Love & “working” definitions

What can we really say about love?

As I re-focus on my principal assumption—the co-centrality of truth and love / love and truth—I have been arguing for the importance of working definitions.  I don’t think that we can define love, not comprehensively. And certainly not to consensus.

Yet I also think that when it comes to love, even if comprehensive definitions were possible, they would be undesirable. My point here, as in my post on biblical love, is that working definitions have the advantages of being less daunting (and so allowing us to get the discussion started) and less austere (and so keeping us from being unduly suspicious when others use words like “love” without comprehensively defining them).

Yet working definitions also avoid what may be the biggest pitfall when it comes to love: assuming completeness.

What I mean is that most of us, most of the time, presume that love is something in which we will engage entirely. So even though we live with constant reminders of our limited and finite nature (we all get tired and need sleep, and get hungry and need food) we so often assume that we can love someone—and be loved by them—completely, with our whole selves and our whole lives.

And in certain ways and at particular moments, we can (and do).

My hunch is that this happens because the human posture in love—giving and receiving it—is, more than any other, as close as we may come to being “complete.” So we are able to focus on the other nearly exclusively, prioritizing him / her to ourselves, such that their pleasure is our pleasure and their gains are our gains.

Yet even taken at its most positive (and setting aside concerns that sometimes we engage in love harmfully, with too little self-love) this is not what we naturally are. Permanence and comprehensiveness are foreign to human existence, which is much more about change, transition, and development in the course of sameness.1  But when we speak of change, transition, and development in relation to love we typically mean that love is “breaking,” or fading, or simply no longer being love.

In contrast to this temptation toward completeness, working definitions allow us to engage in this discussion (and orient us toward love as a state-of-being) in the right way. By that I mean a way that is limited yet committed.

So in the first way, a working definition reflects the inherent commitment that humans already have toward love. In other words, no one approaches love neutrally but, regardless of definition, we all seek it (even if only despite ourselves).

Yet in the second way, a working definition also reflects the scope and capacity with which humans must approach (and engage in) love: being finite, and so limited. As such we are unable to maintain the intensity of our desire or remain in the the place of wonder that love engenders.

Likewise, working definitions reflect this committed stance by requiring something of us, just as love does. In other words, they require that we state what we want or desire. And when we do so, we not only demonstrate what we know or how we think but show “who we are.” Similarly, working definitions mirror our limited capacity by requiring us constantly to be aware of our limitations—by engaging us as both those who “know something” and yet also as those who are still learning; as those who are capable and yet who are unable to sustain that capacity.

Further again, working definitions are by nature both “in use” (as that which does the work) and “in transition” (as that which is incomplete or unsatisfactory). And here again these aspects well reflect both human nature and love’s character. 2

Thus the very process of committing oneself to creating or engaging with a working definition of love—the process of committing to a conversation about love, even as part of engaging in love—is making a commitment to a process of both acting and observing. It involves reflecting on one’s experiences and participating in one’s reflections. It involves considering one’s desires and one’s knowledge, as well as their sources (and so too, their reliability).

In this way, by “creating or engaging with a working definition of love” I am no so much proposing that we embark on a task but, more accurately, embrace a lifestyle. It is a way of being that involves both investigation and participation; both rigor resulting in knowledge (and peace) and vision resulting in delight (and inspiration); both faithfulness and creativity.

One confirmation that “creating or engaging with a working definition of love” is indeed a lifestyle rather than simply a task is the connection that I mentioned previously: love’s definition is inextricably tied to personal story or narrative. Thus the process of engaging in a working definition of love is always ongoing, both because the definition is connected with personal narratives (mine and others) that continue through time, but also because human identity is essentially narrative identity: we know ourselves through the stories that we enact, narrate, and hear ourselves recounting (and hear recounted by others about us).3

I would highlight two important conclusions from the preceding.

First, Christians are necessarily to adopt this lifestyle of engaging in a working definition of love, because their primary “task” is to be in love relationship with God. Yet second, because the Christian God is complete in this regard (because this God is love) Christians are able to be at ease in engaging in this lifestyle, and so are able to rest in their own incompleteness. In this sense, “loving God” is a burden that is “light” and a yoke that is “easy.”

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur expresses this in terms of human identity being both idem and ipse: self-sameness and change. More on this later.
  2. Presupposing a certain, rudimentary character of love does not beg the necessity of first having defined it: no one needs a definition of love in order to distinguish it from things that it grossly is not, such as sexual exploitation or pure negligence.
  3. Paul Ricoeur’s One Self as Another is a majestic, if complex, investigation of narrative identity.

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