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The Meaning of Love – A Conference Review

For the past five years Biola’s Center for Christian thought has been holding conferences which have addressed various big questions, such as: “What is Christian scholarship and how should it influence culture?” “How can psychology shed light on the process of spiritual formation” “What are the chief intellectual virtues that promote civil discourse within societies?” “What is the relationship between neuroscience and the soul?” This year CCT’s annual conference revolved around the question: “What is the meaning of love?”

Gathered at Biola’s beautiful campus on an unusually rainy Southern California weekend a wide variety of theologians, philosophers, pastors, psychologists, and social scientists gathered to see if they could make some progress on a constellation of questions related to the meaning of love. The conference, which was held on May 6th-7th, consisted of eight plenary sessions and twenty four breakout sessions. The contributors came from all over the map. There were presenters from Southern California institutions, including Biola, Fuller Seminary, Pepperdine, and Loyola Marymount among others. Presenters also came from institutions from all over the US, including the University of Kentucky, Texas A&M, Baylor, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Princeton Seminary. The fact that so many of the presenters came from different disciplines and different parts of the country made for quite an interesting experience. This diversity really embodied the CCT’s goal of creating an environment in which Christian scholars from a variety of disciplines can work collaboratively on some of the most important issues of our day.

 

The Conference – A Summary

The conference was kicked off by philosopher-theologian Thomas Jay Oord. His lecture was quite fitting for an opening lecture of a conference on the meaning of love, as his was the only plenary session which explicitly attempted to give a definition of love. During his lecture Oord defined love by saying, “To Love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well being.” He proceeded to unpack the various elements of this definition. The work Oord did in providing a definition of love proved to be quite fruitful as his definition often ended up being a point of discussion in various other plenary and breakout sessions.

Thomas Oord’s lecture was followed by Frances Howard-Snyder’s lecture which was titled “An Ethics of Love and Future Generations.” Here she focused on the second great commandment, “Love Your neighbor as yourself.” She wondered whether this commandment can help us think through the non-identity problem in ethics. Briefly the non-identity problem focuses on the obligations we think we have in respect of people who, by our own acts, are caused both to exist and to have existences that are in some sense unavoidably flawed. Her talk revolved around a thought experiment in which a mother is faced with two choices of 1) conceive a child now, knowing the child will be handicapped or 2) wait to have a child, and know the child will develop without any disabilities. She concluded that an ethic based on the second commandment would allow the mother to follow through with case one. Her conclusions received some intense pushback during the question and answer time, especially from Nicholas Wolterstorff. However, this sort of pushback and discussion embodied CCT’s spirit of civility in the midst of disagreement.

The first two sessions approached the topic from a somewhat philosophical perspective, but the third and fourth sessions approached the issue from the social sciences. Lynn G. Underwood, presented a social science approach to understanding the concept of love. Her lecture focused on research done at a Trappist monastery and the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, in which four out of the sixteen questions focus explicitly on divine love. Out of her research at the monastery she discovered various practices for strengthening love. Her research on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale pointed to the fact that those who had higher scores on this scale tended to experience lower burnout rates and tended to report a greater loving attitude towards others. Her findings had some very practical implications for ministers in the audience. Not only did she address some ways to grow in love, but also she addressed some important issues of pastoral burnout.

Bennet Helm’s lecture focused on what he calls “Communities of Respect.” These communities hold each other accountable to certain binding communal norms. His research focused on whether or not this concept of “Communities of Respect” can provide a foundation for an objective morality based on an ethics of care. He provided an argument for how this may be so by turning to Kant who claimed that “concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.” Thus, in Helm’s reading of Kant, the upshot is that objectivity requires grounding of moral theory in experience. Helm’s conclusion seemed to be that the community’s understanding of what ethics of care looks like will be grounded in that community’s conceptual schemes. After the lecture, some concerns were raised as to whether Helm had read Kant correctly and whether this account can actually provide a robust account of objectivity that Helm seemed to be after.

