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.

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

  1. Pingback: Love & "working" definitions - Another Christian OptionAnother Christian Option

  2. Excellent article – the idea of “relational” truth is lost upon some. I like to go back to the scripture “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. Knowing facts in our mind is not enough, we must actually encounter truth for ourselves, relationally, in Jesus Christ. To “know” is the grk. ginosko, which in other passages is the word for sexual intimacy. “knew not his wife”. Likewise, love must be experienced in order to be fully known – If you have read the book or seen the movie, “the Giver”, you will know what I mean.

    • Hi Chad,

      This post is the most recent in a series (in fact, in a cluster of related series) and so you’re right, the notion of relational truth needs explaining. If you only want the bare minimum on relational truth, this post and particularly this post are where to go (but be advised: they are each part of their own series). Sorry for any confusion.

      I really agree with your point that, when it comes to Christianity, knowing facts is important but distinct from familiarity with persons, through relationship (especially familiarity with God). I also appreciate your use of ginosko in the sense of sexual intimacy, as I find that English verbs aren’t as helpful for the sense of relational knowing that applies to one’s interaction with God (i.e., being “familiar” with someone seems too weak). So I think that I make use of French verbs in one of those posts that I linked, above. And your point about love needing to be experienced in order to be known / understood (I might even say, to be internalized and re-given / reciprocated) is one to which I’m pretty sympathetic: thanks for highlighting this.

      If you have time and interest, I’d appreciate your feedback on the linked posts on relational truth. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *