I wrote in a previous post that, for me, the symbolic image of Jesus with his arms outstretched on the cross, is a movingly powerful symbol of ‘unconditional love’, which I see as the ‘beating heart’ of Christianity, and its greatest gift to the world. I also noted that my own journey towards this persuasion began with a beautiful, insightful, deeply moving book, “Unconditional Love’, written by a Roman Catholic, Jesuit priest – John Powell. Unconditional love is, in essence, simple, but in impact potentially revolutionary. It’s the gift of love with no ifs or buts – with no conditions whatsoever – which will never be withdrawn. Here’s a paragraph from John Powell’s book, which has an obvious application to marriage partners (of whatever sex), but also and equally to any and all human relationships …
“The essential message of unconditional love is one of liberation. You can be whoever you are, express all your thoughts and feelings with absolute confidence. You do not have to be fearful that love will be taken away. You will not be punished for your openness or honesty. There is no admission price to my love, no rental fees or instalment payments to be made. There may be days when disagreements and disturbing emotions come between us. There may be times when psychological or physical miles lie between us. But I have given you the word of my commitment. I have set my life on a course. I will not go back on my word to you. So feel free to be yourself, to tell me of your negative and positive reactions, of your warm and cold feelings. I cannot always predict my reactions or guarantee my strength, but one thing I do know and I do want you to know: I will not reject you! I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will always love you.”
This is a beautiful, powerful vision, however hard to realise in practice. Jesus too had such a vision. It was of a new, inviting, inclusive, fulfilling world order, to be shared by everyone, Gentile as well as Jew and, like Socrates before him, he was prepared to die for what he believed in. I can’t conceive of love deserving the adjective ‘divine’, if it’s in any way inferior to what’s been outlined above. I can’t therefore believe in the carrot and stick of everlasting heaven for some and red-hot hell-fire for others; or in the universal reality of ‘original sin’ and ‘total depravity’; or have respect for ‘forgiveness’ that’s conditional on the humiliatingly brutal torture, and agonisingly cruel death, of an innocent proxy. What kind of mentally, emotionally and morally unbalanced monster would it be, who demanded that?
I’d like to see Christianity (although, of course, there’s no such homogeneous entity) fully, formally and finally disassociate itself from such no longer credible, acceptable and sustainable doctrines. For me, in the very symbolism of the cross itself, I see and feel their repudiation and reversal. That’s why I call it the warmly ‘beating heart’. I’m not expecting any such disassociation soon. It took over 350 years, after all, for the Church to recant the forced ‘recantation’ of Galileo.
Some would regard this as heresy, and at one time it would’ve been burned out of me at the stake. As long ago as the 12th century, however, a Christian philosopher, theologian, poet and composer, Peter Abelard, instead of the orthodox ‘ransom’ and ‘penal’ interpretations of the cross, suggested that Jesus’ self-offering was addressed neither to the Devil, nor to God, but to humanity, to prove God’s love, to awaken love in response, and thus to win us back to God. That may still contain a flavour of 12th century thinking, but it’s well on the way towards John Powell’s ‘unconditional love’. Good on you, Abelard – just too bad about Heloise!
Unconditional love has the potential power to transform both the individual person and personal relationships, but it’s hard and demanding to carry through in practice. We could say it requires a crucifixion, in which we don’t passively accept or cynically excuse, but die to, our irritations and angers, prejudices and bigotries, and hatreds and homicides, and rise out of them to begin to practise living in a different way. It’s a vision, it’s a dream, but as the song says, “You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you [ever] gonna have a dream come true?” So, I’ll ‘dream on’ …..