. There is, in the very depths of things, the Deep Friend whose living spirit, whose companionship, is present in and to each person. The Friend seeks our friendship, giving us the strength to scorn the kings, or at least to resist aspiring to kinglike status.
The Grace of Friendship
In the companionship of the Friend, there is no need for kingship, none at all. In such divine companionship, we find a path away from self-glorification and towards mutual growth, healthy solitude, and life-enhancing connection. We can rest in the recognition that, quite apart from how we perform in the world, and even if we are disgraceful, there is something, someone, who welcomes us into friendship, not out of pity, but out of love. Sweet Love.