Explaining Love to an Alien

June 27th, 2014 / 73 Comments

Suppose an alien from Planet X leaned over the counter at Starbucks and asked, “What is this ‘love’ I hear spoken of on your planet?”

If you’re a relatively young person, the first thoughts racing across your mind may be Haddaway’s music and lyrics, “What is love? (Baby don’t hurt me!)”

If you’re from a previous generation, Foreigner’s lyrics may come to mind, “I wanna know what love is. And I want you to show me.”

Unfortunately, of course, those lyrics don’t help much when it comes to defining love. They simply ask the question. Your alien inquirer needs something more if she’s to understand love. And let’s suppose she has plenty of coffee and time to listen to your answer.

Love is a Many SPLINTERED Thing

To begin, let’s admit that our language is unlikely to capture fully what we mean by love. Although useful, language has its limits.

But we rely upon language to communicate. And despite its limits, it seems at least somewhat helpful. So let’s talk with our alien inquirer.

One option for defining love is simply to describe what people may mean each time they use the word. Take these examples:

“I love the Seattle Mariners.”

“I love my puppy.”

“I love God.”

“I love a man in uniform.”

“I love peperoni pizza.”

Our alien inquirer will quickly see the problem with this approach. We use “love” to describe our responses to so many things. Listing all of the instances may take a lifetime!

Besides, we mean something different when we say, “I love my impoverished neighbor” and “I love that girl’s emerald-green eyes.” The “love is whatever it seems to mean, given the circumstances” approach fails to inform our alien inquirer.

A similar but more scholarly approach is to describe the history of how the word “love” has been used.  Philosopher Irving Singer’s multi-volume work, The Nature of Love, is perhaps the most comprehensive in this approach.

Irving traces major philosophers, cultural shifts, understandings of romance and marriage, and more. Noticeably absent in Irving’s work, however, is much mention of love as a religious or theological category.

Irving’s work, although a fascinating work of descriptive analytic philosophy, will likely leave our alien inquirer unsatisfied. History can be interesting. But as we read how “love” has been used, we naturally wonder what might unite these diverse notions. Love may be a many splendored thing, but its meanings are splintered in various ways!

If love is more than arbitrary word, we owe it to our alien inquirer to do more than mention every instance in which humans have used the word “love.”

Love may be a many splendored thing, but its meanings are splintered in various ways! Share on X

The Archetypes of Love

A more common approach to understanding love is to seek general love categories. Love takes many forms, and these forms seem to fall under several archetypes.

Philosopher Alan Soble specifies what he and most scholars consider the three primary love archetypes. Soble refers to the ancient Greek words: agape, eros, philia.  Nicholas Wolterstorff also identifies three forms of love, and they roughly correspond to the meaning of the three Greek words Soble mentions: love as benevolence, love as attraction, and love as attachment. Literary scholar C. S. works from these same categories, referring to “gift-love” (agape), “need-love” (eros), friendship love (philia). He adds a fourth: affection (storge).

The attempt to place love into several major categories is laudable. And our alien inquirer may start to gain clarity.

But the work to categorize love into archetypes suggests that something unites the archetypal categories. It may be that philosopher John Armstrong is right when he says, “love doesn’t have an essence we can uncover.” But just after claiming love has no essence, Armstrong says, “it has, rather, a set of themes that interact differently in different instances of love.”

So… how do we know when we encounter an “instance of love,” to use Armstrong’s phrase? Doesn’t this suggest we presuppose some uniting essence or core notion?

Toward A Normative Definition of Love

In my research, I’ve discovered four general ways of understanding love.

One way focuses on desire and intentionality. Let’s call it “the desire understanding of love.” This approach draws from Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Neo-Platonic tradition.

The desire understanding of love thinks love is desire that motivates action. Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: “every agent, whatever it be, does every action from love of some kind.” This approach tends to talk about proper or improper loves. Or it talks about virtuous love or love deformed. The essence of love, from this perspective, is desire.

The second way focuses on relationality. Let’s call it “the relational understanding of love.” This approach is less common historically, but it is growing in popularity, as relational approaches to metaphysics seem to many more plausible.

The relational understanding of love says the reciprocity inherent in any relationship is itself love. Philosopher Charles Hartshorne uses the phrase “life sharing” to define love as mutuality. Hartshorne says, “love means realization in oneself of the desires and experiences of others, so that one who loves can in so far inflict suffering only by undergoing this suffering himself.” (Hartshorne uses the classic word, “suffering,” here in the way we’d use “relational” today.)

The third way to understand love focuses on feelings. This “feeling understanding of love” is common among psychologists. From the scholarly literature, however, it is difficult to ascertain what this feeling precisely entails. For this reason, the feeling understanding of love may simply describe the emotional content of the desires or relationships of the one loving.

The fourth way focuses on positive results. Or at least it says positive results are the intention of the one doing the loving. Let’s call this “the well-being understanding of love.”

In the well-being understanding, the lover is motivated to promote good. Gary Chartier defines love in the well-being sense when he says love is “a positive orientation on the other.” The essence of love, according to this understanding, is promoting the good.

The essence of love, according to this understanding, is promoting the good. Share on X

My Definition of Love

For a number of reasons, I prefer the fourth understanding of love. But I think the other understandings provide necessary components to a normative definition of love. For this reason, I define love in this way:

“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.”

I use the phrase “to act intentionally” to take into account the desire aspect of love, which I think always accompanies those actions we rightly deem loving. I use the phrase “in sympathetic/empathetic response to others” to taking into account the relational/mutuality aspect of love, which I think is always present when we love.

