What is Love? Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love
What is love? For something so familiar to the human experience, love is notoriously difficult to define, explain, and articulate—and perhaps even harder to embody. Our guest today, Thomas J. Oord, has spent the last two decades thinking about the theology, science, and philosophy of love. In this episode, we cover a variety of themes and questions related to the theology of love, including: love’s definition and expression, the nature of divine love, the connection between love and fear, and Christian understanding of the science and psychology of love. Oh, not to mention a few pop-culture references [My favorite is The Princess Bride illustration around 41 minutes in… “as you wish.”—Evan] and several excruciating really funny love song puns, too. Hope you enjoy this episode.
- 0:00—Podcast intro
- 2:50—Begin interview, a man in the business of big ideas
- 7:24—For the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love
- 8:19—The problem with defining love
- 11:38—Dr. Oord’s three-part definition of love / intentionality, relationship, promotion of overall well-being
- 13:07—Reference to The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work on love
- 13:25—Is there only one love, or different kinds with different definitions?
- 13:39—Types of love: Agape, Philia, Eros
- 16:34—Love in pop culture and music
- 17:38—Different natures of love: loving an enemy vs. loving a child
- 20:28—Anxiety over the mysterious nature of love
- 23:00—Connecting love to shalom
- 24:24—Real examples of shalom in communities
- 27:10—Love in manners and habits of kindness
- 31:07—The science of love
- 38:42—Does the lover receive benefit from his/her own loving?
- 41:24—”As you wish…” means “I love you”; how The Princess Bride explains the relationship between obedience is love
- 42:44—Loving God; does God benefit from our love and obedience?
- 44:28—Loving through suffering and the relationship between fear and love
- 52:20—End interview, credits
Quotes from Thomas J. Oord
- “We may not think alike, but we can love alike.”
- “For me, this in spite of love, because of love, alongside of love, is a way to think about general ways in which love, as an overarching word, is expressed in our lives day‑to‑day.”
- “Love is the kind of word that has many aspects and dimensions that a person can describe rightfully or truthfully and yet not capture everything they want to say about love.”
- “Love has one definition but many forms. If an activity is truly loving, it must fit the general definition, but there are lots of different ways in which we can love.”
- “We oftentimes want to judge others based upon what we think is the right thing and what we’re capable of and what the ‘normal’ person is capable of. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that what some people are capable of is different than others because of their bodies, because of their histories, because of the communities they’re a part of.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Production Assistance by Laura Pelser
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Special thanks to Thomas J. Oord
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Thomas Jay Oord: For me, this in spite of love, because of love, alongside of love, is a way to think about general ways in which love, as an overarching word, is expressed in our lives day‑to‑day.
Evan: Love is this mysterious thing.
Thomas: [laughs] Yeah.
Evan: [laughs] She moves in mysterious ways.
Thomas: Thank you, Bono.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. What’s love got to do with it?
This is an episode about love. The definition of love, the mystery of love, the power of love. [laughs] It’s also an episode with some song title puns in it.
Really, though, for something so familiar to human experience, love is notoriously difficult to define, to put your finger on, to explain and articulate. It’s even harder to embody, of course.
We all seem to acknowledge that love is somewhere near the center of life’s meaning, and as philosopher and activist for the mentally disabled Jean Vanier says, “We are all born and we all die with the same primal, searching cry, ‘Do you love me?'” My guest in this episode of The Table, Thomas J. Oord, has spent the last two decades thinking about the theology, science, and philosophy of love.
He’s authored and edited over 20 books, including “Science of Love, The Wisdom of Well‑Being,” “The Altruism Reader, Selections from Writing on Love, Religion, and Science,” “Defining Love, A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement”, and “The Nature of Love, A Theology.”
He also, incidentally, wrote a book for philosophers and theologians that actively use social media. That’s pretty interesting, too.
In this conversation, we cover a variety of themes and questions related to the theology of love, including love’s definition and expression, the nature of divine love, the connection between love and fear, and a Christian understanding of the science and psychology of love.
Sorry, you knew it was coming. I want to know what love is. I want you to show me. Enjoy.
Thomas: Thomas Jay Oord, I go by Tom most of the time. I’m married, I’m a husband, I’m a father. I’m a Christian, I’m a professor. How about this, I’m an ideas entrepreneur. [laughs]
Evan: A man in the business of ideas.
Thomas: That’s right, yeah. I like to think about and try to encourage people to think about the big issues of life, the big questions. Not just think about the questions but I want to propose answers I think are more plausible, are more helpful.
