December 11, 2007

Defining Love

Posted in atheism, church, culture, family, friends, marriage, psychology, religion, scripture, soup at 5:20 pm by Jerry

“Love” is one of those words that are mutually expressed in conversation despite a lack of mutual understanding in its meaning.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 John 4:7-8 NASB)

According to this biblical passage, either there’s no such thing as an atheist or atheists cannot experience true love. Both are presupposed fallacies and possible explanations for the confusion over “what I believe”. I assume, when people say they just don’t know what I believe anymore, what their really wondering is where does my heart find meaning and purpose, what is it attached to or what does it rest on. In other words, where does my heart find security and significance?

I find, though, when I respond to this concern my answer is never good enough for a religious person. Maybe it’s because a religious person sees my life as cheated out of the extras in their lives, I don’t know. They have an extra reality called the supernatural. They have an extra life beyond the grave. They have an extra Being who is extra extra powerful and extra extra knowing. And because of all these extras, they have extra hopes for the future.

I think my life has just as much depth and fullness (sometimes more, sometimes less) than any religious person. So, if I do the math, I can only assume that I’ve been able to take greater advantage of the meaning naturally gleamed from this world than some others have. But my point is not to create a hierarchy of meaningful lives here. Rather, it is to emphasize the opportunities atheists have to enrich their lives here on earth. Now, to answer the interest in where my heart finds security and significance: I believe in Life and the Love it creates.

Whether life is intelligently designed or love is attributed to a god (Ishtar, Aphrodite, Freya, Radha, Jesus, Kama, and so on), I find security and significance among all the living and a world of exploration in the love that life creates. That’s right. I think life, good old fashioned naturalistic life created love. Yet some have told me that the evolutionary reasons (survival) for the naturalistic world to have created love diminishes love’s meaning. I fail to understand this kind of reasoning because I just don’t see how the evolutionary process diminishes love’s meaning – unless your losing some mystical extras presumed in love’s definition.

I think a close association between God, Life and Love makes some worshipers feel that an attempt to clarify what ‘love’ is would be irreverent or impossible because the true meaning of love is ineffable in the mystical sense. And even for those of us who feel our experience of real, beautiful love cannot be diminished by any explanation of it, we fear the loss of our own meaning of the word, our own poetical definition from the depths of our being that need not be mystical to be ineffable.

Sometimes I wish we could just eliminate words like ‘love’ and create a new word for each of the many meanings that can be found in it. Some languages do this already. Take the five Greek words for ‘love’, for instance. In the Greek, the words “Xenia,” “Storge,” “Eros,” “Agape,” and “Philia” are all translated into the English word “Love”. (If you’ve grown up going to church, you’ve probably heard these definitions with extreme emphasis on Agape as Godly love that completely outshines all others, even though the others, we are told, are not without purpose.)

After re-exploring the five Greek concepts of love, I discovered I already had my own personal revamped definitions of love too:

XENIA (known as love offered to strangers) = a consented act of service between those of their own species.

STORGE (known as family love) = a consented act of service between those considered a refuge.

AGAPE (known as unconditional love) = supporting humanity’s instinct for Xenia and/or Storge with a dutiful commitment to the political/social necessity of Xenia and/or Storge despite the lack of happiness found there in.

EROS (known as erotic desire) = a consented act of service between those with a mutual sexual attraction.

PHILIA (known as friendship love) = a consented act of service between those with a mutual attraction of minds; ‘soul mates’

(Notice how my definitions of Xenia, Storge, and Agape do not require or rely on the consciousness of physical or emotional feelings to perform the acts of love. Eros, however, does require a consciousness of one’s physical feelings; and Philia requires a consciousness of one’s emotional feelings.)

Now that I’ve articulated my current definitions of love, I’ll be analyzing them, contemplating overlaps or the lack there of, and looking to read material out there that will restore the true definitions of the greek words while helping me to develop my own.

