What is “biblical” love (and can we even talk about it)?

Truth and love / love and truth are co-central to Christianity and to human flourishing.

This is one of my fundamental assumptions and a focus of much of my research, here and elsewhere. Last post I examined the notion of “biblical” truth as relational truth. But what about love: is there such a thing as “biblical” love?

Before addressing this question I want to pause and note two concerns about discussing truth or, particularly, love.

First, some would argue that in order productively to discuss such notions we first need to define them comprehensively. The argument runs thus: truth and love are not only complex but also overused and misused notions, notions that most of us (most of the time) discuss without sufficient clarity. So without comprehensive definitions we end up talking around each other because we can’t be sure that we’re actually talking about the same thing.

Doubtless this can be a problem. But I don’t think that comprehensive definitions are the solution.

Instead, my view is that we need working definitions: definitions that are “good enough” to start the discussion, even if they are not sufficient to avoid confusion or to preclude outlying understandings (of truth or love) from improperly taking centre stage. I hold this view for two reasons.

On the one hand, I hold it because we are—all of us, and all the time—already living our lives so as to seek, evaluate, and exchange love and truth. We do not simply discuss or dispute them as notions, but make experiential claims about them (even if only about not experiencing them!). Now the problem here is that what one person calls love another may not, and while it may be less slippery the same may be said about truth. This amounts to an issue of interpretation: understanding what something is and, thereby, being able to interpret (or distinguish) instances of such a thing in various different forms and contexts.

I agree with the need to understand something in order to distinguish it from other things (or to identify better and worse examples of it).

Yet I also believe that conversations about such subjects can be productive with only provisional (or working) definitions. This is provided, however, that we acknowledge that our own positions and understandings are, almost always, also provisional. In other words, we need to acknowledge that most of us hold the belief (generally without ever stating it) that our intuitive or normative understandings about truth and love are, generally speaking, correct. So working with provisional definitions requires also accepting that our understandings may be less credible than we think they are.

On the other hand, discussing complex notions is likely to stall (or not start in the first place) if we are first obliged to define these notions comprehensively. So while honestly acknowledging their complexity is essential, in my experience communities that require comprehensive definitions ultimately adopt an unwarranted suspicion of anyone using these words. This tends to polarize responses: people either use these words without any care for definitions or they refuse to use them at all. In either cases the result is the same: no headway is made at better explaining them (and so better understanding ourselves, as a result).

Second, people typically engage with truth and love from one of two perspectives. Either we represent them experientially, through personal accounts, or we present them intellectually, through research and analysis. Both are necessary, yet starting with either one is problematic.

For example, starting with intellectual analysis is inaccurate: human beings experience—and so understand—love, as the need for attachment and the attempt to attach, upon exiting the womb.1 Yet starting with lived experience is impossible: we cannot coherently access our earliest experiences nor can we engage with later experiences except through language and conceptual understandings.

So what do we do: how can we possibly start?

Counter intuitively, I believe that we “start” on love by starting with personal narrative and self-identity.

In one sense, this is because love is dependent upon (relational) truth—we hold as the greatest requirement of love that it be true. Yet this truth involves not only understanding human nature and functioning but also investigating ourselves, by assessing our self-awareness and our competence at reading and interpreting our own experiences well.

In another sense, in order for truth to be properly human (i.e., that truth which is most essential to human flourishing) it must be relational, and the fullest aspiration of such truth is the existential process of engaging in attached commitment: love. Yet just as this attached commitment represents a larger and better sphere of habitation than any other—people long to be “in” love—so it also calls forth a fuller and richer description (of self, other, and their shared reality).

The result?

We understand love within the process of living, and do so by telling and being told the full stories—the personal narratives—wherein each has had the opportunity both for these experiences of relational truth to form us (demonstrating our character) and for us to “give form” to them through how we have interpreted them (demonstrating our self-awareness and skill at self-interpretation).

Thus we define love by weighing up and participating in the self-identities that arise from and give shape to their stories, and by submitting ourselves and our stories to this same process. And my wager is that we weigh up these stories according to three main criteria: coherence, artistry, and function. More on this shortly.

Assimilation, accommodation, and phronesis

A friend raised a helpful point by distinguishing between assimilating situations as cases of what I already know or have experienced versus accommodating / making room for the new by expanding our knowledge and re-mapping our categories of experience.

I wondered about the role of several factors in this process. The first one is recognition.

So on the one hand, certain new experiences / understandings simply impose themselves upon me. Such was certainly the case when it came to some of the experiences and knowledge about both God and myself that were pivotal to my return to Christianity. In this sense I was not so much faced with a choice of assimilating or accommodating but rather with a choice of how to accommodate, and to what end.

