Defying Darkness: Love’s Radical Rebellion Against Global Discord

William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 51, 1804 to 1820
Bentley Copy E
© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This comment was written for the newsletter, published this week, of the Fetzer Institute.

In the midst of the deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas, it’s hard to make heads or tails of religion. The situation is complex and multifaceted, with faith playing only a part. But before jumping to the conclusion that humanity would be better off without religion, we must raise a crucial question. How can the underlying source of light within all of the world’s great faith and spiritual traditions be maintained in times of such brutality and darkness? 

Love itself offers guidance. Core to many paths of wisdom is the conviction that love fundamentally matters. When we cooperate with love, it can nurture a way of life and being in the world. Further, whilst referencing love can appear sentimental or utopian, it actually poses the greatest challenges to us. Nothing less than your all might be required to respond in love to love’s call. This is why the most inspiring individuals are those who are able to embody love regardless of the events with which life confronts them. Or rather, because of events. In such souls can be seen facets of love shining clearly. So what can be seen, what can be realised?

One insight has to do with power because love is a power, though not in the usual sense. Its power is not coercive or forceful, as political and technological power tend to be. Rather, love’s power operates by allure. It speaks directly to the soul and draws people towards that which is good, beautiful and true by stirring a desire that longs for these things. It perceives that they are of supreme worth.

The quiet and extraordinary power of such love is that it can hold people in times of trouble. In periods of anxiety and confusion, it is hard to know what to think or feel, or how the distress and suffering might be faced. And yet, by being open to love and risking its way, love’s yearning can reach towards horizons of unknowing, into clouds of uncertainty, to await wisdom, whilst being ready to offer care.

Love in this guise draws us to more than we might dare hope for. It can ready us to receive the unexpected as a result of undergoing the vulnerability of crisis and trial. With love, breakdown can lead to breakthrough.

Further, love is vital in the face of pain because it sustains what is best and refuses to let that be corrupted by inhumanity. It will cry out, often. It will pray, yes. It will lament, for sure. And in so doing, love aligns with the good and exposes what is foul. Indeed, it could be said that the horror of suffering is recognisable only because there is an absolute value called love. It agonisingly highlights why suffering is so objectionable.

The ethical imperative to love not only friends but enemies is a related challenge. The person who loves those who love them is managing only what is natural. But the person who can return hatred with love is in the vanguard of changing the world.

Again, this happens not because love seeks to impose its view on others. Rather, it seeks the transformation of all by holding out for a different dynamic to break in. When that happens, this-worldly power structures are suspended. There can become present a freedom that is open and startling, a liberty to love what is transformative and so be readied to risk all for it. Such love is willing to die, not so as better to kill, but as a mark of complete devotion and tremendous trust.

Love, therefore, must not be lost to violence and the cynicism that terror sows in its wake. Quite the opposite. For the situations that seem the most intractable and utterly dire are those that need love the most and, remarkably, might foster it, too. Understood aright, religious traditions and faith sustain this conviction in our hearts: that true love proves itself as it is burnished in the fire of life.