BOOK REVIEW: Stephen G. Post. Unlimited Love. Templeton Foundation Press, 2003.

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 6, 2004-2005 - Pages 161-165

True love, being the core value and supreme ideal of creation, is certainly an appropriate topic for scientific study as well as theological reflection. Yet few philosophers or social scientists have devoted themselves to its investigation. A number of factors have conspired in its neglect. Twentieth-century psychological and social sciences were dominated by mechanistic theories of behavior and social organization. Evolutionary biology has been dominated by the view that altruism is disguised self-interest, e.g., Richard Dawkins' ‘selfish gene’; given the dominance of fallen nature, such views seem to have some basis. Theologians and Christian ethicists have made some progress, yet absent dialogue with the sciences.

Moreover, love confounds study by its many-sidedness and ubiquity. Science cannot proceed without clear definition, yet love is often poorly defined. Its common use in English often assumes some sexual expression, yet friendship, parental love and compassion are all forms of love. The Greeks had different words to distinguish different aspects what we call ‘love’: eunoia means benevolence, physike means solidarity with members of one's own community or race, xenike means kindness to guests and strangers, eros is impassioned attraction, philia is friendship, storge is parental care, and agape is universal affection. Christianity lifts up agape as the essential nature of God’s love, as exemplified in the universal and unconditional love of Christ for all humankind.

Dr. Stephen G. Post, Professor of Ethics at Case Western Reserve, has been devoting much of his professional life to pursue the study of love. Now in collaboration with John Templeton of the Templeton Foundation, he has founded the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love to promote this field of study by providing research grants and publishing monographs. Questions for study include: love and human development, the therapeutic value of love, biological mechanisms by which love affects health, the relationship of love to social behavior, evolutionary perspectives on the origin and purpose of love, and the nexus between love and spirituality. Some of these questions also lie at the heart of Unificationist teachings; therefore it is appropriate for this reviewer to critique Post’s writing from this perspective.

Unlimited Love is a definitional work, and as such it is foundational to the enterprise of the scientific study of love. What is love—‘unlimited love’ that is enduring and has no boundaries, in contrast to the debased and fleeting love of romantic involvements or the intense but narrow love of kith and kin? What are its chief qualities? Can love be quantified and measured? Is a biology of love hard-wired into the human brain? Can the full range of human love be explained by evolution? Or does the fullest expression of love require a connection with a divine Source? Post explores these questions, and more. Being a trained theologian, he treats the subject from a broadly Christian perspective, informed by the best work of theologians from Luther to Tillich and well versed in theological issues that recur in secular guise in scientific discussions of altruism and selfishness. 

Let's begin with the definition offered by his institute:

The essence of love is to affectively affirm as well as to unselfishly delight in the well-being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf; unlimited love extends this love to all others without exception, in an enduring and constant way. Widely considered the highest form of virtue, unlimited love is often deemed a Creative Presence underlying and integral to all of reality: participation in unlimited love constitutes the fullest expression of spirituality. Unlimited love may result in new relationships, and deep community may emerge around helping behavior, but this is secondary. Even if connections and relations do not emerge, love endures. (vii)

We can see in this definition the classical Christian ideal of agape love; indeed Post remarks that “unlimited love captures the essence of agape.” (17) God is present when humans practice unlimited love. It is love without any boundaries, extending to all humanity. It is love without any self-interest, love that continues regardless of the beloved's response or lack of response. Jesus Christ certainly exemplified this sort of love when he went to the cross to offer salvation to people who were rejecting and persecuting him.

However, the last sentences may give one pause. Is love an end in itself, or is love for the purpose of building relationships and community that make life worthwhile? Unificationism teaches that the purpose of life is joy, and joy is manifest through the relationship between lover and beloved. Exposition of the Divine Principle defines love to include this element of purpose:

When two entities, discrete manifestations of God's dual characteristics, form a common base and seek to unite as the third object partner to God and establish the four-position foundation, they will engage in give and take action. In accomplishing this, the emotional force the subject partner gives the object partner is called love, and the emotional force that the object partner returns to the subject partner is called beauty. (EDP, 38)

In Unificationism, the end of love is family. When God created human beings, He endowed them with love for the purpose of forming God's first family. Had the human ancestors not fallen, the quality of love in their family would be divine, unlimited love. The loving bonds of their family would naturally extend to include all people without exception, making the whole of humanity one family—the Kingdom of God on earth. However, when Jesus went to the cross, dying without establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, his unlimited love was left unrequited, not establishing the divine community that God and Jesus had intended. Hence, although Jesus was the greatest exemplar of love, as a model of true love his example is flawed because it lacks the element of fulfillment.