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14 Comments »

  1. Linea said,

    God seems to be beyond your knowing right now. So, you don’t believe in him. If God is God, however, he really does not require your belief in his existence in order to be. I believe that God shows up even if a person does not recognize him. If God is love – the essence of all the forms of love which the Greek words tried to capture – I believe you are seeing him in all the places where love is seen and experienced. If God exists you can not keep him from being who he is just by your disbelief. A God that could be destroyed by your lack of belief would hardly be a God worth trusting/depending on and honoring. God always has provided for all, believers and non-believers alike. He has always loved all his creatures. If you don’t believe, you just miss out on the privilege of knowing him and communicating with him.

    I am not responding in order to start an argument with you. You seem set on not believing, which is your privilege. But it also seems in your writing that you are always trying to justify/rationalize your beliefs as if you are preaching Atheism like a good old atheist fundamentalist. Which, if that is what you want to do, is fine I guess but it seems almost as if you are trying too hard to convince us.

    Personally, I think the God you are rejecting is too small to be a real God. Good luck in your new found un-faith.

  2. Jerry said,

    Hi Linea,

    Thanks for your response. I think it’s the first one of its kind. I don’t think there has been any believer I know personally that has responded not just to a recent post of mine, but also expresses their perception of my motivations for articulating my reasons for unbelief.

    I don’t always like to argue either. I like constructive arguing, when it’s possible. And if I have any love with a person beyond just the “Xenia” I described above, I’d like to be able to maintain that love while differing in opinion, too.

    I agree with alot of what you say. God is beyond my knowing. And he doesn’t require my belief in order for him to exist. And I may have seen him without recognizing him, too. Though, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by – “If God is love – the essence of all the forms of love which the Greek words tried to capture – I believe you are seeing him in all the places where love is seen and experienced.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds like there is room in your theology for pan-entheism (God is apart from nature and also part of nature, that is, the natural energy that keeps the machine of nature running).
    Whether this is your theology or not, when people call any part of nature “God” it doesn’t help me see God, only a new title or name for a part of nature. In other words, without a differentiation of the supernatural from the natural, I’m sorry to say that I still can’t see, as you say, God’s “essence… in all the places where love is seen and experienced.”

    And this reminds me of your words – “If you don’t believe, you just miss out on the privilege of knowing him and communicating with him.” Communication implies a two-way conversation: so not only have you talked to God, but you’ve literally received a response from God, and are still receiving literal responses from God.

    I’d like to have any of my five senses experience God’s communication, because there’s alot I’d like to talk with him about. If you can explain or even point out a difference between the supernatural from the natural, maybe that would help me see what I’m not seeing. (I should add here that this desire itself reveals that I can’t be labeled a “fundamentalist” unless the definition is wider than I thought. From my understanding, fundamentalism is a label for those who hold to doctrine – creedal beliefs that are not allowed to be shattered by reason.)

    You also said, “God always has provided for all, believers and non-believers alike. He has always loved all his creatures.” For this I direct you to one of my recent posts called “Cop In or Cop Out?”.

    I’d also like to comment on your statement: “you are trying too hard to convince us”. There may be more in these words then thought after a first reading. Because, to me, being convinced can only start from within. I love expressing many of the old and new reasons why I’m not a Christian anymore – I hope no one wants to begrudge me of that. But more intriguing than anything are your words “too hard” in this statement. What makes it (whatever it is) too hard?

    I am really glad you commented, Linea. Whether it’s what I want to hear or not, it’s just so good to know what’s on the minds of those who knew me before I became an atheist.

    Drop by anytime,
    Jerry

  3. Linea said,

    I will begin to respond to some of this. Some things you ask me about I will get back to later, I hope.

    I suppose what I believe about God could be interpreted as pan-entheism but there is a difference that to me is essential. God is apart from nature since I believe he created it. And if God created nature, nature cannot be God. God can be discovered in nature because it reflects his attributes and displays his creative power. So I do not call any part of nature God but I do see his hand all over it. It is one of his ways of communicating with me as an artist communicates with those who view his art.

