Do I Have to Love Everyone? (2)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Link to video of sermon: https://youtu.be/cWJ-KWHi8p8
“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Douglas Taylor. Part I
(Turn and walk away from pulpit as if sermon is over; turn back to pulpit and continue.)
“Do I have to love everyone?” A Valentine’s Day sermon by Rev. Taylor. Part II
Yes. Because love, love will keep us together; love is a many splendored thing; love makes the world go ‘round; all we need is love; and love hurts. And Valentine’s Day has come upon us as the ultimate Hallmark holiday celebrating this romantic fancy we call love. I read somewhere that roughly 145 million cards will be exchanged this coming February 14th. One could almost suggest that we as a culture are love-obsessed.
The origin of our modern Valentine’s Day comes from the Roman festival “Lupercalia,” a day in mid-February when each young man in town drew lottery for the name of the young woman who would become his ‘sexual companion’ for the next year.
Around 500 C.E. Pope Gelasive decided that was not a good custom and swapped the Lupercalia festival for the feast day of a minor Christian saint – a common practice used to win over the local pagans. So, instead of drawing the name of a young woman, the men were supposed to draw the name of a Christian saint whom they would emulate for the coming year. For the life of me I can’t imagine how the Christians were so successful using strategies such as this.
They must have been experts at the ‘hard-sell,’ especially considering the full legend of the saint the church chose to host the day!
St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men because he instead wanted to conscript them into the military. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “from Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270 C.E. (From Rev. Debra Haffner)
Then, over 200 years later, this defiant priest who lost his life to help young lovers is enlisted to be the poster boy to reign in the promiscuous habits of young lovers!
And so, our modern Valentine’s Day has gravitated away from a day to emulate saints but not entirely back to the original pagan custom. Arguably we strive on this day to emulate St. Valentine, I suppose. It has settled into our culture as a day of rejoicing for Romantic Love. And we teach our children, as Blanchard demonstrated in our reading, that indeed we need to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone. But is this suggesting that we are to affect a romantic love for everyone we know? That would be ridiculous. You don’t need a degree in the humanities to know what a disaster that would be! That can’t possibly be what is suggested.
Perhaps the word ‘love’ is too broad a word to use with the assumption of clarity. Love is a much misused and misunderstood word. A friend once suggested we ban the word from the pulpit because it has grown meaningless and impotent through excessive exhibition. Indeed this is a common practice among Unitarian Universalists it seems. Great words like God, Peace, and Love can be overused and misused and worn-out to the point of either cliché or idolatry. One remedy is to throw the word out for a while, let it cool off, then later pick it up again, dust it off and discover again its depth of power. So allow me to do some dusting.
What first excited me about preaching on the topic of Love again was a scientific article in the National Geographic from 15 years ago about the Biochemistry of love. (National Geographic, Feb 2006: pp 32-49.) The description reads, “Scientists are discovering that the cocktail of brain chemicals that sparks romance is totally different from the blend that fosters long-term attachment.” This is another area of study where the hard sciences of biology, chemistry and physics offer corroborating evidence for what the soft sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have been saying for decades; and which theology and philosophy have been saying for centuries!
The article begins with the story of Anthropologist Helen Fisher who is “looking for love, quite literally, with the aid of an MRI machine.” She and her colleagues look for couples who have recently fallen in love, pop one of them into the MRI machine and show them a neutral photograph and then a photo of their sweetie. Then the scientists watch to see which parts of the brain light up! (For the record – that would be the ventral tegmental area and the Caudate nucleus.) They note that the ‘madly in love’ areas of the brain are linked with the reward centers and the pleasure centers – a lot of dopamine spreads from those spots. Thus, “falling” in love is like an exciting amusement park ride. But, be warned, the figurative rollercoaster can make you sick, same as the literal one!
Another break-through demonstrating this is found in the work of Donatella Marazziti, a professor of psychiatry from Italy. Professor Marazziti has been studying what she calls the biochemistry of lovesickness. Not surprisingly, she has found similarities in the serotonin neurotransmitters and the chemical profile of both love and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can’t stop thinking about you; night and day, you are the one; only you can make my dreams come true; I’ll sleep on your door step all night and day, just to keep you from walking away. Yeah, having a crush on someone comes out your neurotransmitters like OCD.
So, that is interesting, but the best stuff comes later in the article. While novelty triggers dopamine in the brain and thus feelings of attraction, it is a different chemical entirely that stimulates attachment. “Oxytocin is the hormone that promotes a feeling of connection, bonding.” Oxytocin is released in abundance when a mother nurses her infant, when you give or receive a massage, and when a couple makes love. Attraction and attachment happen in different parts of the brain with different sets of hormones. The chemicals in the brain that conspire to bring you together are not the same ones that work to keep you together.
