Is Love an Irrational Mystery?

January 14th, 2010 / 27 Comments

The typical Christian seeks to honor God with his or her mind. Unfortunately, some consider love and reason hostile or at least incompatible. Such Christians think love is a mystery.

Christians rightly accentuate the role of the mind, reason, and rational consistency. To be unreasonable is to commit serious offense — although sometimes theologians feel obliged to do so. Most seek to avoid irrationality, however, if possible. Theologies based on folly pay a high price: eventual if not immediate confusion.

Unfortunately, some Christians think love is utter mystery. They interpret Blaise Pascal’s famous words, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” to mean love and reason are enemies. Some Christians will not subject love to the rule of reason.

At its best, however, love is reasonable. And it is logical to place love at the center of theology and work out the implications of such placement.

A coherent and illuminating theology of love need not choose between the intuitions of the heart and the life of the mind. “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, (Is. 1:18 NASB 95), for reason need not contradict the Lord of love.

Admittedly, following through with the logic of love can be unsettling. This logic may demand change in the theological status quo. Love is transformative. Some theologians unfortunately suffer a loss of nerve when the logic of love leads to ideas opposing conventional theology.

When Christians lose their nerve, they often appeal to mystery. Mystery, in this case, functions like a blank check on which a Christian writes whatever dogma she or he desires.

Mystery can also become an escape hatch allowing the Christian to wiggle out of the uncomfortable choices a theology of love requires. Appeal to mystery in these ways seems at worst disingenuous. At best, the appeal to mystery represents an implicit recognition more work has to be done.

The logic of love should prompt us to acknowledge that truth looms larger than we may imagine. Truth is not limited to what our five senses can verify. Love pushes us to affirm the presence of values, relationships, narrative, and beauty in the universe.

An adequate theology of love reminds us that accounting for the life we encounter compels us beyond the boundaries of what we typically deem suitable evidence. To love God with our heart and mind is to love that which sensory perception cannot grasp, even though nonsensory perception of God is fundamental to expressing love. To experience the love of God is also to experience that for which we cannot entirely account.

Of course, limited minds cannot grasp entirely a limitless God. The full truth about everything is bigger than our minds can fathom. Localized brains cannot account for the facts and forms of a wide, wild, and wonderful universe.

Mystery will always have a place in theology. While the logic of love does not appeal to the illogical, it cannot overcome all mystery whatsoever.

The mystery we rightfully embrace, therefore, accepts the work necessary to formulate a reasonable theology to account for the gospel of love that Jesus Christ reveals.

We must not invoke mystery when the theological row grows hard to hoe. Instead, mystery plays its proper role when we humbly admit we know in part but propose the supremacy and rationality of love nonetheless.  

In humility, I encourage Christians to offer hypotheses, theories, ideas, stories, and insights. In doing so, Christians should believe that some of our words and ideas do a better job proclaiming God’s love revealed in Christ, the Church, and the world.

In all this, we should seek to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s goal: “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19).

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Comments

Donald Minter

Alas, while you critique the ‘blank check’, you quickly then write one… I find that interesting…

“An adequate theology of love reminds us that accounting for the life we encounter compels us beyond the boundaries of what we typically deem suitable evidence. To love God with our heart and mind is to love that which sensory perception cannot grasp, even though nonsensory perception of God is fundamental to expressing love. To experience the love of God is also to experience that for which we cannot entirely account.”

And yes, as I have been hounding you about for some time, these discussions are difficult until you first tell us exactly what you mean by ‘love’.  Bothersome in my thinking that you resorted to the ‘blank check’ again…  :o)


Christopher Wiley

Tom,

Could you give an example of the logic of love upsetting the theological status quo?  I follow your argument and agree to the reasonablness of love—but you’re being a little mysterious with the specifics wink


Thomas Jay Oord

Don,

Thanks for your response!

You’re right to ask for a definition of love. That’s something I often scold others for not providing.  I have offered my definition in previous blog posts, but I should have offered it here too.

Here’s my definition of love:

To love is to act intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.