    You are right about communication. It is a two-way conversation. But communication is not only done with words, although I have heard those from God at times. Literally. And am open to still receiving literal responses from God although those instances seem to occur only under special circumstances. Most of the time my communication with God is quiet. It most often involves my senses, not words. But that is common when communicating with someone you love and are close to.

    I think you may be experiencing God without acknowledging it. Do you not enjoy the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the magnificence of a storm, the babble of water over rocks in a stream, the smile of a baby? Those are ways in which God communicates to me. I think he is trying to communicate to everyone but not everyone hears it as God. I guess that would be the case with you.

    God uses the natural to communicate to me but he is not the means with which he chooses to communicate. In the same way, I use speech and body language to communicate to others but I am more than the means I use to communicate.

  4. Jerry said,

    “God can be discovered in nature because it reflects his attributes and displays his creative power. So I do not call any part of nature God but I do see his hand all over it.”

    I agree that nature has many beautiful “attributes” and displays “creative power,” but peer-reviewed empirical analysis among a high majority of scientists ascribe the attributes and the creative power to nature itself, nothing more. So, if you can’t describe how the attributes and creative power is ascribed to a “God,” your explanation is a classic non sequitur, and therefore I see no reason here to believe God exists.

    “I think you may be experiencing God without acknowledging it. Do you not enjoy the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the magnificence of a storm, the babble of water over rocks in a stream, the smile of a baby? Those are ways in which God communicates to me. I think he is trying to communicate to everyone but not everyone hears it as God. I guess that would be the case with you.”

    So, what do you think God is telling everybody in the movement of a sun, in a storm, in babbling water, and in the smile of a baby? Would everyone who hears God in these things agree with you about what God communicated? (I’m assuming that you’d agree that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God could and would communicate clearly enough to not let ignorant, fallible human interpretations get in the way from God truly relating with those he loves.)

    I agree with you that there are many different ways of communicating. But I happen to think that anytime person A communicates to person B through whatever form person A chooses, person B knows that person A can be located. In other words, if an anonymous person comments on my blog enough for me to know that it wasn’t just a computer program, I know that it is possible for me to meet this person face to face.

    So far, I have never received communication that was both natural (for my senses to recognize) and a revelation of a divine mind to convince me that I could meet “God” face to face.

    But you say you’ve had this type of communication. Which makes me wonder – do you consider those moments “Linea moments” or “Christian moments”? I’m assuming you’d say they were “Linea moments” because not every Christian experiences the ones you’ve described. (I’m not saying those moments were not real or not an experience of the Christian God. I’m just making a point that it was an individual experience. Or was there anyone else near you to witness the exact same natural form of clear communication God used for you?)

    By the way, which of your five natural senses did you use to recognize God’s communication to you? Your answer should reveal what forms of nature God used, and then maybe we could talk about how the supernatural can have an influence on the natural.

    Lastly, I just want to say that I really appreciate your openness with me. Many might say you’re casting pearls on a skeptical swine. I hope you can tell that I’m being genuine in these comments, searching for the truth. Because whatever the truth is, I’d have to agree with “John” here that it does have a way of setting us free.

  5. Linea said,

    Sorry, I just haven’t had time lately to reply. I would like to but things are crazy busy around here. Can we talk by e-mail or do you prefer this forum?

  6. Paul Johnston said,

    Hi Jerry, Paul Johnston here.

    Sorry for the lateness of my comment but I can’t help but feel saddened by your rejection of a relationship with God. Not for my sake, friend but rather for yours.

    Friends of God can dream of a future better than the present. Friends of God can believe in a power that transcends the self serving wickedness of human authority. Friends of God can be honest with themselves, about themselves. For with God there is hope for personal redemption and victory over the darker aspects of our own nature. Friends of God can see a fraternity with their fellow beings that trumps tribalism and self interest.

    If a simple truth of love is putting someone elses interest before your own, can you say with conviction that atheism is the best way of exempifying such behavior. Does not Jesus stand as a better example this simple definition than Hitler or Stalin.

