[Note: The following has been slightly adapted from an email conversation that I had with an individual who will not be identified herein. In this exchange, I developed and defended a particular understanding of "love" and responded to several questions regarding the consequences of my understanding for sex. In what follows, the sexual context is limited to that involving a man and woman in a marital relationship. The reason for the limitation was that my view seemed so restrictive that I was pressed concerning what my interlocutor viewed as absurd consequences even within the male-female-marital context. In other words, my correspondent was trying to assume, for the sake of argument, the most conservative Christian possible with respect to marriage in order to show that my position was too austere - even by what are generally thought to be very conservative standards. The reader can decide for herself how I fared.]
This is the beginning question: Metaphysically, what accounts for some things (specifically, we will concern ourselves with acts and actions) having the property of "love" and other things lacking that property? Let me start by telling a story.
So, there's a God who has in some way created human beings. This Creator-God has situated human beings inside of a physical system. And further, the Creator-God has made the physical system into a cosmos – that is, a system that is ordered according to rules that we can term the "Eternal Law." These rules are designed such that, when they are obeyed, human beings, as well as other created organisms, are enabled to flourish. Non-rational organisms are drawn into conformity with the Eternal Law in virtue or what we might call "Instinct." Human beings, however, being rational, are additionally drawn towards conformity with the Eternal Law in virtue of the existing of the "Moral Law" - a set of commandments that the Creator-God has ingrained into human beings. But, human sensitivity to these Moral Laws has been reduced in virtue of human rebellion against the Creator-God. Subsequently, the Creator-God has made provisions to make the Moral Law more explicit, in virtue of certain Revelations, culminating in the Creator-God's Incarnation on Earth.
Now the rules established in the Eternal Law, and made rationally detectable in the Moral Law, regulate all human activity. This includes sexual activity.
Those acts that obey the Moral Law and, by extension, conform to the Eternal Law, and hence facilitate human flourishing, are "Good." Those acts that disobey the Moral Law and, by extension deviate from the Eternal Law, and hence precipitate human destruction, are "Evil."
Given this framework, which I take to be (a perhaps shoddy) condensation of traditional Christian cosmology and anthropology, we can mark out a properties that act-types have objectively in virtue of being sorts of obedience or disobedience to the Moral Law.
Additionally, adopting a Kantian sort of angle, we can distinguish between an "act" and an "action". Say that an "act" is "an act-type, that is something a human could do, considered apart from any particular instance of doing it" and an "action" is "an act-token, that is something a human could do, considered as an instance of it being done."
To put it another way, "giving food to the poor" - considered apart from any particular instance – is an "act." Now if I actually do give food to the poor, it becomes an action and, in that process, the act of giving food to the poor will be coupled with a particular intention that I have.
Now, when considered as an act, we might say that said act has, objectively, the property of Good. If I couple it with the intention to do Good to another, then the resultant action counts as an instance of Charity.
For we can define "Charity" as follows:
(1) Subjectively, willing Good to another and
(2) Objectively, performing a Good act
We can contrast this with two other cases with relevant differences. Suppose that I give food to the poor but secretly hope that all those who receive it choke to death on it. The act itself has not changed. Considered in abstraction, the act of giving food is still Good. But coupled with this intention to do harm, the resultant action no longer counts as an instance of Charity. (As to what it DOES count as, I will refrain here from guessing.) Suppose now instead that I knowingly give not food but poison to the poor. And suppose, what seems obvious, that I have the intention to cause grievous harm. Considered abstractly, the act of giving poison is Evil. Couple with an evil intention, in full knowledge, and we can count the resultant action as a grave Sin. It is intuitively clear that, as Sin, it cannot be an instance of Charity also. (Clearly, there are also going to be terms such as "criminal" that we would want to apply. But, let us leave civil matters aside, presently.)
Thus, we can say that there are two ways for an action to FAIL to have the property of Charity. Number one, the action could consist of a Good act but an Evil (or at least, not-Good) intention. Number two, the action could consist of an Evil act – with any sort of intention. Call the number one way to failure "Subjective Failure." And call the number two way to failure "Objective Failure."
Alright, on this construal, we can examine two sets, call them Set-A and Set-B.