You can get a few more details on what this definition implies in one of the other blog posts in the “Love and Altruism” category.  A fuller explication comes in my forthcoming book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement.

As far as the blank check goes, I disagree that I am writing one.  I do affirm that we cannot know all of life.  And I affirm that we cannot understand love fully. We see through a glass darkly.

But appealing to a “blank check” is a way of saying one has absolutely NO reasons or rationale in their notion of love.  As my definition and my blog essay above show, I rely on reason and defend its essential place in theology.

Thanks again for your post!

Tom


Donald Minter

““An adequate theology of love reminds us that accounting for the life we encounter compels us beyond the boundaries of what we typically deem suitable evidence. To love God with our heart and mind is to love that which sensory perception cannot grasp”

So the check is not blank if it started with reason and then have to abandon it… Ok, but if you argue that, then it appears no one has written a blank check, for they too start with the ‘reasonable’ and then start writing checks when reason can no longer help them…  You’re squabbling over who started writing blank checks first…  LOL…  Nice article, but I still think you shot yourself in the foot by challenging the process of ‘blank checks’.  Better to have by-passed that one…  :o)


Bob Luhn

Reasonable or not, love in practice can become quite a challenge. Our church has been swamped with requests for rent, utility, and food assistance this winter. We struggle to sort out who we should help.My quiet time reading this morning included this: “love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything backThen… you will be sons of the Most High because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35) God’s kindness to the ungrateful epitomizes for me what love looks like in practical, everyday settings. This is only reasonable as a reflection of the character of God


Jack Holme

May I put it so the person in the pew would understand it, which is me. I think your definition is the ultimately the same as mine, but I just say it is “commitment”, agape. Then to “love God with all of your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind”, and to love your neighbor as yourself” is easy. No mystery. Just a choice. Because God is spiritual, we have no way initially to have feelings, no sensory perception, phileo, for Him. However, we can, and do make commitments by choice when we see the purpose, end result. In this case, it is the response to the revelation and drawing of the Holy Spirit, Acts 2:37-38. That is what really happens in repentance. Then we do have a sensory perception as a response from God by the Holy Spirit, of His commitment to us; also, Rom 8:16-17. For us to develop a sensory perception toward God takes time. It is by getting to know God as a Father through hearing or reading all about Him, and His Son, and experiencing His responses to our requests.

The same thing happens in the natural. I made a total commitment to my wife on our wedding day, for natural reasons, but it took several years for me to get to know her and build the bond that we have today (60+ years). That is “phileo”. Does this make sense, or have I missed the point.


Lance Pounds

I think you must give the mystery of love some respect, if for the simple reason that mystery appeals to our emotion. Logic seldom is more then a hard collection of facts and figures, and while the logic of love can redeem or affirm things already found, it takes the mystery of love to chase after things we do not have.


Blake Wenner

Lance I really like how you stated love as a factor we strive for because of its mystery. Its impossible to logically go about pursuing love. But things we love tend to just be things we cannot quite put our finger on that devour all our attention. From my experience, things and people I love are the those that I know little about and pursue them for just that. I also think that the most interesting things to do are not always the most logical.


Dan Smitley

Tom,

Your post seems to paint love as this abstract idea/feeling that is beyond sensory perception. Your personal definition of love, however, focuses on the idea of it being active. It seems there is some conflict with the first understanding focusing on an internal feeling and the second understanding focusing on external action. Could you comment (or point to a blog that you already wrote) about how acting intentionality to promote overall well-being (your working definition of love) is beyond sensory perception? Thanks!

-Dan


Thomas Jay Oord

Friends,

Thanks for your helpful comments!  I have learned from you.

Dan—My comment about love being beyond sensory perception is not about the consequences of the act itself.  Sometimes, the act and its consequences are perceptible (e.g., giving a cup of water).  Other times, they are not (saying a prayer in our minds). My main point, however, was that the decision and choice to love cannot, itself, be perceived by our five senses. We can infer the decision/choice by the consequences.  But we cannot actually perceive the decisions/choices themselves that others make.