The phrase “promote overall well-being” is the main object of the sentence, because in my mind the essence of love is promoting what is good. I’ve inserted “overall” into this statement on well-being, because I want to account for personal well-being, social well-being, ecological well-being, and more.

Of course, I could and should say more about each aspect of my definition. I didn’t even explain why I’ve inserted the theological phrase, “(including God),” in my definition. I explain my definition further in my books, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement and The Nature of Love: A Theology.

So… back to our inquiring alien from Planet X. If asked at Starbucks what love is – and I didn’t have an hour to explain what I’ve written above – I might sing a (slightly altered) line from a Paul McCartney song:

“my love does … good!”

To love is to act intentionally, in response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being. Share on X
Add comment


Todd Holden


what do you think of this definition for love?

Love is…

unconditionally accepting/valuing another and an intentional adoration of that same person

Thomas Jay Oord


There are several aspects to that definition I like. I like the intentionality aspect and the valuing part. I wish the definition said something clearly about what I call promoting well-being. But the first thing that jumped out at me was the definition’s failure to account well for love of self.

Ben Duarte

“Its only love and that is all”….“and its all you need” The Beatles

Kristina Wineman

I think this blog brings out a situation that is often seen in the world but many Christians don’t realize it is a reality. It is important and even vital to understand that this situation occurs daily. Even though we don’t have aliens on this planet, there are “aliens” to Christianity. Paul even mentions this in Ephesians and it is also found in Hebrews and other books of the Bible. We are considered Aliens of this world. So what does that make non-believers to us? Just like when we see people who have a British accent, they see us with an American accent. Being a non-Christian is foreign, alien, to us Christians. As a children’s Pastor many of the theological terms I have grown up with are concepts that I have to bring into terms for a non-believer and new believer. It is something, I think, everyone ought to know how to do, for we are called to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28). Part of making disciples is knowing how to talk to non-Christians about God. That means making our big words and terms into something a non-believer would understand.

Daniel Parker

First I must admit that I probably would be one of the first people in the Starbucks to burst out into “what is love?” and second I think that trying to explain love to a being that does not understand it is about as hard as it is to try and explain love to a robot or justice for that matter. Neither of these two words have a set definition that can be fully comprehended.

James Shepherd

This is an interesting article. I think it is important for us to know what love is, as well as what it means, before we carelessly continue to use it. I say this because we are to love and show love to the world. This can only be done if we know what love is. As Christians we are to be a light unto the world, showing them love. Not just the love we carelessly use, but the Love Christ has shown to us. In this since much of the world would be alien (Yes, I am saying that those who do not know Christ are alien to the idea of love). I think this is important for us to think through, especially if we are to show love to those who are around us.

Amina Chinnell-Mateen

I think this is all to much a concept that people don’t think too much through. I think that the concept of love has a wide variety and you do an awesome job of explaining for the different sources of that love.  To be intentional with one another I think is the way to show proper forms of love but also remembering that God is a part of that concept in relationship that we move out towards other people.  Explaining love in the long run is a very hard and difficult thing I to define. I believe that everybody has her own concept and understanding of what that looks like and how to embrace it fully. In an effort to not make a robotic definition I think we should think through all the forms the definitions and apply a greater platform. Second to that I think in order to make it clear what love is we have to remember the audience as such is the alien that is in the Starbucks model might not understand love in the same way that we do.

Amina Chinnell-Mateen

I think the definitions you have set out here for love are very intriguing and interesting. The one that applies mostly to my understanding of the word love is by far the intentional definition giving it to God and giving it to other people. This reminds us that love isn’t just one-sided it has multiple sides. I believe it is our responsibility as Christians to be able to share the concept of love with others, but the theological definitions we use will be defined differently for each person.  We must understand that different people come from different contextual backgrounds and may not understand the same as us. In a sense I think that there are different types of “aliens” in the world but we must learn how to embrace them.  for a nonbeliever this can be a scary thing having to learn what something they’ve never heard of actually is or we understand it to be. We are all at different levels of understanding so we must be clear and consider and embrace all people.

Nick McCall

Dr. Oord,

This idea of love is interesting in our world today. In the beginning of this post you mentioned that we have a major language barrier with communicating love. I feel that I am unable to communicate love to you in the way that I understand it because language does not allow me. Love may look different to each person because each person has experienced love in different ways. We use the word love in various contexts and maybe we should be more careful about throwing this word around. Ultimately love is God, right? When we are curious about love we should look to God to help us define what love is and what it looks like in the world.

Lisah Malika

A song that can also come to mind is “what’s love got to do with it” by Tina Turner, or the LOVE song by Nat Cole.

I think love is a difficult word to describe. I am certain that if we were to take the time to scan the history of songs, we would find that a multitude ask the same question: What is love? Perhaps in our attempts to try and understand what love is, we are actually saying that we don’t know what love is. I never knew this until recently that there are many types of love. This idea would make sense because my love for pizza would not be in the same category as my love for God. Because there are a variety of loves, I have to believe that there is an ultimate reality to the meaning of love. In my opinion, that reality is Christ; the fourth definition is the best option presented.

Derek Hunt

“the essence of love is doing what is good.”
What if what is good I see as loving myself? I think love can be a dangerous thing. It can be dangerous because, when folded back on itself, into a self-seeking love, intending only to promote the “well-being”,  “feeling”, “relational” and “desire” approaches to loving, can lead to a brutally numbing death. Love is good in the ways it was intended to be good,just like anything else I suppose. But love, especially love, can be used in ways that are destructive to oneself. I believe much of the understanding of love today has been entangled with words like “entitlement” and “indolence”, leading people away from love’s selfless, active, role in our world.

