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Religious Leaders Tell Us about Love, and Their Answers Might Surprise You

By Paul L. Underwood

As we’ve spent this month pondering love, we thought it worthwhile to ask a few leaders and practitioners of different faiths, as well as an atheist, to define love and describe what it means to them. Whether you’re a believer or not, their answers may inspire you to consider your own. What was fascinating about the thoughtful responses that follow was how much each have in common. More often than they are not, celebration and respect are frequent themes when it comes to the matter of loving well — no matter your faith or lack thereof. 

Ani Zonneveld, founder and president, Muslims for Progressive Values

“One of the truest forms of love in the Qur’an is to care for each other, with mercy and compassion. From the Qur’an verse: 4:135: ‘O believers! Be upholders of justice for the sake of God, be it against yourselves, your parents or your relatives, rich or poor…’

In our daily lives it means being non-judgmental, making every effort to be inclusive, and it is not possible to be inclusive if you are not in tune with the diversity of God’s creations.

Whether it be caring for a fellow human being, animal, and environment, our actions and intent need to come from a space of justice. Justice is only possible from love and internal peace of oneself.

See Related: Intersectionality and Muslim Women’s Day

Jennifer Bailey, founding executive director of the Faith Matters Network

“How long do we have? Because you know you’re asking a black preacher to condense something like love. [Laughs.] As I think about the concept of love, I think about love as a practice rather than an emotion. So often when we talk about love it’s in the context of falling in love with someone or something. Or your career or a food, right?

From my understanding of my faith, love is more about how we engage one another, how we go about the messy, hard work of doing community together. I grew up playing the viola, and the only way that I could get good was to practice over and over again and be disciplined about it. And one of the things that I think we’ve gotten really bad at as a society is knowing how to practice loving each other.

And I say that as a newlywed. And what I’ve found is love is doing the dishes when you don’t want to. It’s giving someone a hug after an argument. And love is being able to hold both the tremendous joys and the very deep grief that is the process of being human together.

Sometimes love is separation. Sometimes love is stepping away from circumstances that are less than ideal, in some cases can be violent. Love is loving one’s self enough to say no.”

Karen Garst, author, The Faithless Feminist

“If one is an atheist, agnostic, or humanist, there is no supernatural entity to dictate how you should live. And those supernatural entities that do dictate how we should live do a very poor job at it. The subjugation of woman to man can never result in a true understanding of what love is.

Setting those shackles of religion aside, we can create our own definition of how we should live on this earth and how we should treat each other. The saying that is present in many of those faiths (and rarely adhered to), and which probably arose long before them, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is an excellent guide.

If we want to leave peaceably on this planet, we need to create that peace. We need to be kind to each other and to honor our differences. If we want to enter into an intimate relationship with another person (CIS or LGBTQ), we need to treat them as we would like to be treated. Subjugation does not end up in love. Love is a reciprocal relationship.

Each person must see in that other person a being that has a right to be honored, a right to live with dignity, and a right to be loved. Even though there will be differences (who stays home with the children, etc.) that does not change the striving for respect for each other. The minute that balance and equality change, love is lost. This is not an easy row to hoe. Difficulties arise. But remember that you came to love this person for a reason. This should compel you forward to manage these difficulties.

I love my husband because we both freely chose each other. We were not compelled into a relationship. We made a commitment to each other. We continue to voice that commitment especially during the hard times. When I had cancer, I asked my husband how he was doing. He answered, ‘You have enough courage for both of us.’ I will never forget that.”

Want more? See: 10 Life Lessons Learned from Breakups