Hoping that helps,

Tom


Arielle Askren

In my opinion it is definitely when people hide behind mystery, that it becomes a bad thing. I agree with the face that we should embrace the mystery and have it help shape a reasonable theology and opposed to letting it entirely dictate what a person believes. As Christians it is very easy to hide behind mysteries or ideas that merely sugar coat the actual question of faith. Instead of arguing we who believe in Jesus should work on uncovering the mystery of this love and allow it to change who we are… that is my thought on the matter.


Allea Meza

“The logic of love should prompt us to acknowledge that truth looms larger than we may imagine.” I like this quote. However I think you should capitalize ‘truth.’ This seems to be the center point of this blog- that we cannot easily say love’s mystery is this or that. It would be a mistake, however, if we gave up and gave a false, “feels good” answer; we must continue to question and wrestle its mystery with each other and ourselves until it is completely revealed to us through God, our “Truth,” comes. We see only in part until God’s perfect plan is fulfilled; in the meantime we strive for understanding through any means possible, even if it cannot be achieved through our tangible senses. Love’s complexity is so beautiful!


Allison Dietz

Love is mysterious. It cannot be seen or touched or fully grasped. I agree that mystery should not be used as a bridge to bypass a road block but I do not think that it should be completely thrown out either. Mystery is part of the charm of love. Without it love becomes another mathematical human equation. Love is beyond our finite knowledge. I agree with your definition of love and I think that Christians should each find a similar definition and unite the time and energy used to “solve” the mystery of love in a quest to act out that love as Christ did.


Kylie May

I feel like mystery is an essential part of theology. I think it is unfair to say that appealing to mystery is an escape hatch for Christians. Mystery is something that is necessary and inevitable in any theology because we are human and are limited, and thus will never be able to know everything.


Rob Uehlin

Allow me to oversimplify:  Love, like God, can either be explained or it can’t.  Those who believe the former, might call themselves Evidentialists-claiming that every belief must be supported by evidence.  The latter party, like Kierkegaard, believe that God (i.e. love) is essentially irrational (like when God commanded Abraham to kill his son, or told that one guy to drop kick the baby). 

As an Evidentialist, I believe that an explanation exists for every phenomenon-including love.  For example, recent studies have demonstrated that formerly “mysterious” aspects of romantic love can be understood as neuro-chemical processes. 

Therefore, If some aspects of love seem mysterious, I believe-rather than blame it on mystery-we should search for an explanation.

Side Note: I would be interested to hear anyone’s story of a time when love defied explanation.


Craig Wolfe

I relish the thought that love is a mystery. One way to approach this mystery of love is through God’s intentions for love (Of course this is merely speculation on my part). God created this universe in a way that humans can learn and discover new things that can bring joy. Our curious minds are a tool in which we can explore and uncover mysteries that have been intentionally placed within our understanding. 
As a consequence of our mysterious endeavors, we experience enlightenment and growth that will further our relationships with others (including God). Mysteries are a gift from God.


Brandon Gipson

Rob-
I am hesitant to claim love is nothing more than a nero-chemical process of the brain. It seems to me love would be devoid of meaning were your statement true.

I believe love obtains a lot of its meaning through it being a choice. If it is reducible to nothing more than brain function then it would follow that a person experiences love not by his/her own volition but as determined by his/her biological make-up. This is troublesome as it would mean relationships are nothing more than chance occurrence of two individual’s brain chemistry matching up at the right time. This would also mean that we cannot help but love those who we claim to love and that it would be possible to force anyone to love anyone through the manipulation of the appropriate chemicals.

I’m not saying that brain chemistry doesn’t play a large role when it comes to love, I believe it does, but I think there is some other metaphysical aspect to it as well.


Andrea Hills

Very interesting topic.  I agree that love is logical.  It has to be.  If love were a complete mystery then what would be the point?  I don’t believe that the core foundation of the Christian faith can be based on something mysterious.  I believe that when Jesus called us to love God and to love others that he had something more specific in mind.  However, I too will admit that love is not completely logical.  There is definitely still an element of mystery to it, but I believe that it is probably more often logical than mysterious.