Thus I think that “the new” can overtake us and impose itself upon us. This was certainly the case for me in terms of my experiences at Swiss L’Abri in 1996.

However, on the other hand, perhaps there is something to having cultivated a disposition of enquiry or accepted that I have a degree of dissatisfaction with my existing situation. So in the case of the events and understandings which developed, again at Swiss L’Abri, in 1999 I had already had my experiential categories ripped wide open and was in a state of needing to resolve (or maybe better, reconcile) my understanding with my experience.

Specifically, this was not simply better to understand what I had experienced but to allow for the inherent message of these new experiences—that “the world is far larger and better that I had ever conceived”—to be put in motion as a form of ‘research project’ where the subjects were, quite literally, myself and the “meaning of life.”

So while I do not think that setting the stakes that high will always be necessary, I wonder if one must not always be willing to have these stakes at play, sometimes more and sometimes less. Stated differently, I wonder if we must literally be willing to put ourselves “in play” and also the meaning that we attach to life / what would constitute living it rightly.

This leads to the second factor I would consider in this process of assimilation versus accommodation.

Second, I wonder about the necessity of understanding myself (as self-awareness and self-understanding) and understanding what constitutes “the good life” or the purpose of living. Now surely my experiences and understandings can impact, and so alter, these understandings, but I do begin with a starting place. Further, this form of understanding is always embodied to varying degrees of completeness as I live out (or shy away from) what I believe.

Thus there is, or should be, a vibrant interaction between participating and observing—between theory and practice. Yet I think that this too, while not a technique that I can learn like how to prepare a meal from a recipe, is nevertheless a form of embodied knowledge that must be acquired. I would tend to use the ancient Greek notion of phronesis, or practical wisdom, to describe this integration of participating and observing, theory and practice.

Phronesis is not a matter of applying particular skills in a memorized sequence but, instead, requires developing one’s ability to perceive the subtleties in a given situation and to develop responses that are both fitting to that situation and, where appropriate and possible, create tension and / or resolution toward a richer integration of action and understanding, or a better understanding of oneself, the other, the situation, or some combination of these three.

Phronesis similarly involves assessing the outcome of engaging these tensions and / or resolutions. So it gauges “success” not according to how well one followed instructions but to what degree the outcome represents a “fit” with / an improvement upon (or perhaps even the least degradation of) the original setting. Nor is the notion of “success” simply my own or attributable to my action but is always potentially a shared reality. For example, the success of understanding life better, knowing oneself / the other more truly, having persevered (or relented) as was necessary, etc. Similarly failure is not necessarily attributable to me or even the other but is always potentially a mutual or general loss.

In this way, phronesis is very much about the importance of becoming sensitive to context, much like becoming a good reader in order to get the most out of a finely crafted and nuanced text. In this way phronesis is hermeneutical, and the results of phronesis are not often the binary yes / no of “success or failure” but represent outcomes according to a graded spectrum, as “better or worse” (and where the spectrum itself, and how it is graded, require re-interpretation and fine tuning according to the situation).

Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 2

This post is the second part of my reply to “Listener’s” recent comment.

Previously I replied to Listener’s view that followers of God will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God. Further, that “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” To this point I raised the importance of employing scepticism and suspicion, both defining them and then explaining the importance of suspicion.

In this post I want to go further, by putting scepticism and suspicion to work on Listener’s next point.  Her next comment was: “When a person receives something beautiful from the Lord, the enemy will move in quickly to cause them to doubt its authenticity (because his whole goal is to kill, steal and destroy) and if he can do this through the voice of other Christians, it is far more effective in shutting down moves of the Spirit than someone who does not claim faith. That is why it is crucially important for each and every one of us to be very, very careful with the hearts of our brothers and sisters.”

I understand the logic and plausibility of this view, and it has some correspondence with the parable of the sower that is attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 13, Mk 4, Lk 8). Yet here, too, scepticism and suspicion must be at play.

Recall: scepticism addresses the opacity of facts while suspicion addresses the duplicity of persons.1

So on the level of the facts, scepticism asks: Who says that something is either “beautiful” or is “from the Lord”? On what basis can these claims be substantiated (or, what is the truth value of such truth claims)? On the level of persons, suspicion asks: What else might be going on here? What does the claimant stand to gain by making this claim (or lose if they don’t)? Such questions become more prominent the more the link between the facts and the claims seems weak or incoherent.

Now part of the difficulty in treading this ground is that Christians have never, to my knowledge, systematized claims about experiencing God in the same way that they have systematized, in their theology, claims to information about God.

In other words, knowing God through relationship and knowing about God through the Bible have received very different treatment over the history of Christianity. Yet, ironically, so many Christians want to claim—and seem to base their Christianity upon—the importance of specific, personal experiences with / from God (in the form of answered prayer, providential acts of divine intervention, etc.).

