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Rev. Forrest Church: Love's Tribunal

The staff of Beacon Press mourns the passing of Forrest Church, author, friend, and long-time supporter of our work. Forrest Church (1948–2009) served almost three decades as senior minister and Minister of Public Theology at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. He was educated at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Harvard University, where he received his PhD in early church history. He wrote or edited twenty-five books, including God and Other Famous Liberals, Life Lines, Lifecraft, The American Creed, Bringing God Home, Freedom from Fear, So Help Me God, Love & Death, and, most recently, Cathedral of the World. He contributed this post to our blog earlier this year, and we thought it would be fitting to share it again now.


I'm agnostic about life after death, but believe deeply in love after death. Not only do I believe in it, I experience it. We can arrange the pictures on the walls of our mind in any way we choose. As I slowly die of terminal cancer, blessed with the opportunity to rearrange those pictures more thoughtfully I fill my memory wall with images of love. The pictures that adorn my mind illuminate my life. Past and future disappear. Eternity, for me, is not a length of time extending on forever, but depth in time. In the time's eternal depth, through love's portals we enter heaven on earth. One with God, self and neighbor, we are saved.

This lesson lies at the heart of my final book, Love & Death. As I reflect upon it further, it grows in both clarity and power. I know how deeply love can hurt and how sensible it seems sometimes to rip its recurring promise from the tapestries of our lives. I also know how tempting it can be to armor our hearts from the pain of being broken, not only the pain of betrayal but also the abiding pain of loss.

Grief, you see, is love's measure. The courage to die is nothing when compared to the courage of those who live on after us, their hearts broken by their loss. Yet it is precisely at these moments when we are invited to stand before love's tribunal to be judged. Are you guilty of love or not guilty? That is life's ultimate question. Again and again over the course of a lifetime we are brought before the Tribunal of Love, where the innocent are damned and the guilty are saved.

In its Latin root, salvation means health, in the same sense that the Teutonic words hale, whole, and holy are cognates. Sin, in contrast, speaks of disease: of division, brokenness and estrangement. This is the human condition. Much of our lives are lived, to one extent or another, in a state of sin. Haunted by our conscience, which is one instrument of judgment at love's tribunal, we are often at odds with our better selves.

We also live divided from our neighbors, from our enemies, even from our loved ones, those nearest and most dear. In fact, who knows better how to hurt our loved ones than we do. Over time, we may grow so expert at this that no one, their worst enemy included, could administer an equal shot of pain.

Finally, we live estranged from God, from the ground of our being. Taking life for granted rather than receiving it as a gift, sometimes even actively begrudging it, we ask of life the most impertinent question of all: "What did I do to deserve this?"

As categorized by the ancient Greeks, there are three types of love: eros; philia; and agape. Eros, the form of love most easily twisted, is romantic in nature. We may fall in love and keep on falling until we hit the rocks; or we may fall in love to be caught and cradled in another's arms. Here is eros's secret: Only the love we give away can save us, not the love we grab and squeeze so tightly against our breast that we crush it. Only when it focuses our hearts on the needs and desires of our loved one, not on our own needs and desires, can eros save.

Philia, the second type of love, is friendship: brotherly and sisterly love. Friendship is the archetype for human affection. Emotionally less complicated and demanding than eros, philia unites us in the saving bonds of community. We are a part of, not apart from, our neighbors, whom we love as ourselves. That is to say, if eros is "Love Me Tender," philia is "Stand by Me." Philia is not reserved for our friends alone. It spills over into our families as well. For example, though eros plays its initiating role, ultimately it is philia not eros that forms the foundation for a good marriage.

The third type of love, agape, is God's love. It gives freely and continuously, demanding nothing in return save that we open our hearts and minds to its grace. In human experience, agape is kindness. Without need or expectation of any quid pro quo, we simply give love away. More universal than philia and exponentially more inclusive than eros, agape can be as simple as a large tip or as sweet as a gentle word to someone we will likely never see again. Agape doesn't leave its heart in San Francisco; it takes its heart with it wherever it goes, lightening the world's burdens one tiny grace note at a time. As administered by the human heart, God's love is life's most unselfish gift.

If there are three types of love, there are also three contexts in which love does its healing work. To explore each of these, I invite you to stand before Love's Tribunal. Here you must answer three simple questions. Do you love yourself? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? And, do you love God, or whatever you may choose to call that which is greater than all and yet present in each, the life force, the ground of our shared being?

First, have you made peace with yourself? Is your conscience clear? The theological word atonement means at-one-ment. Are you divided or at one? Have you reached the peace of acceptance? In short, do you love yourself?

Second, are you at peace with your neighbor? Are you reconciled with your loved ones, even with your enemies, as mysteriously born as were you, the mortar of mortality binding us fast to one another. In every way we are more alike than we differ, yet it is the differences, so slight when viewed in the light of eternity, that estrange us from our blood brothers and sisters, from our honest to God, hope to die, kin. Have your achieved the peace of forgiveness? In short, do you love your neighbor as yourself?

Third, and finally, have you made your peace with God, with the mystery of creation, the ground of your being, with life itself? Do you open your heart daily and with deep gratitude for the gift of life, undeserved, mysterious, abundant, challenging, difficult and blessed? Have you attained the peace of consecration. In short, do you love your God?

Such moments of full health, wholeness and holiness are very rare indeed. Yet, if but once over the course of a lifetime, you find yourself presented at love's tribunal and can answer "Yes" to each of these three questions, your life is redeemed, suffused with meaning and charged with purpose. Having made peace with life, you can make peace with death. By submitting to Love's Tribunal and answering "Yes" to love's questions, you will know that your life has proved worth dying for.

Rev. Forrest Church, Who Embraced a Gospel of Service, Dies at 61 (NY Times)
Forrest Church and the "Valley of the Shadow" (Fresh Air from WHYY)
n Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Forrest Church: Theologian, Author (