Asking questions is important, looking for answers that I think are reasonable, make a difference in a positive way. Since I’m a Christian, those align well with Christian traditions, scripture, etc. Those are important to me.
Evan: In the scheme of questions and answers, some people, maybe some people more on the cynical side, they like to question the answers and say, “Well, it’s…I don’t really know.” It’s more about the questions. Where do you fall in terms of…?
Thomas: I feel like you can lean too far either way. Obviously, some people think they’ve got all the answers and they don’t want anybody questioning the answers they have, even those answers that they think are at the core of the Christian tradition.
Other people just don’t seem to want answers, they just want to be questioning all the time. It’s important to pursue both. I get a little nervous when, especially people in my tradition, the Christian tradition, have some sacred ideas that they won’t question at all.
On the other hand, obviously, some of those ideas are there because they’ve been thought through. People think these are the best options on the table so they’re worth trying to protect, trying to defend, and trying to propose reasons why they’re the best.
Evan: I heard a recent distinction between creativity and intelligence and was intrigued by that. Then I also read something of yours where you talk about…this was just a blog post but it was…
Creativity, when it comes theology, philosophy, and a search after the truth. What is creativity in this pursuit of theology and seeking truth in spiritual reality?
Thomas: Creativity is never ex nihilo, never just tries to operate without any materials whatsoever. Creativity always builds upon things, draws from, and reorganizes. Also, creativity looks for novelty, new possibilities, new opportunities, things that might make better sense.
Christians are especially called to pursue those novelty. I’m Pentecostal enough to think God is doing a new thing. When God does a new thing there’s new words and ways to think about that and talk about that in the world.
Evan: That worries some people. New things worry people. How have you managed being in the business of ideas, but being a creative in that world? Clearly you have a big heart for the audience that you’re trying to reach.
Thomas: I do.
Evan: You care. Do you pray about the ideas that you’re working on? But you care about the people who you’re in conversation with. I see that.
Thomas: I do care a great deal.
Evan: How do you manage their worry I should say?
Thomas: Maybe I don’t always manage it well because sometimes their worries put me in difficult situations and cause pain. I’m more of a risk taker than most people because I have this really deep sense that God loves me and God loves everyone. I want to be a person who expresses that love in the way I act, etc.
A lot of people who don’t agree with my proposals, who hang around me long enough realize that I really do care about them. I care about what I think God is doing in the world. Even if we disagree on some of the ideas that I’m proposing, we can agree.
John Wesley has this great sermon in which he talks about this idea that, “Give me your hand because our hearts are in the same place and we may not think alike, but we can love alike.” It’s a motto in my life.
Evan: One of your other mottos is ‑‑ associated with your blog, “For the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.”
Thomas: The wisdom of love.
Evan: Where did that come from? That feels like it’s tied in.
Thomas: It is. For me the issues of love are at the center of how I think about the world, my work, my personal, my professional life. That word “Love” in today’s world is such a fluffy word for a lot of people. It’s sentimentalized. It’s used in so many different ways and frankly in the scholarly domain a lot of people don’t take it very seriously.
Talking about the wisdom of love in my view brings in the intellectual aspect, brings in the rigor of true scholarship. That’s been a part of my goal not only professionally, but also in this the way I live my life.
Evan: I want to talk about that and the connections between thinking about this particular topic, the issues that you’ve addressed in your life. You are honest about the ways in which you attempted to internalize them. At least that’s what I pick up in your work.
Thomas: I try to be. I really try.
Evan: Let’s horn in on the fluffiness of love and just talk about definition around that. You’ve written “Defining Love” you’ve written “The Nature of Love.” You’ve thought a lot about what love is and I think it doesn’t take much to realize, you said fluffy and sentimentalized.
People really come to blows about what love is especially once you trace the way we legislate around love, the way we try to create or control the environment in which love is legitimate. It strikes the cord with people who care about romance, who care about relationships with others, who care about or who just have needs.
Can you articulate I guess the problem around defining love a little bit more? It’s fluffy, it’s sentimental, but why is it the thing that just seems to evade definition?
Thomas: There’s an interesting relationship between the word love and the word God. In a Christian tradition we have the classic phrase, “God is love.” What I mean here is that people disagree about what God means. They’re all over the map on that one. The same is true of love, what love means people are all over the map.
