To See Each Person as the (Potential) Face of the Living God
I know some typical New Year's resolutions: get fit and exercise more, eat healthier, reduce stress, save money, learn something new, travel more, spend more time with family and friends, give back, get organized, read more, improve mental health, reduce screen time, practice gratitude, drink less alcohol, and improve relationships. All to the good!
To this I'd like to add resolution from process theology: Try to see each person, enemies as well as friends, as the face of the living God. This can be combined with any of the others.
I borrow the idea from Ilia Delio in "'The Not-Yet God: Carl Jung, Teilhard de Chardin, and the Relational Whole.' She writes:
"Every human person represents the face of the living God. Our troubles, sorrows, disillusions, regrets, anxieties, and distrusts all point to the frustration of divine life within us. It seems as though God suffocates under the weight of our own dead matter. However, divine reality is our root reality. The Self possesses the potential for explosive love—a love that can usher in a new world of justice, a new world of life for all, a new world that looks towards the future. As Teilhard de Chardin once eloquently stated, love alone possesses the power to lead us to another universe. This is why the words of the late Jesuit Pedro Arrupe could easily have been spoken by Jung and Teilhard, for they are words that invigorate our entire existence: 'Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.'
I begin with a confession. I'm having a hard time seeing each person as representing the face of God. It's very easy with babies. All human infants are the face of the living God. But adults are a bit more difficult. I think of a politician or two I know whose face, to me, represents resentment and hatred. I think of a terrorist I've seen whose face represents a thirst for blood. I think of a businessman I know whose face is green with envy. I think of faces that represent callousness and indifference.
But I can see each face as containing within itself a potential for what Delio calls "explosive love," a love that can usher in a new kind of world. And this is my New Year's Resolution. I'm going to try to see each person as containing within themselves the potentiality for explosive love.
Momentary Explosions of Kindness
I don't know anybody, not even Jesus, who realizes this potential at every moment of his or her life. But it does seem to me that many of us, maybe even most, embody this kind of love in certain moments of our lives: when we reach out to touch a child or offer a kind word to someone in need. Or pet a dog. Or take care of a cat. Call them "moments" of explosive love. Admittedly, the explosions can be modest. Even quiet. But they are eruptions in the sense that they well up, spontaneously, from the deeper dimensions and potentialities of human life. Let explosive love stand for kindness, compassion, empathy, tenderness, and, yes, a love of life.
My own hope is that each person has this potential for explosive love. The explosive part of this love is not violent. It does not harm things. But it is uncontrolled potentially effusive. It spreads, at least momentarily: as firecracker of kindness.
Delio says that this kind of love can help bring about a new universe! That's pretty dramatic to me. The universe includes billions upon billions of galaxies, and billions upon billions of life, many no doubt teeming with many forms of life. I can't quite think that any love I might offer to the world (or myself) will change the universe. But I do believe I can brighten my small corner of the world: my home, my family, my neighborhood, my local community, and the state where I live. Maybe I can brighten the world, too, by doing my best to brighten my corners. I'll try to brighten the Earth.
But where to begin? Perhaps it starts with recognizing that every human person has this capacity for explosive love. This capacity is the face of God within a person. And let me quickly add that a person's face is not the physical one but the spiritual one. The spiritual face is that space and activity within a person which feels the presence and influence of the world and responds to that influence with agency of their own. It includes feeling the presence of ideas and possibilities, too, and of memories and goals.
To use the language of A.N. Whitehead, it is the person as a concrescing subject of their own experience, the experiencer within the experiencing. This experiencer is not separate from the experiencing; it is the subjective unity of experiencing itself, as lived from a first-person perspective, moment by moment. It includes unconscious as well as conscious dimensions, including that side of the unconscious which is collective rather than personal. It is spiritual, not in the sense of being unnatural, but in the sense of being the deepest part of a person's existence and identity. Sometimes you can see the spiritual face in the physical face. The way a person smiles, the beautiful wrinkles on a person's skin, the way a person looks into the eyes of others with a listening ear. You see the spiritual face in the physical face.
But we need to be careful here. Physical faces can be deceiving. They come in so many shapes and sizes, much of it dependent on genes. They can be deformed, too. But a spiritual face, if filled with a capacity for love and embodying that capacity, can be immensely beautiful, quite apart from the physical face.
Faces in Process
We best recognize, too, that spiritual faces are in process. They are not nouns but verbs, slightly different at every moment. A person's spiritual face is subjective, not objective: it is how a person feels and thinks, dreams and hopes, including what a person aims for or seeks. Whitehead says that deep within each person, moment by moment, is a subjective aim for harmony and intensity in life, for being fully alive in the moment. This subjective aim carries within it a still deeper impulse, drawn from God, for harmony and intensity that add to the well-being of the whole, even as they seek the well-being of the person at issue. This deeper impulse is what they call the "initial aim" of a person in that moment. The initial aim is not simply a fresh possibility; it is also a divine desire.
Infused with Divine Desire
According to Whitehead, we feel God's feelings within the depths of our own lives. God's feelings are thus part of us. Maybe this is similar to what Delio means when she says "divine reality is our root reality."
This root reality is itself in process. The initial aim is always toward love in one form or another, but its specific content changes. What God desires for us, and what we ourselves desire, change over time and are relative to circumstance. I think of friends of mine with Alzheimer's whose lives are now vastly different from what they once were. Not that they are any less themselves, but they are different selves, deserving of dignity and respect. Their spiritual faces are changing. Every moment has its own opportunity for beauty. In truth, our spiritual faces are changing, too. We are different selves at every moment, just as God is a different self at every moment. Who among us is "the same" as who we were when we were six months old, or six years old, or sixteen years old? Are we not new at every moment?
Sometimes our newness, our soul beauty, the place where God is found, is not so pretty. Consider people, as noted above, who are inwardly consumed by hatred, sadness, envy, or greed. Their faces do not reflect their true potential, which would be realized if love were their guide. Delio's insight also holds true; the divine life is currently frustrated because we fail to treat one another, the rest of creation, and even ourselves with the respect we all deserve. We often do not fall in love or stay in love. Love seldom dictates our actions or guides our feelings.
Not a Thing but a Way
Delio believes, and process theologians with her, that the God whose face is each human person is also on the way. God may well be a person of some sort: a cosmic consciousness in whose heart the universe unfolds. However, this consciousness, like our own, is in process: a verb, not a noun, or, perhaps better, an adverb. God is not simply a movement; God is how the movement unfolds. That Way is love.
Any given way, be it human or divine, begins with receptivity, that is, with feeling the feelings of others and responding to what is felt. What happens in the world, sometimes through our own creativity, happens in the Way. This is the deeper meaning of co-creativity. Co-creativity is not limited to creating new things in alignment with the divine will, as if creativity is about creating things external to ourselves. It is about creating ourselves in (the spirit of) the Way in whose life we are always unfolding.
This Way is not simply in the future; it is also in the present. The Way is not-yet in some ways, but also here-now in others. The Way is an eternal companion, too: a "fellow sufferer who understands," as Whitehead says. It is in this spirit that the New Year's resolution takes root. It is to see each person as the Face of the living God and to see the Face of the living God in the potential each person, even those we despise, those who do harm, those we hate. Oh, to see the whole world, as Rabbi Bradley Artson often puts it, as marinating in God, even in its tragedy. Yes, that is the calling.
May this resolution guide me on a path of compassion, understanding, and love in the coming year.