The theological argument I have heard that Christians ought to be unconditionally loving is that God is unconditionally loving. I’m not sure that’s true. And if it is true, I think we wouldn’t be able to tell.
Today, I am concluding a thought experiment about unconditional love. I have reflected over the last few essays my view that “unconditional love” is not a very useful notion. It is theologically opaque. It is spiritually misleading. It is strategically unsustainable. And, perhaps worst of all, it precludes a lot of other questions that would help us more.
I’ve put the theological rationale off till last. Let’s start with these two well-known passages.
The first is Leviticus 26: 3, 4; the second in just down the page at 14—17.
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, 4 I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. 5 Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.
“‘But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, 15 and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, 16 then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. 17 I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.
Those sound like conditions to me.
A Servant, committed as he is to doing loving things, would have to say that God is represented as loving in the first passage and not as loving in the second. A Steward, committed as he is to “doing what love requires” would have to say that God, in these passages is doing what love requires, and so is “loving” in both passages.
Neither of those responses is very sensible, although sometimes it is just a good idea to give up being sensible when you are trying to explain God’s behavior. The Servant’s response is, “That second one doesn’t look loving to me.” The Steward’s response is, “I know they are both loving—this is God we are talking about, right?—but I couldn’t say just how they are loving.”
It isn’t hard to see what the dilemma is. When I was a child, I thought my parents were loving sometimes and not sometimes. When I was a parent, I did a lot of things that I thought love required that my kids did not think were loving at all. So I see the dilemma. If God is like a parent, we can grant that He might have to do things that the kids (that’s the human race) won’t understand fully. But reasoning like that can’t establish that God is loving, much less that He is unconditionally loving.
And these if…then sequences don’t stop in the Old Testament like they ran into the Apocryphal Books and couldn’t get around them and into the New Testament. There are too many to cite as evidence, so I will pick one from Matthew and one from Revelation. How about Matthew 18:35? “And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.” The “that” in the sentence refers back to “the master handed him over to the torturers…”
Revelation 3:20 is a wonderful picture; Jesus knocking at the door and asking to come in, but this passage contains that conditional “if” as well. “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side.” Otherwise, not.
If we can judge God’s acts at all, we will have to say that some are loving are some are not; some are conditional and some are not.
So maybe the better course is to say that we are not able to judge God’s actions, so mimicking them might not be a good idea either.
We have still left the idea that God, whose judgments we cannot judge, has instructed us to be unconditionally loving. And that idea can actually be sustained in some forms, but it can’t be sustained in the forms I have been working with here.
In Matthew 18, Jesus gives a sequence of the right actions for a brother who has erred. This sequence ends with “report it to the community” and “treat him like a gentile or a tax collector.” I don’t think there is any way to say that is a loving act toward the brother, but you can say that your love for the community and all its members compelled you to do what you did with the erring brother. We are often caught between what our love for this person requires and what our love for that person
I hear sometimes that God wants us to be channels of his love. I don’t have any objection to that. Like everyone else, I have trouble with the practice, but I don’t have trouble with the doctrine. But I like much better the idea that God wants us to be stewards of his love. We are to treasure it; not to hoard it. We are to invest it; not to hide it. We are to take risks with it. But we are not to squander it. That’s not what it’s for. And it is not what we are for. We are not to be squandered either.
When you allow yourself to become so severely depleted as a steward of God’s resources, you invest those resources badly and you ignore what you once knew: you are a resource as well.
I have been following this series with interest and and very happy with how it ends. Unconditional love is a bogus concept; it is not a concept, it is a sentiment. I did a Google search on the phrase – the ultimate test of reality – and found it mostly associated with pastel websites with little birds flitting to and fro. In fact, the only serious use of the phrase found in my search was Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. His is not even the exception that proves the rule. It proves that even the best of us can be suckered by weak sentiment. Oh, did I mention that I don’t like the phrase?
My biggest question as you have written had to do with how you would end, and you have ended very well.
I’m so glad you liked the series, Bill. Glad, too, that you followed it because now when I call and ask for a chance to talk about it with you, I will know that I am not taking a 10 page hunk out of your morning.
On re-reading, I think I have made some of it more complicated than it needed to be. I was thinking my way through it and didn’t know, myself, where it was going to come out. I hope we can talk some time this week.
I see your problem with “unconditional,” but, as you point out, discipline does not mean absence of love. As you also point out, it is often a display of love.
But then we get into the disciplinary action. Turning people in to the community and asking that they be treated as the scum of the earth or handing them over to a torturer, now that’s a different matter. Rules can absolutely be loving. Discipline can be loving. Torture cannot.
I know this is one of the places where our beliefs diverge, but the passages you site are absolutely in keeping for men living in that time. I certainly can’t see any fingerprints of the divine here. Has God evolved too? Did God used to be a Draconian jerk (Old Testament), and then go soft in the New? Or is it that he could afford to be kinder as his children grew up (evolved)?
Um, I meant “cite,” not “site.” Hazards of working on too many websites over the years.