by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
I would like to explore here a concept often repeated these days — unconditional love. This handy phrase seems to reflect the trendy jargon of New Age theology. But I think its roots predate by far the New Age and harken back to both prophetic teaching and human experience. The question of unconditional love is as old as the reality of love itself . It is bound up with the many faces of love, of whatever stripe and hue.
The concept of unconditional love raises as many questions as it does answers. It is by no means sheer speculation and by no means a facile idea. Unconditional love seems deceptively simple until you start to examine the concept more closely. Then you realise you are faced with mysteries and conundrums.
Like so many realities in spiritual life, we come to a fuller understanding of unconditional love only by practice. As for other modes of apprenticeship, we learn about loving by trial and error, by putting theory into practice, by our successes, and yes — our failures. We learn especially from these.
An intuitive leap of the heart takes place at the first mention of unconditional love. We experience a saying “yes,” a welcome assent to the idea. What could be more liberating, more expansive than to love without condition? It seems to be the ultimate thing, the “ne plus ultra” of the loving and longing heart.
Jesus cogently expressed one clear definition of unconditional love through his teaching of the ancient great “first commandment.” Answering a scribe he said: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mk. 12:30).
This is one unambiguous expression of unconditional love. But notice that although his answer appears to be unidirectional — the love that flows from the individual to God — in fact, Christ exhorts us to a return of love. By loving God unconditionally, we return the love to the Ultimate Source by which we were created and so complete a full circle of love. It is also interesting that Christ’s injunction to love concerns a state of being and a condition of the heart rather than the performance of any deed or ritual observance.
Our love for God cannot be true if it is conditional. True believers cannot say to God: “God, I will love you only if you perform such and such a thing for me.” We cannot impose conditions on the Creative Life Force. We may ask, and we do so in prayer, but we have no right to impose conditions. God the Unconditioned One imposes conditions (laws, teachings, values) on creation, not the reverse. But God does not choose to impose such conditions. They must be freely accepted by the creatures. God has endowed all humans with free will and does not force anyone to believe or to behave in a certain manner.
But love between human beings, in one of its faces, is another matter. That love is conditional
and full of expectations. Some examples might help. Lovers expect to be loved in return. Loving someone usually means reciprocity and that reciprocity is based on the condition of the return of love. However, sometimes love is offered to another human being with “no strings attached,” as a pure gift. That is unconditional love.
A mother loves her child unconditionally, pouring all of her love freely upon her little one. She continues to do so until such time as the child begins to assert signs of self-will and independence and doing things contrary to her wishes. When this happens, the unconditional love that she once knew is usually challenged. But if she is true to her vocation, she will go on loving her child and training him.
The phrase “unconditional love” takes on special meaning when love is put to the test — when we receive hurts, injuries or betrayals from loved ones or when we meet with lying. Here there is both danger and ambiguity but also opportunity. For in these situations and because we are fragile, relationships risk being broken. And if they are, love proves to be conditional. But through forgiveness, which liberates us from being partners in pain, we enter into unconditional love.
It is also important to realise that we can go on loving someone without supporting the lifestyle or the choices that individual has made. Neither does unconditional love mean that we choose to become victims of abuse. We often go on loving individuals with whom we can longer live in harmony and from whom we feel obliged to separate.
So we end up with a paradox. Love does create conditions and expectations but we may go on loving without conditions all the same, in a situation in which love overcomes itself and brings healing and reconciliation.