Angela Monroe

I find this article challenging. On the one hand, I do not think it is possible to define love. On the other hand, I think part of the reason why it is impossible is because of the poor ways the word “love” is used in English. In many other languages, there are different words for the four definitions given. Thus, there is no confusion on which of these definitions is actually “love.” I truly wish that the English language had different words for “I love her sweater” and “I love my husband.” I do not think anyone would say these are the same “love,” and I wish that we had separate words for them. However, since we do not, I struggle with trying to define this word, “love.” Although I agree with the definition you give at the end, it then poses the question, what about these other types of love? I do not believe that I would act intentionally towards someone’s sweater if I “loved” it. I understand that is not necessarily what this post is getting at, but I truly wish our English language could explain more. That way, “love” could be defined more easily to an alien in Starbucks.

Valerie Wigg

I did, in fact, think of Haddaway’s “What is love?” Every time that question is asked it is inevitable… Anyway, I enjoyed reading this post. I once preached to a group of teens that I work with about the words in which we use and how we use them. I talked about this “silly-nilly” use of the word “love” that is used to describe, say, my love for ice cream or my love for taking naps (I do love naps). The teens understood what I was getting at and concluded that love is presented holistically—in what we say, do, and even think. I believe that understanding of love fits well with the fourth perspective of love in that it seeks “overall well-being.” I also feel it is important to be all inclusive when talking about well-being (like you said: social, personal, ecological, etc.). A tendency of mine is to claim that sometimes love cannot always be explained in words but is rather lived out. So rather than trying to explain over coffee what love is, although I enjoy coffee, I would simply say, “watch this.”

Oscar Diaz

Though Aliens are not part of society, I can imagine how people may have a similar question proposed from members in our society, what is love and how can we practice love? I feel that the final definition you propose is very helpful, The phrase “promote overall well-being” i believe gets at what it really means to love yourself, God, and others. Christians need to worry about the promotion of the overall well-being of all.

Rebekah L.

I think that we often don’t take the time to reflect on the meaning of love. For me, love has always been something that I felt, or something that I shared with others. But thinking about how foreign love might be for someone who has no concept of it brings me to think about those that have no concept of God’s love. As a missionary, this makes me consider how I spread the Gospel and reach out to those that have never experienced the hope and love of Christ. I must think about how to describe to an unbeliever the loving God that I follow and how that love transforms their entire being. This blog post reminds me of the importance of thinking about the implications of love and living it out in my everyday life.

Connor White

This very inquiry, “what is love” and the issue we have linguistically and pragmatically that we have with the word “love” in our culture has come up over and over again lately in my studies and experiences. We have a “love” problem. I really like your definition Dr. Oord, that love must be intentional, in RESPONSE to God and others, and promoting good. I think, as you have said, we could dive deeper into all those elements but for us to have a foundation understanding of love where we can discern our beliefs and actions up against is very helpful. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the greatest example of love, on that is intentional, responds to God and others, and promotes good.

Rachel Ball

I think it is important to begin telling our alien friend WHO love is before we tell him how to love or what love feels like. If we describe the scene in which Jesus Christ took on the sins of all and was tortures upon an ancient murder device, the alien might understand the weight of love. He might see that love is a selfless act and that it is deep and personal. In order for our alien friend to actually understand love, he must understand the creator of love.

Thomas Tilford

Dr. Oord,

I think you give a good and helpful definition of love. It seems though that it more describes what love does and rather than what love is. I think in term of what looks like in “doing” you hit the mark, yet I think it might need some more stuff added to it. Of course I guess you would never be able to right enough to fully understand love (Unless you fully capture love in your book wink

Kaitlyn Haley

Within our definition of love I think it is important to reserve space for love that may not be mutual. This is the issue I have with the relational understanding of love. I we limit love to a sense of mutuality then God cannot truly love love the whole world because the world does not always love God. If love is defined in terms of mutuality then I cannot love my enemy as Christ commanded me because my enemy does not love me in return. In this sense, Biblically it is far better to think of love in terms of seeking well being because it reserves this space for a love that may perhaps be one sided, but is not easily broken nonetheless.

Ryan O’Neill

There are multiple things that I could say on this topic of love. I agree with the fact that love is very hard to communicate for multiple different reasons, whether it be because of a language barrier or differing ways of communication of the word. Either way, I don’t think there is a single way of communicating love. There are so many variables of what love is to people and what it means to them that I almost feel like it is impossible to truly narrow down what love is. It is tossed around in many different contexts, and I’m not sure I really know what the real one is. Our human interpretation of what love is has changed a lot, so I feel like the best thing we can do is just rely on the idea of love that we receive from Christ. Overall, great post.

Taylor Gould

This article interests me because in my opinion, love is not something that has a universal meaning. I’d imagine that everyone has their own way/own idea of how to explain what they think it is, and that is the beauty of it. Now, because of this, it would be hard to give a definitive answer to this alien’s question. I really think that summarizing it as an ‘equal yearning to promote well-being in someone’s life’ is the best way to describe it. Love happens with people that can make your life better just by being in it. This way, it can cover all forms of love from family, to friends, to pets, etc.

Andy Yue

I noticed that in the “Oord definition of Love”, the most basic thing is really the intention. I personally think this is a very unique view because often times people think Love is a curtain kind of result or the process of achieving the curtain kind of result. On top of intention, action is also required for Love according to the definition.
I really like this definition; however, I do have one question with it. Seems like the definition define Love as “responses”, in another word, Love is caused by “others (include God)”. I just wonder if there is any chance that love can be caused by oneself instead “others (include God)”?

