the conditions of love

In his book Love: A History, professor of philosophy Simon May makes a distinction between conditional and unconditional love.  Unconditional love is what we believe in today:  the selfless, giving prescription that is rooted in an arriviste secular theology of love is all.

Conditional love on the other hand – for which May is making a case – is messy, grounded, engaged and emotional; a personal longing and search for a place – embodied in a person – to call home.

Unconditional love – ungrounded and selfless – can cause us to want to be godlike, to have unreasonable expectations, and will erode away our relationships.

Here is May on the difference between conditional and unconditional love:

all love (very much including romantic love) is thoroughly conditional: it is a desire for one whom we experience as indestructibly grounding our life, as a harbinger of ‘home’; so that to see it as the opposite – as entirely unconditional – is to infuse our relationships with false expectations and so to sabotage them from the start.

Love’s tremendous capacity to give and to sacrifice arises not from ‘disinterestedness’ or ‘selflessness’, but precisely from the rapture we feel for those people who inspire in us the hope of such an indestructible grounding for our life. This is the rapture that sets us off on – and sustains – the long search for a secure relationship between our being and theirs.

In the pre 18th century Christian world love played a muted role.  Today’s Christian teachers – shrouded fully in a belief in unconditional love – talk much more about love than Jesus himself ever did.  Love was neither a self help salve nor a means to salvation:

It is fascinating to discover that Jesus is much more modest in his talk of love than we tend to be these days – or than much of the Christian tradition that speaks in his name (especially from the Reformation onwards).  As he is quoted in the synoptic gospels, he never presents love as an all-purpose solution to life’s problems or suggests that human beings can become gods through love.

In our own time, and the time leading up to it, people have turned away from religion, and a religion of love is all has flowed in to fill the resulting void.  The western world  began to reject its subscription to the idea of conditional love and to take on a secularized view of love being unconditional.

The new religion of love is hubristic.  You can hear this unconditional condition in the language, especially of the state:  this particular citizen of this exceptional state is to be treated in this [godlike] fashion.  We are all gods now; but none of us is longing and searching for the one who will ground us in life.

On love in our time:

Indeed love became god only in modern times – that is, roughly since the mid 18th Century. This can’t be a coincidence, for since the 18th century belief in the Judeo-Christian God has drastically declined, and it seems that the religion of love has rushed to fill the vacuum. To the point where love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.  Such hubris, like every attempt to arrogate divine power to humans, cannot end well.

Simon May on the Religion of Love, Simon May, The School of Life


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