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Humanity has 7 billion ways to define love

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By Mark Azzara

My Dear Friend,

Two weeks ago I asked readers to define the word “love,” which I contend is the correct starting place for unpacking the real issue behind the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision to legalize gay marriage. My thanks to all who responded.

Our conversation suggests that each of us has his or her own definition of love. But we don’t recognize these differences when we casually use that word because we presume the definition is obvious. Our conversation proves that it isn’t.

The real issue revealed by the court’s decision involves the source for our definition of love. The Supreme Court has, in effect, said it is now legal for adults to define “love” any way they want. The court has legally enshrined our power to: use a word we don’t understand; define it without getting agreement; change the definition as conditions warrant (i.e., whenever we feel like it); and then to blame the other person when love by our definition fails.

The institutional church is supposed to be one key source for defining love, but its well-documented and ongoing penchant for condemning rather than loving – for talking about love rather than actually loving — makes it easy to doubt the church’s capacity to teach anybody anything about love. This fundamental failure of the church is a crucial root of the problem we now face.

I suspect that people who were taught rules in church rather than being shown love there eventually began, in desperation, to invent their own definitions and, at some point, to quit church (or attend in body but not spirit) because they’d found what they were seeking on their own. The perfect example: Me.

What is the impact of such self-defined love? I suggest that the seeds of divorce (which is where 50 percent of all U.S. marriages end up) are planted even before marriage because the two people in it failed to discuss and agree upon a definition of love that applies in all situations. The perfect example: Me and my  now-ex wife.

Couples who are divorced thought at one time they were in love. Do they still love each other? You tell me. In Matthew 24:12 Jesus warns that, in the end times, “the love of many will grow cold.” The end times of a marriage prove the truth of the Lord’s words. Brrr, it got really chilly in our house for a while.

When the divorced enter new relationships do they recognize their mistake and devote time to discussing love? You tell me. The divorce rate for remarried people is higher than that for first-timers. (No, I’m not remarried.)

Once you’ve blamed the previous partner for all the mistakes that led to divorce you’re free to continue making your same old mistakes, ignoring philosopher George Santayana’s warning, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Example: I was seeing a woman for a while until God, in his great mercy, told me, “You realize, of course, she’s just like your ex.”

The consequences of divorce are profound. Children of divorce — and there are millions of them in our divorce-saturated “developed” society – are saddled with a weak understanding of love simply because of what they observed in their parents’ relationship.

In a recent article on Patheos.com, Greg Popcak claims, after evaluating available data, that divorce is the primary cause of declining church membership. In other words, the church’s failure to demonstrate love is now coming back to destroy it.

“[R]ather than being able to use religion as a resource for constructing a coherent story for the meaning and purpose of their lives as many children from intact church-going families do, children of divorce have to go it alone,” Popcak writes. “They … struggle to let anyone else offer feedback or guidance. They learn that they can’t trust the sources they are supposed to be able to trust for guidance and formation.”

This is a truly vicious cycle. Parents disconnect from church because they aren’t loved there, they divorce because of conflicting individual definitions of love, and then their non-church-going children are left to figure out, on their own, what love is rather than find an accurate definition in church. Guess where their marriages are likely to wind up. In biblical terms it’s an example of the father’s sins being visited on his sons. In psychology it’s called generational woundedness and it’s getting greater attention these days. Check out the research by Dr. Douglas Schoeninger.

The Western world’s individualized definitions of love are frequently romanticized and/or self-centered perceptions that just don’t work. But there are other, even more twisted definitions that lead to even more horrific consequences. The members of ISIS don’t see themselves as murderous thugs. They say they are demonstrating their “love” of God by killing those whom they believe God already hates. To them, hate is love. How Orwellian! And how horrifying — except that we have used that murderous definition ourselves. Does anyone remember the Salem witch trials or the Ku Klux Klan? Gays are just the latest group to be hounded, threatened, bullied and assaulted by those who say they “love” God.

And let’s not forget Nathan Collier, the polygamist/star of “Sister Wives.” He and two of his “wives” applied for marriage licenses July 1 in Montana – just five days after the court’s ruling, which inspired his decision. His reasoning: If gays can legally marry, so can polygamists. Collier is using the court’s ruling to win legal recognition for his definition of love and marriage. And Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent, said the court’s majority opinion can be applied in just such a situation. Will the courts allow this? Heaven only knows.

Today we use “love” as code for sex, infatuation, enjoyment, lust, affection, romance and more. For example, we “love” a good cup of coffee, that new living-room sofa, that new car in the showroom or a musician’s latest song.

“Love” is now media fodder. A tabloid “newspaper” once had the headline: “Michael Jackson Can’t Love Anyone.” I thought the assertion was so utterly absurd that I grabbed that rag off the supermarket rack because I had to know the basis for that statement. It turns out the story claimed Jackson couldn’t engage in sex with anyone.

Telly Savalas, in his trademark TV line as fictional detective Theo Kojak, asked “Who loves ya, baby?” Good question! But Tina Turner’s reply might be, “Who cares?” In her most well-known musical statement she dismissed love as “a second-hand emotion.”

It should be clear from these examples that each of us is capable of defining love, or simply living in the presumption of a definition, in a way that reflects nothing more than that individual’s values and perceptions. But that’s plainly not good enough. Just ask those of us who are divorced!

The nub of the issue should be clear by now. If all 7 billion of us must create individual, unspoken and easily changeable definitions of love so that nobody has any idea what anyone else is talking about we are in big trouble. The only alternative is to seek a single definition that applies to everybody, all the time, without exception. That definition must be provided by God because, as it says in 1 John 4:16, “God is love.”

OK, Azzara, now I see where you’re going. You’re sneaking in the back door and trying to ram Jesus down my throat! No, not really. I’m simply asking you to look logically at our dilemma and confess that, on our own, we are simply incapable of reaching an agreed-upon definition of so basic, so precise, so important a word.

For its own good humanity needs a one-size-fits-all definition that utilizes value-neutral words. That’s the challenge I faced years ago when I heard that question. It took me more than two decades to discover the answer so don’t feel bad if you couldn’t define it in two weeks. But since I’ve taken up so much space already, I’ll save my definition for next week.

Your response may be: Why wait that long? Just grab the dictionary, which contains a perfectly serviceable definition of love. Ah, but those definitions vary from one dictionary to another, and all rely on value-centered words such as “affection” and “compassion.”

Moreover, even if we all could agree upon and memorize a single definition, that’s still a long way from living it. And actually living the definition of love is the true test of how we define it. Actions really do speak louder than words.

That’s why it’s not nearly good enough for me to write my definition here and leave it at that. We not only need to know the definition; we need to know how to live it. I’m too tired to explain that now. And before I try I hope you’ll take some time to think a little bit about what I’ve already written.

All God’s blessings – Mark

Mark Azzara
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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