Let’s Define ‘Progressive Theology’

For the past weeks I’ve been writing about specific features I’ve encountered in ‘progressive theology’—specifically, a certain view of love and relationship, and a concept of blaming tradition itself for certain abuses. In discussion with a few people, I’ve been pressed to provide a definition of what I mean when I talk about ‘progressive theology,’ and I’m going to try to do that today. Please note that while I disagree quite strongly with what I see in progressive theology, my goal today is to attempt to give it a charitable rendering. In other words, I hope that a progressive reader would find himself or herself unobjectionably described herein.

Car-Clash

Before anything else, let’s talk about the word ‘progressive.’ For most of my life, and in an ongoing way in political discourse today, the dividing line between ideologies is rendered most often in the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Liberal politics, like liberal theology, is theology ‘of the left,’ on the socialist and ethically progressive side of the scale, while conservative politics (and theology) is ‘of the right,’ and espouses some kind of capitalist, ethically traditional perspective on politics and theology. For a variety of reasons, I find these labels unhelpful when describing theology. First, because they are so trenchantly tied to political blocs, it seems all too easy to associate—and perhaps even identify—a theological position with a political one. In this, it is worth remembering that there is a long and upstanding tradition of Christian Democrats (e.g., Billy Graham), as well as a long a sordid tradition of Pagan Republicans (e.g., fill-in-the-blank). Some of these associations dispose us to errors in describing theological positions when we describe them as liberal or conservative. Second, many features of the ‘liberal’ agenda are deeply Christian—such as care for the poor, prioritization of human rights, and a disposition that aligns itself (at least ostensibly) with those members of society most likely to be abused by powerful systems of government. Whatever problems we might identify with ‘liberal’ theology, they aren’t these, and therefore I think it might be helpful to separate what is ‘liberal’ from what is ‘progressive.’

Billy-Graham-and-John-F-Kennedy

For similar reasons, I also find ‘conservative’ to be an unhelpful theological label. ‘Conservation’ can imply retreat and protectionism, and can sometimes reflect nothing more than a doubling down on the status quo such that ‘conservative’ can imply simply ‘opposed to change in any form.’ Another label to be avoided is ‘orthodox,’ if only because to use it implies an automatic value judgment for its opponents (i.e., they are unorthodox). Additionally, to claim a position is orthodox, in a formal theological sense, means that it falls within the boundaries of creedal and conciliar Christianity. The proper antonym for orthodox is heresy, and to be a heretic means to adopt a theological position that has been declared a heresy by the Church (e.g., Arianism, or Nestorianism, or the like). For these reasons, and many others, I prefer the label ‘traditional’ as an opposite to ‘progressive’ in describing theology. Moreover, ‘traditional’ theology (as we will see shortly, I hope) differs in each of the key aspects which define ‘progressive’ theology.

A final aside before we begin. Naturally, these are my observations about the features of progressive theological thinking. They are formed from my reading, my conversations with progressive thinkers, and especially from my quiet observation of a few highly progressive online communities. Nothing that I say, of course, amounts to the level of a kind of formal sociological study—these are simply the things I see when I observe this phenomenon.

I perceive five characteristics that define ‘progressive’ theology:

Theology cartoonkirk-anderson-ona-cartoon-440W#1) Progressive Theology operates with a certain conviction of the progress of theology. In some ways, this may seem obvious (since progress is embedded in the name), but it is worth making explicit. As a methodological lynchpin, progressive theologians view the theological task as a developing, progressing one. We know more now than we knew then, and that which we know now ought to have significant impact on how we formulate theology. For example, we know more about evolution than did the author(s) of the Genesis account, and that new knowledge ought to shape our reading and interpretation of the text. We know more about human rights and dignity, and that ought to shape our reading of texts which permit slavery in the Old Testament (and fail to condemn it in the New!). We know now that women and men are equals in every respect, and that equality ought to shape our praxis and belief regarding women in the church. We know more about human sexuality, and our new knowledge ought to force a readjustment of our teaching and attitudes towards persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. However you may feel about these individual issues, in each of them a similar methodological turn is at play—new knowledge forces a reinterpretation (sometimes radical) of what was previously thought. At their heart is a belief in a certain kind of progress. Put theologically, the Scriptures and councils of the Church spoke for their times but do not necessarily speak for our time. In this way, the Spirit continues to speak in fresh expressions (much like an ongoing fulfilment of the Acts 2/Joel passage) which continuously develop our theological understanding.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral#2) Progressive Theology prioritizes experience on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If you don’t know, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of viewing sources of authority in Christianity. It has four sides which together support Christian belief: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In its original formulation, scripture sits at the bottom of the quadrilateral as a foundation, while tradition, reason, and experience form secondary considerations in theological discourse (i.e., they each answer to scripture). For progressive theologians, however, experience is given a position of priority. Put simply, the lived religious experience of individuals has more value than an ancient text. If I encounter a homosexual individual who has a robust and visible relationship with the Lord, that lived experience ought not to be invalidated by a text or a tradition. Alternatively, in stories that are quite common, Christians with traditional views of human sexuality change their minds when one of their children comes out as gay. In fact, to validate the text over against the person is viewed as a form of dehumanization, and may even look (to the progressive theologian) a lot like Pharisaism (holier-than-thou adherence to a tradition that is far removed from and neglects the lived experience of the people). Within this preference for experience seems to be embedded a deep suspicion of religious authority, manifesting itself in distaste for traditional arguments from scripture, and for expressions of hierarchy or patriarchy. It may be from within this metric that progressives find themselves viewing traditionalists as oppressive, or even repressive.