    Human endevours to project God’s kingdom have fallen woefully short of their potential, only a fool would argue otherwise. Still given what you have learned of yourself, others and the history of human activities do you really mean to trust the generosity and love of what you’ve seen expressed by mankind, or would you rather not take a chance on an unseen God whose servants speak of a higher potential.

  7. Jerry said,

    Hi Paul,

    You said, “Friends of God can dream of a future better than the present. Friends of God can believe in a power that transcends the self serving wickedness of human authority. Friends of God can be honest with themselves, about themselves. For with God there is hope for personal redemption and victory over the darker aspects of our own nature.”

    So, what’s your point here? Strangers to God can dream and hope for better futures for society and their individual selves, too. They can believe in the power of life and love which transcends “wickedness”, and can “be honest with themselves, about themselves”.

    I had to separate this following statement from the ones before it because of the presuppositions I see in it: “Friends of God can see a fraternity with their fellow beings that trumps tribalism and self interest.” Where is the trump? How is the Church not a tribe of its own, excluding others not interested in their own beliefs? For example, how is the Church’s most basic beliefs of a Heaven not the result of tribalism and self-interest?

    “..a simple truth of love is putting someone elses interest before your own..” Why should you, Paul, care to put ‘someone elses interest before your own’ if not because your self owns a personal interest in this altruistic principle in the first place?

    “Does not Jesus stand as a better example [of] this simple definition than Hitler or Stalin[?]” Are you saying people with a God-complex are our only options to use as examples to learn from?

    “..given what you have learned of yourself, others and the history of human activities do you really mean to trust the generosity and love of what you’ve seen expressed by mankind, or would you rather not take a chance on an unseen God whose servants speak of a higher potential.”

    Many believers have inferred this potential through various attempts, but there is nothing in this world that implies or speaks of a potential for the existence of God. So, I can’t even take a “chance” on the God idea because no one can truly say there is evidence to support the existence of this “chance”. And though mankind’s generosity and love is fallible, it exists. I can count on it, if not some of the time, most of the time. Though, I don’t know how much to count on receiving from you.

    I struggle to find generosity or love in the words you’ve written above. You start off calling me “friend” while condescendingly expressing your pity over something that has made me very happy. A friend would be happy for my happiness. And if what you’re really sad about is the unhappiness you think I’ll feel in an afterlife, why wouldn’t you, as my friend, feel sad for your sake too? Afterall, you wouldn’t be able to rescue or comfort me, your friend who suffers!

    …or would you be able to generously put aside your interest in Heaven, and selflessly suffer Hell to lovingly comfort me in whatever I’d truly be suffering through?

  8. Paul Johnston said,

    Respectfully Jerry, what I think your struggling to find is the love in your interpretation of my words, not the words themselves.

    As for me, when I’ve loved well it was based on compassion towards and affection for others and not as you would suggest simply a self vested altruistic impulse. When I love well, I love others for themselves based on an impulse wholly divorced from self interest or concern; based on a God inspired impulse to try to love others as he has loved me. Based on trying to pay forward all that God, life and others have shared with me. Based on parents who loved me well and asked/hoped that I would love likewise. Based on being a loving example to my children so that they might feel the security of God’s presence and likewise love bravely, love freely.

    I hope for love returned, Jerry but the giving of my love is not dependant upon it. Not anymore anyways, though it is a life lesson that took me a long time to learn.

    My sorrow for you is based on years of travelling down a road upon which you now embark. I remember what the journey was like for me and I would not wish it upon anyone else.

    Love is beyond empherical measure, Jerry. The love we give and the love we receive we take on faith. You must believe and have faith, that your wife and daughter love you, for in the end, they can’t prove it. You simply have to believe it.

    Embracing a worldview divorced from faith is the first tragic step towards embracing a worldview divorced from love.

