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It’s Your Turn to Write: Define the Word “Love”

By Mark Azzara

My Dear Friend,

On Friday, when the Supreme Court issued its gay marriage ruling, there were all kinds of placards outside the court proclaiming that everyone is now free to love. When I saw those signs I remembered what happened to me years ago. Twice within a matter of months two friends asked me, “What is love?”

I thought the question was pretty straightforward when I heard it the first time, but then I tried to answer it and discovered that I couldn’t. When I heard it the second time, I knew it was really God challenging me to come up with an answer. And the fact that I made my living off words as a journalist was an added impetus to take up that challenge.

I can’t tell you how relieved I am that the Supreme Court has decided the gay marriage question. Perhaps now, after decades of legal wrangling, we can finally get around to addressing the real issue. I have an idea of what the real issue is, and I plan to write a letter to you (perhaps as early as July 13) in which I will identify and address it. But I can’t do that now.

I can’t sit here and simply tell you what I think the real issue is because I would be guilty of preaching or dictating. Before I speak I must listen — to you. We must begin by engaging in a conversation. And since “love” seems to be at the heart of this issue I think that’s where we should start. So let me ask you the same question: What is love?

I invite you to respond, regardless of what side you’re on regarding gay marriage. I won’t write a letter to you next week because I don’t want to distract you from the need to thoughtfully look at and define this word. You thus have two weeks to respond. Take as much of that time as you want. Seriously. I urge you to do what I must do — take time to think before writing. Don’t just dash off any old answer that pops into your head.

Ask yourself, perhaps even look up, how the word “love” is used in the Bible and in American society. Is it possible there are multiple definitions of that word? Does the answer depend on one’s age, economic or life circumstances, cultural upbringing, history, religious beliefs and/or gender?

The legal wrangling has simply been a public example of how we, as human beings, prefer to shout at one another rather than listen. So this invitation also is really an opportunity to practice the lost art of listening carefully to what others say, in the hope of learning something. I certainly hope to do so.

I may try to engage with those who answer this question in the comments section, but only to help flesh out the answers. And I certainly hope you will engage one another as you read and ponder all the answers, and reconsider your own response in light of the others. If, after reading the other comments, you want to re-write your answer, go ahead.

I can’t wait to hear from you, but I’m also being honest when I say I have no way of knowing what you’re going to say. Some of you may think you know where I’m heading and what I’ll say. Don’t go there because you’re probably wrong. Since I don’t know where the conversation is headed, how can I know how I’ll respond to it?

A conversation about love may alter what I believe to be the main unresolved issue in the gay marriage debate. My opinions regarding gay marriage have changed in the past year — yes, just the past year — so I acknowledge the possibility that they may be altered again. And if they aren’t altered it’s because I will have a response to those who will engage in this discussion.

I encourage you to spread the word. Tell your pastors and parishioners, coworkers and neighbors, friends and even enemies what’s going on here and invite them to join the conversation. Seriously! As I said, we need to have an honest conversation, if only to remember how it’s done. I think we will all learn something. And God knows we need to.

All God’s blessings – Mark

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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  1. Agape, philos, eros are all rich and varied terms in NT Greek – and are all translated by the single, overused, overtaxed, impossibly overbroad, English word “love.” How can anyone write A definition?

  2. The one I came up with is “An existential orientation (that is, an orientation towards reality that encompasses everything that you do and are, a lived commitment) that seeks the good of the other for the sake of the other.” Thoughts?

    • That is, if memory serves me correctly, basically St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition: Willing the good of the other as other. But that forces you to define the word good. *Good* luck with that.

      • My thought is that “good” would be described in terma of eudaimonea and rooted in evolutionary biology/psychology. More specifically, I’d start with the premise that we are contingent beings–that we exist, and that it is possible for us to not exist (in our current corporeal form). As contingent beings, there are states of affairs that promote our continued existence and states of affairs that preclude it; these define our objective interests.

        Of course, within that spectrum of objective interests, there will be states of affairs conducive to greater or lesser degrees of functionality/fulfillment/joy/what have you. Again, this is where evolutionary theory is useful; for every being, there is a “fitness landscape,” comprised of all possible states of being for that individual, some being more gooder (in terms of general thriving as an individual) than others. The good desired would be the “highest” point on this fitness landscape.

        There are, as I see it, two main problems with this. First, my initial definition, as written, would seem to preclude self-love; for to desire one’s own good for one’s own sake more often is an expression of selfishness than of love. Second, I believe that people should have the option to end their lives should they so choose (in part because I want that option available to me); prioritising the objective interests of the other elevates existence above wellbeing, which I find problematic. I think the main reason for this is that, in considering the objective interests of the other, you de facto regard them as an object.

  3. The only way it should be, by the sacrifice of His (Jesus) life on the cross to redeem sinners back to God, who by the way is love. Anything else, simply won’t do.

  4. Well, Mark, here is the answer off the top of my head (sorry about that) – because if I wait to write, I won’t write… I think love is defined and measured by how much you give of yourself. When I think of giving, I think of time, money, emotion, touch, labor, compassion – or it could be as muted as a facial expression, listening, prayers, words of encouragement… and there are countless other to give self. (The one from the list I wrote I rule OUT, or consider least, in for *my* definition of love is money. Giving money is not really giving of SELF. Sure you may have worked hard to earn it, but you are giving it, not yourself.) The ultimate picture of giving self was Jesus Christ – He gave His entire Self in every imaginable way. Thus love is a condition of the heart that leads to an action or expression.

  5. The Lord has shown me that care is a facet of love ~ meaning that if love was a diamond or a cut stone, love is one facet.

    I believe that the care that God is talking about is care that He plants in us. It is caring about people despite our differences. It is care that goes beyond our hatred and anger and frustration. It does not mean that we are someone’s best friend, necessarily, but it is the attitude of our heart toward them. Love is something in us that does not give up on others, despite their actions. It is wanting and hoping for the best in their lives, rather than wanting revenge.

    I believe that love for ourselves is caring enough for our own hearts to do what we see is best for us and right in God’s eyes, despite the fact that others are not in agreement.

    Love is something that God does in us. It is healing and changing and revealing and stretching. Love is hard. Love takes strength. It often takes us beyond our own ability, which only God can help us do ~ still caring about other people, rather than writing them off, and still caring about ourselves when we can see the greatest of our failings.

  6. Love, as I have been working on the topic, has been defined as “being with” as in Being with another. When are authentically with another or God, then you are as Martin Buber named in an I-Thou relationship. Theologically, in Emmanuel or “God with us,” the incarnate God in Jesus is with us and in God’s presence we find love. We we are with others, we are in the grips of love. Here is a small except from the book I am working on

    Science has discovered being
    with another face to face can make our hearts physically stronger.⁠[1]
    Being with people face to face might
    be better for a cholesterol clogged ticker than jumping around for twenty
    minutes. (When I jump around like that I look like a hippo doing ballet.) Face
    to face means giving others our full attention in wonder. Unconditional acceptance
    fails to capture the power of what Simon Weil so eloquently put:

    Attention is the rarest and purest form of

    creates love by being with another. It is our past that betrays us. Jesus
    brings his attention to us when he is with us. We call this experience being
    with Jesus the Kingdom of God. His presence set us free.

    L. Your Phone vs. Your Heart March
    23, 2013, New York Times

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