It’s not just one of those words like tomato sauce that people can just say, “Well, OK. I think I know what that is, but it’s not that important.” This is at the core of a lot of people’s view of reality of themselves and what they think mattered. People are going to be sometimes testy and fight a little bit on this issue.
I think, too, love and God. Love is the kind of word that has many aspects and dimensions that a person can describe rightfully or truthfully and yet not capture everything they want to say about love.
For instance, love has a desiring or intentional element. A big part of the Christian tradition have equated love with desire, but I don’t think love is entirely desire. It’s got to be more than that.
For my own part, I want to emphasize the aspect of love that talks about well‑being or goodness, doing good. A person can do good unintentionally, and I wouldn’t call that an act of love.
There’s all these elements of understanding love well that have partial truth to them. In my view, it’s trying to work at all these partial truths and bring them together to get all the dimensions together to get a more robust and complete view of love. That’s fun. That’s challenging. That’s exciting to me.
Evan: There’s still a lot of space to explore?
Thomas: Definitely. No one ever gets it perfect, right?
Thomas: I do think we can make progress. I do think you can come to ways of thinking about love that are more helpful overall than some of the alternatives.
Evan: You’ve got a definition that you work from?
Evan: I’ve got to remember but wonder if you must know it by now. How do you define what is love?
Thomas: The definition is basically having three parts. The first part says, “Love is to act intentionally.” There’s some kind of intentionality, some kind of motive. It’s not just per say you do something.
Doing can be anything from thinking to acting in a physical way, but there is some intentionality to it. “But then intention,” says the second part of the definition, “is always in relationship.” It’s in sympathetic or empathetic response to others.
As someone who believes in God and someone who thinks that God is the source of love, the others include God. Some people will talk about love, and they’ll only talk about God. They won’t bring in the community of relationships we have with others in an environment.
Other people, of course, don’t believe in God, so they don’t bring God during the discussion. For me, that second aspect of the definition of love includes these relationships that are essential to the process of loving.
In the third aspect of my definition, it talks about promoting overall well‑being. It’s talking about doing what’s good for the whole, for the common good. To love is to act intentionally and with sympathetic response to God and others to promote overall well‑being.
Evan: In the space of others’ definitions or if not definitions, others’ systems, you’ve got “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis. You’ve got Wolterstorff’s philosophical analysis of the three different kinds of love. Is there one love, or are there many different kinds of loves that each ought to get their own definition?
Thomas: Great question. The way I look at it is this. Love has one definition but many forms. If an activity is truly loving, it must fit the general definition, but there are lots of different ways in which we can love.
Then we talk about compassionate love. In the classic tradition, we talk about agape, philia, eros. There’s other forms of love like being merciful or being joyful in the presence of others.
When I tuck my kids into bed at night, I read them a story. I kiss them. I have this warm affection kind of love that acts for their well‑being but there’s a great deal of positive emotional feeling involved in that.
That positive emotional feeling is not usually there when I’m showing love to someone who hurts me, who wrongs me when I’m turning the other cheek. Love has one definition as I think of it but many, many different forms.
When we talk about love in having a general definition, as I had mentioned, I think there’s different forms of love. In the Christian tradition, many Christians have highlighted this word, agape.
I don’t think agape has the precise meaning in Scripture that many people think it does. Agape has many different meanings. Over time, I’ve tried to hammer out ways of thinking about agape and then also eros and philia that makes sense to me and other people found helpful.
When I think about agape, I think of the kind of love that turns the other cheek, that repays evil with good. I like to call it in spite of love. In spite of what you do to me, I’m going to do something good to you. Whereas eros, in popular culture, means something like romance or sex.
Evan: Or eroticism?
Thomas: Eroticism, yeah. In classic thought, eros is basically desire or some allure for the valuable, etc. I like to think of that to use more common language as because of love. I love you because of something valuable I find in you.
I regret that so many Christians think that that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing. I love my wife for a number of reasons. For one of them is I think she’s hot and I think there’s nothing wrong with that.
Thomas: There’s things about her I find particularly valuable. Sometimes, she does things that I don’t like and I have to use the agape, in spite of love. There’s also things that I found about her that I love in the sense of finding them extremely valuable. That’s because of love.
Then that third one, philia, I call it alongside of love, the solidarity, this relationship, this working together to do what’s good in the world. For me, this in spite of love, because of love, alongside of love is a way to think about general ways in which love as an overarching word is expressed in our lives day‑to‑day.
Evan: Love is this mysterious thing seen in the most mysterious ways.
