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A Rose Planted in the Desert of Our Hearts
By Stephen G. Post
Templeton Foundation PressCopyright © 2008 Stephen G. Post
All rights reserved.
Godly Love and Human Hatreds
In March 2007 I had the honor of spending several days north of Paris with the great Jean Vanier, then in his early eighties. Jean had founded L'Arche ("The Ark") some four decades earlier, when he was inspired by an experience of Godly love to invite two men with cognitive developmental disabilities into his home. Over the years, L'Arche homes have flourished worldwide as volunteers dwell with the disabled in communities of faith, prayer, and Godly love. I had attended meals in L'Arche homes in Cleveland on a number of occasions, and I had heard the grace said before eating, the hymns sung, and the energy of love that was palpable in the lives of those caregivers and in the experience of those they cared for and lived with.
The ignorant say Love and God are different; none know that Love and God are the same. When they know that Love and God are the same, they rest in God's love. —TIRU-MULAR, HINDU BHAKTI POET
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Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. —ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Jean struck me as one of the most loving, Godly, and humble men I had ever met. He spoke quietly and brilliantly, and he exuded an infectious sense of fun. On one Sunday evening there was a Catholic Mass in an old renovated chapel from the fourteenth century. About one hundred people had gathered there, mostly L'Arche volunteers and people with disabilities. I saw a volunteer wheel one older man named David up to the priest for communion. That night, at dinner, I asked Jean what he thought David had gotten from receiving communion, for David was probably the most severely disabled and agitated person I had encountered there. Jean said, "Whenever David receives communion, he becomes more peaceful, and that is the power of God's love. Remember, Stephen, we do not know much about the mystery of God's love and presence." Jean's pure, enduring, and expansive love clearly encompassed such a severely disabled man, and counted him among God's blessed.
Evil in God's Name
When I encounter a man like Jean Vanier, I feel that we must all stop thinking of God as the epitome of awesome power and strength in the conventional sense. This convention may be partly true, but we need to set it aside; otherwise, we begin to think of God primarily in terms of might, and human arrogance propels us into thinking that because my God is stronger than your God, violence is justified in God's name. If we think about God in terms of power, then religions become tainted with human arrogance. Far too many prayerful people are carrying rifles in the spirit of pure hatred and pretending that their hatred is somehow divinely sanctioned. This amounts to shallow religiosity, which only causes pain and undermines Godly love. The Lord of power and might is first and foremost the author and giver of all good things, the Divine Entity who nourishes us in love and brings forth from us good works.
We need to stop thinking that our definitions of God are complete and that our knowledge of God's will is total. Our definitions, even if divinely inspired, are still products of the human mind, and we can never fully understand the Divine. Religious doctrines, if adhered to arrogantly, tend to separate us from one another and shatter the unifying spirit of Godly love that all spirituality seeks to cultivate. When religions place doctrine and force above love, they foment massive evil—from torture to terror, from coercion to conflict. Religious wars exemplify human tribalism and arrogance, both of which bring out the worst in us.
Peace in the celestial city is the perfectly ordered, perfectly harmonious fellowship of those who enjoy God and enjoy one another in God. —AUGUSTINE
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The man who foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my ungrudging love. —BUDDHA
Hatred, hostility, and revenge are such strong emotions that they can crush our fragile sense of Godly love. The pseudospirituality of hatred runs counter to all genuine spirituality, which is always an adventure in love, an expression of love's deepest desires.
Countering Hatred with Godly Love
The love of power can sometimes overwhelm the power of love, so we must remain humble and guard against this. No matter how little we know about God, we can still experience Godly love. Only by taking Godly love much more seriously than we do now—even inculcating a profound love for one another among ancient, sworn enemies—can we expect to head off a spiral of widespread destruction.
Most of religion and spirituality is rooted in healing emotions, grounded in love. We will never achieve sustained peace in the twenty-first century unless all religions live up to those intrinsic ideals of Godly love, applying those ideals to all of humankind without exception.
The world shows no signs of becoming any less religious; we as humans will always have a passion for Ultimate Truth that provides safe haven and emotional security in times of distress. Yet we will only have a human future if we infuse universal Godly love into the rituals that religions create, and express through our actions spiritual emotions such as forgiveness and compassion. If our religions fail to promote universal Godly love, violence will sweep us all away.
Promoting Harmony and Peace
Godly love alone can realign the world in harmony and peace. Too many kill in God's name, claiming that they alone know the destiny God intends for humankind. Our limited human knowledge of any divinely inspired destiny to be played out on the human stage belies this specious—and dangerous—claim.