To his credit, Post does not fix upon Jesus as the central model of love. Instead, he draws upon the Judeo-Christian tradition of God as Parent to offer the hypothesis that the origin and basis of true love is parental love. He develops this idea from multiple directions: From evolutionary theory, where parenting in animals can require self-sacrifice and intense care for the young, and humans, whose young remain a more helpless state for many years, require far more parental investment than any other creature. From theology, where in reflecting on the parental love of God, he suggests, “Perhaps agape or unlimited love is God's storge, for like parental love, it even loves us when we are unlovable.” (106) From Christian ethics, where he describes the extensivity of parental love as regards adoption, caring for the sick and needy as if one's own children, and loving all humanity as God's children. In grounding unlimited love in God's parental love, Post offers some of his best work and keenest insights into the theology and nature of true love. On this point his work bears some resemblance to Unification teaching.

Let's turn to the measure of love. Post builds upon the important sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin, whose classic, The Ways and Power of Love, set up a five-dimensional model to measure the qualities of love. Sorokin's five dimensions are: intensity, extensivity, duration, purity and adequacy. The intensity dimension ranges from minor acts of charity to extreme self-sacrifice. Extensivity measures the degree to which love is focused on close family or extends to encompass strangers and enemies. Duration ranges from a single moment, as in the heroic action of a passer-by who dives into the water to rescue a drowning man, to a lifetime of care for a disabled spouse or parent. Purity describes the extent to which love is free from egoistic motivation and personal profit. Adequacy distinguishes between "love that is objectively genuine but has adverse consequences" such as spoiling a child with excessive pampering, from love that endowed with wisdom that builds character and virtue in the beloved. (31-33)

This five-dimensional measure allows a researcher to "grade" the love of individuals. Sorokin argued that

“The greatest lives of love and altruism approximate or achieve ‘the highest possible place, denoted by 100 in all five dimensions,’ while persons 'neither loving nor hating would occupy a position near zero.’” (33) He also considered the role of the Divine in empowering those saints, such as Jesus and Gandhi, who despite persecution could “maintain a love at high levels in all five dimensions.” (34)

In describing the profound spirituality of love, Post elaborates theologically upon these five dimensions. He describes love at its most intense in the self-sacrifice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who in caring for others experience the intensity of God's presence. In treating extensivity, he discusses the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Judeo-Christian ethic of hospitality to strangers, and to give charity to the needy regardless of their beliefs. In treating the purity of love, he dwells on the theme of selflessness in a Mother Theresa or Christ on the cross. In discussing love's duration, he remarks on the ‘fleeting love’ of casual sex and the romantic affections that make for short-lived marriages. Indeed, Post has a low opinion of conjugal love unless it is redeemed by unlimited love, for “unlimited love saves romantic and sexual love from themselves.” (149)

This is all well and good, except when it comes to conjugal love, for which Post has little positive to say. Yet is there not an inconsistency here? We have seen that Post regards parental love as the origin and model of unlimited love, even identifying the source of unlimited agape love with God’s parental heart. Conjugal love is every bit as much ordained by God as parental love, and just as much a part of the natural order that conspires to love's expression. God, which the Divine Principle describes as the harmonized center of dual characteristics, is just as essentially the source of conjugal love as of parental love. Yet while Post considers parental love to be in line with God’s love, he regards conjugal love as merely the love of the flesh—weak and in need of salvation. The devaluation of the body implied by this line of thought does not cohere well with the Christian affirmation of the goodness of the created world.

There are countless examples of strong and lasting marriages where husband and wife give each other affection, support and wise counsel to do great good for communities and nations. Yet the Sorokin measures of love cannot readily deal with such righteous conjugal love. Can true conjugal love score high on the scale of extensivity? Clearly not: it is meant for one partner and one only. As regards purity, there is dispute as to what is meant by truly ‘selfless’ love, and whether mutuality can truly characterize it: “Mutuality... is never the indispensable condition for unlimited love or any love of an elevated type. Mutuality must be left to take care of itself.” (151)

Post seeks a natural theology to explain love (102), and here is where Unification teachings shine, overcoming some of the inconsistencies and weaknesses of current theories of love. In the teaching of the Four Great Realms of Heart lies a sophisticated typology that better describes the excellencies of the different types love than the one-size-fits-all Sorokin measure. A more complete natural theology would include the dimensions of conjugal love and children's love alongside parental love as constitutive of divine, unlimited love.

Dr. Post is doing important work to untangle and make sense of a subject of utmost significance. We wish him well. 

—Andrew Wilson, Unification Theological Seminary