The final plenary session of the first day happened immediately after a dinner reception in which the attendees were served a delicious full course meal. Here Nicholas Woltersorff built upon earlier research on the relationship between love as beneficence and justice by turning to the relationship between love as attraction and justice. Love as attraction and justice are two modes of acknowledging embedded goodness. Thomas Aquinas defines beautiful things as those which please when they are seen or heard. Thus, For Aquinas beauty is a recognition of the embedded goodness of a thing. Thus, Wolterstorff made the connections and argued that in a way, attraction and justice are intimately related to recognizing the beauty of a thing.

Nicholas Wolterstorff giving the final plenary of day one at the conference.

Saturday morning’s first session was kicked off by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger. With what might have been the most creative plenary session, Hunsinger compared the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with that of Karl Barth. One would be hard pressed to find other scholarly work making this sort of comparison. The lecture began with an explanation of Barth’s account of agape. Barth’s definition of God’s agape includes four elements: 1) a concern for fellowship, 2) a disregard for aptitude or worthiness in the object  of love, 3) it is an end in itself, and 4) it is necessary. He then turned to the mystery of evil in Barth and Tolkien. He pointed out the affinities between Barth’s account of evil as das Nichtige (Nothingness) and Tolkien’s description of the Witch King of Angmar – the Lord of the Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. Both the Witch King of Angmar and das Nichtige are conflicted and absurd, actual and empty, a symbol of an impossible possibility. The defeat of both of these elements cannot be divorced from longsuffering, which is a crucial aspect of agape.

The final two plenary sessions were delivered by Stephen Post and Alan Tjeltveit. Post argued that a recognition of the image of God in every human being can provide the basis for the practice of agape love toward those whom he called “the deeply forgetful” i.e. those with dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc. Post drew upon his experiences to give real life examples of what it would look like to show love towards this particular group of people. Tjeltveiet showed how a two-way interaction between psychological research and theological insights can shed light on issues which impede love and provide practices which can help provoke love towards others. These practices include being careful how we use the word love, training our emotions, choosing our social contexts wisely, developing empathy, choosing to perceive the worth and goodness of others through God’s eyes, and finally, but perhaps most importantly, allowing God’s grace to develop the virtue of love within us.

In addition to these plenary lectures there were a number of breakout sessions. These breakout sessions covered a wide variety of topics including: medieval theology of love, non-violence and love, definitions of love, love and technology, biblical accounts of love, and philosophical perspectives on love. Most of these breakout sessions were marked by quality presentations of original research and lively discussion after each paper.

 

Some Thoughts About the Conference…

This was my first time at a Center for Christian Thought conference, but suffice it to say that I walked away from it very impressed. First, the environment was excellent, and I’m not just talking about the venues for the main sessions and the breakout sessions, though they were superb. I’m talking about the tone and feel of the conference. The environment was collegial. There was a real sense that everyone present was there to support one another’s work and research. Though at times some of the responses were critical, they were always critical for the purpose of building up. The environment was productive. Some of the presenters that I talked to really felt as though they received really good constructive feedback during the sessions which will help them improve their work. Also, some new lines of research were opened up for some of the participants. One could hear chatter during the breaks about future lines of research on the subject of love. Finally, the environment was fun. That isn’t usually what you expect from an academic conference, but it was fun nevertheless. There was a sort of lightheartedness that pervaded most of conference. Whether it was Thomas Oord or Nicholas Wolterstorff’s jokes, discussions at lunch over gourmet sandwiches and salads, or the root beer float reception at the end, the conference was quite enjoyable.

But more than being a great environment for the conference, another feature of the weekend that stood out to me was the strength of most of the presentations. Naturally there were a few that were not as impressive (including a couple of the plenary sessions), but most of them did what good research does, i.e. they presented original ideas and/or further lines for future research. A few that stood out to me as being especially strong where Thomas Jay Oord, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alan Tjeltveit’s lectures. In my opinion each of these lecturers embodied what the CCT is all about. They were doing serious Christian scholarship which will have further implications for not only the church but for society in general.

