The Import of Defining Love

July 22nd, 2013 / 1 Comment

For the past decade or more, I have been thinking about the love, science, and theology interface. The questions about how these three major domains relate to one another are complex. And they require complex but understandable answers.

One of the central issues in this kind of interdisciplinary love research is how one defines love itself. Many go about assuming they know what love is. But most people – including scholars – have not done the careful work of composing a love definition.


To some people, the idea of defining is sheer foolishness. Love escapes any defining, they say. Pressing them to identify how they know which action is loving and which is not, however, reveals quickly that they do adopt some definition of love. These adopted definitions are often tacit, intuitive, or largely unconscious.

Part of the love scholar’s task is to make explicit and conceptually coherent love assumptions that may currently remain implicit and incoherent. In my book, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement, I explore various facets of love in various disciplines. I do the work of making the implicit explicit and the incoherent coherent.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the book is my proposed love definition. 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 explore each phrase of my proposed definition in the book. When it comes down to the basics, love has three essential elements:

1) intent/motives

2) relationality/embodiment/environment

3) consequences/outcomes

Defining Love begins with philosophy and asks various questions about these three elements. Along the way, the book addresses forms of love such as agape, eros, and philia.

The heart of the book explores recent research and theory in science. I focus on the social sciences in one chapter, the biological sciences in another, and cosmology in a third.

I have had the great privilege of having access to some of the most influential scientists of our time. The chapters on science and love in the book draw from their work, some of which I heard them present personally, others which they detail in their published works.

Readers will likely be surprised at the vast amount of research and theory pertaining to love, altruism, well-being, prosocial behavior, agape, benevolence, and related issues in science. Reviewers and readers often report being unaware of so much interesting research being done on these subjects.


Defining Love concludes with a chapter exploring God’s love. It quickly surveys the general approaches to how science and theology might most effectively relate. Rejected are the views that say or imply that theology always trumps science or science always trumps theology.

One of the more creative proposals in this final chapter emerges from the theological issue most worrisome to those who believe God loves perfectly: the problem of evil. I call my response to the problem of evil, “essential kenosis.”

Essential kenosis says God acts as a loving causal agent in every agent and/or event. But God never entirely determines anyone or anything. To put it another way, God never totally controls others. Because of this love-grounded power, God should not be thought the cause of evil nor culpable of failing to prevent it.

Essential kenosis does say, however, that God’s love varies. God’s persuasive influence oscillates as creatures respond appropriately or inappropriately. And God expresses diverse forms of love. Divine love is not an amorphous “steady state” or “blind force,” because God is personal.


Some reviewers of Defining Love have praised the general structure and substance of the book. But many theologically-informed readers find the final chapter too brief.

Anticipating this, I published simultaneous with Defining Love a thoroughly theological exploration of love called The Nature of Love. ( ) In it, I wrestle with classic love theologians like Augustine and Anders Nygren. And I propose a series of ideas pertaining to essential kenosis that should satisfy readers of Defining Love who had hoped for more theological reflection.

My hope is that Defining Love becomes a tool for both academics and laity as they wrestle with love’s meaning and expression in the world. The research will likely surprise many. And I trust that my own proposals will prove fruitful in the ongoing work to gain a better understanding of God and creation.

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Ben Duarte

It seems that love would be an interesting consideration for science, philosophy and Theology. Love, for me, seems Theological and can perhaps enjoy a philosophical observation and/or structure. But- I rarely think of the ‘science of love’- although, it seems that we may be able to ‘systematize’ love and place the substance of love in ‘logical order’. The ‘history of love’ seems possible too. However, in this context, I would agree with the definition of love offered by Dr. Oord.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”(1st Corinthians 13:4-7) It seems that the ‘nature’ of love, at least from the New Testament protocol, Dr. Oord consolidates his hypothesis concerning the definition and issue.

Discussing when love is ‘occurring’ is another matter. If I am exhibiting an act of kindness such as feeding a homeless person while offering them words of encouragement, by anyone’s standards, I am a loving person. Or, at least living out an act of love.

But what about the Nazi scientists and doctors which performed surgeries on Jews in pursuit of sterilizing humans to generate a perfect, clean, Aryan race? By all standards, this seems evil- but these doctors felt that they were thinking of others when they were doing this. They felt that their ethic was excellent and good. (The only evidence I have that they believed this is at the Nazi trials after WWII). If they thought that they were loving Germany, other fellow Nazi’s, and their cause. In the case of me feeding the homeless and the Nazi ridding the world of Jews- aren’t we both trying to make our world a better place? hence in pursuit of love? loving others and seeing the best in others? Although, Nazi’s did not accept Jewish people as they were, they tried to offer a solution to the problem. And, not just a local problem, but a worldwide one.

In thinking of this act as evil, instead of loving (as in me feeding a homeless person), we must turn to a higher standard of love, we must consider the metaphysics of love and the logic of it too. I cannot simply call the Nazi’s ‘evil’ for killing Jews- Love has included the killing of others in past times. For Example, the killing of others to protect American freedom and liberties against communism and national socialism, killing has even included the intimacy and truth of God sending his Son to die on a cross as a direct act of love, for others. (Christian Theology)

It seems that we must first consider motives. Why is this alleged act of ‘love’ occurring? and- who created the very definition of love which we are pursuing? and it is truly consistent with an accurate measure of the nature of love.

I contend that love and evil, can only truly exist in a Philosophy where God exists- since God is the ultimate paradigm as to what determines these factors about our actions and works. What is love? It seems that the cause of Adolf Hitler was not to love others in unconditional kindness and stability. He also did not believe that he was leading the Jews to a more fulfilling well-being. He also did not lead the Germans to a better life. But of one that would lead to the hanging of their leaders and future shame. But, I can only make this judgment if I am using the bible’s definition of love. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a basic idea of God’s love- The Germans did not love the Jews as themselves. And, when America (using Christian ethic-or any nation for this matter) kills others who are not living by this standard, is this not an act of love? (true love)? When we do not follow the golden rule and seek our own desire and not consider the well-being of others, will this not eventually create oppression and end a civilization? (as with the Nazi and communistic societies), especially when anti-Christian societies try to expand- it is never expansion by love or offering others the gift of love. It is often brute force.

It seems that love must exist for anything to succeed. And, to have/enjoy life- what are your thoughts? Can love be identified and pursued by any other standards?

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