Noelle Parton

This post caused me to try and create my own definition of love and what my reply would be to the alien. I agree that love has to be intention, and that it is a choice, and that it has to do with promoting well-being. I think another important component to love is the idea of doing this no matter the circumstance. It’s choosing to promote the well-being of someone who may not necessarily deserve it or that may not return the same to you.

Tawni Palin

I agree with your definition of love being “to act intentionally.” I am in a “romantic” relationship and was asked by one of my friends whether or not I “fell in love” with him. I thought about this for a very long time and came to the conclusion that no I didn’t… I choose to love him. I choose to be there for him with everything I can. And I feel that same way about my relationship with Christ as well. I choose to love the Lord, my God, with all my heart, soul and mind.

Shantay Perry

I think that you have defined love well, however I agree with many who have commented that love is difficult to define. Our society uses love in many different ways. I do believe that there are different definitions of love, but I don’t think that one definition can define all that encompasses “love.” I think that the way individuals view love is also based on their experiences in life and their journey with God. Some have been hurt by love and others feel that they don’t know how to love. I wonder if God meant love to be a term used so frequently and so easily to describe anything from a favorite food to the person you are spending the rest of your life with. When you ask people to define love, it is usually difficult for people, because how do you explain that you love your dog, your husband, and God to a stranger? Do you love them in the same way. Most likely not. Therefore, I honestly don’t know how I would describe love in one definition. I do think that one aspect of love is to promote overall well-being.

James Shepherd

First off, I should say that I do not think that people can know how to love properly or what love is without knowing that God first loving them. Even with this it is still difficult to describe what love is. I agree with your definition of love, because I think we can only reflect or magnify the love that was first shown to us. The question then arises whether every form of love we can express or receive is really love, or whether really understand what love is? I have found that the three Greek words for love (agape, eros, philia) helps us to not only begin to explain what love is, but also begin to address the ways in which it is possible for us to love. While I believe that the definition of love is deeper and more complex then this, it is something we are going to have think long and hard about. I firmly believe that if we are going to continue to use the term love we should know what it means.

Lexi Sterling

I loved this article. Oh… This article certainly helped me to realize my overuse, or misuse, of the word love. I frequently say I love things like iced tea, my bed, snacks, or sleeping… and while I do really enjoy those things or activities, the word love may not quite be the right word to best demonstrate my feelings. I don’t feel like we need aliens on our planet to relate to what you are saying here, because I myself don’t even fully grasp what love is (or how to even properly use the word sometimes), and often also feel lost at trying to grasp the idea in general. I think this article was especially important because it shined a light on various definitions of love that can then aid one in being able to better love… and that’s important.

Kamerron Monroe

If an Alien approached me and asked me what love is I would tell it to take me to it’s home planet and throw me into his world for a couple of years, because love is all these things; time consuming, confusing, scary, different depending on where you are and at times an alien idea. Also you need to fully immerse your self in love/Alien culture and experience it to understand it. Ive lived a little over two decades and I’m still not sure how to define love but I do know what it feels like and what love is when I see it: a highly illogical conundrum. I like how Dr. Oord broke it down into categories, this helps to make defining love not so overwhelming. I like your definition but i feel like your definition “TO love” only explains the verb of loving. When I look at my son I know he is Love (noun), your definition doesn’t fully explain that.

Kara Den Hoed

I think that before laying a heavy, deeper than surface level, definition or idea of love on the alien, I would first want to ask it a question. Because our society uses “love” so flippantly (for the most part), I would first ask where and when it heard the word love. Otherwise, I would be explaining this deep meaning of what I think love means and confuse the alien if all he had to go off of was hearing a girl in Starbucks say, “I love coffee.” From there I would probably explain different ways people might use the word love and then go on to explain what I actually think it means and should be used for. As for that part, I have not completely decided what my definition is, but I really like idea that love, as an action, has to have good intention behind it. I think that is a must.

Kristen Loper

Can one define love to someone, even an alien when one does not love oneself? I think to truly know yourself and to see what your Creator has made and not pick it apart but value ALL(good , bad and ugly) parts is the ability to love oneself. If you can love yourself then I believe you can expand the value you have for self to valuing others though your actions with the same importance. I believe that intention plays most in love.

Cassidy Ball

What would I say to an alien about love? Honestly I wouldn’t know how to sum it up without giving an entire speech. This post provokes a lot of self-reflection on what I believe love is and how I would explain it. I like how you define love as an intentional act. There really isn’t a way that we can truly love someone on accident. It is a personal choice. But when it comes to loving those who don’t necessarily want our love or even to those we choose to love when we don’t want to (such as enemies or criminals) would the sympathetic/empathetic part of your definition be correct? Maybe I don’t understand exactly what you are stating in that but I am just thinking out loud here. There are so many different meanings and types of love that it can be hard to encompass them all. I think this definition is a great overall summation of what we believe love to be. I would definitely tell that to an alien.

Cali Carpenter

From a human standpoint or even an alien standpoint, I think all people deeply question love and what it truly means. It was interesting to me to read your four ways to define love because I have never heard it explained in clear terms before. Love seems to be ambiguous to many people and is often open for interpretation. I do believe that love is different for each person and can vary for different circumstances, but I see love following along the lines of the phrase you used “promote overall well-being.” If we are doing things through love and acting in a loving way, we will be promoting the overall well-being of ourselves and everyone else around us.

