On the Definition of “Love”

February 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

“On the Definition of Love: A St. Valentine’s Day Reflection”

Love is the most confusing word that exists in the English language. Its definition is so muddled because we tend to use it in so many different ways. However, in this post I will venture to arrive at a singular, core meaning of the word.

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In many English translations of the Bible, the word love first appears in the twenty-second chapter of the “Book of Genesis.” God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” (Genesis 22:2). Interestingly, the context of this opening appearance of the word love in this narrative is a filial relationship between a father and his son. To the Christian this context is familiar: Abraham loved his son, and God loves us as sons and as daughters. This love is so profound that it entails a sacrifice for a greater good. Thus, Abraham did not proceed to sacrifice Isaac solely for the sake of sacrificing him; rather, Abraham did so to accomplish the greater good of obedience to God, in whom we find our fulfillment as human beings. Likewise, God the Father did not allow the sacrifice of His Son on the cross merely for the sake of sacrifice. Actually, the Father permitted that sacrifice to accomplish the greater good of reconciling the world to Himself in accordance with His respect for the free will of the human race. As a result of this initial reflection, we come to see that love is a free choice that entails three parties.

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What are these three parties?

1) The lover: In the first case from “Genesis,” Abraham is the lover. In the second case from the gospels, God Himself is the lover.

2) The beloved: In the former scene God is the beloved. In the latter humanity is the beloved.

3) An innocent yet cherished “victim”: Isaac in the former; Jesus in the latter. 

Now, it seems common to wonder, “Why must there be a third party?” Well, there must be a third party because real love is absolute love. Our postmodern world, of course, claims that nothing is absolute, but the Christian responds that love is absolute by its very nature. Considering that God gives what is absolute its absolute-ness because He is (by definition) absolute, it makes sense that God is present in both of these instances of love. God gives love its character, and only an eternal, absolute God can give love this particular character. 

So, you might ask, “Why must love be absolute as opposed to relative?” This question gets to the core of the issue, but I think there is an acceptable answer: Love is absolute because we can conceive of love as absolute. After all, nothing in this world seems to be absolute. Even we humans die, so not even our very selves appear absolute. BUT! We somehow intuit that love is best when it is absolute. Most people would not say to their lovers, “My love for you is conditional.” Now, from where does this sort of unconditional love come? It can’t come from us, as we are conditional. Therefore, it must come from a Being that isn’t conditional. It must come from an absolute Being. It must come from God.

God gives us the ability to love, so it makes sense that we would use that ability according to His purposes. After all, if God is perfectly all-knowing, then He knows how to love perfectly. Likewise, He knows how we can best love others. 

That said, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is not irrational because Abraham trusted that God’s reasoning was better than his reasoning. The end of the story confirms this truth.

What, then, is love? Love is a free act ordered to the benefit of another person according to the reasoning of God (theo-logy). Love necessitates a self, an other, and God. The harmony of these three persons is essential to any loving act. 

With love,

David J.W. Inczauskis

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