    Look at the great atheist societies of the 20th century and tell me again that godlessness, purposely chosen, offers all of the same love potentials that I ascribe to Jesus Christ. Compare and contrast Mao, Hitler and Stalin with Jesus and convict me that they reflect similar love potentials.

    You haven’t just left the Christian tent, Jerry, you’ve made camp with the enemy. The enemy of life, the enemy of love. In time, you’ll come to see this to be so, of this I’m sure.

    When you do, remember the door is always open to you.

    True love never walks away from us, even when we do.

  9. Jerry said,

    “Respectfully Jerry, what I think your struggling to find is the love in your interpretation of my words, not the words themselves.”

    I see that we’re running into the same problem I wrote about in my post, so I won’t comment on it except to say that I recognize the Church’s influence on you – if one can’t find love in the words of the bible, we’re to struggle to find love in our own interpretation of it. This way, all in the bible and all behaviors of Christians can be justified.

    “When I love well, I love others for themselves based on an impulse wholly divorced from self interest or concern; based on a God inspired impulse to try to love others as he has loved me.” Just saying this doesn’t make it true. And if God isn’t loving out of self-interest, why is it that he won’t give us more of the good things in life without demanding that we worship him?

    “My sorrow for you is based on years of travelling down a road upon which you now embark. I remember what the journey was like for me and I would not wish it upon anyone else.” I hope you don’t assume to be wiser because you may have had more experience than me. Though more time gives more opportunity to gain wisdom, there’s no guarantee that wisdom has been attained.

    “Love is beyond empherical measure, Jerry. The love we give and the love we receive we take on faith. You must believe and have faith, that your wife and daughter love you, for in the end, they can’t prove it. You simply have to believe it… Embracing a worldview divorced from faith is the first tragic step towards embracing a worldview divorced from love. ” My wife and daughter have proved their love for me daily. My baby may not be at the age where she can verbally consent to familial love, but it is well understood in human society as an instinct between parent and child. And, of all the five Greek words for love I posted about, my wife and I continually consent to everyone of them.

    “Look at the great atheist societies of the 20th century and tell me again that godlessness, purposely chosen, offers all of the same love potentials that I ascribe to Jesus Christ. Compare and contrast Mao, Hitler and Stalin with Jesus and convict me that they reflect similar love potentials.” There is no need to keep insisting on a comparison of totalitarian dictators. The atheist society I belong to is anti-totalitarian. It consists of rational people who currently recognize democracy as the reasonable use of government, freeing individuals to think and speak freely, and vote for different leaders – apparently something God would never have in his Kingdom.

    “Jerry, you’ve made camp with the enemy. The enemy of life, the enemy of love. In time, you’ll come to see this to be so, of this I’m sure… When you do, remember the door is always open to you… True love never walks away from us, even when we do.” I could say the same to you, but I’ll refrain from being patronizing.

    [By the way, if you intend to keep commenting here without addressing my questions in this comment and the previous one, I’ll be blocking you from commenting on my blog because I insist on being talked to instead of talked over.]

  10. Paul Johnston said,

    Sorry, Jerry but I don’t engage in deconstruction as a means of conversation, I find it very unnatural and unfriendly, particularly when those who would deconstruct my dialogue do so innacurately. You’re free to ask people what they meant by what they said but I would suggest to you that your inncessant habit of deconstructing others words and applying your own negative interpretations isn’t likely to encourage a direct form of conversation, unless like you, I begin to insult the person I’m trying to engage in dialogue.

    No need to block my comments Jerry, I won’t be back.

    Democratic atheism

  11. Jerry said,

    “Sorry, Jerry but I don’t engage in deconstruction as a means of conversation, I find it very unnatural and unfriendly, particularly when those who would deconstruct my dialogue do so innacurately.”

    That’s too bad. It’s a great way to learn something about one’s self and one’s beliefs. I highly value others’ deconstruction of my beliefs (and their correction of my inaccurate deconstructing). And how ironic that we both thought the other’s form of communication was “very unnatural and unfriendly.”

