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The Table Video

Thomas Oord& Alan Tjeltveit

Loving Yourself

Theologian / Philosopher, Northwest Nazarene University
Professor of Psychology, Muhlenberg College
June 9, 2017

A discussion of reciprocity, interrelatedness, and the appropriateness of self-love.


So Tom has set up a definition that really focuses love on an outward expression toward others. Acting intentionally, responding to the other for the sake of their flourishing and their well-being. But there’s an internal component to love, too. Something you might think of as a psychological, emotional experience.

What is your perspective on a definition of love?

Well working in psychology, since the term itself is rarely used, I’ve learned I have to be flexible. And part of my task is when I’m reading what a psychologist says about a research finding, or about a theory, is I have to figure out what’s their implicit understanding, and then how does that connect with what I see as a more adequate definition? So, psychologists talk about norms for instance. And one of the norms is, I will help you because I anticipate that you’ll help me later if I help. So we kind of aim for a sort of reciprocity. So that’s an internal norm–

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.


Evan: Yeah.

And actually one of the big issues is whether or not that really counts as love. Some people would say it has to be sacrificial. It has to be totally this beneficent act. Has to be totally to meet the other’s needs and not one’s own needs. And that’s one of the differences among… It’s a philosophical, theological, psychological difference.

I actually like the idea of kind of being inclusive and saying, ” I can love my wife.” And that’s Christian love, even though I get something back from it. There’s a funny thing, to me at least, a story along those lines. Tom and I first met at a conference in Calvin and we left our families behind. One of the tricky things about studying love is that immediately you get jokes because people will assume you’re talking about romance, you’re talking about sex. And so she kept talking about Oh, Allan’s going off on his summer of love. [guests laugh]

And of course I detect a little dig in that because my kids were three and six at the time and I left her for three weeks. But here’s the quid pro quo, a year later she went to Israel for three weeks, leaving me with the kids. So it kind of balanced out. It actually seemed kind of right and nice. So I think that’s fully Christian love, although some like [mumbles] would say, “No, no, that’s not love.” So, I’m willing to have it more inclusive.

We need it, I think there has to be an openness to self-sacrifice in a robust notion of Christian love. Just as Jesus died for us, that’s sacrificial. So, I want to include that in the definition of love. Some psychologists are very suspicious about this notion of self-sacrifice. It’s unhealthy.

I agree with Alan here and I think it has to do partly with how we think about ourselves as relational people. I’m of the view that we live in an interrelated world. And what I do for you is likely going to end up effecting me in some way or another.

Positively or negatively. And so the idea that I could act in such a way that I get absolutely no benefit whatsoever is very suspicious in my mind. Now there is the possibility that I could act primarily for your benefit and secondarily for my own, so as sort of a primary issue there. But if we truly are related, if we take the Christian example, being in the Body of Christ, if we’re all a part of the body and that body extends beyond Christians to the whole realm, then this notion that ultraism, love, true generosity is only for the other’s good, I think we can set that aside and say okay, in some instances it can be primarily for the other’s good, but it’s okay also to act in ways that can benefit myself. Self-love is genuine and appropriate.

Indeed, it’s the foundation at least for the communication of the greatest Commandments.=

Thomas: Exactly.

Love of God, of course, isn’t tied to the self, but the love of neighbor, the foundation of that love is love your neighbor as yourself. And so there has to be some kind of robust sense of seeking your own well-being. And understanding what that means. What it is to flourish. And then the high calling of that neighbor love is to seek another’s well-being as much as you seek your own.

There’s an interesting history of interpretation of the “as love”.

I categorize three responses. One said, well self love is natural, and so you want to kind of bring up your love for others and God to your natural level of love for self. And the second approach, it says, wait a minute, some people don’t really love each other very well. And so particularly humanistic psychologists say, so first you need to love yourself because you can’t love other people, you can’t love God if you don’t love yourself.

And so, the stereotype is then they move to Marin County and spend 40 years learning how to love themselves. Somehow they never get around to loving others or God. I’m a little suspicious of that. And actually, my own mother, who is a very loving person never liked herself, wasn’t very good at loving herself. So, the third perspective says these are really kind of three separate, but ideally interrelated categories.

So the right kind of love of yourself is good. Because we’re of worth. Here’s an instance, I’m Episcopalian, and for the most part I’m more conservative than the Episcopalians, but there’s old language in one of the services that says, “I am unworthy even to gather up the crumbs from under your table.” Which I call the prayer of self-abasement. I just cannot go there.

What do you mean, I’m not worthy to pick these up? God made me, Jesus died for me, I’m worthy of picking up the crumbs. I’m sinful, but I can’t go there. So there are right kinds of self-love. And if it’s only self-love, that’s not the right kind of self-love. So I think there are three kinds of love that should be integrated.