Allison Christy

I greatly enjoyed this post for multiple reasons, the most important of these being the guest appearance of an alien. Besides the fact that anything extraterrestrial catches my attention by default, what I think the alien emphasized in this scenario is just how tricky and even arduous a task it is to define human expression (with the greatest of these being, of course, love)…and that’s from a human standpoint. Despite advancements in technology and science that have in many cases greatly improved the quality of human life, the answers to the many questions regarding one of the most fundamental human facets–love–remain as elusive as always. It is interesting to think that love is a “feeling” or “emotion” or “experience” that the entire human race shares, yet is a concept so hard to clearly define.

Connor Magnuson

While reading this article, my sports mind drew a connection between the task of trying to explain the definition of love to an alien and trying to define what a completed pass is in football. There have been several instances in the NFL when a receiver has (from what most fans/experts believe) caught a pass from the quarterback, but instead, by the definition of the rules, the call on the field was an incomplete pass. Most of the observers of the situation could see and even feel that this was a catch but the action simply did not fall under the specific definition of the rule. I think defining love is a lot the same as defining a catch in football. Sometimes you just know when something exists and you can sense it, but you cannot simply put it into worlds; we cannot easily agree on an all-inclusive definition of love. For the most part. however, people will agree on if something is love or not based on specific examples of displaying love. I would tell the alien to play catch with me for awhile and maybe he will experience not only what a proper catch is, but possibly even his first love. . . . .of football.

Linnea Phillips

First off, I think it’s extremely important to recognize how language limits our ability to form a concrete definition regarding love, especially when explaining “love” to someone from a different culture. Not only does our culture affect how we describe love, but I believe that our personal experiences significantly impact how we practice and perceive love. However, I do believe that the definition Dr. Oord has provided gives us a basic foundation in which we can build on. In summary, I think they are multiple ways to communicate love and I think, as Christians, we must be open to how other people define love

melissa verhage

One of the hardest parts to explaining love to this alien would definitely be trying to distinguish the different types of love and how they are used. I really like the definition you give of love saying that it is “to promote the overall well-being of others” and that it is about ones motive behind the act to determine if it is a loving one. But it is hard when the alien hears someone say, “I love my coffee” to explain that because buying that coffee is a self-serving motive, it is not a bad one but the definitions get confusing here. That is why when I would explain love to an alien I would have to explain this simpler meaning and then a deeper meaning as well.

Kendra Wilson

In response to this blog post and also our discussion in class the one thing I can reflect is that love is complicated. I don’t want to mean complicated in a bad way but complicated because there are many things to consider. It scares me a little because with all things considered I wonder if I have really loved when I thought I loved or has it been something else. It also makes me double think about everything I do or say to make sure that it is always coming from a place of love. I am really excited about this class and what all we have to learn about love!

Matti Munger

his was a very interesting blog post because of how it began. It started with a scenario that made you critically think about how you would explain love to someone who had never heard of the word. Since this scenario is so rare, if even possible, it is something that I had never thought I would need to think about the definition so seriously. I think that a lot of the definitions stated above leave things out or are too broad but Dr. Oord’s definition was very thought provoking. There isn’t really anything left to criticize with his definition because it is so clear and concise, which is why I like it. Empathetic is my favorite word in his definition because empathy is the main way that I, personally, show my love for others. I am one of those people that almost feels too much of what others are feeling when they tell me about their lives, or when I watch a movie, so I really like that that word is in the definition. A good rounding of all of these different explanations that we have read about in our books and in this blog of love are the best way to truly understand what love is.

Sara Wittkopf

Trying to explain love to an alien requires more than just one solid definition. Love isn’t just motivation or action. Love is a feeling and I believe that if you have never felt love that it will be impossible to try and explain it or understand it. The other piece of information that these definitions are missing is that love is also connected to other feelings, some positive and some negative. Love can be an independent feeling but it rarely is. Love is connected with happiness and warmth when the loved one is near; grief if a loved one is lost, a sense of longing if the loved one is away, etc. There are so many aspects of love that are impossible to comprehend unless you have truly felt love. It is not a definition, love is an experience and that is important to include.

Tyler Mahaffy

It is an interesting question, and one to truly ponder on how to answer it. After, we are dealing with a being who grew up on a different world, where there existence is possibly far different from our own, which means they grew up with different laws, beliefs, as well as concepts. There are many ways to answer the question, but the true question is, which is the best answer, and how do we answer correctly, as well as explain it correctly. I found the quote of Thomas Aquinas to be very interesting. To me, it does make some sense. The third and fourth ways of understanding love are also interesting, when you think about it. But I mostly agree with Oord’s response to the question. “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.” His definition, in my opinion is both a good and reasonable answer.

Michael Gordon

I think love is something that has become very desensitized in our society today and a lot of people no longer can express their true meaning of love fully because we use the word love so much. It goes back to the phrases such as I love my dog, or I love summer. We do love these things, but we don’t love them as much as love for my wife or my family. We just use it as another term that relates to joy or delight. I delight in summer or I take joy in playing basketball. When I say that we can’t fully express our true love because we are desensitized meaning that when we say we love someone, that person won’t always be able to interpret your statement. They may understand that you love them, but if they see how much one uses the word love, then the meaning behind it might be diminished.

Allie Kroeger

I am still wrestling with your definition of love, just as I did in class last night. If that really is what love is, I can’t help but wonder if I am living it out right. Is it really possible that as I love I am contributing to the overall well-being of the entire world? That in each moment it is possible to do something that feels that huge? It seems scary and hopeless. But I really like what you said about loving that way means to choose the best choice in that moment. That really struck me. I also agree with the thought from this blog post that every action comes from a form of love. Everything that we do has purpose, and every purpose has to have at least an ounce of love behind it somewhere. I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion throughout the semester and am already so intrigued by the content of this course.

