To understand love, we should begin at the beginning, at creation: God created us not because he needed us but because he wanted us. Without us, he is complete, but he chose to create us in order to love us and so that we could return his love. That is how we began, and it is why we are beings that love. Indeed, love is at the center of what we are. Whatever else we might think defines us takes its place within that basic circumstance of love. Because God created us in order to love us, love is an irreducible part of our existence. We cannot exist without love because we exist because of love.
Therefore, the universe is for us a place where love happens. Love defines the origin and nature of the universe and is older than the universe. When we look “out there,” we see not just clumps of subatomic particles but a place where we, those beings who love, are at home, a place where we make sense. And not just us. Because the universe is God’s creation, it is not just in a small corner of the universe where love makes sense, so that we have to leave the other 99.999…% to science. Because love is basic to everything that exists, then we who speak of love speak therefore of the vast totality, the universe characterized by love, within which science is able to explore some parts.
Realization of the place of love in the universe is like unexpectedly meeting a close friend in an empty desert or a strange city — not in a wishful vision but in reality. That picture might imply that such a realization is rare as well as unexpected, but the real rarity in view of the long experience of humankind is not having such insight. Our age’s depersonalization of the universe, which we take so much for granted and which has an aura of permanence for us, is itself a rarity in human experience.
As beings who love, we can understand that personality is not just a cosmic “oopsy” to be left out when we are accounting for the universe. This is not some egotistic species-ism or anthropocentricity. We need not say that everything in the universe exists to serve us in order to allow that we have meaning and value to the universe’s creator, that is, to say that God loves us (and that’s a good thing, since we know only a teeny fraction of what exists out there). Being humbled by bignesses of space and time does not require that we regard ourselves as negligible. Instead, we are those (or at least are among those) who have been privileged to know that we and all the big and little things are a delight to God, which is why he made all of us.
That God created out of love, not need, is a basic idea in Christian theology. It is stated with particular clarity in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics vol. 3/1 (Edinburgh: Clark, 1986), pages 15, 29-31, and 43.
The idea that we know about love because of God’s love is important in 1 John, but there the focus is on God’s love as expressed in our redemption rather than in creation. See 1 John 3:16; 4:7-10, 16, 19 and also Romans 5:8.
That love is basic to the universe is a shocking thing to say in our age, in which the universe is generally depersonalized. This is a particular emphasis of G. K. Chesterton in his book Heretics (New York: Lane, 1905), chapter 1, generally in response to George Bernard Shaw.