Theological and Scientific Research on Love

April 5th, 2016 / No Comments

The well-being of the world depends, in part, upon our decisions to promote overall well-being. That’s just a fancy way of saying: we need to love!

Many people know that love, altruism, and compassion plays central roles for making sense of life and living life well. For centuries, various religious traditions and philosophers have recognized this. Scholars have defined these words variously, but they are often used to talk about doing good.good-samaritan.jpg

Piritim Sorokin sketched out some elements of a methodological framework for understanding love nearly 70 years ago in his, The Ways and Power of Love. More than a decade ago, Stephen Post funded work on love mainly in the social sciences through The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love.

Today, developing scientific fields of love and altruism research contribute in empirical ways to our recognition of love’s importance. But defining the terms well is important. After all, if we don’t know what love is and what makes it possible, it makes little sense to encourage us all to love!

If we don't have some idea of what love is, it makes little sense to encourage loving action. Share on X

We Need a Theological and Scientific Methodology

We need today a new methodology for love research that makes sense both theologically and scientifically. Such a methodological template would help researchers pursue love research while making sense of key issues and thereby improving the quality of love research overall.

Currently no overarching and integrative methodology exists to make sense of the already completed love research. And very little methodology that integrates both theology and science exists to spark productive love research in the future. At present, methodological chaos reigns.

To operate from a love methodology and do the theological and scientific research necessary to promote well-being, we need a clear definition of love. In various books, I have proposed one. I define love in this way: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being.”

I can imagine an integrated theology and science methodology and various love research programs that work from this definition. Scientists and theologians might explore at least these three questions of love:

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

1. How can we measure the intentionality/motives for love?

If love requires intentionality, some love research should explore an agent’s motives and intentions. Motives matter.

Of course, scientists cannot place motives under a microscope. In fact, scientists cannot perceive motives with sensory perception – sight, sound, touch, etc. This presents a problem for this aspect of research on love, because most scientists presuppose that sensory perception is the only perception possible. A few scientists, such as Michael Spezio, are working issues of affect, insight, and other nonsensory realities in their love research.

We can make inferences about the motives of others, but there is no foolproof way to know them well. At our best, we become aware of our own motives. Even then, however, we are not fully aware of all our motives.

Research on love can overcome these problems at least partially, however. First, it can concentrate on what a subject claims to be his or her primary motive for any particular action. At least sometimes, one motive predominates over others when we choose to act a particular way. We can accurately discern our primary motives, at least  sometimes.

Second, we can self-report what we believe are our primary motives in various situations. Self-reports are not without the possibility of distortion, of course. But we have good reasons to think we know best our own personal experiences. We know them better than we know the experiences and data not directly associated with personal experiences.

Consequently, scientific research relying upon self-reports or the narratives of others can be at least partially helpful in assessing the role of intentionality or motives for love.

Theologians have long thought our judgments about your motives are only partially correct. Some  have blamed sin. Others have appealed to the finitude of creatureliness. In any case, theology can contribute to research on motives by bringing to bear the traditions and ideas of theological insights.

2. What relations does love require?pidgeon_boy.jpg

If love involves sympathetic/empathetic responses to others, at least some research on love should explore the stimuli, conditions, and constraints that relationships place on a person’s love. After all, relationships of various types exert causal influence on those who love.

Science is perhaps best known for attempting to account for particular cause-and-effect relations in existence. These relations and their causes vary widely.

Some of the most interesting love research explores how these relation hinder expressions of love. In particular love research could explore three general types of relations: societal, interpersonal, and bodily.

The influence of culture has been shown in many studies to shape the ways people try to promote well-being. The personal relationships one keeps with family, friends, and other associates also shapes the decisions each person makes about how to promote well-being. And, finally, the relationships a person has with his or her own body expands or constrains what love requires for that person.

The role of emotions for love could be explored here as well. After all, our emotions arise in our relationships with others and our own bodily members. Such emotions can sometimes hinder and sometimes support our efforts to promote well-being.

Those who believe in God may also insist that relations with God are crucial for understanding love. “We love because [God] first loved us,” says the Apostle John. Robust love research requires theological proposals for how God’s actions and relations make possible or at least affect creaturely love.

If God is one with whom persons can be in relationship, a person’s relationship with deity will play a role in the person’s decisions (or not) to love. This can be true for even those who do no believe God exists.

A robust love methodology can help us account for the claim that God is the source and inspiration of creaturely love, while also affirming the best of contemporary scientific explanations.

We can claim God is the source of love while also affirming contemporary science. Share on X

3. How might we measure love’s consequences?

Perhaps the most common way scientists could engage in love research is to measure to the greatest extent possible the positive or negative consequences of various activities. Measuring values and consequences is appropriate given my definition of love. After all, love as I define it involves promoting overall well-being.

Research on love’s consequences typically assumes that we can promote greater or lesser well-being. Admittedly, research on positive or negative consequences requires that those doing the research make value judgments.

Many people have inaccurately believed science sets aside issues of value and focuses entirely upon the facts derived from observation. This view has been largely discredited in recent decades, however. Many know believe scientists bring various values to their research, and those values influence their observations.

For this reason and others, making value judgments about the positive consequences of various actions is a legitimate exercise in science. Various criteria and methods for such assessment are available and should be used.

Theologians intuitively if not also explicitly understand the role of values for talking about divine action and God’s desires for creation. While measuring divine action may be impossible, inferences about divine action inspiring creaturely love should be expected. If “God is love,” various positive values that promote well-being would be at the heart of God’s call to creatures.


The three questions above come from a particular definition of love meant to provide clarity and inspire further research. These questions can elicit a wide spectrum of possible love research projects in theology and science.

My hope is that the theological, scientific, and philosophical work needed to construct a methodology can be done. And I’d like to play a role in this work!

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