Michae delie

I think the title says it best. Explaining love to an alien. And the reason why i believe this title is so fitting is because i feel we are all foreign to the idea when it comes to talking about love and defining love. It is a very mysterious thing, this love is. I mean we all grasp the general concept and how we feel towards people. But feelings are very difficult to define, i like how it was broken up into 4 ways that love works. And my very favorite part was hearing that love transcends just a physical well being. It is a very interesting reading to do on love, it has always seemed an extremely mysterious concept, unable to be understood. But the more i read on philosophers and their ideas, the more i develop my own understandings.

Matthew Silva

There is one thing that I would have to consider carefully before answering the alien’s question that seems to be overlooked in a lot of discussions about love. That is, what question am I really answering? If he asks, “What is Love?” and I answer with what I think love SHOULD be, I have not answered his question. I he is trying to make sense of the use of a particular word in the English language, then an extended theological/philosophical dissuasion will probably no be very helpful. In giving a thoughtful answer to his question, I would have to explain that there are multiple meanings and uses for a single word. “Love” is different depending on the context. The word “love” in the phrase “I love pizza” does not mean the same thing as love in the context of a parent-child relationship. But I do think that there is a common theme to all of these various uses. It seems to me that no matter what the context, at its most basic level, Love is a value judgment.

Rachel Finley

I’m pretty sure, before this class, if someone asked me to define love, I would have said, it is when you really really like something or someone. This is probably the same definition you would get from a 3rd grader, so I am extremely grateful to be taking this class so hopefully by the end of the semester I will sound more educated than that. My personal belief on love might change by the end of this class, but at this point and time, I think that love is different for everyone. It’s hard for me to sum love up into one definition because I don’t believe, as obviously shown from all these comments, that love is the same for us all. Everyone is raised differently, meaning the way you give and receive love is unique to the way that I give and receive love. One’s ability to love and the capacity for how much love they can hold is based on their mindset and attitude towards life. Also, as we discussed in class yesterday, love is a little different between most cultures. Just because wouldn’t receive it as love doesn’t mean that someone else won’t. Basically, I am saying that the definition of love is subjective for all.


I like your definition the most so far out of any definition of Love I’ve seen in class so far. I agree with you that love needs to be intentional and should promote overall well-being. Self love is just as important as loving others, sometimes even more important, so your definition gives a good base for a definition of love. I would still struggle though trying to explain this or any definition of love to anyone. Our language is so limited and love is so personal that it is different for each person.

Kevin Field

I really enjoyed the conversation we had in class about the various approaches one might take when defining love and I think Dr. Oord’s definition really does a good job at tapping into the important qualities of love. I think intentionality is one of the more pertinent elements and I like how it really shifts the definition into a personal standpoint. In order to discuss love we must have an honest appreciation for the various motives people have, even when the consequence do not align. Learning to define love has really challenged me to come to my own understanding of the word and utilize it more intentionally as well as become more observant of love itself (the emotional and experiential aspects). Ultimately, Dr. Oord’s definition will give this female alien a good framework to begin with, but I would suggest that she does not simply accept it to be true but tries applying it to her experience and lets the definition come alive with the power of love itself. Shalom!

Rachel Ball

You mentioned it briefly, but I would like to expand on the fact that we may be able to better show this alien what love is. As proven in class, we can talk and talk and talk about love and never really come to a firm definition. (although, we have your definition now thanks to this class!) However, showing an alien what it means on our planet to love may be the greatest impact we could have. The alien might understand our big words and be able to say, “yes this definition makes sense to me,” but will he really know until he experiences it? My own life tells me that no he won’t. For in order to grasp the gravity and the depth of love, we must feel it. Whether that be divine or not. Once we have that experience to draw from, love becomes much more clear, despite our lack of any better words.

Spencer Hassman

I am a little unsatisfied with your definition, although I think it is definitely a step in the right direction, and is one of the more satisfactory approaches that I have heard. I think that, your brief addressing of this problem in class notwithstanding, that there is still a bit of a utilitarian pitfall here. Where is the line that defines overall well-being at the expense of others? Also, what about self-sacrifice? What if someone’s self-sacrifice would show the greatest love, but they are unwilling. Is the most loving thing to do from the other side, then, to force that sacrifice? There are a variety of ways that I could take this argument, but all that would be is to say that I think this definition still lacks a little substance.

Julie Armbruster

My own thoughts and beliefs about love would be hard to explain to one who is foreign to my culture (or planet). But for the sake of trying, here it goes. Love is a choice that a person makes- to purposefully care for and do good things for another being that doesn’t require the same action back. There are different kinds of love: there is a romantic love in which one choses to care for another person in a very intimate way that leaves both parties open and vulnerable (there is a sense of honesty and openness that only the two in the relationship share), then there is a parental love for a child- this one is usually thought of as unconditional and consists of a deep feeling or knowledge of a desire to protect and care for (in every way) this younger being that God blessed them with, and the last that I would share would be the familial and friendship love- which is also a choice to love or show goodness and hopes for their well-being in the best capacity that we have.
I do believe that we can ask for God to give us the ability to love people in all ways and for all kinds of people (friend or enemy). A part of me believes that because humans are capable of great sins we are also capable of greatness (the ability to do extreme levels of love or good for/ to anyone). All things are possible with God.

Jared Morgan

I am most inspired by the sympathy portion of love. This is because it is the bases of communication and connection, which extends beyond our own conscious perception of empathy. Some of the most basic forms of empathy are found in nonverbal emotional facial expressions. When someone smiles at us, our neurons that control our own facial expressions are activated in order for us to understand and empathize with the feeling of another. It seems as though at the very core of human connection in love built into out own circuitry.

