Love Research Needs a Definition
Research in science and religion captivates me. Adding the dimension of love to this research motivates me in powerful ways.
Making sense of life requires exploring science and religion with help from philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine answering well the big questions of life while ignoring any of the three.
We wonder, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “How did we get here?” “How do things work?” Ignoring religion, science, or philosophy when seeking to answer these questions leads to unsatisfying results.
Research on Love
For some time, I’ve been pondering love in light of religion, science, and philosophy. Other scholars have done some work in this area, but this work has not yet been well coordinated and raised to the general awareness in society.
Various theologians explore love, of course, and they offer theories to account for it. Scientists explore aspects of love too, although they rarely use the word. And a few philosophers address the topic.
At a recent International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) meeting in San Antonio, I gave a paper on love research in science, theology and philosophy. To my knowledge, no one else has framed the research as trialogue, in part because “philosophy” often participates unnamed in the conversation.
Consensus on What Love Is
I argued at the ISSR meeting that progress in love research requires scholarly consensus about what love is. In particular, we need a definition of love if work is to make headway and be conceptually coordinated. Without some consensus on what love is, how will we gauge the adequacy or importance of love research?
A good definition of love must be broad enough to account for its various dimensions and forms. Too narrow a definition will leave out what most of us intuitively if not consciously assume love to be.
But a good love definition must not be too broad. Too broad a definition would become virtually meaningless in its all-inclusiveness. A good love definition requires some specificity.
How I Define Love
In my presentation, I offered the following definition of love to ISSR scholars:
“To love is to act intentionally, in response to others (which, as I see it, includes God), to promote overall well-being.” (I also offer and explain this definition in my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement.)
My definition has the advantage of accounting for a wide swath of research pertaining to love, even research not explicitly so identified. Sociobiological work on altruism, for instance, can be understood, incorporated, and even critiqued by my definition of love. Psychological studies on attachment can be illuminated by the “in response to others” aspect of my definition and my emphasis upon well-being. Most theological work done on the meaning of grace and human responsibility also fits well. Philosophical work on virtue theory, ethics, and even metaphysics have a place. I could go on.
Most Love Definitions are Too Narrow
Scholarly literature reveals that most definitions of love are too narrow. For instance, some philosophers think of love as desire. But love simply as desire fails to identify the element of goodness, positivity, or well-being we typically associate with love.
Associating love with goodness is especially prominent in sacred texts (see its connection with shalom, blessedness, abundant life, or salvation).
Some social scientists define love too narrowly. They adopt popular love language and speak of love as romance or sex. This is especially common in the positive psychology literature.
But this view of love fails to account for the way romantically or sexually-based activity sometimes undermines positivity and goodness. Ask rape victims or victims of stalkers if they feel loved!
Some theological definitions are too narrow. Anders Nygren’s influential 20th century work on agape, for instance, defined genuine love entirely in terms of divine action. The result is a theological determinism that neither fits well the biblical witness but also fails to attribute genuine love to creaturely action.
We Need More Love Research
The more I ponder the love-related work already done in science, religion, and philosophy and the more I envision the work that could be done, the more excited I get about the future of love research!
The present work fascinates me, but the work I imagine allures and inspires! It adds meaning to a biblical phrase that already motivates me: “Live a life of love!” (Eph. 5:1b)
Thomas Jay Oord