I had a conversation last week about the idea and ideal of unconditional love. We were talking about personal relationships, but it sparked a deeper thread that I want to make my Lenten pilgrimage here on my blog. I hope you will join me, and I pray that my musings may be of benefit to you as well.
The conversation started because the other person was struggling with whether they would ever experience truly unconditional love. Reflecting on a series of challenged personal relationships, this person was feeling despair and wondering if they were irrevocably broken. I found myself considering our cultural conditioning and proposed that perhaps the problem was with American cultural assumptions rather than individual brokenness.
You see, we’ve developed some rather dangerous assumptions about the ideal of unconditional love. Somehow, perhaps reflecting our idealistic notions of Jesus, too many Americans—and far too many Christians—have come to believe that we have the capacity for truly unconditional love: love without limits, love with no strings attached or assumptions made.
For Christians, this ideal is often built on the concept of agape. The ancient Greeks had several words for love, and the word agape meant “affection, good-will, love, benevolence.” It is different from sexual love (eros) or familial or close-friendship love (philia). Agape was the word used by Jesus in his commandment to his disciples at the Last Supper to love one another. Over time, Christians came to believe that this love needed to look like Jesus’ self-sacrificial love. Eventually, it took on connotations of self-denial which were not present, as I (and many) read it in scripture.
You see, I believe we are called to “follow” Jesus in the way he lived, not the way he died. Yes, his death was a consequence of how he lived. However, if we live a life with the intent to love with “affection, good-will, love, benevolence,” that is unlikely to get us killed in modern-day America. It might even help counter the increasing animosity that frames so many of our public conversations.
So, to return to the modern ideal of unconditional love. If it is not about taking agape to dangerous extremes, what does it look like? In my next post, I’ll look at the limits both Jesus and the early church put on love. Then I’ll look at what modern experts are saying about the ideal of unconditional love. Then, I’ll conclude my series by posing an alternative to this unworkable ideal of unconditional love.
This week, I invite you to consider your own assumptions about unconditional love and what they reflect about your own personal and spiritual journey.
What pops into my mind are Thomas Keating’s, “The ego’s program for happiness” or Ignatius’ week 3.
Thank you, Adeline. I’m not familiar with the details of either (though I understand Keating’s idea in broad strokes), so thank you for this contribution to the conversation.
To me, unconditional love means that I must love someone with whom I disagree on any and all issues. I certainly wouldn’t like them and it would be a real challenge to love them anyway. I’m wondering if that is sort of a cop-out to say I love them even though I don’t like them. I guess it means we work toward the ideal of loving everyone because they are also God’s children, just as we are.
Thank you, Aston, for your thoughts on unconditional love. Reading your feedback, I find myself thinking that perhaps a prior question is, “What is your definition of love?” I’m also curious where you get the “must” idea…who taught you that and in what context…?
I appreciate your contribution to this conversation!