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.”

Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).