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Theology of Tenderness

by kurt marti Tuesday, Jan. 09, 2007 at 4:50 AM

The weakness of God is stronger than men (1Cor1,25). The soft will overcome the hard (Lao-Tse)..What is usually regarded as important in the world fades into insignifi-cance. Here tenderness is subversion! The last becomes first and the first becomes last


By Kurt Marti

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Kurt Marti is a poet and theologian in Berne, Switzerland.]

dedicated to a theo-poet

once she was canonized

as a visionary

or burned on a dry wood stake

as a witch

(two sides of the same coin)


i saw her

as one of the levantine women

who tried to live

with jesus and his wandering commune

the humane god

now she sits meditating

on a cliff by the ocean

playing and unwrapping

poems in prayers in faith and love –

prophetess of a magdalenian time

prophesying the aeon of tenderness

- Malcolm Lowry

Malcolm Lowry has the I-figure of a short novel extol an old outsider and drunkard: “only seeing this old bastard makes me happy for a week.” Poetry of tenderness in prose

Tenderness is a form of loving intelligence and a possible way to ecstasy. Intelligence is not confused with logic. Loving intelligence may want ecstasy back as her origin. Isn’t ex-istence a product of ec-stasy and creation the result of God leaving himself and the goal of creation “God will be all in all” (I Cor 15,28)? Isn’t the perfect eternal ec-stasy, the being of the Creator leaving himself, God’s being, and coming into creation, the great marriage of heaven and earth? Theo-poetry, so far as it is intent on logic, is deeply suspicious: “Woe to the one drunk with God who is born in Europe…” (Mohammed Eqbal, Pakistan)

Can one imagine this “incredible tenderness” (Ruth Landshoff-Yorck)? Tenderness sweeps us away in zones where seeing and hearing, logic and theo-logic fade, where theo-poetry changes us into the mad who forget all circumspection and caution and exclaim boldly and dangerously with William Black: “The road of excessiveness leads to the palace of wisdom.” Whoever interprets “incredible tenderness” in metaphors of strength, power and even violence misunderstands “incredible tenderness.” Nothing is more vulnerable, defenseless and weaker than tenderness. Therefore theology hardly knows what to do with it. Theologians are accustomed to think in categories of power or omnipotence. For centuries, the relation to dominant earthly powers has corrupted the imagination of God.

Still one may not be deceived. As tenderness in many cases escalates into eroticism or the mystic love of God, God’s tenderness, tenderness is above all an attitude, mentality or way of thinking. While possibilities for the spontaneous and irrational remain open here, development of consciousness is the goal, not ecstasy. Sobriety, vigilance and attentiveness are cardinal virtues of tenderness. Theology has never thematicized tenderness into a theology of tenderness. Still there is a tenderness of theology that appears in its way of thinking and style as in many patristic and scholastic texts whose tenderness is true for God and the person (the reader).

Tenderness will not seduce. So great is her respect for fellow human beings! Tenderness will illumine and open new gates of perception. Even in the realms of eros, tenderness is sensual intelligence.

No tenderness is without spirit or without words. To that extent, it is the true counterpart of dull instinctiveness, not a dualistic hostility to bodies and senses that provokes speechless, gloomy reactions. The holistic anthropology of the Bible never separates body and spirit as orthodox and heretical to anthropological dualism. Otherwise one abandons the virtue of tenderness theologically from the start. Tenderness encourages communication that can affect both the spirit and the senses.

Making absolute a fundamental opposition between eros and agape (with the Swedish theologian Nygren) amounts to a de-eschatologization of the Holy Spirit. The movement leads to a future reign where love comes into her own again in all her forms of expression and is fulfilled in the marriage of spirit and matter. “The idea that eros and agape could ultimately be one and the same sounds strange to theology after nearly 2000 years.” (Herbert Marcuse)

Could the vision of agape that becomes eros be the theological perspective that expresses the virtue of tenderness?

Because God is love (1 Joh 4,8 and 16), God is tender. Because God is perfectly tender, God is weaker than we people who are only occasionally, partially and imperfectly tender. Therefore we prefer to speak of God in concepts and pictures of rule and power. We project our own rule relations and desires for power on God who in truth is weak as a lover.

The weakness of God is stronger than men (I Cor 1,25). The soft will overcome the hard (Lao-Tse).

Claims to rule destroy tenderness. Tenderness is an exorcist of rule claims. That is her social explosiveness. No tenderness is possible between rulers and ruled, victors and defeated but at most sado-masochist delight in fear. To that extent, tenderness is emancipative and directed to freedom from rule and arbitrariness. Is this a reason that the theology of the dominant churches hardly knows what to do with her? Is tenderness the privilege of the underdogs, the harassed and minorities as in the Middle Ages, for example the brothers and sisters of free spirit (hominess intelligentiae) whose emancipative mysticism seems anti-authoritarian and social-evolutionary?

The attempt is made to redevelop agape into eros. A spiritual climate of tenderness forms that according to Wilhelm Fraenger is mirrored in the Paradise descriptions of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. In this connection, Fraenger quotes a saying of David Joris, a “free thinker”: “What kind of people love the Lord? A people despised and rejected, a people of sinners, tax collectors and Samaritans who love their neighbors.” Love and tenderness thrive most among the despised and rejected, outsiders and underdogs? Could Mary Magdalene be added to them? Does a “theology of Mary Magdalene’s theology of tenderness” assume a “theo-sociology” rather than a “theo-pornology”?

Koln, Boll’s city, has been a center of brothers and sisters of free spirit with its emancipative character and rituals of tenderness. Was this tenderness an accident or not?

Reconciliation flashes in tenderness, perhaps a spark of the great possible reconciliation between God and humankind, between people with each other, between people and nature and between spirit and matter.

Tenderness awakens attention for the inconspicuous. A helpless gesture, an unarticulated sound and a fleeting shadow suddenly become the pivot of the universe. What is usually regarded as nothing becomes important. What is usually deemed important in the world fades into insignificance (cf. 1 Corinthians 1,28). Here tenderness is subversion! The last becomes first and the first becomes last. As a result, a theology of tenderness reminds us: “The age of dogmaticians ends because faith itself recalls what is still and inconspicuous to find its word in a later hour.” (Walter Frei)

Tenderness plays. Playful wisdom is a play before God (Prov 8,30). What was joylessly reinforced as custom and prejudice is broken in play. In play, light shines from the great festive Sabbath of creation. “Tenderness crowns true triumph. Meekness is often genuine liberation” (Vladimir Nabokov).

Kurt Marti, Theologie der Zartlichkeit? From: Almanach 10 fur Literatur und Theologie, ed. By Adam Weyer, Peter Hammer Verlag 1976

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