Let Set-A consist of all consensual physical acts. And let Set-B consist of all consensual physical actions.
Set-A will then have two subsets: Subset-A1 and Subset-A2. Let Subset-A1 consist of all the acts that are Good. And let Subset-A2 consist of all the acts that are not-Good (whether because they are morally neutral or outright Evil).
Set-B will likewise have two subsets: Subset-B1 and Subset-B2. Let Subset-B1 consist of all the actions that are Charitable (that is, all the actions that result from Good acts being done with Good intentions). And let Subset-A2 consist of all the actions that are not-Charitable (that is, all of the following: all the actions that result from Good acts being done without Good intentions (whether neutral or Evil); all the actions that result from Evil acts being done with any sort of intentions (whether Good (if such be possible), neutral, or Evil); and all the actions that result from morally neutral acts being done with any sort of intentions (whether Good, Evil, or neutral)).
Now, here's an advantage of this account: Because, on this account, acts have objective properties of Good, Evil, or neutrality in virtue of their conforming or failing to conform to God's Eternal Law, we have a trio of properties that are not vague, and we can give a clear answer the metaphysical question with which we began.
We asked: Metaphysically, what accounts for some things having the property of "love" and other things lacking that property?
Our answer can be given as follows: By "love" let us mean "Charity." Actions that have the property of "Charity" are those actions that objectively conform to the Good and which are (subjectively) willed by the actor for the Good of another person.
Now, the English word "love" is ambiguous, as we have noted. But, on the above account, neither Charity nor Good are not ambiguous. Hence, we have allayed two worries. Firstly, we have delivered a non-vague predicate. And secondly, we have delivered a disambiguation for the ambiguous word "love."
I doubt that any other imaginable disambiguation of "love" would fare as well. In fact, this is a boon to my account.
A. The (present) Christian account of Charity provides an unambiguous and non-vague analysis of the property of "love."
B. No other account has yet been shown to provide an unambiguous and non-vague analysis of the property of "love."
C. Ceteris paribus, we should prefer an account that delivers an unambiguous and non-vague analysis of something to an account that has not yet delivered either an unambiguous or non-vague analysis of that thing.
D. Therefore, the (present) Christian account should be preferred to any other account yet offered.
Question 1: Are people who believe in other (sorts of) god - or no god at all - capable of love?
I answer: It's worth repeating: "Love" is ambiguous. We need a sharper notion if we are to evaluate phrases such as "capable of love." What sense of "love" is relevant? It seems plausible to think that the truth evaluation will depend on how "love" is disambiguated.
There are several ways we can try to get some handle on the relevant ambiguity. One way is via translation. Let's just focus on words, as opposed to larger linguistic entities like sentences and so on. So in translation one takes a word in one language, which language is called the "Source Language," and selects a word in another language, called the "Target Language," that the translator believes (hopefully with good reason) adequately captures the "content" or meaning of the Source Language word. With this in place, we could say, "So take English as our Target Language and then look at some Source Language or other and then consider all the words in that Source Language that we translate by using the Target Language word 'love.'" In this way, the idea is, we can get a sense of whether the English word "love" is ambiguous and, if it is (or seems to be), whether that ambiguity is homonymous or polysemous.
("Homonymy" is a sort of ambiguity where what appears to be a single word – a classic English example is the word "bank" - is arguably better understood really to be two different words with radically different meanings ("financial institution" and "land boundary of a river") that just happen to be spelled and pronounced the same way. "Polysemy," on the other hand, is a sort of ambiguity where a single word – for instance, a simply Google search reveals the word "foot" - where though there is a range of meaning, the meanings have something like a family resemblance to each other and are not "radically different" ("foot" as in "the bottom part of a mountain" or as in "the bottom appendage of a human body", e.g., both deal with "bottom – or lowermost" - parts and therefore are similar to each other).)
If we take, oh say, Koine Greek, as our Source Language, then we could say such-and-such about Koine Greek words like agape, storge, eros, charitos, phileo, epithumia, and probably several others as well. This is one way to get at the ambiguity – polysemy – of the English word "love." It has been popoularized in some circles (perhaps mainly, although not exclusively, Protestant ones) by C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves) and a series of lesser lights (often by way of Christian-themed "self-help" type literature; e.g., Ed Wheat's Love Life for Every Married Couple).