Thomas: Thank you, Bono.
Evan: We could riff on love songs all day.
Thomas: We could. [laughs] I can’t remember what anniversary it was. Rolling Stones’ 75th anniversary, whatever. They did the top 100 rock and roll songs of all time. In that, they asked the question, “What word appears most in song titles of the top 100,” or 1,000, whatever.
Love far and away is the most frequently used word in song titles. Now, some people will say, “Well, that’s just romantic love or sexual love.” In some cases, it probably is. Others, it’s…
U2 has got a lot of songs about love that aren’t strictly about romance and sex. Love is a powerful thing not only in the Christian tradition but also in pop culture more generally.
Evan: All you need is love.
Thomas: That’s right.
Evan: I wonder if this is part of, I guess, the puzzle of it. The mystery of love is that when you look at these individual expressions, it is mysterious how they might all trace back to one source or one definition.
What I want to say is that what appears to me to be the radically different nature of loving your enemy and loving your child.
Thomas: Yeah. For me, what unites them…there’s three things. I already mentioned them intentionality, relationship, and well‑being. The thing that my minds goes to most quickly when I see an activity and I ask myself, “Is that a loving activity?” my mind goes to most quickly is the issue of, “Is that in some way promoting what is good, what is helpful well‑being…
Turning the other cheek in relation to an enemy or loving my kid, I say, “Is that promoting well‑being?” There are some instances in which people do things that we might typically say are loving but they don’t promote overall well‑being, so I would label them as loving.
For instance, let’s talk about sex, one of my favorite subjects.
Evan: You and many other people.
Thomas: [laughs] That’s right. Sexual intercourse can be an incredibly loving activity, because it promotes the well‑being of the couple involved and, in fact, by extension, a greater community. We also know that there’s some sex that doesn’t promote well‑being. Sex itself isn’t an act of love. You have to ask the question, “Is this sexual activity promoting well‑being in the overall sense?”
That’s the question that I bring to any sort of question of, “Is that activity or is that project or is what those folks are doing, is that loving?” I say, “Is it promoting well‑being?”
That brings another question, issue. That is, how do you know if that promotes overall well‑being?
Evan: You need some standard, too.
Thomas: To philosophers, that’s the epistemic question. That’s the question of knowledge. That’s when no one can know what absolutely certainty unless they know all things. Since I’m one who believe in God, I think God knows all things but I don’t have crystal and ambiguous access to God’s mind. I, like everybody else, have to make some kind of assessment.
In doing that well, I would want to look at a variety of different features of what’s going on, evaluations. I want to ask my community. I want to look at the traditions that I think are helpful. Then I’ll try to make a judgment on whether or not this particular act promotes overall well‑being.
Most of the time, I make a quick judgment. I don’t think through very carefully. Sometimes, I do want to take the bigger view.
Evan: There appears to be a little analog there, happiness. Most people are going to think that some sort of robust happiness, flourishing. You die near the good life is the goal of life. Just the expression of that is going to change.
Evan: Some people see displeasure. Other people see it as living in accordance with nature or your human nature, what would you, ethical approach. This is all in the context of talking about how what appears to be radically different produces an anxiety in people when it comes to people who are genuinely trying to live a loving life and wanting that for themselves and wanting to promote love in their community.
Whether that’s a church community or local community or neighborhood or family. Even at a broader level, there can be this definition of love but when it comes to acting out that definition or in the moment, making a determination, like you said, sometimes the judgment is so quick.
Maybe it’s not quick, maybe it’s just like you’re trying to build habits for yourself or for what loving action in a communal environment looks like. There’s some anxiety around, have I loved in this scenario? Especially when there is harm, when there is a need for forgiveness, a need for justice. That’s the mysterious nature of love, all of the sudden introduces some existential anxiety.
Thomas: Definitely. People handle that differently. People who are more prone to self‑doubt are probably going to be sometimes paralyzed in the assessment of whether or not what they’re doing is a loving thing. People have a little more robust sense of self and they’re saying, “I usually make the right options or choices.” They’re going to be less concerned with thinking about that.
No one, in my view, except God, no one can know with absolute certainty whether or not their actions have promoted overall well‑being but we can make some fair assessments and judgments. Oftentimes, we can have a sense of whether or not what we’re doing is for the good of all or some sort of extremely selfish sort of thing.
Evan: How would you think of well‑being? I’ve read a little bit about you speaking of it in terms of shalom.