So far, this indicates there are at least two forms of love expressed in the biochemical levels of brain function. Typically a serious philosophical or theological exploration of different forms of Love will consider at least three forms of love. The three categories are typically developed to follow the three significant Greek words that are generally translated as love: Eros, Philia, and Agape.
Romantic or sexual love was called Eros; this is easily linked with the production of dopamine and serotonin. ‘Friendship’ in Modern Greek is Philia, which in Ancient Greek denoted a love for friends, family, and community distinguished by loyalty and familiarity. Certainly this sounds like the sort of bond-strengthening love that is associated with oxytocin production in the brain. Well, this leaves me wondering if they could find the biochemical signature of Agape love. Which neurotransmitters are firing in the Dali Lama’s brain or in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Brain? Which bio-chemicals flooded the brains of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr.?
Agape is a type of love where the object to be loved does not need to possess any particular qualities such as beauty or familiarity. It is unconditional love. The New Thayer’s Greek to English Lexicon of the New Testament describes Agape as: “to love, to be full of goodwill and exhibit the same; to have a preference for [and] regard for the welfare of others; of the benevolence which God in providing salvation for men, has exhibited by sending His Son to them and giving Him up to death; of the love which led Christ, in procuring human salvation to undergo sufferings and death”
When I was in seminary I had a Methodist professor of New Testament say to the class of mostly Christians that the difference between Unitarian Universalists and most Christians is that Christians focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection while UUs focus on Jesus’ life and teachings.
The teachings of Jesus, in particular the ethical sayings found in the Sermon on the Mount, have stirred the souls of Unitarian Universalists through the centuries. It is in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:43-48) that Jesus says to love your enemies. He asks “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The Greek word in these verses is Agape, not Eros or Philia. The most famous discourse on Agape love is found in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude … It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In this letter from Paul, the word he uses is Agape, the same word the gospel writer used in writing down Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Of course, Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek – so I can’t tell you that Jesus was steering at this particular interpretation of Love, only that the authors of the gospels intended us to see it as such. Though, in fairness to them, the context of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies does fit with the Greek concept of love as defined in the word Agape.
Agape love is not a feeling, it is a choice. Perhaps that is why we haven’t uncovered the biochemical signature of Agape love yet: it is a choice, a decision. If it were a feeling it would have a hormone linked to it. Instead it is a choice to be concerned for the well-being of others, to treat them with dignity and respect. A person may be difficult, obnoxious, and completely undeserving but you can still choose to offer this form of love to her or him by extending respect and a wish for that person’s well-being. With a modern global perspective, we might translate Agape using the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness. While loving-kindness is not quite synonymous with what Agape is meant to convey, they both carry the tone of unconditional regard.
And that, I believe, is the aspect of love that we are called to offer to everyone. Are there difficult people in your life? Are there folks you find “irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, disturbing, or some alarming combination of the aforementioned attributes.”? (Blanchard.) Perhaps there are people from work or school or in your extended family you would fit in this category. Maybe there are certain politicians or celebrities for whom you’ve taken a particular distaste. Perhaps some of them are members of this congregation with you. Who would you balk at sending a Valentine’s card to? Do you hate anybody?
Our faith calls us to treat all people with compassion, to recognize the inherent dignity of each person, and to discern the ways in which our individual lives are interdependent with all life – including the life of that irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, or disturbing person you have to deal with. This largely stems from our Universalist heritage that says we are all accepted, we are all loved – even the irritating, obnoxious, mean, aggravating, anxiety-producing, hostile, difficult, stupid, and/or disturbing people. Especially them, if for no other reason than that you may be one of them according to another person’s perspective.
Universalism since its inception has rejected not only the eternal punishment of hell, but also the reason for such a punishment in the first place: the concept of original sin. Hosea Ballou, an early leader in the Universalist denomination, said that the consequences of sin are manifest in this life alone; that “hell is not a place of punishment, but a state of rebellion against God and against the unity of humans and God.” (Robinson, David The Unitarians and the Universalists, p 65) The implication here is that we choose to make of life a heaven or hell. This is not exactly free will as the Unitarians would see it, but it does leave in the hands of humanity the capacity to respond to the love of God by loving one another or by making of this life a hell. We hold that power, and that responsibility!
When you withhold your Valentine from some people, you are in rebellion against the unity of humans and God; you are in rebellion against the interdependent web of existence; you are in rebellion against the nature of life; you are in rebellion against your better self – whatever theological framework you need me to set this in the outcome is still the same: Yes, you do have to love everyone. That’s part of the work. We have the capacity and the responsibility to respond to God’s love by loving one another. That is what life is all about: to further the human venture, to help each other and all life to become the beloved community.
So look through that list of names I know you’ve begun while I’ve been preaching. Make a choice. Find one that is really bugging you. Send them a Valentine’s card. Go ahead, give it a try. Take that step toward ushering in the beloved community.
In a world without end
May it be so.