Personally, this translation-route isn't the way that I prefer. For one thing, I think that, for all of the variation introduced by the numerous words, it's still too blunt an instrument. There are arguably polysemies built into each of the Greek words and our analysis is then either badly compromised or intolerably complicated. For another thing, critics such as D.A. Carson (Exegtical Fallacies) complain (with justification) that numerous spurious conclusions are drawn by commentators employing sloppy word study methodologies that do not pay close enough attention to the plasticity of language.
Thankfully, there is another way to get at the ambiguity of "love." We simply look at some of the (well-formed, both syntactically and semantically speaking) English sentences in which the word "love" appears and we sort of make an intuitive catalog of all the variations of meaning we can detect.
I have sketched this sort of project before, so I will just quote myself.
*** Begin Quotation ***
In general, there are emotional and volitional concepts that are marked out by the English word "love."
In terms of emotion, or feeling, "love" could designate any of the following feelings (and probably more besides):
- sentimentality (e.g., "I loved my childhood teddy bear.")
- general fondness (e.g., "I love a good book.")
- strong like (e.g., "I love chocolate.")
- strong friendship (e.g., "I love my best friend.")
- pity (e.g., "He tries so hard, God love him.")
- deep concern (e.g., "I have a special love for the poor.")
- blood-familial affection (i.e., parental - paternal, maternal; filial; sororal; or fraternal; etc.) e.g., "I love my sister.")
- erotic-sensual feeling (e.g., "I love her legs.")
In terms of volition, or "willing," "love" could designate any of the following actions:
- erotic-sexual activity (e.g., "We met at a party and loved each other the entire night.")
- altruistic/self-sacrificial activity (e.g., "Daily he loved and cared for his comatose wife.")
Additionally, there are composite notions.
For example, "healthy" marital (conjugal-uxorial) "love" (husband-wife relations) is likely a composite of certain emotional "loves" (e.g., strong like, deep concern, and erotic-sensual feelings) as well as certain volitional loves (chiefly, erotic-sexual).
*** End Quotation ***
Now, to reiterate, my resolution to the ambiguity worry is to cash "love" out as Charity. (See above.) As to whether a non-Christian theist or atheist be capable of "love," then, will partially depend on the sort of "love" under consideration.
If we think about "emotive" loves (which, colloquially, might be termed "feeling," "liking," "lusting," "being infatuated," and suchlike), then it may well be that, with these, theism plays no interesting role. However, run as Charity, in my sense, I think that the statement "nonbelievers/atheists" are capable of love plausibly comes out false.
For "Charity," as a theological virtue, is sometimes defined as follows: "[t]he greatest of the theological virtues, by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God" (Baltimore Catechism, Glossary entry: "charity").
Speaking of "loving our neighbors as ourselves for the love of God" depends upon an antecedent "love of God" of a specific sort. And here we can sort of get a picture in mind that might be helpful. For, "love-in-a-Christian-sense" has two "directions" to it. Sometimes, these are called the "horizontal" and the "vertical." And the intuitive notion is that the "horizontal" represents our love for our fellow human beings, while the "vertical" represents our love for God. This can be visualized somewhat as a simple "cross." And, there is a priority given to the vertical in the sense that it is maintained that without proper love-for-God one cannot have proper love-for-other-humans. Hence, one has to move up the vertical line before effectively moving laterally.
It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that love for others – in the sense of Charity – depends upon love for God. But, assuming (for argument's sake) that Christianity - in something like its traditional formulation - is true, then heaven exists. If a person ends up in heaven if and only if that person loves God appropriately, then a person who does not love God God appropriately does not end up in heaven. If two people profess to "love" each other, but are contemptuous of God, then (again given a familiar Christian anthropology and epistemology) because at some level they realize that there is a God; if Christianity is true, then both they personally and their supposed "love" will not end up in heaven. But, it seems perverse to me to entertain the notion that "love" can be conjoined with contempt for prospects of eternal destination.