Overall, I came to the end of this conference with the opinion that more of these kinds of conferences need to happen. We need more rigorous Christian scholarship that has an eye towards serving the world and the church. We need more opportunities for scholars who take their faith seriously to interact with others who share the same goal if doing scholarship for the sake of the world. We need more venues for this sort of scholarship to happen and to flourish. Although it was my first time at this conference, I see that Biola has a good thing going with the Center for Christian Thought. I look forward to seeing what they have in store for the community of Christian scholars next year.

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Perspectives on Compassionate Love: Lynn G. Underwood

The third plenary session at this year’s CCT annual conference was given by Lynn G. Underwood. Dr. Underwood has published widely in areas such as quality of life, cancer, stress, compassionate love, and the understanding of ordinary spiritual experience in a multicultural context. Originally trained in medicine, she holds a PhD in epidemiology, and is an elected member of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine. She is currently a consultant on projects for Harvard University, the Cleveland Clinic, the University of Connecticut and a variety of social services organizations, and is a Senior Research Associate at the Inamori International Center for Ethics at Case Western Reserve University.

Introduction

  • Working definition of compassionate love.
  • Qualitative interviews about compassionate love
    • Trappist Monk Study
    • Qualitative work in developing the DSES
  • Quantitative Work
    • The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale
    • A model to help connect science research with life
    • A few examples of research
  • The Arts (Poetry, film/tv, fiction, visual art)
    • A way to get at the essence and complexity of self-giving love.

 

Compassionate Love

  • Other-centered love, self-giving love, apage, altruistic love, etc.
  • Focus has been on human experience of self-giving love, love centered on the good of the other, with the motivation of supporting their flourishing, not only relieving suffering.

 

Key Qualities of Compassionate Love

  • Some elements of free choice
  • Some degree of cognitive understanding of the situation
  • Some understanding of the self
  • Valuing the other
  • Openness and receptivity
  • A response of the heart (core, where emotions and cognitions integrate)

 

Qualitative Research: Structured Interviews

 

Features of Compassionate Love

  • Asked the Monks, here is what they said:
    • Humility, unselfishness, receptivity, setting aside your agenda for the sake of the other, being present to the stuation of the other, a mature view of reality, sense of detatchment, trust, openness, acceptance of self in order to accept others, listening, suffering with another, helping the other become fully themselves, being aware of our emotions

 

Internal process for giving compassionate love

  • Weighing individual actions
  • Attitude of heart

 

Practices for Strengthening Love

  • Quite time, strengthening self-identity, prayer, spiritual reading, critique of aware community, listening, doing compassionate things, cultivating awareness of motives,

 

Quantitative Research

  • Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES)
    • Designed to transcend religious boundaries but still address theistic experience within particular religious contexts.
    • Measures perception of ordinary interactions with God.
  • How often do you experience the following on a scale of 1-6 (examples):
    • Spiritually touched by the beauty of creation
    • Feel thankful for blessings
    • Feel deep inner peace/harmony
    • Find comfort in my religion or spirituality
    • I feel God’s presence
    • I feel God’s love for me directly
    • I feel God’s love for me through others
    • I feel a selfless caring for others
    • I accept others even when they do things I think are wrong

 

Upshot

  • Higher scores on the DSES predicts lower burnout rate for pastors, nurses, parents.
  • People under high stress tend to be less loving, yet when they have higher DSES they are able to be loving even in stressful situation

An Ethics of Love and Future Generations – Frances Howard-Snyder

The second plenary session at this year’s CCT conference was Frances Howard Snyder, on the Ethics of Love. Here are some notes:

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40

An Ethics of Love (EL): treat the second great commandment as the ultimate ground – not decision procedure – for our moral obligations to our fellow human beings.

Challenge to EL: It may give the wrong answer to questions about how to treat future generations.

First worry: Future people

  • If you love someone, it seems you have to know her or at least have some sort of causal interaction with her. We have no knowledge of, or casual interaction with, future people.
  • Response: We can make sense of loving people, far away, that we don’t really have interaction with. Future people may not be that different.

