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Thursday, September 30, 2010

TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY (NOT!)

I laughed when I heard the sharp response of one of my Year 8 students to the ultimate question: What is the purpose of life? "To love," he said, and then he quickly added, "Terms and conditions apply." I laughed because he intuitively caught the inflection with which that rider is added to special offer announcements in stores and on adverts: A big puff, followed by a casual reminder that you might not be eligible or that there might be a hidden cost.

Later I was saddened. Saddened at the thought that a 12 year old should already be so worldly wise, and saddened even more to reflect that human love really is so fraught with terms and conditions. Even the supposedly unconditional parental love is more contingent than wishful thinking would have us believe; as a teacher I see the emotional development of so many young people blighted by its absence.

We make idols out of so many things. We put them on a pedestal and worship them as absolutes: Love, Peace, Democracy, the Mother Country... and they can so easily become demons, demanding total allegiance. Even the supposed sanctity of human life can become a monster when a pregnant nine-year-old rape victim is denied an abortion, or a quadriplegic hospital patient (like the heroes of "Whose Life Is It Any Way?" or "Million Dollar Baby", or the real-life Diane Pretty, are denied the right that every able-bodied person enjoys in practice, i.e. to end their own life.

Plato, the father of western thought, recognised that however perfect our gods or our ideals may be in the world of pure thought, when they are translated into the physical universe we inhabit they become spoiled and corrupt. There is probably not a single example in human history of an act that did not on some level contain an element of selfish ulterior motive.

The beauty of the Christian message, and the thread running right through the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, is that God is pure unselfish love. Unfortunately, the English language heavily obscures this fact. The ancient Greeks had at least four different words for different kinds of love, which were completely distinct in their minds. Three of these appear in the New Testament, but they are all invariably translated in English by the same English word (i.e. 'love'). The fact that in English we over-use this one word tends to promote confusion. We use the same word to describe our love for hamburgers, football, music, friends, children, lovers, our (deeply flawed) love for God, and God's (perfectly unselfish) love for us.

The writers of the New Testament used the Greek word "agape" (pronounced 'a-gap-ay) for the kind of unselfish love that puts the other first. We see examples of it in human action, such as when a soldier sacrifices himself for his comrades. But in God, we see agape in its purest form. The Bible tells us that the perfectly self-sufficient creator of the universe laid aside his power and majesty, coming to earth in the form of a powerless servant and experiencing both pain and death, not because he needed to but because we needed him to.

In God's love, shown in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, there are no terms and conditions. There is no selfish ulterior motive. His love and saving grace are offered equally to everyone. In contrast to the teaching of some religious organisations, no one has to do anything to accept this love. There is no small print. There is no hidden cost. All we have to do is be willing to be loved. God will do the rest; he will change us. In the resounding words of Paul Tillich, quoted elsewhere on this site, "You are accepted. You are accepted. You are accepted."