    “…isn’t likely to encourage a direct form of conversation, unless like you, I begin to insult the person I’m trying to engage in dialogue.” And yet, you clearly managed to insult me anyways, even without entering into a direct form of conversation.

    I find that insults given through indirect means such as subtle bittlement through condescension or patronizing behavior doesn’t make a person look/sound as angry as if the direct approach was used – which is important to anyone who wants to be perceived as righteous. But if someone recognizes this sort of passive-aggressive behaviour we’re using, I think it can easily be understood as cowardly and deceptive. I’m not saying I’m without fault on either account in my discussions with people, but i think it’s debatable whether the direct (angry) method is less generous and loving than the indirect (cowardly/deceptive) method.

    Oh, and why you signed off as “Democratic atheism” I don’t know, but I like it. I think there needs to be a clear differentiation between democratic atheists and totalitarian atheists when religious people address atheists. Us atheists should be acknowledged as to which camp we belong in.

    Self-awareness and Peace be with you,
    Jerry

  12. Linea said,

    I hope we can just sort of shift Paul Johnston’s responses aside since I don’t really want to deal with them here and now. Except to say that I hope you don’t construe my responses to you as talking over you. That isn’t my intent at least.

    Anyway, back to communicating with God. It seems to me that you have rejected the existence of anything but material realities. I think this is what you are saying when you say that things have to be perceived through your natural senses in order for you to accept them as real, right?

    Of course I believe in a material world and in reason and in the validity of the scientific process as a means of investigating and discovering truths about the world around me (I am after all trained in scientific thinking). But I also believe that there exists another level of reality which we encounter that cannot be measured or experienced in the same way as we experience the material world, but which is no less a reality. I believe in these spiritual realities and I have experienced things in this realm that I can’t just pick up like a photo and show you. To understand these things you pretty much have to acknowledge the presence of a world of spiritual reality that exists around us and that can influence us as much as the physical realities we encounter.

    My encounters with God have been real experiences for me but I acknowledge that they occur on a level you do not appear to accept as real because they are not within the physical realm. This is not like hearing voices in my head as a Schizophrenic would. So please don’t think that these are a manifestation of mental illness. I think I am pretty rational, and I know that I am a physical being but I also live and experience things that go on in a spiritual realm. I guess that you could call this the psychic realm.

    If you do not believe in spiritual realities, in the existence of a psychic realm, then you kind of cut yourself off from encountering a real God and experiencing an encounter with him except as he has manifested himself in the physical realm. Therefore it would be interesting for me to hear what you believe about Jesus since Christians believe that he, as God, entered our physical realm to reveal to us things about the spiritual realm.

    If you do not/cannot acknowledge the existence of a spiritual realm then we will not always be speaking the same language and it will be hard for you and I to communicate clearly.

    I believe that my remark about love, beauty and creativity as demonstrations of the existence of God was spoken from this perspective, using this type of language. Sometimes things stir up deep feelings within us that are not necessarily consistent with the physical reality that has caused the feeling. A sunset can be explained in scientific terms but its effect on me, its meaning to me, has to be explained in the language of feeling/poetry/story, etc.

  13. Jerry said,

    Hi Linea,

    Forgive me for not responding sooner. I was going to email you right after the holidays (I don’t think I have your email address, but Becky’s going to give it to me). Then, when I saw what Paul wrote (just as the holidays were ending), I thought I’d deal with his comments first, and then move on to talking with someone who doesn’t talk over me.

    I hope we can continue our conversation without bothering each other with tonal issues (I think this venue makes it a little easier to make unintentional tonal errors). And just so you know, I was a touch less gracious with Paul because I really don’t think his heart was in the right place.

    I love your latest comment, and I’m looking forward to responding to it. So, if you still want to move this conversation onto email, I’d be happy to – just let me know.

    Jerry

  14. Linea said,

    Yeah, lets go to e-mail. Otherwise this one entry could drag on and on.

    Paul has responded to some of my entries in the past and I think he means well but is just fairly conservative in how he comes across anyway.


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