Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is Love?

I love a whole lot of things -- my wife, my son, my mother, the Giants and the Ducks.  I love pizza and burritos.  You can see where I'm going with this.  The reality is that too often we speak of love without defining it. 

For Christians, one way of defining love has been to appeal to the word agape, which is supposedly the distinctive form of Christian love.  This love is sacrificial and unconditional, and according to Anders Nygren, it is a love that comes only from God, without any human interaction (why else would it be unconditional)?  Nygren didn't believe that any other form of love, especially eros, was appropriate for Christians.  Unfortunately, this definition is very passive.  We don't enter into the equation at all?  Well, if love is to be central to our theology, we're going to have to do a better job of defining the word.

I'm reading Tom Oord's excellent book, The Nature of Love:  A Theology, (Chalice, 2010), and Oord gives a definition of love that is quite helpful.  He defines love this way:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well being. (p. 17).
Oord goes on to provide other nuances and expansions, but this is the basic definition.  It is upon this basic definition that he builds his definition of agape
Agape is "acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being."  (p. 56). 
He goes on to write that the easiest way to define agape is to call it "in spite of Love." 
Agape is the form of love promoting overall well-being in spite of the negativity the lover faces.  Agape does good in spite of evil previously inflicted.  Just as God loves us in spite of our rebellion, complacency, and sin, so we ought to love others and ourselves in spite of the pain, suffering, and destruction others and we have done. (p. 56).
What is love?  It has many meanings and nuances, but ultimately it is a commitment to pursuing the well-being of the other (and of ourselves).  Can we commit ourselves to this calling?  Can we put this at the center of our theology? 

3 comments:

John said...

Just a couple of points: It seems that all the author is doing is putting a different face on the notion of "unconditional" in unconditional love. Second, it seems that the way the author has re-conceptualized unconditional love, he has denied nonChristians and/or people who have no faith the ability to feel and express such love.

For me the quintessential model of unconditional love is that of a parent and especially a mother for a child - and this kind of love appears to bridge over into non-human species. It appears to be a sine qua non of nature for a creature to love that which it has begotten.

Is this from God? I think so, and I think this gift has been hard-wired into life, and is just as foundational for may species as breathing. And it exists (if at all) regardless of the creature's faithlife.

Understanding how unconditional love works is a good idea but I think that may best be accomplished by seeing it as a part of God's gifts through nature and not as a mystical component of an active faithlife.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, note that the way it is phrased -- it is an intentional act toward God or others. No where in the definition is it something limited to Christians. In fact, that is his argument against Anders Nygren who reserves agape to God, and we don't actually love, we're more passive tubes.

But note here the point -- agape love is commitment to overall well-being in the face of actions and thoughts that are working toward ill-being.

Glenn said...

The spiritual importance of unconditional love is a universal truth that cannot be claimed as the exclusive possession of any one religion or philosophy. I cannot find any meaningful difference in how Jesus instructed us to love and the concept of love as it was understood by the Buddha:

1. Love, without desire to possess, knowing well that in the ultimate sense there is no possession and no possessor: this is the highest love.

2. Love, without speaking and thinking of "I," knowing well that this so-called "I" is a mere delusion.

3. Love, without selecting and excluding, knowing well that to do so means to create love's own contrasts: dislike, aversion and hatred.

4. Love, embracing all beings: small and great, far and near, be it on earth, in the water or in the air.

5. Love, embracing impartially all sentient beings, and not only those who are useful, pleasing or amusing to us.

6. Love, embracing all beings, be they noble-minded or low-minded, good or evil. The noble and the good are embraced because love is flowing to them spontaneously. The low-minded and evil-minded are included because they are those who are most in need of love. In many of them the seed of goodness may have died merely because warmth was lacking for its growth, because it perished from cold in a loveless world.