Second Worry: Uncertain People

  • “Uniquely realizable” people. People who will exist if you make one choice, but will not exist if you make the other.
  • Example: Handicapped Child Case
    • If Wilma has a child now it will be handicapped (Pebbles), if she waits it will be okay (Rocks). It seems as though Wilma has a moral obligation to wait.
  • What does an ethics of love have to say about this case?

Handicapped Child Case (An Argument)

P1  Wilma’s act of conceiving now does not make pebbles worse off than she would have otherwise been.

P2 If A’s act harms B, then A’s act makes B worse off than B would otherwise have been.

P3 Wilma’s act does not harm anyone other than Pebbles

P4 If an act does not harm anyone, it does not wrong anyone.

P5 If an act does not wrong anyone, then the act is not morally wrong

C Wilma’s act of conceiving Pebbles is not morally wrong

You can object to each of these premises.

An Ethics of Love and the Non-Identity Problem

  • EL can embrace these premises and the conclusion. Seems like the problem is solved… maybe

Wrongful Life Case

  • Ex: child conceived will live such an awful life, that it would be better off not existing. Intuition says its right, EL can agree.

Concerns

Everyone is uncertain relative to me 1000 years from now

EL can respond to the problem of future generations, it need not be a special problem for it.

Q&A Time:

  • Can you love people in past generations? i.e. benefit or harm them?
  • Intuition seems to say, we have obligation to wait (i.e. Zika virus case), even though we don’t know to whom we have the obligation to wait.
  • Might love, in 2nd commandment, might actually be a value we ought to have rather than it being directed towards a specific person.

 

 

 

Love and Epistemology (Abstract) – Biola’s CCT

This weekend I will be at Biola’s Center for Christian Thought presenting a paper on the topic of love and epistemology. It is titled: Amo ut Intelligam (I Love so That I May Understand): The Role of Love in Religious Epistemology. Below you can read the sort of long abstract:

Abstract

Most contemporary discussions about religious epistemology have revolved around discussions about foundationalism, coherentism, realism, anti-realism, basic beliefs, and divine hiddenness among other topics. However, one topic that has received noticeably little attention is the role that love plays in our knowledge of God. This paper turns to the works of T.F. Torrance in order to show how love plays a crucial role in our religious epistemology.

In his epistemological works Torrance presents two basic principles of knowledge: The first principle is that “All genuine knowledge involves a cognitive union of the mind with its object, and calls for the removal of any estrangement or alienation that may obstruct or distort it.”[1] The second principle is that “we may know something only in accordance with its nature.”[2] That is, the nature of that thing prescribes the mode of knowing appropriate to it and determines the way we ought to behave towards that thing. The concept of love plays an important role in both of these principles.

In regards to the first principle, I show that God’s loving act of atonement is what removes the estrangement and alienation from God which prevents knowledge of him. Specifically I argue that given the Holy Spirit’s nature and his role atonement we are enabled to love God and thus to enter into the union of love with God which is necessary to know him. In regards to the second principle I show that this principle entails that in order to know God we must know God in a godly way. Thus given that it is God’s nature to be loving we must approach God in love in order to know him.

Both of these points have interesting implications for the task of theology. The first implication is that only those who love God will be able to have knowledge of God. This does not mean that the person who does not love God cannot hold true beliefs about God, it simply means that these beliefs do not count as knowledge. A second implication is that theologian who desires to know God must be committed to growing in her love for God. This in turn has implications for the personal life of the theologian, i.e. she must be committed to being a part of a community that helps her grow in love for God, she must be committed to loving others as God has loved her, she must seek to eradicate those things in her life which hinder her from loving God, etc.

This paper does not seek so circumvent other important topics in religious epistemology, since discussions about justification, realism, and divine hiddenness are certainly important. Rather it seeks to show that love ought to play a more prominent role in our religious epistemology. By showing this I provide another reason for further research into the nature of love.

[1] Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 25.

[2] Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 25.

The Meaning of Love – 5th Annual CCT Conference

A week from today I will be over at Biola’s campus for their 5th Annual Center for Christian Thought conference.