John Treyz

Mr Alien,
Love is a feeling. It generates in the center of our chests and gives off a comforting warm and content feeling. Love is pure, consisting of only positive intentions and goes hand in hand with compassion and kindness. There requires a bit of intuition as to if the experience is love or not, but if it is truly love then you will know. There is nothing bad about love and if there is, then it is not love.

Jacob Neff

My approach to defining love has always been similar to Soble’s, as it’s always been my understanding that there are distinctly different forms of love, even though they all may cause us to act in the same ways. My issue with many attempts to define love is that they focus on the results of love, rather than love itself. For example, saying “love is to act in this way…” doesn’t quite do it for me. I’ll agree that love causes us to do many good things for others, toward others, for the well-being of others, etc. And I definitely think action is an important part of love. But I also think that love is something internal that casues us to want to act in these ways, and the actions are a manifestation of that.

Cass Hinton

I found this blog to be really thought provoking. It does a good job of complimenting the lecture and discussion that we had in our theology class last night. I really liked all of the different perspectives and ideas pertaining to what our definition of love truly is. I tend to find myself thinking that, in a way, love is all of those definitions and ideas combined. I think that love is something that goes beyond what our vocabulary can explain. It is something that words simply are not efficient in describing and according to our culture and perspectives love is viewed in different ways. I once heard a sermon in which the pastor mentioned that we do the best with what we have been given. I think that this can be used to explain a part of love that makes it intentional, empathetic, and also allows for it to take shape in the many different definitions that we have. I also think that when we keep this idea in mind our perspective will change while viewing love in other cultures.

Randy Kingsmore

Mr. Alien,

In order to fully understand love you must live with us, experience the epics wonders and the tragic moments that define us. In so doing, your understanding of our uses of the word will become clearer. The word ‘love’ is in many ways our attempt to capture our intense feelings about something. The word ‘love’ is used to assist us in defining what a ‘perfect’ world would look like, it sets a standard to which we can evaluate various experiences. Love is a complicated word with multifarious meanings because humans are complex creatures with limited understanding of ourselves and others.

Toniessa Phelps

After reading this blog I got to thinking about my own relationship. I’m engaged and I was thinking how would I explain my love for my soon to be husband to someone else that has never felt this love or as you said an alien. The way I though of love was how you expressed love as being able to promote the well being of someone else. I found myself realizing that I always want to make sure my fiancé’ is safe and is healthy. I always want to make him happy, so I realized I was focusing on his whole. I think I would describe love was knowing that I can not live without him, I always want to be with him and make sure he is safe. Some may say that seems like puppy love but to us it’s real.


Love is very hard to describe and explain to someone who has not experienced it. Many people experience love in many different manners as we have seen throughout our class. In some situations we see that love is not necessarily words of nurture and care but harsh and sometimes cruel. I can only give my definition of love based on my perspective and experiences that have created the love that I know of. Love is expressed through verbal and nonverbal behavior. love to me is the treatment of equality and justice. The acceptance of the other person regardless of their sins and flaws. The ability to understand the other persons perspectives and feelings. The willingness to help the other person out when he or she needs it or not. The care of the person when weak physically and emotionally. The support of the other person’s decisions and choices to better themselves or learn from experience. I know that this not might be the complete definition of love nor the correct one but this is what I think love consists of.


I love that the beginning to this hypothetical scenario began with language because it begins to break down the components of interACTion so present in the fundamental part of understanding love. The fundamental part of communication is a signal from sent and received. It is with this understanding that humans typically move to our linguistic, one of the most common forms of communication. Language can accomplish a great deal of truth between people, but it relies on a clear understanding between of the common tongue. This is why it is so hard for us to come up with a clear way to explain love to an alien, except by using other forms of communication in combination with language we can teach each other. This is can be done because humans are multi-faceted creatures with more than just language. God has granted us with bodies that can react and minds that can share. Through interaction we teach each other, but through God we are able to love each other. This allows us to talk about love, but also to love through ACTion. It is great because we are free to choose to communicate with each other through various mediums of human experience, via internet, voice, or ACTivities. We are able to ACT together through various methods to teach and demonstrate love to those around us.

Mike Eiford

” And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” II John

Mike Eiford

We can spend years debating the meaning of Love—and Thousands of years have been spent doing that—-Love is a Walk in Obediance to God’ commands

B. V.

Foreigner’s lyrics do resonate with how I would respond to this alien. If the alien (or anyone else) wanted to know what love was, I would want to show them, not tell them. I could–and have–heard countless times about people explaining love in different ways, from the Beatles and pop artists to parish pastors in the pulpit. But those words have never helped me to truly understand love and to differentiate what love is from what love is not. That may be my own density showing. But from my perspective, love must be experienced in order to be known. Some talk may be helpful in this, but such talk should not consist mainly of definitions–although that may come into play down the line. But I think the kind of words that would be most helpful in this is loving (i.e. empathetic or compassionate) talk and listening. This is where the “empathetic” piece of the love definition comes in. And the more the alien experiences love, the more they will understand it. And then they, too, will be able to empathize with your having difficulty putting it into words. And then you can both share a laugh about it and “share some life” with one another.

Kyle Seibert

Dr. Oord,

You provide a rich (though brief) discussion of some of the pitfalls and difficulties in coming to a common understanding or definition of love. The definition you provide has many deep implications and meaning behind each one of the component phrases in an attempt to truly help to define love. Instead of engaging your definition specifically, I will instead comment on the experience of love- for your published books provide a rich forum for conversation with your definition.

