“Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?”

George MacDonald dreams about heaven a lot. It seems like a good thing to do, especially for the hopeless times. If those dreams draw you into some separating reverie and not into love of thy neighbor, stop. Don’t have a UFO theology. Don’t just wait to get beamed out of here. Here is where you are to love

“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” Oliver Wendell Holmes is the originator of that quip, but I got it from my friend, Shane Claiborne. It rings too true for much of the Christians of the last century, especially. However, many of my friends in Circle of Hope, in reaction to this error, might be subject to the opposite, “Some people are so earthly minded they can’t imagine what good heaven would do.” The tension is real.

So I keep dreaming with George MacDonald, my chosen spiritual grandfather. I need more hope than I have, and my imagination can help, and George MacDonald always helps. I just want to share one of his beautiful visions from his book of sermons called The Hope of the Gospel. I can’t stop thinking of people with “perfect spheres of featureless ivory.” It freaks me out in a good way.

Did not the Lord die that we should love one another, and be one with him and the Father, and is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love? Can there be oneness without difference? harmony without distinction? Are all to have the same face? then why faces at all? If the plains of heaven are to be crowded with the same one face over and over for ever, but one moment will pass ere by monotony bliss shall have grown ghastly. Why not perfect spheres of featureless ivory rather than those multitudinous heads with one face! Or are we to start afresh with countenances all new, each beautiful, each lovable, each a revelation of the infinite father, each distinct from every other, and therefore all blending toward a full revealing—but never more the dear old precious faces, with its whole story in each, which seem, at the very thought of them, to draw our hearts out of our bosoms? Were they created only to become dear, and be destroyed? Is it in wine only that the old is better? Would such a new heaven be a thing to thank God for? Would this be a prospect on which the Son of Man would congratulate the mourner, or at which the mourner for the dead would count himself blessed? It is a shame that such a preposterous, monstrous unbelief should call for argument.

A heaven without human love in it were inhuman, and yet more undivine to desire; it ought not to be desired by any being made in the image of God. The lord of life died that his father’s children might grow perfect in love—might love their brothers and sisters as he loved them: is it to this end that they must cease to know one another?

— George MacDonald The Hope of the Gospel, Chapter 6, “Sorrow the Pledge of Joy” (Read it all here)

Wow! “Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?” Our faces were made for knowing and loving, and it seems preposterous to George (and to me) that God would create the infinity of belovedness that resides in the collection of all human faces and not use it for the bliss of eternal love in the promises of heaven. The key insight I wanted to share was the necessity of diversity for any union to occur. This is simple logic, but it is still blowing my mind. It ignites the potential love in me for so, so many.

MacDonald is here reflecting on this famous prayer from Jesus in John 17.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:20-23

Yep! It seems that Jesus’ greatest desire is that we be united, and how can that union express the union of the Father and the Son without there being some diversity to unite? Joining — making one — bringing together — this is the primary metaphor of love that Jesus chooses, and, as such, I think it reveals the primary reality of love, and of the whole universe.

I need this image of our infinite opportunity for union from heaven to fuel my often ceasing resolution to bridge the divides in my life. To cope with the grating power that our differences create, despite our stated intentions to thwart them. They cannot be erased, and if they were, we might as well not have faces, not have love, not have eternity. And yet, because eternity is, indeed, ours, we will forever have faces.

4 responses to ““Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?””

    • I think the differences are universal, like the difference between your face and mine, or any face and any other; or, more momentarily, like the moment a sentence is spoken and the difference between what one says and tries to mean and what the other hears and tries to understand. I think the erasure of that universal difference leads to a superficial sameness that dehumanizes. Racism uses this counterfeit sameness and pedals unity for the price of hatred. Whiteness is the most insidious ware of the devil who is is the primary pedaler of uniformity. If we could elevate the infinite distinction between every human being, we could have a powerful weapon to fight the principality that most divides us. Our differences, meant for love that makes unity have been coopted for division.


      • “If we could elevate the infinite distinction between every human being, we could have a powerful weapon to fight the principality that most divides us.”

        This is a peculiar framing, and I think it may be effective, because it is peculiar. I have always leaned on our commonality for unity, particularly our commonality in creation and in relation to our Creator.


      • And how our Creator created us was infinitely different. I love it for it’s upside-down-ness too. I think love is the best way to unity not recognition of a foundational connection. I believe this mostly because no one FEELS the same as anyone else even if, in principle, we are all created by God, have very similar DNA, etc. These are facts that get debated and have less impact than obedient love. EVERYONE feels different, and some are made to feel even more different. i think that when that common sense of distinction is willfully crossed for a higher love, then we are more free. I think that starting from our commonality is talking ourselves into something. I think that loving across impossible gulfs of separation is acting ourselves into something. The latter feels more real to me.


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