Thomas: Yes, I like that word a lot.
Thomas: Blessedness, abundant life.
Evan: Let’s talk about that. How would you unpack that, connecting love to shalom?
Thomas: As I think of shalom, we usually translate that word peace. It’s more in the absence of conflict. It’s this idea that there’s goodness and flourishing in all kinds of dimensions of life. We use these words like eudaimonia in the philosophical tradition or in the Christian tradition, being a blessing.
We use these words and their general words to try to cover a whole variety of different forms. The individual or the church who wants to help those in need are acting in ways that produce shalom, produce peace. The individual in the church that’s trying to act for justice, let’s say for the environment, they’re also acting in terms of peace and shalom and love.
All these different activities can all function well under the bigger categories of blessedness and shalom and eudaimonia, genuine happiness, and flourishing.
Evan: Because it’s so many dimensions, shalom and the life of shalom, it becomes complex…
Evan: …and really nuanced.
Evan: Can you describe some of the ways in which even if you can think of particular stories that exemplify the way that are maybe grand but maybe just simple and more mundane that shalom can be expressed in a community?
Thomas: A good way to answer this, I have taught a class in my university I love. For the last six or eight years, I required students to do what I call an extra mile love project. I talk about this idea of…it’s a philosophical notion of super irrigation, which is basically the idea that is, you stretch yourself, you go further than what you would normally expect of yourself.
These students didn’t have to dream up these projects that are going to push themselves. Obviously, every individual is different because what’s more difficult for one person may not be difficult for another person. It’s fascinating to read then the stories the students tell about all of things they’ve done.
One student decided that on campus, people needed to get from one end of the campus, the other better so we bought a bunch of used bikes and put them out there and made them…you could go around campus free on these junkie bikes. Another student frequents a particular gas station often on his way to campus. He decided just on a whim, he was going to clean that gas station, completely make it very clean and not tell anybody why he was doing it.
Of course, the manager found the mat…cleaned it, he was asking the question, “What are you doing here? What’s this all about?”
One woman whose I think of it as sister suffered from a very rare congenital disease set up a website for parents of kids who have this disease to talk about their experiences to have a chat room. Other students have bought groceries for those in need, one woman began a pen‑pal relationship with some soldiers to encourage them.
It’s just fascinating what people can think of in terms of helping out and doing something good for others. It’s their challenge to stretch themselves a little bit more. I can go on and on on all these illustrations. Hopefully, that gives you a little taste of the diversity of love in the world.
Evan: It feels like random acts of kindness.
Thomas: Yeah. They’re not quite random, because they’re planned but they’re different, they’re unusual. They’re stretching. In sports, we sometimes talk about going to the next level. This is pushing yourselves to the next level in terms of love.
Evan: It wouldn’t be random, because on your definition, it has to be intentional.
Thomas: Exactly, yeah.
Evan: We end up paying a lot of attention to being nice, having manners, being civil, being kind. Those sometimes feel like they are soft and really don’t express the deeper vision of Jesus love commands.
Evan: Can you comment on that as some of our cultural attentiveness to the surface level, loving character and contrast that with a Christian vision of love?
Thomas: Kindness is one aspect and one form of one expression of love. Some people develop habits of kindness that we didn’t take for granted. I have a friend who is a pastor of a church. He says, “These people are not motivated to get out there and do something radical for Jesus. They’re just kind and happy to each other.”
I just talked to myself, “There are some pastors who would love just to have a kind congregation.
Thomas: There’s also these times in which I think kindness in and of itself isn’t enough that we have to take difficult stands, say things that make people uncomfortable, and do things, again, for the common good, for overall well‑being, that go beyond the usual, niceness that we want to express in the world.
I find that oftentimes, younger people are more willing to take those kind of radical stands. I’m not quite sure why that is. It’s oftentimes inspirational that folks step out and do something that may make others uncomfortable but they do it because they want to do what’s right for the whole.
I think that in the Christian tradition, the folks who exemplify that particularly well are the prophets. They stand up and they say, “This might not feel comfortable to you, it may not seem nice, but in order for the common good to be promoted, we’ve got to change. This community is screwing up, we need to act differently, thus sayeth the Lord.”
Evan: Stay tuned. After the break, Tom Oord and I discuss the integration of theology in science with respect to love, altruism, and character. Tom quotes The Princess Bride, “We ponder the nature of God’s love and the importance of social involvement and vulnerability.”