Of course, the phrase "capable of love" also turns on the meaning that we assign to "capability." In one sense, non-Christians and atheists certainly ARE "capable" of charity. To be more specific, non-Christians and atheists are capable of becoming Christians, loving (and subordinating their lives to) God, and by so doing become able to love their neighbors as themselves for the love of God. This is just to say that, qua-humans non-Christians and atheists are able to become Christians. But, qua-non-Christians or atheists, non-Christians and atheists are incapable of charity. I think that this is the unfortunate verdict of a thoroughgoing application of the relevant theology.
Question: Hypothetically, could a husband give his wife a smack on the bottom during sex, or would that undermine charity?
I answer: Let's run this through the machinery I set up earlier.
So to evaluate an action for "love" (as Charity), we need an act coupled with an intention. I presume that one relevant act is supposed to be (something like) male-female-marital-penile-vaginal sexual intercourse. So, I will stipulate that that particular act is Good.
But there are two questions. Firstly, With what intention am I supposed to couple with act? You have not supplied enough information for me to evaluate the case for love.
But I think I can remedy this deficit. Because, intuitively, there are only three choices: The husband has a Good intention, he has an Evil intention, or he has a "neutral" intention (and here I will include the possibility that he has no coherent or identifiable intention at all).
Suppose an easy case first. Suppose that the husband has an Evil intention – such as, "I want to hurt or humiliate my wife." In such a case, the act – although Good – will not result in a loving action because it is coupled with an Evil intention.
Suppose next that the husband has a "neutral" intention, or none at all. Again, no loving action will result because the Good act has not been coupled with a Good intention.
But, of course, I am neglecting something. Up until now, what I have neglected has been inconsequential. Namely, I have neglected the act of "smacking the wife's bum". It hasn't mattered up until now because no loving action could result on my account if the husband's intentions were either Evil or neutral, and so the status of the smacking act did not matter until now.
I again am inclined to think I have insufficient information to evaluate a supposed case in which the husband has a Good intention and "smacks his wife on her bum" while performing the stipulatively Good act of engaging in male-female-marital-penile-vaginal sexual intercourse.
Here, I think that the primary question is: Can the act of smacking one's spouse during sex be Good?
Step back for a moment. Consider only the male-female-marital-penile-vaginal sexual intercourse. I take it that if the husband had a Good intention with respect to the male-female-marital-penile-vaginal sexual intercourse, then that would mean something like that the husband intended to strengthen his marital relationship through the sex act by engendering a sort of spiritual oneness with his wife that can attend, and is symbolized by, the physical oneness of the sex act.
Given this, I am a little unclear as to how this intention (or one relevantly like it) could be maintained if the husband began to smack his wife for any reason.
In other words, I suppose I doubt that if the husband really did get it into his mind to smack his wife, that his intention was after all genuinely Good. Contrariwise, if the husband's intention was genuinely Good, I doubt that he would really occur to him to smack his wife.
Suffice it to say that a loving action is one for which both the act and the intention to act are genuinely Good.
Question: So, on this account, is it the case that there cannot be anything but tender, gentle sex between husbands and wives?
Certainly, there could be all the sorts of sex acts that there in fact are. But, on the account that I am offering, it does appear suspicious to me that non-tender, non-gentle sex acts could plausibly be considered Good. Relatedly, it strikes me as implausible that a person who intends to engage in non-tender, non-gentle sex acts could have Good intentions. In fact, one antonym suggested for "tender" is "unloving"! (And another name for "non-gentle", it seems to me, would be violent. And I would be interested to hear how "violent-love" is supposed to be not as oxymoronic as it seems obviously to be.)
Question: What if the married couple decides to "do it doggie style"?
I answer: The way that I am proposing to analyze cases is to consider acts and intentions in combination. Good acts coupled with Good intentions count as loving. It seems to me, offhand, that "doggie style" COULD perhaps count as loving on this account. However, it does seem that a husband who proposes such a position runs the risk of making his wife feel as if he does not want to see her face up close or kiss her. Therefore, honestly, I think that although considered as an act, what I take to be "doggie-style" (namely, rear-vaginal-entry sexual intercourse) may not be obviously non-Good in any straightforward way, still, I think that one must carefully and realistically evaluate the coupling intention. If the intention is unsavory or nebulous, then the overall act will fail to be loving in my sense. Frankly, I suspect that the probability is non-negligible that the intention will fail to be loving. But this is just a speculation.