Shortly before he died,
a great philosopher summed up the wisdom of a lifetime when he said: "Love
is the only practical solution to the problems of humankind."
might be the same conclusion that many of us would draw after listening to a lifetime
of sermons. So often we preachers seem to be offering love as the single, comprehensive
solution to the problems of life. As the song writer put it, "What the world
needs now is love, sweet love, that's the only thing there's just too little of."
But is sweet love relevant at all in a time of brutality and war?
is a simple truth in those sermons and love songs of course. Love is one of the
most powerful motivating forces that we know of. Love can carry us to great lengths
and great heights of achievement. To this day I remember the message that my grandmother
used to write on the cards she sent out with her hand knitted socks and sweaters
at Christmas. "There's love in every stitch." And clearly there was.
For it was only the power of love which could possibly have motivated her to continue
knitting long after her joints were swollen, nearly frozen stiff with pain that
resulted from her rheumatoid arthritis. There's the love that knits the members
of a family together in the face of conflict and problems that would tear apart
any lesser bond.
There's also the work we do out of love.
For those of us who work in the not-for-profit sector or in the church, the motivation
is not primarily money, or fame, or power. It's love that motivates. In the case
of ministers such as myself, its the love of God that keeps us going.
Ill wager its true for most people who are reading this article. Whatever
your occupation or avocation, if you do it out of love, you're much more likely
to succeed than if you're simply in it for the money.
love can carry us to lengths that nothing else can.
this is equally true in areas of life where we might least expect it, like politics
or international relationships. For example, love of country can accomplish what
the force of law never can in motivating young people to enlist in the armed forces
of a nation. To fight, even to die in defense of one's country. Yet here we run
up against the first of love's great complications.
our soldiers go into battle motivated in part by love of God and country, there
are those in Iraq who are fighting against us with the same motives moving them
into battle. The leaders of the insurgency understand this very well. And they
could utter, exactly the same words our own leaders use in a time of war: "Nothing
can give life greater meaning than to fight, and even to die out of love for ones
We can see it in the case of Iraq, but its
harder to see when it happens here at home, how love of country can be manipulated
by political leaders to intensify conflict and widen the divisions between nations
and peoples. Especially destructive is the blind love that does not stop to ask
hard questions of a nation's leaders. Blind love is no better than blind obedience
when it comes to the task of building a better world.
love part of the problem?
When you really think about it,
rather than seeing love as a solution to all the problems of life, we might just
as well see it as part of the problem, as when two men love the same woman, or
when you love someone who does not love you in return.
this day and age it is ironic that love remains so great a problem. After decades
of training in how to improve our interpersonal relationships, after years of
psychotherapy, after a whole revolution in our thinking about gender and sex,
love remains the number one problem of our personal lives.
of the most tragic situations in life result from our sometimes frenzied search
for love. Consider the alarming increase in the number of teenage pregnancies,
the spread of various venereal diseases, and perhaps most tragic of all is AIDS.
So many of our problems arise out of the need and the hunger for love. As we reach
out for the affection and simple human contact that we all need, desire and deserve,
we sometimes stumble and fall. Love not only fails as a solution to the problems
of life, love creates new problems of its own.
Yet it is precisely
here, where we face the greatest paradox of life, that the teachings of Jesus
offer the greatest help. Jesus did not push love as a panacea. When he spoke of
love, he was aware of its strengths, he was also aware of its weakness. He understood
both the lengths and the limits of love.
Note the words of
Jesus that were addressed to that small circle of his most intimate disciples.
"This is my commandment, that you love one another even as I have loved you.
Greater love has no one than this, that you lay down your life for your friends."
knew what a tall order he was giving when he commanded these twelve to love one
Yet if they could at least accomplish this, he
knew there was just a chance that others would be able to see what they meant
when they began talking about the love of God. To be sure, Jesus believed that
the love which the disciples shared would eventually spread. It would extend its
reach to every family, race and tribe.