We talked about a lot you don’t want to miss. You might even say, “We did it all for the glory of love.” Stay tuned.
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Now, back for more on everyone’s favorite thing.
From a theologian’s perspective, what benefit we can receive from the science of love. All sorts of sociological and biological research being done on pro‑social behavior, empathy, emotion regulation, altruism, what stands out to you as profitable research that, one, helps us understand love but, two, helps us become more loving?
Thomas: I’m a big fan of what’s going on in the sciences these days in terms of the questions of altruism, pro‑social behavior, those empathy studies, etc. I’m a big fan, because I think that we’ve too often studied the things that are not so good in the world and become experts in the mal‑social practices.
Thomas: [laughs] Pathology, yes, and not thought so much about what’s right and then also about what we might do to expand or enhance or improve upon or live out what’s right. Some of the sciences, for instance, in biology, most of the biologist aren’t thinking in terms of what these things might say about how we could become a better society.
They’re asking the questions the activities and actions they see at various species and various groups, etc., and how can we explain them.
Those are important for us, because I think part of the Christian’s calling is to try to understand something about the world which God has created, not just simply for the sake of understanding but I really think that they can tell us something about who God is, enough of a believer in Romans 1 that talks about you looking at the world, you can find out something about God’s invisible attribute by the created world. I’m a big fan of that.
Also, we have to bring in some other aspects, other disciplines other than the sciences to make things especially fruitful. As a philosopher and a theologian, I think those voices that have to be at the table. I’m pleased at the recent emphasis upon what the sciences might tell us about these things that at least are related to love, if not directly pertaining to love.
Evan: What studies stand out to you? I’m fascinated by, for instance, the psychological research on emotion regulation and how people who are more well‑suited to control their emotions or find themselves with the inability to control their emotions, how that affects their ability to then transfer that to other people as well.
What is helpful for the average person to know when it comes to filtering a lot of that research, pulling out the data that is suggestive, for instance, of practices or intervention studies to attempt to show positive correlations with positive positive psychologies full of this gratitude and overall well‑being or certain attachment, styles of relationship in promoting a more loving relationship between…
Like the love relationship between parents and children early on in life about transferring to love relationships later in life.
Thomas: If I were to summarize what I think are some of the insights that science generally is giving us about love, there are some things that stand out to me. One is that we sometimes think about love as a disembodied kind of act.
One of the things that the sciences, generally speaking, are telling us is that our bodies really do place certain kinds of constraints on what we think in terms of love, what they are capable of loving.
For instance, there has been a lot of work done on those who have damaged frontal cortex and brain difficulties because of maybe being born with deformities or having accidents or whatever. Those folks seem not to have the capacity for empathy that most other people do or people who have been raised in very difficult families, in which they’ve not been given the kind of care from parents that they ought to be given, those folks have a more difficult time expressing what the rest of us think are typical acts of love.
That’s important because we oftentimes want to judge others based upon what we think is the right thing and what we’re capable of and what the “normal” person is capable of. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility that what some people are capable of is different than others because of their bodies, because of their histories, because of the communities they’re a part of.
Evan: Which all the more turns us towards those nuances of shalom.
Thomas: I totally agree.
Evan: Those details that are easily forgotten but when they’re grouped and when they’re repeated, just have an enormous effect on an individual.
Thomas: Exactly. Also, there are some passage and scripture that talk about, “Judge not lest you be judged.” Those can be interpreted in ways that make you think that you’re not supposed to evaluate anything in the world. I’m not saying that. They do point us to the notion that we need to be generous in our interpretations of others and we need to try to understand them well.
Evan: That’s what we just call charity, just be charitable.
Thomas: Exactly, a charitable interpretation. Also, strangely enough, the sciences…just painting with broad strokes here.
Evan: Of course.
Thomas: The sciences are pushing us to understand the importance of ecclesiology. That is that we do in community really does matter in shaping who we are.
The habits that we have individually in those groups but also the kinds of ways we look at reality and the capacities to overcome at least some of the constraints and incapacities from our past, ecclesiology really does matter because it says, we as a group can act and function in ways that can help us overcome some of the difficulties that we brought long from the past, whether it’s from our environment or our home life or our past relationships.
Even strangely enough, even overcoming some of the disabilities we have physically. There are studies showing that some of the neuro‑pathways that we have developed over time can change because we are part of different communities and different practices.
I don’t want to paint a picture that sounds like we can change our bodies entirely but I think there’s more. What we say in the sciences, plasticity involved. There’s more possibility for nuance, change than what some people may have thought previously.
