Leader Resource 1: Roots of a Theology of Love
Read or summarize in Activity 2, Lectio Divina.
We will start by saying a little about what we mean by "theology.". Merriam-Webster defines theology as "the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially: the study of God and of God's relation to the world." So when we say we are looking at the roots of a Unitarian Universalist theology of love, we are looking at how the idea of love has become part of our religion. Using Merriam-Webster's language we are studying how love is part of our "religious faith, practice and experience."
It is also important that we understand what we mean by love. In The Four Loves, author and Christian thinker C.S. Lewis explored the different types of love that humans experience. He described affectional love—the love experienced among family members how you would feel toward your parents or siblings. He described friendship love as the feeling associated with your feelings toward close friends. He described eros as the type of love you experience if you are "in love with someone." There is a sexual component but it is also much more than that. The fourth type of love he described is charity or agape. This is the type of love that we are focusing on in this workshop. It is a universal love that some might feel toward God and feel that God returns. It is a universal love that we might feel toward our neighbors (both near and far) or toward all living beings. It is unconditional and not dependent on reciprocal feelings. It is a love that motivates people to take care of the weak and sick and to work for peace.
Our Unitarian Universalist faith comes from many different places. In this workshop we will be looking at our theology of love primarily through the lens of our Christian Universalist heritage.
In early Christian communities, there was a debate about who would be "saved" and who would end up in hell for eternity. On one side there were those called "Exclusivists." They believed that only those who believed that Jesus Christ died for their sins, followed the teachings of Jesus, and thus were Christians would be saved from going to hell after they died. All those who were not Christians and those who did bad things would be excluded from this ultimate salvation and end up in hell to suffer for eternity.
On the other side of this debate were theologians like Origen of Alexandria who lived from 185 to 254 C.E. Origen and others believed that God was ultimately a loving God. The idea of a loving God shows up repeatedly in the Christian scriptures. One of the clearest statements of a loving God we used as the quote for this workshop:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8
This statement, which speaks to God's saving grace for all humanity, became the foundation for the idea of universal salvation. Origen was one of the most important early theologians to argue that God is too loving to condemn anyone to an eternity of suffering in hell. Eventually this view of universal salvation lost out and was declared heretical by the established church leadership.
However, the ideas of universal salvation were not permanently lost. Like many early Christian ideas that were declared heretical, universalism made a comeback during the Protestant Reformation. Several radical preachers in England and other parts of Europe resurrected these ideas and in turn influenced John Murray and George de Benneville who later brought Universalism to America.
Christian Universalism is not the only source of a theology of love in our Unitarian Universalist faith. While most of Christianity rejected universal salvation, the idea of a loving God was embraced by Unitarian Christians as well. This is why we find the mention of a loving God in the American Unitarian Association's Statement of Belief from 1853.
Of course, love as a philosophical or theological concept is not limited to Christianity. The idea of a loving God is important in both the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism, talk about the idea of "Loving Kindness" not as an attribute of a god, but as a positive state of being that must be cultivated to attain ultimate enlightenment. All of these traditions have had some impact on our modern thinking about love.