Love is the source of our greatest happiness and security; therefore love is the Ultimate Good, the Supreme Good. Nothing else comes close, for love underlies the creative energy that propels us from birth to death. The withholding of love drives to destruction those deprived of love's nurturing, its compassion, and its life-giving blessings. This occurs most notably in critical developmental periods during childhood. And it holds just as true for a child in a nursery as it does for an older adult in a hospice.
It is this recognition of the law of love as the highest law of human life, and the clearly expressed guidance for conduct that follows from the Christian teaching on love, applied equally to enemies and those who hate, offend and curse us, that constitutes the peculiarity of Christ's teaching. —LEO TOLSTOY, THE LAW OF LOVE AND THE LAW OF VIOLENCE
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Our religions, which offer models of righteous living, must put into practice their visions of Godly love, or they fail us all.
Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell. —ABRAHAM LINCOLN, FAREWELL ADDRESS AT SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOISCHAPTER 2
Godly Love Is ...
In August 2005 I was at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state, presenting a week of lectures on the interface among science, theology, and Godly love. My cell phone rang. It was the producer for Michael Feldman's NPR show Whad'Ya Know?, inviting me to be Michael's special guest in the Palace Theatre in downtown Cleveland on September 17, a Saturday morning. Michael was curious, he said, about my Institute for Research on Unlimited Love. I said yes, but without knowing anything about the show. In early September I decided to listen to Whad'Ya Know? and realized that Michael can be a little cutesy and mischievous. So on the evening of September 16 I went for one of my quiet Godly love walks along Ohio's Chagrin River, and I asked, "Lord, what is Michael Feldman going to ask me?" Well, it came to me that Michael would ask me something like, "Now, Dr. Post, Unlimited Love? What kind of love are we talking about here?" So I thought through an answer after making a call to my good friend William Grassie.
The next morning, sitting on the stage with four thousand people in the studio audience and millions listening in, Michael introduced me and asked, "Now, Dr. Post, what kind of love are we talking about here?" And I had an answer ready: "Michael, it's the kind of love that gets people down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the kind of love that makes our otherwise merely competent medical students real healers, the kind of love that God has for us all, and the kind of love that I think these people in the Palace Theatre have for you!" Everyone stood up and applauded, and Michael asked people all over America what their experience of this kind of love was like.
Seven Characteristics of Godly Love
So what kind of love are we talking about? Unlimited Love is Godly love—one and the same. Let me try to describe its seven salient features, however imperfectly.
1. Godly love is fiduciary. This term, which has not previously been applied to Godly love, comes from the Latin word for faith. It describes relationships like those between a parent and a child, or a doctor and a patient—although Godly love is perfect, so all human-based analogies pale in comparison. Let us not pretend that we are God's equals in knowledge, power, and love. God is our guardian, always acting with human well-being in mind. Nothing is more important to God than we are. Fiduciary relationships are between a knowledgeable and beneficent protector and a beneficiary who is unequal in power, and who has reposed trust and confidence in that protector. We rely completely on God's fidelity and unwavering love—there for our human benefit, and without which we are devoid of direction and hope. In English common law, a fiduciary must show the highest standard of care, and is expected to be extremely loyal, with no other commitments that would interfere with this loyalty. Our deviations from the righteous path, even if they are hurtful to God, can never in any way weaken the solid bedrock of God's fiduciary love for us.
Agape is the holy, unconditional love God gives us regardless of what we look like, how much money we have, how smart we are, and even regardless of how unloving our actions may sometimes be. —SIR JOHN TEMPLETON, PURE UNLIMITED LOVE
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2. Godly love is covenantal. Godly love naturally elicits in us a desire to live a good, upstanding, and righteous life. When we backslide away from such standards, our conscience drives us away from God, and we succumb to inner chaos. This is self-inflicted. It isn't that Godly love disappears or is no longer available to us, or that God is punishing us; rather, we ourselves feel guilt over having strayed from the proper path and we therefore punish ourselves. Eventually, we express repentance, a kind of spiritual apology, and begin to approach God anew. And when we do, Godly love is there for us. We always bask in the protective light and warmth of Godly love, but its intensity reveals to us our selfishness and narcissism, and this makes us want to live a better life. While we may waver, Godly love does not, for it is perfectly loyal, fiduciary, giving, and forgiving.
3. Godly love is unconditional. In this fiduciary relationship, Godly love is always available to us, no matter how egregious our past misdeeds. The relationship is not one between equals, in which God expects us to have the vision and virtue to always use our free will for noble purposes. There is absolutely nothing we can do to destroy God's love for us. Godly love leads to either triumph or tragedy, depending on how we use our free will, but because Divine love is always there, it enables us to turn tragedy into triumph. Godly love promotes emotional and spiritual healing.