Evan: It sort suggests an agency to love.
Thomas: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Evan: That there’s some substantive property of love that has a molding or a transforming or a changing presence to an environment.
How do you connect that to, I guess, the commands of Jesus, in the love commands? Love of God, love of neighbors, self. We receive those in a tradition and read them as commands but then we see that there’s…I think this is what I’m saying about the data of science is bringing to us, that there are these benefits. That’s what positive psychology is suggesting, pro‑social behavior, positivity.
There’s this fascinating, maybe unsurprising idea that love actually does work.
Thomas: It does.
Evan: It’s not just a command.
Thomas: Oftentimes, the lover receives benefit from his or her own loving. That doesn’t necessarily mean that happens all the time. Sometimes, love is self‑sacrificial and we give up some goods to ourselves.
Often, Jesus’ words in the gospels where He says, “Give and it will be given unto you, pressed down, shaken together, and will be overflowing, will be placed in your lap for the measure you give will be the measure you receive.” There’s something to that saying that says that what’s good for the receiver is also good for the giver.
Evan: There are probably great philosophical and theological distinctions to be made here. Maybe perhaps, obedience and maybe pleasure or obedience and benefit. There is this obedience to the love commands, but then there’s also this deep benefit that the obedient person receives in obeying and in exploring and living into those commands. It becomes a way of flourishing, not merely obedient.
That’s what I hear in this…it’s good for the giver, too.
Thomas: My view when it comes to the question of obedience is that the Christian traditions that have emphasized what we in philosophy call a de‑ontological notion of ethics, that is you do it because it’s right. Those traditions have often overlooked what I think is what we’re talking about here. That is that there’s real benefits to doing what is right.
One of the positives of love theology is that it can replace this notion that obedience is our primary response to God to this idea that a relationship of love is our primary response in which obedience is just one facet but not the dominant one.
Let me illustrate it with this. I’m a Princess Bride fan, one of my favorite movies of all time.
Evan: You’re speaking my language.
Thomas: [laughs] The opening part of Princess Bride.
Buttercup: Farm boy
Thomas: Farm Boy is out there, and Buttercup is saying to Farm Boy, “Do this, do that.”
Buttercup: Pass me that pitcher.
Thomas: He’s saying to her, “As you wish.” The narrator says something like, “Then one day Buttercup understood that every time he was saying, ‘As you wish,’ he was really saying, ‘I love you.'”
That is a way to illustrate how obedience is all of a sudden…a person who thinks, “I’m just supposed to obey God,” when they start realizing that what’s even deeper than obedience is this love relationship, in which not only too can we benefit from this relationship but in my theology, God can even benefit that there’s well‑being that extends beyond the creaturely realm to the divine realm.
In that way of thinking about reality, then obedience is just one aspect but not the primary one.
Buttercup: You can die, too, for all I care.
Farm Boy: As you wish.
Buttercup: Oh, my sweet Wesley. What have I done?
Evan: Maybe there’s something we could focus on here, the idea of loving God.
Evan: This might be a pathology itself but the maybe rampant idea that God does not benefit from my loving him is surely an obedience relationship and it’s just what I owe him.
Thomas: That’s the dominant view in the Christian tradition itself. Thanks to some of the major thinkers in the Christian tradition. Augustine would be my classic example. Augustine thought that God was complete, total, didn’t change one iota, wasn’t affected one iota so that God’s love was always giving and never receiving. That’s a poor view of love and a poor view of God.
God is always giving love but also receiving our responses, and that when we respond well to God’s first actions in our life moment by moment, God actually benefits, not just other creatures. and that this activity that we do in our lives can make a difference ultimately, not just for us and the world but also for God.
Evan: There’s a big word associated with it, that’s right, impassibility.
Thomas: Right, yeah. [laughs] God is passable to use that language. God is affected. God is a real giver and receiver. God is the living Lord of history and our actions really do make a difference to God. The way I read scripture, I think scripture supports that pretty strongly.
Evan: There is a connection in the word of passable to passion and suffering. That’s part of the story of reincarnation is, the passion of Christ. How does that become a model for the kind of loving through suffering that seems so woven into the human story?
Thomas: Let me first talk about suffering and make a distinction. In every day language, we think of suffering as enduring pain. While I think God does endure pain and Jesus is a great example of that, in the classic tradition, suffering basically just means being affected by others. That could be painful or pleasure, so it means being in a giving and receiving kind of relationship.