To be clear, I am not advocating theology instead of experience. Actually, I want to redress the overwhelming disparity between the two: to situate them in their proper relationship, which is theology with experience. I believe that at least three basic steps are required to right the relationship between the Bible and experience, between factual knowledge about God and personal / relational knowledge of God.

First, in addition to providing information about human beings and limited information about the natural world, the Bible points to God and explains who God is, how God acts, and what God seeks. As such, experiencing God is theological where it is the natural outcome of a God who acted, and continues to act, so as to seek ongoing relationship with humanity.

Second, experience is not simply the interpreted events or situations of a single person but, in Christianity, experience is essentially corporate. This is because testimony, as the credible accounts of others, is essential in order for people to come to relationship with God or to strengthen existing relationship with God.

So Christianity depends on others sharing their experiences of God yet, because this experiential content also informs us about God’s character and manner of relating (literally, it further informs us who God is relative to human beings), it is essential that Christians are not deceived in what they accept or deceptive in what they share. To this end, the Bible contains numerous warnings about false teachers, false prophets, and wrong teaching. And make no mistake: when we claim special interaction with God (and especially, when we conclude specific things about God on the basis of this interaction) we are indeed taking the role of teacher and potentially, prophet.

Third, given the necessarily theological character of experience and essential nature of testimony, Christians need to cultivate personal ‘exegesis’ on the same level as textual exegesis: Christians need to become equally skilled at ‘reading themselves’ as they do at reading the Bible. This is not to put the two on the same level but to affirm that both are complimentary, as requisites toward attaining the same goal.

Next post I aim to wrap up this examination by considering Listener’s final point: what to do with Christians who seem to respond to our experiential claims with envy or disdain, and to consider our reasons for sharing our “exceptional” experiences.

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).

Experience vs. Description


Self-perception and self-care are huge.  And hugely problematic.

So a friend once asked me: “How do I reach someone who is so immersed in their story?  There is so much pain there, so much challenge with self-care.  Always defaulting to what others need: I wish for a key to unlock their potential.”

My first thought?  We are all immersed in our own stories.

The key is becoming consciously aware of that story, being aware of the options, and making the best choices among them.  Not everything in my own story is optional—I am male, of a certain age, from a certain family.  But how I view myself, how I treat myself, how I treat others (and allow them to treat me) are things that I can choose.

Now this is my challenge as well, although I am working with religious beliefs: how do I reach readers, Christian and non-Christian, who are immersed in a particular view of Christianity?

In this pursuit I begin with myself: Why do I want to reach readers?

Well, I am proposing “another Christian option” because my life has been transformed through this option—transformed by my experiences and understandings that stem from encountering God as love and truth—and I have fallen in love both with this God and with the self I am becoming in being loved by God (and loving God in return).

Really then, I write for me, and I do so because I cannot but write: I am filled with wonder, joy, peace, and goodness through this relation.  Yet because this state of being is excessively abundant I also write for others—for love of the love that I have.

So why not just talk about my experiences—why not “spill the beans” and be done?

Three reasons:

First, in order for personal sharing to cultivate life and not alienation there must be authentic relationship between parties.  In other words, openness requires trust.  Second, although my experiences were powerfully transformative they may not apply to everyone.  So by generalizing my experiences I broaden their application.  Third, experience alone was not sufficient for my transformation but was accompanied by new (and better) understandings of myself, my fellows, the earth, and God.

In the first instance, where my goal is to revel in the life that I have received and to propose that life to others, I must show that I actually know some true things about life!  As my mentor puts it, to be credible Christians must first prove that they are real people—that they live in the real world and can offer real solutions to real problems.  Christian platitudes—no matter how theologically accurate—are insufficient (and so untrustworthy).

Trust requires a way that does not alienate (a specialty of the evangelical church, sadly): it requires instigating and promoting dialogue.  Dialogue is essential because it a) not only lets the other be herself but encourages such, and b) understands that transformation is not submission of one’s intellect, will, etc., but embrace.  And this takes time.  Dialogue assumes a dialogue partner who is there for the duration of the discussion.

In the second instance, my orientation is not to prescribe a recipe (“do like me and it will all work out”) but to describe a path: I want to generalize my experience so that it can best be understood and appropriated.  To do so I cannot ask others to “be like me” but instead offer general possibilities and sketch general modes of being that others can embrace for and as themselves which may yet be better options—more true and beautiful—than what they had before.

In the third instance, because these new understandings apply to God and human existence, they find their best expression through a combination of theology and philosophy.  So in addition to understanding the Bible better (through sound interpretation and exegesis) we must examine and interpret life well, which is the domain of philosophical hermeneutics.