Tom Oord's "Defining Love" and "The Nature of Love" -- A Review
Christians talk a lot about love. We affirm that God is love. We say that God loves the world enough to send into the world his Son. We treasure the words of 1 Corinthians 13, with its suggestion that while faith and hope will abide, the greatest is love. We even sing, perhaps with an uneasy conscience, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” But, what do we mean when we talk about love? What is our definition? How do we know to discern whether someone is acting in love? In fact, where does love come from? All of these questions are raised and addressed in these two similar, but different, books authored by Nazarene theologian Thomas Jay Oord.
Tom Oord, who is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University and a Ph.D. graduate of Claremont Graduate University, has an agenda. He wants to move beyond simply putting love on the theological discussion table to placing love at the very center of theology. If God not only loves, but is love, then love should be “organizing principle” of theology. Unfortunately, in Oord’s mind, this has not happened. Too often it remains behind Oz’s curtain, but “only when placed at the center can the logic of love explicitly extend to all aspects of Christian theology” (Nature, p. 4).
Oord’s agenda, it would seem, requires too very different but related books. Defining Love is in many ways the foundational text. It provides the broader outlines for placing love at the center of theological reflection, but looking at love from philosophical and scientific angles as well as theological ones. In this challenging and at times dense book Oord lays out a new field of scholarship, what he calls the “love, science, and theology symbiosis” (Defining, p. 5). In this context Oord is advocating a program of “love research,” that has at its core the belief that it is possible for the world and individuals can get better. He wants to find ways in which we can discern the virtues and practices that will enable this to happen. In other words, love just doesn’t’ happen. It requires nurture and promotion and development. This requires research into the nature of love and how it is best expressed. With this in mind, Oord lays out his understandings of science and theology, trying to clearly define where they are different and where they relate to each other.
Essential to this program is to have a firm definition of love, one that can provide a foundation for research and theological reflection. The definition that he formulates provides the basis for discussion in both of these books. That basic definition reads as follows:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being (Defining, p. 15).
With this basic definition in mind, Oord proceeds to explore the diverse forms of love, for not all forms of love are alike, even if they have at their base the same purpose – “promotion of overall well-being.” Thus, he looks at agape, philia, and eros. While making use of theology here, he is more intent on exploring the input of philosophy to the discussion.
Moving from definitions, Oord brings to bear the “qualitative and quantitative” insights of the social sciences, including both psychology and sociology. Key to this discussion are concepts such as altruism and empathy, along with personality types and motives. He concludes that from examining research there is a clear move away from the idea that humans are by nature “inevitably and invariably egoistic” (Defining, p. 96). If the social sciences provide one vantage point, what about biology. Assuming that evolution is true, the question concerns how evolutionary development provides the conditions for love. Again the focus is on altruism, and whether there is evidence from the study of nature of self-sacrificial action. Although the explorations are still at their early stages, the key question, concerns the evidence that nonhuman creatures express love. This may still be speculative, but there is interesting evidence to pursue. Turning from biology to cosmology, with its discussions of the formation of the universe, including the principle of creatio ex nihilo, the issue here in part concerns the possibilities of divine engagement with the universe. This is a key question for we must wrestle with the way in which God might engage us. Does God have either the power or the will to change or affect in dramatic ways nature? Or does God work in a very different fashion? Here Oord, who can be considered part of the Open Theism movement, interacts with a variety of theological and biblical perspectives, including Process Theology, which he respects but doesn’t embrace completely. The point of the chapter isn’t to provide a final understanding but to lay out the parameters and possibilities for study. Finally, he reaches theology, where he expresses his hope for a partnership between the sciences and theology so that love can find its place at the center of theology.
If Defining Love has a scientific/philosophical focus, The Nature of Love focuses on theology itself. Of the two books, this is probably the easier read and may be for many the most appropriate place to start. Although no mention is made of Defining Love many of the ideas and foundations transfer from one book to the other (I’m not sure which book was written first, though from the reader's perspective Defining Love could be considered the foundational book).