Christina Uehlin

I must admit that I myself am guilty of blaming my theologies on mystery…partly because I believe God is mysterious and that his thoughts are way beyond my own.  But also because I don’t have the ultimate answers to what is love—and I won’t until I die.  It is difficult to combine love and reason especially when it involves personal experiences.  But, I agree that combining the two should continue to be attempted.


Preston Hills

Love is not irrational, but it is a mystery. For those who haven’t loved or felt the passion of love for themselves may feel the word love is merely a general term for a certain kind of feeling. As a Christian understanding that love is one of Gods defining attributes has allowed me to see love work throughout my life, and allowed me to love as well. Christianity and God is mysterious in general but, with faith in God love is possible, therefore it is not irrational.


Shelby Lindley

Kylie i really like how you talk about a mystery as a part of theology.  Mystery is in our everyday life we as humans are mysterious about anything and everything in our daily lives. Love to us is a mystery that we cannot comprehend as humans as like Kylie says we are limited as humans but we can put out all of the possibilities of love and theology.  Mystery makes us as humans expand as individuals and really think about different things in depth.  We must use mystery to discover new things with love.


Danielle Bowman

Are we not doomed to start? The last verse you use claims this love is unknowable… yet we should try to know it? Is the process rather than the destination what is important? I’m not fond of what Dr. Bankard calls a “God of the gaps” using mystery of God to fill holes in our understanding seems silly. When we find an answer can we simply say mystery solved or guess we didn’t need you God?
My favorite quote to date is this, “seek truth and doubt those who say they’ve found it.”
Maybe seeking truth and an understanding of God is more important than arriving.
I do not know how to love a God I do not know. I do not feel love for dkfsj, because to my knowledge they do not exist. I think one has to know God on at least some level, to love God.


Troy Watters

I think when we come up with our definition of love I think we should communicate stories that share what love means to us. Jesus didn’t go around giving definitions of love, instead he had parables. We are limited in our speech and sometimes a story or stories help clear up confusion. If I can’t form a sentence that says what love means, does that mean I don’t know what it means? Or can I share a story and an experience of what love means to me?


Jason Montgomery

I like thinking about love in a systematic and thoughtful manner.  It helps us realize how empowering love can (and should) be, and lets us think about our relationships with one another in a different manner as well.  We are able to truly appreciate the loving actions of others when we understand love in a rational, logical way.  In claiming that my parent’s love for me is simply an irrational, inexplicable phenomenon, I believe that I am detracting from their love in some manner.  Instead, I should thank them for their love, and understand it as an encouragement and affirmation of what is good about me.  The same should be true for all children and their parents – love is a rational, meaningful, empowering choice made every day.


Micah Campton

As I read through this interpretation of love, I was struck by the idea presented in the beginning of the passage: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” to mean love and reason are enemies. I would like to critique this phrase in the context in which it is presented (which I know may not be the actual, original context). I think that in this sense love and reason are not necessarily enemies, but rather vary in levels of compatibility based on a given situation. I think that certain types of love can cause irrational thoughts and actions (those of which can cause a person to lose perspective), but maintain their compatibility with reason, but (as I stated before) vary according to a particular situation. In fact, I would agree that without some level of reason, love cannot exist. And in its existence, we can discover truth about ourselves, our situation, or others.


Jake Bodenstab

This problem is difficult to settle due to the fact that “love” means various things to various people.  For some love is a mystery, it is the idea that there is something mystical and untouchable, but for other its the process of brain chemistry.  Arguing between the two theories can be trivial and I often find that it is best to let people enjoy their own options.


Steven Larrabee

I disagree with the idea that love is against logic and reason. Sure, emotions are up, down, and all over the place.  Emotions are hard to trust.  Love is more than emotion.  Love involves reason, logic, commitment, loyalty and many other things are more than emotion.  Emotions go against reason not love. Love and reason can go hand in hand.


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