4. Godly love is personal. By personal I mean that God knows every detail of our lives. God hears all our words, knows all our thoughts and feelings, sees all we do, and knows us by name. Love is always personal. This sense of a personal relationship with God may be a little frightening; after all, it implies a certain measure of accountability and responsibility. But it also means that God knows precisely what each of us needs—better, even, than we ourselves do. The personal aspect of Godly love makes it intimate and grounds it in reality, rather than being some abstract energy swirling through the universe that does not really know or care about us.
Cosmic consciousness is a third form which is as far above Self Consciousness as is that above Simple Consciousness.... The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is, as its name implies, a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. —RICHARD MAURICE BUCKE, MD, COSMIC CONSCIOUSNESS
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5. Godly love is unlimited. That is, it does not hold anything back. There is a totality, an all-encompassing, sweeping aspect to Divine love. It is not merely kindness or benevolence, which, however important, have their limitations. We can be kind and benevolent to people we do not love. The New Testament speaks of Divine love as "self-emptying." This limitless self-giving has no interior constraints in its warmth and light. When we feel deeply that the happiness and security of someone else means as much to us as our own happiness and security, we love, but human love fades. Godly love is unlimited because it endures with a constant intensity, like a beacon in the darkness. And it is unlimited because it includes every person without exception.
A sense of the universe, a sense of the all, the nostalgia which seizes us when confronted by nature, beauty, music— these seem to be an expectation and awareness of a Great Presence. —TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, THE PHENOMENON OF MAN
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6. Godly love is nonviolent. Under certain unusual instances, the only way we may be able to halt the power of the most venomous hatred is through self-defense or defense of the vulnerable. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, reluctantly concluded that the only loving thing to do in the face of Adolf Hitler's campaign of mass murder was to try to assassinate the dictator. But like all people of Godly love, Bonhoeffer worked very hard to resist evil through nonviolent means. There is such a thing as a justified war when the forces of evil threaten annihilation of the good and the innocent. But even in such extreme cases, we must retain a sense of compunction, for in a better world such violence would not be necessary, even as a last resort. I prefer the strategy of nonviolent resistance, advocated and carried out by African-American thinkers like Howard Thurman, Benjamin Elijah Mays, and Martin Luther King Jr., to the pacifism of the Amish and the Mennonites. Why? Because the African-American tradition of agape love—also known as Godly love—is active and proactive against evil within the whole of society; it does not separate itself from the world. There are too many today who either do not take seriously the idea that God is love, or who distort the goals of that love by appealing to coercion, threats, and patterns of wanton violence. Godly love is a greater power than violence, and it forgives rather than exacting vengeance.
Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. —TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
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Behold the miracle! Love has no awareness of merit or demerit; it has no scale by which its portion may be weighed or measured. It does not seek to balance giving and receiving. Love loves; this is its nature. —HOWARD THURMAN, THE INWARD JOURNEY
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7. Godly love is noncoercive. In Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, the author refers to God's choice to curb the Divine's own power as the "miracle of restraint." Jesus, when he was tempted in the desert, was offered all worldly power and dominion, but he refused. No displays of omnipotence would achieve the response he hoped for. He also refused to take up the sword. He died in a radical act of self-giving that compels only by the power of love. As it is written, "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their own life?" (Matthew 16:26).
God's love is given to us not because we deserve it. In fact, most likely when we need love the most is when we are most unlovable. Worthiness is not a prerequisite to receive the benefit of God's love or grace. — SIR JOHN TEMPLETON, PURE UNLIMITED LOVECHAPTER 3
Our Human Significance
In October 1999 the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love was beginning to take shape through a conference convened in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the leading lights of Godly love whom I invited to speak about their lives was the remarkable Templeton Laureate, Dame Cicely Saunders, then eighty-three years of age and known all over the world as the creator and founder of the hospice movement. Indeed, she took the name hospice from the medieval notion of a safe place where wayfarers might spend the night. She viewed dying as a journey, and a hospice as a safe haven where people could die in love and grace, and without a tube in every orifice.
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. —MICAH 6:8
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Lord, I do not know what I ought to be asking of you. You are the only One who knows what I need. You love me better than I know how to love myself. O Father, give your child what I do not know how to ask for myself. —FRANÇOIS FÉNELON, MEDITATIONS ON THE HEART OF GOD
Excerpted from Godly Love by Stephen G. Post. Copyright © 2008 Stephen G. Post. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Foundation Press.
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