The Virtual Extension to Faith Forward Forum | Jan 22-24, 2007

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

“Tis More Blessed to Give Than to Receive”

By Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. [bio for event]
[Acts 20:35]

The future of the faith will be enhanced if we focus the resources of science on the reality of agape love. St. Jerome (c. 340-420 A.D.), in his Letter to Paulinus, Epistle 53, wrote, “Let us learn those things on earth the knowledge of which continues in heaven.” Agape is therefore the best thing about which to learn.

Jesus the Christ revealed the divine unlimited love (agape) that underlies all of the universe and is the basis of all that we call goodness, both ethically and spiritually. Every aspect of his life was a once-in-history revelation of a perfectly exceptionless, enduring, pure, wise, and energetic love. In his life, Jesus demonstrated the many forms that agape must take in response to human needs. Among these were compassion, forgiveness, attentive listening, mirth, creativity (e.g., his amazing Parables), loyalty, celebration, immense courage, and healing. Not one human being was ever wronged in anyway whatsoever by Jesus, and there was no accusation that could stand against him. Why? He was and is perfect self-giving love. His atoning death was for all time the most absolutely vivid expression of perfectly pure and perfectly effective love. This revelation of divine love cuts history like a knife through butter – there is everything before, there is everything after.

The idea of a future in which people of Christian faith facilitate the study of such goodness with the help of science is already underway. In 1999, the John Templeton Foundation invited me to co-chair a conference convened in Boston entitled Empathy, Altruism and Agape: Perspectives on Love in Science and Religion – A Research Symposium. A year later, Sir John Templeton and Charles L. Harper, D.Phil., Senior Vice President of the Foundation, asked me to lead a new project, The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (, which was generously funded by Sir John. It is located in our secular university’s academic medical center at Case Western Reserve University (Stephen.Post@Case.Edu), where I am a professor.

The Institute focuses on the science, spirituality and theology of benevolent love for all others without exception. Such love, given without requiring personal gain, is
prescribed in the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Jesus also put it more clearly, “Go and do likewise.” In a time when rage, intolerance, and violence are so visible in our world, we need to better understand and practice a love that acknowledges for all humanity the full significance that we otherwise acknowledge only for ourselves, or for those most like us. Our work is devoted to dialogue around the scientific and theological understanding of such love with regard to the substrate of human nature and divine grace.

We support research and dialogue through a competitive review process to ensure the highest quality. Institute-funded researchers at more than sixty leading universities, among them Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. Researchers are publishing in influential journals, presenting at professional meetings, and teaching new courses. People recognize the Institute as a pioneering organization for the development of a field that is transformative.

Jesus said, “’Tis better to give than to receive.” These words echo down to St. Francis of Assisi and beyond. Shakespeare wrote that “the quality of mercy” blesses both those who give and who receive. One thing that the Institute has shown conclusively is that in general, people who love others unselfishly will live longer, healthier, happier lives. There is a wonderful paradox in a life of love – in the giving of self lies the unsought discovery of a deeper and better self. In this sense, those who lose their lives do indeed gain them. As the Christian psychiatrist Karl Menninger wrote, “Love cures – both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” Thus, the life of agape love is blessing for those whom we love, and also a blessing for those who love. This universal truth is captured in Why Good Things Happen to Good People: The Exciting New Research That Proves the Link Between Doing Good and Living a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life, which I co-authored with science journalist Jill Neimark (Random House, May 2007).

Questions abound. How can we learn to love our neighbor even when he or she can give nothing in return, or is not a member of our group? Do benevolent people experience higher levels of psychological well-being and happiness? Are they healthier and do they tend to live longer? Does compassion help heal the ill? How can love last in marriage and how can we raise caring children with a sense of a shared humanity? What can we learn about the emotional and spiritual dynamics of exemplary loving people? Is love the deepest and most fulfilling ground of human nature, deeper than hate and violence? Is love really the “ground of being,” as the Christian faith says? What spiritual practices allow us to become its instruments?

Modern science has virtually ignored the subject of love as a valid source of practical, useful knowledge—until now. By empirically exploring loving behavior, including people’s perceptions of their experience of the Holy Spirit, the Institute is helping to set the stage for a future in which agape love is understood by everyone everywhere as the very essence of human fulfillment.

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