Very short musings on beauty and love

This was the view over Belfast Lough the other night. The vista from the Craigantlet hills above Holywood is a favourite of mine but last night was a pretty special show.

A connection between beauty and love goes back a long way – for example to Plato’s Symposium where beauty is the highest or primary form of love.

Here’s a very short musing evoked by this beautiful scene that goes in a slightly different direction.

One of the most popular sayings about love is that “true love is unconditional”. But what is meant by that phrase is often left unclear.

It could mean that love just loves with no strings attached, with no expectations of the other at all. Yes, this expression of love does occur – but it is pretty rare.

One example is a devoted daughter caring for her terminally ill mother, who cannot communicate or do anything much for herself at all. The relationship is very much ‘one-way’ – the giver selflessly giving out of love that does not expect anything in return (unconditional).

But let me suggest that generally human love is anything but unconditional. Typically it is conditioned (evoked or dependent on) specific qualities in the object of love.

Take the scene above. It is a lovely view. There is a tight connection between beauty and love – think of a place that you love to go to. Why? I bet it is not generally an anonymous industrial estate on the fringe of city. It will probably be beautiful, or it will have a deep personal connection in the story of your life. I love this view not only because of its beauty but because this is where I grew up – it links to many good memories and connects to stories and people.

Or take a person you love. A son’s love for his dad is conditioned on the fact that he is his father. It is anything but an unconditioned love. Human love tends to be very specific in direction. It is far from random.

Or take two lovers. They are drawn to each other for specific reasons. It’s a pretty cold sort of relationship where partners have nothing to say about the special, attractive qualities of the other!

Think of the woman from the Songs of Songs chapter 5 extolling at great length the unique physical characteristics of her lover:

My beloved is radiant and ruddy,

outstanding among ten thousand.

Song of Songs 5:10

Her love is obviously conditioned on who he is, just as his love is conditioned on who she is – both are intensely attracted to each other and pretty well the whole book is a celebration of their delight in one another.

And if we jump forward from their relationship to modern relationships today, for a couple’s bond to last and flourish both individuals need to be loving the other. Relationships die if only one partner actively loves (cares for, is kind to, acts for the other’s good). Love in this sense is conditional on the other person loving back. Yes there are many examples of one partner relentlessly loving the other even in the face of betrayal and coldness, but generally for love to survive and develop it is conditional on reciprocity.

So the next time you hear the slogan ‘True love is unconditional’ maybe ask the person, ‘What do you mean?’ and see where the conversation goes.

2 thoughts on “Very short musings on beauty and love

  1. Thanks Patrick for the photo and these thoughts. Do you think that the patronage/client aspect of the gospel would address the matter of reciprocity? While God gives the gift unconditionally at the front end of salvation, God, the patron, expects (requires) the client to respond with praise, trust, honour, obedience, etc. in order to experience that relationship in deeper and deeper ways. This is not to earn our salvation, but to enter into the relationship dynamics which reciprocity provides. I am just discovering this facet of the gospel as per David deSilva in Honor. Patronage, Kinship, Purity…book.
    Also, could the unconditional aspect allow a presumption upon God’s grace that was never intended by the gospel writers?

  2. I’m with you Roy. In ‘The Message of Love’ this question comes up more than once. Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel clearly connect love with obedience (if you love me you will obey my commands). There is an expectation of reciprocity in love. But as you say this is in the context of relationship where such reciprocity is given freely and joyfully. John Barclay’s major book on grace makes the same point. He distingushes between God’s love being unconditioned (radically different to human love here) on human qualities (he loves Israel not for anything they did or were) but such unconditioned love is not unconditional. It is clearly conditional – as the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy show. As Jesus’ words also show. Barclay talks about the free gift of grace creating relationship along the lines you describe. He calls this the incongruity of grace – given to the unworthy, unlike the patron/client structure of the ancient world where gifts were only given to the worthy. I’ve blogged about him a few times if you wish to search. I’d recommend his big book Paul and the Gift but he has also released a shorter one Paul and the Power of Grace. Blessings.

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