“Oh, good,” I thought when the song ended and the DJ announced it was “Unconditionally,” Katy Perry’s latest song. “It’s just Katy Perry singing about the unconditional love of God.”
Wait!?! Katy Perry singing about God? Well, maybe. Katy has only confessed that the song was partly inspired by her relationship with her current boyfriend, fellow pop music icon John Mayer. That puts a new spin on the song because neither Katy Perry nor John Mayor has a good track record when it comes to unconditional love. In fact, both are known for being in conditional (read failed) romantic relationships.
I bring this up not to criticize Katy, John, or the song, but simply to point out that when it comes to humans, our romantic feelings of love are conditional. Despite Katy claiming that “All the dirty laundry never made me blink one time,” anyone who has been married for more than two weeks will tell you that it doesn’t take long for all that dirty laundry to start making someone blink. There’s nothing like leaving a dirty towel along with your pajamas on the bathroom floor to turn a wife’s feelings of unconditional love into conditional love. Very conditional love.
Not that I would know from experience or anything ...
Here we begin to see a problem with how the term “unconditional love” is often used. The term usually refers to romantic feelings. Disney cartoons that end with a prince overcoming all the obstacles to love and riding off in the sunset with his princess to “live happily ever after” is, sorry to say, a bunch of crap. That message about love is found in movies, television, and on the radio. It sets up young people, but especially young girls, to absorb the message that romantic feelings of love are what unconditional feels like.
But we don’t live in a Disney cartoon. In real life, romantic feelings are highly conditional. They come and they go. According to dominant cultural messages about love, if you discover that your romantic feelings for another are conditional, if you find yourself falling out of “love,” then the message is that you haven’t found true love and you should dump the guy and move on. This leads to a life-long restless pursuit of love, always searching for the next romantic high and never relaxing into a committed relationship in which you can discover what unconditional love is really like.
That kind of unconditional love is not based on romantic feelings and unrealistic notions of “happily ever after.” Rather, unconditional love is based on commitment. (How un-romantic ...) This, I think, is the kind of love that Katy is pointing us toward in her song “Unconditionally,” and it’s the kind of love that God has for the world. God’s love is not based upon God’s good feelings toward us. Instead, Jesus reveals that God’s love for us is unconditional. Jesus showed God’s love to everyone, including his enemies. But he especially loved those that the religious elite labeled as sinners. As we receive the unconditional love of God, we are freed and empowered to share that love with others.
Theologian James Alison puts it like this in his adult education course Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, “It is as we begin to get a sense of what it is like to be loved from that space of God’s giving that we begin to be empowered, and impelled, to open it [God’s love] up for others.”
Notice that the first step is to receive God’s gift of unconditional love. As 1 John claims, God’s love is “perfect love, and perfect love casts out fear.” God’s perfect love casts out fear of being rejected so that we are empowered to offer love freely and unconditionally. It also allows us to respond to hatred, and even to dirty laundry, with unconditional love. Or, like Katy says,
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen. For more in the Spirituality of Pop Music Series see: The Spirituality of Pearl Jam: Love Boat Captain, The Spirituality of Phil Phillips: Home and Lent, The Spirituality of Fun: God’s Grace in a Violent World, The Spirituality of Kelly Clarkson: Misfits, Scapegoats, and People Like Us.