Jesus went as far as
anyone in demonstrating the length and the reach of love. But he was also aware
that there are very clear and necessary limits in our loving. In the Old Testament,
the Great Commandment reads: "Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy
heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might. Instead of might, Jesus
said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind." And that
simple four letter word, m-i-n-d makes all the difference.
clearly saw that blind love is no better than blind obedience or blind faith.
If asked to choose among these three: blind love, blind faith, or blind obedience,
to be true to the teachings of Jesus, we would have to answer, "None of the
above." For real love is not blind at all.
of love requires the deliberate use of all the critical and creative talents we
possess. This is a lesson which the secular world seems surprised to discover
By way of illustration, a professor of psychology
at Yale, Robert J. Sternberg, published the results of an exhaustive study on
the nature of love. Dr. Sternberg's research has already won him the honorific
title: the Love Doctor. After years of painstaking research, here's what Doctor
Love has discovered: "The way I look at it, love has three elements. One
is emotional, another is motivational, the third is cognitive, if you have only
the emotional, that immediate gush of feeling, then its simply infatuation. If
you have only the motivational, its probably more like a close friendship. But
if the emotional, the motivational, and the cognitive all exist simultaneously,
then you have complete romantic love."
count the cost.
Nearly 2000 years before the Love Doctor
was even born, Jesus said much the same thing, only he did not limit himself to
romantic love. He spoke of love in its widest dimension when he said, "Thou
shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all
thy mind. And thy neighbor as thyself."
When he added
that crucial word, MIND, Jesus was speaking of what Dr. Sternberg calls the cognitive
dimension. But for Jesus the mind was not simply the seat of intelligence, it
was also the seat of conscience. In addition to the cognitive dimension, Jesus
saw that love has an ethical and a moral dimension.
does not set out to build a house, or a tower," said Jesus, "without
first sitting down to count the cost." And this is especially true when we
begin to build the house of love.
Most of us learn as parents
that we cannot set out blindly to raise the maximum number of children. Real love
requires that we give thoughtful consideration to the quality of life that we
are able to provide. A reasonable parent must weigh the love of children against
the added costs of a college education, for example.
as we set out to build a network of friendships we must ask realistically, how
many different human beings can we relate to closely enough to number among our
true friends? In searching for ways to express our love for country, we must be
equally discriminating. Especially as we come to grips with problems as intractable
as those of the Middle East?
For the love of humanity, people
should renounce evil for good, but they don't. In fact, more often than not they
justify evil by appealing to the good.
So its a long and tortuous
road that leads from the love we experience within our closest circle of friends,
to that larger love which could bring peace to a war torn world. But the journey
of love is one which each and every one of us is called to take. In fact, it is
the only journey that really matters much at all. For God is love.
as we begin our journey we must confess, love is not something we possess. We
do not have such an abundance of love that we can spread it around like so many
tons of surplus wheat to feed a love starved world.
love is not a thing we possess at all. Just the opposite; it takes possession
of us! It rises up in our midst despite our best efforts to stamp it down. Often
when we least expect it. When we have done nothing to deserve it. Love takes us
by surprise; it takes us by storm, it strikes us to the root and core of our being,
changing us forever.
The greatest of the saints have said it,
from St Paul to Francis of Assisi; from St Augustine to Bishop Tutu. Love is not
a virtue to be attained by training, not an accomplishment to be achieved by fiat
of the will, at bottom love is a gift of God's grace.
the world needs now is love, sweet love", said the song writer. But just
how we are to move on out form that sweet song into this world of bitter-sweet
experience is neither simple nor easy. True love requires more than an outburst
of feeling; it requires a disciplined application of energy and imagination. Love
requires a realistic assessment of one's own strengths and weaknesses. But more
than anything, love requires faith. Not blind faith, but a faith informed by all
the knowledge and wisdom we can acquire in a lifetime of searching.
believe that God is love. And this makes all the difference in the world. For
what the love of God requires God empowers us to give. As God has called us to
be love's faithful servants, love's servants we shall be!
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.