Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Psychology's Love-Hate Relationship with Love: Critiques, Affirmations, and Christian Responses

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Psychology's Love-Hate Relationship with Love: Critiques, Affirmations, and Christian Responses

Article excerpt

Christian psychologists' contributions to understanding love of God and neighbor have fallen far short of their potential. A major reason, I argue, is psychologists' love-hate relationship with love. Psychologists raise challenging questions about love (or some understandings of love), based on their (usually implicit) ethical intuitions (e.g., that telling battered women to love their abusers harms them). In addition, some understandings of love (e.g., pertaining to obligations, choices, and/or divine action) fit poorly with psychology's natural scientific methods. On the other hand, psychologists conduct research relevant to love and most psychologists seem deeply committed to love. Psychologists thus both critique love (hate it) and affirm it. Multidisciplinary approaches for developing a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of love are discussed.


The paucity of attention most Christian psychologists have given to love of God and neighbor-as-self is strikingly odd. Although human love is, by almost any definition of psychology, a psychological phenomenon and Jesus said the two greatest commandments in the Law are "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22: 37, 39, New Revised Standard Version), psychologists have devoted little sustained empirical and conceptual attention to love. Indeed, of over 1500 articles in the Journal of Psychology and Theology and the Journal of Psychology and Christianity listed in PsycINFO prior to 2004, only 5 titles (excluding references to sexual/romantic love and self-love) have included the word love.

It is particularly surprising that Christian psychologists have devoted so little attention to agape and other forms of Christian love because, even on a logical positivist account of science, drawing upon religious and ethical ideas to pose research hypotheses (say, about love) is--in the context of discovery--entirely legitimate, so long as not a hint of ethics, spirituality, metaphysics, or bias (save those associated with objectivity, materialism, and naturalism) enters into the context of justification (according to popular interpretations of Reichenbach, 1938), that is, into choice of method and how one collects, analyzes, and interprets data. And so on traditional accounts, even the strictest Christian compartmentalizer (who advocates for the necessity of very high walls between theology and psychological science) may legitimately investigate love. Such investigations have rarely been conducted by advocates of a "levels of explanation" approach (Myers, 2000b) to the relationship of psychology and theology, however. Nor have they often been conducted by the integrationists and others who argue for the empirical existence, and legitimacy, of a close interpenetration of psychological understandings with metaphysical (including theological), epistemological, and ethical convictions.

Such reluctance to investigate love is a phenomenon requiring explanation. In this paper, I will suggest that psychologists' modest contributions to the understanding of love may be attributed in substantial measure to our ambivalence toward it. Psychologists in general are drawn to love, but also tend to be deeply suspicious about love, concerned about its negative effects, and unclear about what method, if any, can be employed to understand it. Psychologists' customary methods, the language we employ, our sense of our history, and our aspirations all make it very difficult to talk about--and work through--our ambivalence toward love.

Christian psychologists have, I think, avoided the topic for the same reasons psychologists in general have avoided it, and for additional reasons. Our desire to gain respectability within the field as a whole makes it more difficult to investigate an unpopular topic. More substantively, several Biblical themes that are central to classical Christian understandings of love make psychological investigations of love--especially as science is traditionally understood--much more difficult (and, some would say, either impossible or dramatically limited in scope) than investigations of other topics. …

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