In my description of the purpose of this blog I spoke of things I like and things I don’t like. I really don’t like confused talk, humbug and obfuscation. Since the term “unconditional love” entered popular speech its intellectual content has eroded to such an extent that it is now little more than an expression of emotion. So, think with me about the concept of “unconditional love.”
There is something immediately appealing about the idea of unconditional love, especially for Christians. Central to the Christian gospel is the belief that the love and grace of God has been bestowed in Christ on those who do not deserve it. The idea of conditional love sounds like a contradiction. How could genuine love be conditioned on the appealing qualities of the beloved? After all, we are taught to love even our enemies. Loving your enemy is clearly an example of unconditional love. Hence the term “unconditional love” can be used to describe the attitude Jesus instructs us to have toward all human beings. So far, so good.
But the popular demand that we relate to people with “unconditional love” reads into the concept something that Jesus did not instruct us to have. Let’s assume that the word “unconditional” means the same thing for thoughtful Christian speech as it does for popular parlance. Nevertheless we must not ignore the second word in the expression, “love.” What does it mean to love someone? For Christianity, love, conceived as an attitude, means to will the true and highest good for the beloved and, thought of as an action, it means to act for the true and highest good of the beloved out of a sincere will. And the Christian idea of what is truly good for people is condition by the entire Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of humanity, the moral law and the religious relation to God revealed in Jesus Christ. Clearly, Jesus’ demand that we love all people is not conditioned on their loveable qualities but it is also—and here is the difference with popular culture—not based on the preferences, wishes or desires of the beloved.
In popular speech the “love” part of the term “unconditional love” seems to be cut loose from its Christian moorings. It seems to mean that we should will for the beloved whatever the beloved wills for themselves as their true and highest good. Note that the meaning of “love” has been transformed from being defined by an objective view of the good developed in the Christian tradition into a subjective view of the good determined by the individual preferences, emotions and wishes of the beloved. In popular thought “good” means whatever feels good in the moment, whatever gives one a momentary sense of well-being or whatever one thinks is good. Given this definition of the good, the highest priority of a loving person in the popular mind is not to disturb this sense of well-being in the beloved. And one does this by affirming as the good whatever gives the beloved this feeling.
Most certainly Christians should “love their neighbors as themselves” (or in modern parlance “unconditionally”) but only by willing the true and highest good for them as defined by a thoughtful grasp of the Christian religious and moral vision. And their acts of love should follow the same pattern: To the best of one’s ability work for the true and highest good of someone from a pure will. The highest priority of a loving person in the Christian sense cannot be to avoid disturbing the beloved’s sense of well-being; it must be to seek their true good.
For a beautiful and profound study of “unconditional love” Christianly understood, read Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Here is one of my favorite quotes from that book:
“Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved” (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).
Note: future posts will distinguish between the concepts of good, right, wrong, evil and bad. These terms are often confused in popular discourse.