Love at the Core

I’m convinced that love is core.  And I’m convinced that the notion that humans look for love in all the wrong places is right on.

Now, you’d think that every Christian doing counseling would agree.  But some of us nuance this differently, and the nuancing is important.  I’ve taught Psychology in Relation to Theology courses for almost a decade, assigning a wide range of works from authors like Tripp, Lane, Powlison, Crabb, Allender, McMinn, Shults and Sandage, Nouwen, Johnson, and more.  And while I think they’d all agree that we look for love in the wrong places, they might debate, a bit, on how critical and core love is.

I’m going to flesh out the reasons why I think Love is at the Core in several posts, utilizing theology, psychology, neurobiology, neuroanatomy, biology, and more.  But one question I’d like to pose to you arises from a recent debate around Christian ways of articulating the human problem and its cure.  I’ve been a bit critical (though I agree with so much) of a fairly popular article by a fantastic person and extraordinary contributer to Christian thinking on human change and growth, David Powlison.  In Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair (by no means his only work or exhaustive work), he writes:

When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed.  For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love.  As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols.  As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols.  But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.

I am one of those who does precisely what Powlison is talking about, and I don’t believe its humanistic or extra-biblical.  Indeed, I think Love is what makes us human.  I start with a positive understanding of Exod. 20 and Deut. 5 (The 10 Commandments), that God made us in and for love.  I don’t see idolatry as a priori, in other words. I see love as prior to everything else.  The law attempts to re-direct us to love.

If this makes me a humanist, so be it.  John Calvin was strongly influenced by the humanists of his day, unapologetically.  My sense, however, is that Powlison’s influence is, in fact, more Freudian.  It’s a belief that behind all good things lie hidden urges and wayward desires.  This way of thinking has so permeated 20th-21st century thinking that it has manifested in a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, as Ricouer suggested.

In other words, I’m suggesting that a Christian view of human beings move beyond a pessimistic anthropology (though never, ever denying human sin and pathology) to a hermeneutic of love, rooted in God’s Trinitarian periochoretic love.

Before I write more, what are your initial thoughts?  Am I caricaturing a certain camp unfairly?  Am I wrong to suggest that, perhaps, Powlison might be as influenced by secular psychology as I am?  Is the 20th century Freudian/Humanist psychological debate analogous to the current Christian debate on these issues?  Let me hear your thoughts.

7 comments

  1. This conversation might be a bit above me, but what I’m picking up is that you are engaging the tension between the fact that as humans we are created in the image of God (which is perfect love) and the fact that we all bare the wounds of the fall. Sometimes we forget the affirmation of God during creation that “it is good”! While at the same time we know as well that we are broken because of sin.
    James K. A. Smith said a lot of these same things in “Desiring the Kingdom”. I like the observation that at the core, humans are lovers.

  2. Love is what makes us human….developed….love is what defines us as image bearers…for God is love. I think biblically God is love and all his other attributes flow from His love. We bear His image. We love…the question is what do we love.

    As you develop these thoughts, if it warrants as you write, compare how counseling paths diverge depending on this foundational starting point. ~ brad

  3. To quote your second to last paragraph:

    “In other words, I’m suggesting that a Christian view of human beings move beyond a pessimistic anthropology (though never, ever denying human sin and pathology) to a hermeneutic of love, rooted in God’s Trinitarian periochoretic love.”

    I’d like to see this explored within an upcoming post, because as a summary it could seem quite jarring. The phrase “hermeneutic of love” needs a firm grounding.
    Maybe in the extention of Jesus for our sin as part of God’s covering over our sin(transgression/misplaced love), and how much more perfect/pure/holy/merciful/just God’s love is towards us who love in an unholy manner. This would convey the “possitivity” of God’s action while not negating and explaining in context the a/effects of our sin.

    I’m interested, and looking forward to the continuation.

  4. Allow me to push back just a little bit, with the understanding that I will agree with probably everything that you say in this series. Can we assert the primacy of one of God’s attributes over and above the others, as if there is one thing that God is centrally, out of which flow all the other attributes?

    I ask this because of John Frame’s assertion that each of God’s attributes are a perspective on the whole of who he is. (You’ll have to forgive me not supplying an actual quote, I’m at home and his books are in the office.) Which is to say, is it just as appropriate to say that God is Wrath, God is Just, or God is hesed.

    I believe that you’ll agree with the above statement, but do I sense correctly that you will be positing not an ontological, but a relational theological anthropology? That is, in regards to the missio dei it would seem that all things flow out of God’s perichoretic love for himself and his desire to include all of humanity in that relationship of love, yet in regards to God’s being as itself it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to say where one can begin.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Great Q Graham. You are a lot smarter than I am but I’ll take a stab at it. What if all of God’s attributes are ‘perspectives’ on love? 1 John 4:8?

      1. (Sorry for the length of delay in response…)

        Well, to begin, I will take issue with your statement that I am a lot smarter than you are. Rather, I am an insecure person ministering in a bywater church who, feeling like he has to prove himself, writes in fancy lingo. It’s a learned tongue, not my native language, used to project an image of who I think I should be for people to accept me. 😉

        You, my friend, are a genius.

        The thought of all of God’s attributes being perspectives on love is compelling. But I hesitate to move the focus of the ‘perspectives’ off of God’s being in itself. Now if you mean to say that God’s being in itself is love, then I’d be more apt to agree with you conceptually. Yet, I’m hesitant to attribute one attribute to the core of God’s being, because that would mean that love is no longer an attribute, rather it is the essence. Is that what you are saying?

        The difficult thing is that the response to my objection will then be that I am making being-in-itself God’s essence. This is especially complicated by the philosophical work surrounding *dasein* and *éntre-en sol*. (I make no claim to understand any of those concepts, just that when writing the previous paragraph the phrase ‘being-in-itself’ sounded a lot like Dr. McKenzie so I looked it up.)

        Anyway, I guess this is all to say that I’m reluctant to place one attribute above the others in a absolute heirarchical manner. I’m all for talking about the preeminance of love as a perspective, but it seems a bit reductionistic to say that it *is* what God is more than other things.

  5. Hey Chuck! I’m prone to agree with you on this. It seems that the tendency of Christians for at least a few generations has been to focus *only* on our sinful nature, forgetting that we were Image Bearer’s FIRST. In another post, I think you called it “Original Glory” or something like that, before “Original Sin”. One of the most refreshing things for me when I came to RTS was that the dignity & depravity of humans were always held in proper tension with one another.
    All that to say – Powlison’s view seems to reflect the tendency to over-focus on our depravity, to the exclusion of our dignity.

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