In Nature of Love Oord begins with the same definition of love as in the first book, with a focus on intentionality and end result – promotion of well-being. Whereas in the first book his conversation partners are the sciences and philosophy, here they are theologians. He wrestles with Anders Nygren over agape, St. Augustine over eros, and Clark Pinnock over philia. He finds something of value in each of these theologians and their particular definitions and perspectives on love, but he also finds them to be deficient at important points. Of the three foci, I found the engagements with Nygren and Augustine the most pertinent. In both cases, Oord redefines in important ways how we understand love.
In regard to Nygren and Nygren’s claim that agape is the definitive form of Christian love, to the exclusion of other forms, Oord challenges the idea that we are simply conduits of a love that comes from God alone without any human engagement. In his view, agape should be understood as “in spite of love.” That is, agape is that form of love that intentionally seeks to promote the well-being of the other despite the fact that the other means us harm or evil. God is definitely involved, but that doesn’t mean that we have not part to play. With regard to eros, which Augustine saw as a deficient form of love, for Augustine believed that only God could truly love, and that the object of love has no value in and of itself. Oord defines eros as being “because of love,” by which God and we seek to promote overall well-being by affirming and promoting the value that is inherent in the other. This is, I believe an important step, for too often theology starts with the premise that we are some how “totally depraved” and thus having no inherent worth or value. If Oord is correct, then we must think differently, and that means that we act differently with regard to the other. Finally, he deals with philia, and in this regard looks to his late colleague Clark Pinnock with whom he has much in common, but with whom he has what might seem to be minor differences, but which have important implications. Philia is by definition the promotion of well-being by “coming alongside.” It is that friendship, community oriented form of love, which reminds us that we need each other. It speaks of cooperation with God and with one another. Where he differs from Pinnock is in Pinnock’s concern to protect God’s reputation.
In the final chapter of The Nature of Love, Oord offers his own theological program, which he calls “essential kenosis.” This program serves as the context in which love can be brought into the center. There are similarities to Process Theology, though through the use of the idea of kenosis (self-emptying), he hopes to distinguish from his own idea of a self-limiting God with that of an inherently limited divinity, but in this understanding self-limitation isn’t voluntary, it is essential to God’s nature. What he wants the reader to understand is that God’s love is a question of necessity. Whereas in other forms of kenosis theology, God need not love outside the Trinity, in his understanding God of necessity loves the Creation. Love is not contingent. It is part of God’s nature. External forces don’t limit God, but God’s nature does. Therefore, God cannot but love.
So the question is – what does it mean for God to love, and here it’s important that all three forms of love are brought into the equation. The kind of love that forms the center of theology – our understanding of God – must be “full-orbed.” We make a mistake when we think that we can settle on one form of love and define that as Christian or divine love. We must instead bring agape, eros, and philia into our definition. If this is true of God, then it is also true for us, who are called upon as God’s creation to imitate God by expressing this full-orbed love of God in our lives. I should add that in Oord’s understanding love means that God is not coercive in any way. Thus, even creation is not a coercive act, but requires the participation of the other for creation to occur. You can see the similarities to Process Theology. The borders the two are a bit fuzzy, but there is enough of a difference to keep these two as separate understandings of the nature and purpose of God.
I believe that Tom Oord is on to something important. I have found his definitions of love to be not only helpful but have provided a new orientation for understanding the unconditional nature of love, and the full-orbed nature of love. I believe his definitions are far superior to any others I’ve seen. Thus, as a pastor and a preacher, who believes that God not only loves, but is love, these definitions and the research that help sustain these definitions will help the church move forward into the future. It will assist us in moving away from self-centeredness to others-centeredness. It will help us reorient the way we do theology and understand God and God’s relationship to Creation.
Of the two books, The Nature of Love is the easiest to work with and may be the most helpful, but for those who wish to dig deeper into the project, then Defining Love is an important read. Both are well written, but neither of these books are quick reads. They require diligent engagement and reflection. That said, Tom Oord is on to something important that the church needs to hear.