Last weekend the Right Rev Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, speaking at a Cheltenham science festival event, questioned whether “you can truly have love and hope without faith”.
She went on to say, “Real love and hope for me come from knowing that I am loved and I can have hope because I’m loved, that my shame and my guilt are dealt with… The only place where there is really unconditional love is in God.”
Is she right? I am sure on this, she is absolutely right. The problem in arguing for this is that our experience of life often confuses the issue for us. Many people would say you don’t need to believe in God, or for there to be a God, in order to have love, even to love unconditionally.
It is certainly true that people with no faith or apparent connection with God have feelings for people around them which we would call love, perhaps even unconditional love. Like the love you feel for a new-born child. But unravelling all the influences that have led to that moment of love is not a simple task. God is kind to his world and brings many good influences into our lives even if we do not always recognise and acknowledge him. We are also not really able to trace how we are influenced by our own selfish motives and desire for personal well-being.
What we can say more simply is that if our feelings of love – or sense of things that we ought, or ought not do – are just a biological reaction, then they are not unconditional, and they have no moral authority over us. We might just as well hate as love, because who’s to say which is better?
Logically, love and morality must have a source – an outside authority – or they are meaningless and arbitrary. You may have a philosophy that says we should be loving and do the least harm to the least number of people but the definition of love and harm has to come from somewhere or the statement carries no weight. Even if a large group of people, the whole nation, agrees on some definitions there is no logical reason to accept them as true.
As Christians, we know that love comes from God (1 John 4:7); without God we would not experience love, feel love or know how to love and there would be no obligation to love.
With God we receive truly unconditional love because he is completely free in his actions and he chooses to love us. Nothing compelled him to love us but he just chose to.
Far better than scratching around in the dust for some pale reflection of the love of God, let us look up and see perfect love expressed in Jesus Christ, sent from a Father who so loved the world (John 3:16).