Jonathan Warren, a friend of mine, and an outstanding young theologian from Vanderbilt University, has written a clear, critical, and very useful review of Thomas Oord’s latest book, Defining Love. I would like to thank Jonathan for his efforts here, and hope that you will find this review as helpful as I have.
Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. By Thomas Jay Oord. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010. Pp xiii + 225. Christianbook.com/academic $19.99.
Love is a weasel word. Everyone “knows it when they see it,” but few make the effort to define it. As a result, we have little conceptual clarity on the things that matter most to us. In Defining Love (DL), Thomas Jay Oord makes an admirable effort to give us a comprehensive definition of love, one informed (as the title of the book suggests) by philosophical, scientific, and theological reflection. Oord’s definition is deceptively simple: “To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being” (15). The purpose of the book is to show that this definition is both adequate and plausible. In the process, Oord surveys a staggering amount of scholarship on love across many different disciplines; the citations in Oord’s footnotes alone are worth the price of the book. Because much research in the social and natural sciences assumes the egoistic nature of human behavior, Oord’s focus in the middle chapters of the book is to demonstrate that there is research in these fields that supports the possibility of intentional, altruistic behavior.
Perhaps most interesting in Oord’s tour through current research on love in the sciences is the critique he musters of Richard Dawkins and sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson, all of whom advocate an egoistic understanding of what is putatively altruistic behavior. Oord shows that such “selfish gene” theories depend upon a reductive theory of genetic determination of an organism’s behavior. Every organism, according to the theory, is similarly programmed to do what is necessary to pass its genetic composition to the next generation. In this way, the selfish gene theorists deny the possibility of disinterested action. Oord counters the Dawkinsian relegation of altruism to the realm of epiphenomena by appealing to the phenomenon of emergence.
Emergence images the process of evolution in terms of stratified stages, such that more developed stages cannot simply be reduced to the interaction of those elements that produced them. In each new stage, increasing complexity in an organism’s structure allows for an increasing amount of “interiority,” which at a certain point allows for a degree of self-determination to emerge. This means that depending upon the complexity of the organism, “[t]here can be different degrees of freedom” (133). In human beings, in whom cognitive processes are unquestionably immensely complex, enough self-determination can occur that genuinely altruistic action is possible. Oord’s summary and analysis of current trends in scientific research is impressive, whether or not one ultimately agrees that it supports his definition of love.
Despite the intellectual vigor of his research on the sciences, however, his attempt to place this research in dialogue with Christian theology in DL is disappointing. The biggest problem with his transition to theological discourse is his lack of attention to epistemological prolegomena. Oord notes that an increasing number of scholars have committed themselves to the emergent “dialogue,” “integration,” “consonance” or “harmony” between science and religion and that he himself assumes “that science and theology can relate positively” (177).
However, he does not engage the immense epistemological challenges involved in such a correlationist project in DL. He does describe himself as a “critical realist” (178), and in a footnote he defines this as “the view that our knowledge of the world refers in some way to how things really are, but this knowledge is partial and will need to be revised as we accumulate additional data” (8n12). However, this brief sketch does not distinguish Oord’s position from the complex range of epistemological perspectives that falls under the ambit of critical realism. Oord’s attempt to set the foundations for a dialogue between science and Christian theology in Defining Love would have been aided by sustained engagement with the pioneering work of Alister McGrath on critical realism (McGrath 1998, 154-163; McGrath 2002: 195-225) and with the resources provided by the International Association for Critical Realism (http://criticalrealismblog.blogspot.com).
The failure to attend to this issue becomes especially problematic as Oord examines how creaturely categories can be predicated of God. He notes that “creaturely love corresponds in some way with God’s love” and suggests that this correspondence is analogical in nature. However, what Oord describes as analogical predication is actually “univocal” predication, or a kind of naming that asserts an identity between two realities named, such that the difference between them is only in degree or intensity. For Oord, “[l]ove is the same in kind for both the Creator and the creatures,” such that it is possible to apply “a common definition both to creaturely and divine love” (178-79). Oord argues that such univocal predication is the only way to make the exhortations in Scripture to an imitatio dei meaningful, but he does not explore the tensions that this affirmation creates within his theology.
To suggest that creaturely predicates are adequate to comprehend the divine essence (as in univocal predication) is to make God fully immanent within the created order and at least in principle fully comprehensible to the human intellect. Yet Oord claims that he is actually a panentheist, such that God permeates but is not “exhausted” by the created order (192-94). Oord thus wishes to leave room for divine transcendence and mystery, but he does not demonstrate how this position is compatible with univocity in divine and human attributes.
Secondly, in the conclusion Oord describes himself as someone “who has been strongly influenced by the Christian tradition” (212), but there is little engagement in DL with any Christian author living before the nineteenth century. It is nearly unquestionable that Augustine provides the foundation for reflection on love in Western thought, and yet Oord dismisses him in one page as a representative of the “proper/improper linguistic tradition” on love, a tradition in which any purposive action should be defined as love, even if that action is deficient. Aquinas receives even less attention than Augustine in Oord’s analysis. In a footnote, Oord notes that the theologies of Augustine and Aquinas include elements from other linguistic traditions on love, but for Oord this means that “they contribute to linguistic confusion surrounding the use of the word love” (25n53). Here Oord’s work could benefit from engagement with scholars such as Hannah Arendt (1998) and Robert Dodaro (2008), who have demonstrated the coherence of Augustine’s reflections on love. It is disappointing that the Christian tradition of reflection on divine and human love receives such little attention in DL.
A final critique of Oord’s theological position regards his claim to have resolved the problem of evil. Near the end of DL, Oord makes the case that God cannot be blamed for the problem of evil because as an essentially loving being, God cannot overpower God’s creatures: “God does not withdraw or fail to offer freedom. God cannot do so, because those acts would violate the love God expresses from God’s own essence” (209). As opposed to theologians like John Polkinghorne who argue for “voluntary divine self-limitation,” a rough-and-ready Arminian position on divine sovereignty and human responsibility, Oord argues for what he calls “involuntary divine self-limitation” (211). This move does allow Oord to conceptually solve the problem of evil in a certain sense, but this conceptual clarity comes at a very dear price. It is difficult to see how, if God is not capable of overpowering God’s creatures, there can be any hope for a future in which all things are made new.
The traditional Christian hope of a new heavens and a new earth depends upon the gracious action of God in which the most tragic features of human existence are overcome. If human responsiveness to divine initiative is always required for love to triumph, as in Oord’s account, there is little reason to expect that the world will ever be better than it currently is. Since Oord does not say that this implication follows from his “essential kenosis” theory, it is important to make this consequence of his thought explicit. For those who hold traditional eschatological views, Oord’s conclusion will simply be unacceptable.
DL is a thought-provoking, wide-ranging, and capable survey of the current scientific research on the possibility of disinterested action, and an admirable attempt to set parameters on the use of a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. Oord’s attempt to contruct a ratio between divine and human loves, however, leaves something to be desired.
Interested in writing a book review?
Read Chapter one of Defining Love
Arendt, Hannah. 1998. Love and Saint Augustine. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dodaro, Robert. 2008. Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McGrath, Alister. 1998. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion.
Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
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