In terms of our relationship with others, sometimes I think we’ve thought that people who really love well are always giving and never really being involved. Today, we’ve come to see that those people who just give their money to causes but who don’t invest themselves aren’t really loving to the degree that we think that they ought to be.
I’m one of these people who tries to help those in need in various places in the world. There’s something about being invested in their actual lives in which they can influence on me and they actually benefit me that goes so much further than me writing a check and sending it there.
We’ve oftentimes thought of God as the great check writer in the sky, not the God who is intimately involved and whose own experience can be positively or negatively affected by how we respond to God’s love in our lives.
Evan: The example that you’ve raised with writing a check and doing your duty, so to speak, as the giver, it feels noble. It feels distant, it feels like you are this beneficent presence to a world in need and yet, it’s so easy. You wonder if really does require some sort of localized relationship and awareness of one another and acquaintance, knowing between the people involved. It’s going to be demanding in a different way than just writing a check.
Thomas: I don’t think you can love well unless you know well the circumstances. In order to know well the circumstances, you have to be involved, you have to be vulnerable, you have to be in the midst of it.
If I’m dating someone and I send them roses, thinking I’m doing a kind and loving thing but I don’t take the time to find out that she’s allergic to roses, then my motives were good but the consequences in that being negative.
If you’re in that kind of relationship where you get to know the other person and you’re affected by them and you’re vulnerable, then the possibility that your love motives can be truly effective increases greatly.
In our society, we have looked down on our noses at those who are vulnerable, those who are affected by others because we think, “They’re going to be wishy washy. They’re just going to go with whatever the impulse, whatever the pull is, wherever the power is.” Real love is involved in those relationships and is influenced and yet, no matter what happens, acts for the good of those involved.
Unfortunately, we thought of God, I think, as the one who is invulnerable, who isn’t affected by others because we’ve rightly wanted to have a notion of God who can’t go from being loving to unloving, can’t go from being beneficent to being mean.
What we’ve missed out is the idea that God’s character can stay unchanging and immutable and love and yet, God can be vulnerable, suffering in the midst of relationship and then understand well what true, effective love means in any particular situation to any particular creature.
That’s one of the keys in my mind in understanding divine love well. God’s character is unchangingly loving but God’s experience is moment by moment giving and receiving vulnerability.
Evan: That relationship of vulnerability is so apparent in the concept of enemy love. Even, this is seen in a tradition of non‑violence where the oppressed in loving their oppressors open themselves again in vulnerability.
Standing up, saying no but doing so peacefully and yet so vulnerably, knowing that violence can come from it. There’s this posture of deep and profound vulnerability that seems to follow from this concept of loving one’s enemy because it exposes the lover in that case.
Thomas: Definitely, more vulnerable. The reason someone calls you an enemy is because that person doesn’t like something about you. In some way, whether it’s physical or some other way, they feel justified in harming you. For you not to harm in return and to stay engaged in that relationship in a vulnerable way, that’s huge.
I’m a risk taker but even for me to see how deep the pain can go, I can become afraid sometimes and I’m tempted not to be vulnerable, not to give charitable interpretations, not to live the love of Christ that I think I have to live. That’s one of the things I’ve learned, is how powerful fear can be.
Evan: Yet, love casts out fear?
Evan: It’s interesting. You might think that the countervailing force to fear is bravery and strength and courage and some show of force. Yet, we learn it’s love.
Thomas: Yeah, definitely love.
Evan: It articulates, perhaps again, the radical nature of the Christian ethic.
Thomas: You’re right. Most people, when they think, “If I’m going to be afraid, then what I should do is barricade myself, get more locks for my house, get an alarm system, or socially protect myself by only having friends and those who will say good things to me.”
Thomas: In the end, that can…
Evan: Become less vulnerable?
Thomas: Become less vulnerable, exactly. In the end, it just narrows. It puts a stranglehold on the abundant life that I think Jesus wants us to live. It doesn’t open you up to the fruitfulness that comes from so many other diverse and wide‑ranging experiences and people.
Evan: Tom, this has been awesome.
Thomas: Oh, I’ve enjoyed it, too. Thank you.
Evan: Thanks so much for your time, and in your work, and visiting the Center.
Thomas: Thanks. I’m honored that you’ve invited me. I enjoy it.
Evan: That’s it for this episode. I know it was a bit long, but thanks for listening.
The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester.
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