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This year’s topic is “The Meaning of Love.” The conference will be exploring questions like:

  • What is love?
  • What are the ethical implications of Jesus’s love commands?
  • What should be made of the Christian notion of enemy love?
  • What can be learned from recent scientific work on love about intentional practices likely to conduce to a loving character?
  • What light do ethical theories shed on the moral dimensions of love?
  • What is the relationship between love and justice?

To top things off they have a great line up of keynote speakers including:

  1. George Hunsinger – “Agape and the Long Defeat”
  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff – “Love and Justice – and Beauty Too”
  3. Thomas Jay Oord – “Love’s Essential Aspects and Diverse Forms”
  4. Lynn G. Underwood – “Perspectives on Compassionate Love: Science, Spirituality, and the Arts”

Hunsinger’s paper looks to be especially interesting. He will be comparing Karl Barth’s work to J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. In this paper he will be comparing Tolkien’s Nazgul’s to Barth’s concept of das Nichtige (the power of nothingness). Sounds fun!

In addition to the keynote speakers there are over 30 breakout sessions. These include papers by friends of mine, Thomas Ward and Jordan Wessling. Thomas was my T.A. in my medieval philosophy class when I was a sophomore at UCLA. Jordan is one of two post-docs on our Analytic Theology team at Fuller. And of course, yours truly, will be presenting a paper titled: Amo ut Intelligam (I Love so That I May Understand): The Role of Love in Religious Epistemology. Its a riff on “I believe so that I may understand.”

Overall the conference looks like a lot of fun. So if you are free next Friday and Saturday come down to Biola’s beautiful campus for what seems to be the makings of a really interesting conference. Register here.

Kyle Strobel on Jonathan Edwards’ Doctrine of Theosis

A few weeks ago Kyle Strobel (Talbot Seminary) came in to Oliver Crisp’s Jonathan Edwards Seminar to present a paper on Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of theosis. For those of you who are interested in this topic – here are my rough notes:

Kyle Strobel – assistant professor of spiritual theology and formation at Talbot School of Theology

Is there such a thing as a Reformed Doctrine of theosis?
• Isn’t necessarily an “eastern doctrine.”

Theosis – several options
• Either communication of attributes
• Or participation in divine nature
• Edwards – does both

Theosis, Deification, Divinization are synonymous terms.
Though there is accepted terminology there is no accepted definition across the traditions.

Assumed: The Divine essence is incommunicable. But the divine nature is communicable.
For a doctrine of theosis to be the doctrine of theosis it must order the rest of soteriology.

The protestant tradition appropriated theosis with Protestant particularities:
• Communication of divine attributes
• Participation in relation to the divine persons (through adoption)

Edwards is able to draw together both traditional expositions of theosis.

What Edwards does is provide a thorough going Reformed doctrine of theosis.

1-Doctrine of Trinity → gives us the mechanics for theosis.

• The doctrine of God simply is affection in pure act.
• The Son and the Spirit both have natures intrinsic to their identity. But they are persons only as they exist in perichoretic relation to one another.
• See the psychological analogy
• Edwards distinction b/w divine essence & divine nature protects from radical divinization
o The nature is communicable but the essence is not
o i.e. Holy Spirit is God’s very holiness – which we can receive
• The natures of the persons are communicable. God gives himself to the believers so they can participate in his own life: his self-knowledge and self-love.
• In Edwards account its impossible to pull apart the persons and natures of God. (The son just is his love and the Spirit just is his love.)
• If God is going to give himself to you he just has to give you his Son & Spirit.

Concluding Thoughts

• Theosis – grounded in Trinitarian participation, modeled in incarnation, effected by Spirit.
• What kind of doctrine of theosis is this? One that covers both options.
• God’s own personal attributes of knowledge and love are now known as through a mirror darkly, but in new creation they will be made clear.
• Glory and happiness are words that describe God’s communicable life. This just is what we participate in.
• He offers a qualification though – never lose their personal identity.