Instead, I wonder if part of the trouble with trying to define love is that love is necessarily a lived experience, inseparable from the fleshly reality- that love is incarnational. I’m not sure of the implications of this, but I wonder if part of the tradition’s aversion to arriving at a complete definition of love or partial definitions has to do with this experiential and lived reality of love. Does love have to be experienced to be understood? Or can we capture something (relatively) complete as we define love with only our words- Although words are the best we have.

Kyle Seibert

Eric S

Reading this definition I believe covers a wide variety of beliefs and categories people would express regarding love. One thing I wonder about. The word “response” in the definition implies that an action has to be made by an individual initially toward someone. Could it be possible to be the initiator of love? It could be posed that an individual is responding simply to something seen or an initial emotion toward a person which initiates this response of love. For example how does the definition accommodate random acts of kindness initiated toward someone where no need is displayed and the act was done just out of love for people. You have a love for people, so you are donating not knowing the intended target, in theory there is no initial act to respond to, but yet the initiator did not necessarily respond to an action. Does the definition need to be revised to accommodate those who initiate a response based on love for humanity to an unknown person/situation when no perceived need is displayed?


As a published sci-fi author who spent the first book in a trilogy trying to answer this same question for a group of aliens with a collective consciousness… this article made me chuckle.

In all seriousness, though, I began wondering about the emotional piece of it, and, perhaps, the misuse of the word “love.” Suppose you have a person who meets all the criteria for being a perfectly loving human being (or, if not perfectly, at least a pretty decent one). Suppose they empathize with others and engage in actions which promote the well-being of all: but suppose they do not consider this “love,” for a variety of philosophical and/or emotional reasons. Language is tricky business, especially in English when, frankly, our lexicon is rather poor (compared to Greek, for example, or Spanish, which utilizes several words for “love”). So would we thrust “love” upon this individual who doesn’t consider their actions “loving,” but perhaps “moral” or “simply the right thing to do”? Or could we say that, this universal (and it is, I think, universal, beyond the Christian expression) understanding is even beyond a word like “love”? We often talk of “love” being beyond definition, for better or for worse, but I almost wonder if we really have the opposite problem: a mere word such as “love” is too constraining.

Just thoughts!

Christephor Gilbert

At its heart, the discussion about the definition of love (or lack thereof) comes down to a question of how we name things, given the finite options currently provided by, in our North American and academic context, the English language. It reminds me of another linguistic conundrum in the field I studied previously, dance. What is dance? Try and define it, I dare you! In the attempt to delimit, we drill down to human movement, clearly a key, but what else? Music isn’t always a feature, nor is any sound. And stylized human movement might seem plausible, until you consider the work of the Judson Church Movement in New York in the seventies, where people like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton asserted that any basic human movement, running, walking, or even just standing, could be considered dance. And what about animals? Do they “dance?” What about the “dancing waters” at Bellagio in Las Vegas? We are now in the territory of “I love the Seattle Mariners” and “I love God.” The same words but with very different understandings. But the above definition of love, the attempt to distill or delimit it into response-based action that “promotes overall well-being” is crucial. If not anything more, defining love in and of itself allows us to wrestle with what we think, the Bible proclaims, and Christian experience asserts about love an where there is accord and where more work needs to be done.

Esther Buck

I imaging that after I’ve explained that “love does good” this alien would ask me how loving chocolate provokes well-being. In other words: Does our use of the word “love” in everyday life need to fit this definition? And if yes, should we rethink our language? Does already the use of the word “love” provoke well-being? Or is it not possible at all to put “provoking well-being” into words?

Patrick O’Donel

I think that your definition of love is certainly a helpful starting point for discussion, though I am somewhat sympathetic to other thinkers who question whether or not a synthesized definition is truly possible. Nonetheless, I think that the very attempt to formulate such a definition, even if ultimately not comprehensive enough to encompass with sufficient detail all that love entails, is still a worthwhile endeavor. However, I have personally come to prefer the term “flourishing” over the term “well-being” over time. It somehow seems to capture more of the nuance of what I see love trying to accomplish, but that’s just my preference!


This is a concise attempt to explain love to an alien. However, I wonder what it would be like to put this definition in conversation with Christian theologians from another culture, such as a Dalit theologian or a mujerista. Would their definitions be the same?


I would say this does a really good job of bringing us through the history and thoughts that impact and form our own and your definition(s) of love.

To answer for this alien what love is still feels bigger than words. I think perhaps you could offer your definition without back story and get an understanding from this alien. Your summative single altered McCartney line also does a nice job of saying something really important about love.

It weekend of me to say what love looks like, feels like, and isn’t are all easier to do that to say what it is, I believe this is so because to limit love in any way feels all together inauthentic and wrong.

Love is Love, no word but itself fully expresses its forms, expressions, and magnitude. In many ways I would make the same assessment in speaking of God. Perhaps that gives more value to the commonly shared statement that God is Love.


1. Explaining Love to an Alien article is very interesting for me because I know the word love before but I didn’t know what the meaning of love and what love wants to focus. In my own context the word love is very romantic and sexuality. According to this article, I know what is the meaning of love, which is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/ empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being. I am really appreciated this kind of the very popular word explaining exactly in this article because many people may understand in the wrong way to present love in our public ministry. I hope it should not be really helpful only for me but also for those who read this article as well.


I hear what you’re saying when you call love a “splintered thing”, but I think it would be more accurate to say that the language we use for love is splintered or confused.
I also understand why you would emphasize the “overall” good in your definition of love, and yet I wonder if the intimacy between the lover and the beloved is just as present; an “overall” and an in-between.

I’d really love to explore Hartshorne’s understanding of love as “Life Sharing” more thoroughly.

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