#3) Progressive Theology prioritizes a certain interpretation of the love commandment in all theological/ethical thought. In line with a belief in progress and a prioritization of experience, progressive theologians/Christians emphasize the love commandments as the final word in Christian ethical debates. Since the Old Testament is full of commandments we don’t follow (boiling goats in mother’s milk, wearing mixed fabrics, etc.), and since the New Testament appeals to a new law of love which transcends those old commandments, all we need to think about is the new commandment. God is love, and love is all. This ought to manifest itself especially in love for one’s neighbour, particularly one’s downtrodden, poor, or oppressed neighbour. When a traditional Christian critiques the progressive Christian on scriptural grounds, this ethical prioritization activates, and the question of ‘which is more loving?’ is commonly utilized to navigate the dispute. For the result of the dispute, see the comments above on Pharisaism.

God is still speaking 2#4) Progressive Theology commonly prioritizes its progressive elements in witness. When progressive Christians witness, they commonly foreground those elements where they believe progress has been made—they preach inclusion, and LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality, and advocate for female clergy, are often pro-choice, and may describe themselves (and their theology) as “woke.” This makes sense—if you believe that the Spirit has moved in a new way in the present, and that this new way includes all of these elements, then you will want to celebrate these new elements in your public witness. Personal sin and salvation regularly plays a reduced role in progressive Christian witness.

#5) Progressive theology is impatient with ‘regressive’ theology, viewing it as a kind of bondage. This is of course a clear parallel to #4, but to the degree that you are convinced that a) you are an agent of progress, b) that the lived experience of individuals is of more value than dead tradition, c) that the love command is paramount, d) that this ought to be preached loudly and clearly, then it follows, e) that you will regard traditional theology as a kind of bondage. In fact, you may well view traditional theologians as modern day Pharisees, attempting to bind the common man to a law he cannot keep, and which God does not mean him to keep. Progressive Christians sometimes view themselves as liberators, and in line with that there is commonly an impatience, if not an outrage bordering on vilification, with which they regard traditional Christians.

tomorrowland-astronauts

Sometimes progress is just a guess.

There is, doubtless, much more to be said about progressive Christian belief than this, but perhaps this is a helpful start. I have refrained so far from criticizing any of these features, if only because my intention has been to maximize the charity of my presentation. In view of this, I will limit myself to the briefest of criticisms now. First, most importantly and essentially (and as I mentioned before), I am deeply suspicious of the narrative of ‘progress.’ In the past two thousand years there have been a host of ‘advances’ which were not advances at all, or at least were not advances that altered Christian belief. I struggle with a narrative that invites so much discontinuity not only between the Old and New Testaments, but between Christian belief and practice from the ancient world until today. ‘Progress’ very often is simply a representation of what is ‘popular,’ and as Inge said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Second, as a traditional Christian theologian and thinker, I am disposed from the start to distrust experience. That’s the reason we prioritize Scripture—it provides a foundation against which to measure the vicissitudes and changes in personal experience (which is fickle), as well as with tradition (which occasionally goes wrong), and reason (which can be deceived). Third, while there is great merit in focusing on the love commandment in Christian life and practice, it still means that we have to define what ‘love’ is, and to define what love is we’ve got to appeal to a source of authority. That source for traditional Christian thinkers is a complex formulation based on love as it is defined in the Bible (manifested especially in love for God as our sovereign Lord), and then worked out in theological history. Fourth, traditional theology prioritizes the saving event of Christ in its witness (whether through preaching or eucharist) and views the prioritization of any other issue—no matter how valuable in itself—as a serious impediment to the proper work of the Church. Fifth and finally, traditional theology sees itself as forming an allegiance with God against the world in its bondage, while progressive theology often appears to align itself with the world against the Church.

So, what do you think? If you identify as progressive, does this describe you? If you identify as traditional, does this help you to better understand your progressive friends? I’m curious to hear your response.

Tradition to Blame: A Further Look at Progressive Theology

When I wrote last week about Love and Relationship I had no real intention to follow up that post. There were (and still are) things to say about defining terms like “progressive theology,” and there’s something to say about progressive revelation. But this week I encountered another example of progressive logic that startled me so much I felt the need to spend some time with it. It is the idea that Traditional Christian teaching on sexuality is in some sense the cause of sexual dysfunction. The more I think about it, the more I think it identifies another feature of progressive theology that we’ve got to try and dissect.

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If you’ve been reading the news, then you know that there has been a series of massive, deeply disturbing revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church. Responses have been grieved, frustrated, and angry, and in the midst of this all there is a strong desire to explain or rationalize the goings on. One piece, produced in part by the scandal, was from Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and chief editor of the journal The American Conservative. He published a story and interview with a man named Gabe Giella, a gay, former Catholic, former seminarian, who recounts some of his horrifying experiences in seminary. (Long story short: the seminary was full of sexually deviant individuals, and when he didn’t play along, he was the one who got removed.) The article is worth reading in whole, and I recommend it strongly, but the key paragraph that startled me is the following. Giella writes,

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

Now, before I comment on this, I want to make something really clear. My intention today is not to reflect upon Catholic practice and faith. As a rule, I keep my commentary on current events to those issues with which I have some personal involvement—I blog about conservative evangelicals, and I largely leave the issues of Orthodox, Catholic, or other believers to themselves. I think that’s only fair, and today’s post is really no different. I am not commenting, chiefly, on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Serious commentary, and the business of criticizing and proposing solutions to that problem, is the purview of faithful Catholics (who, I add, have their work cut out for them and need our prayers). But in the comments I read from Giella, I detected elements of progressive thinking that I’ve encountered much more broadly. It is those elements that I want to treat with now.

Pope_Monkey see no evil

Yeah, but what about smelling evil?

First, there are a few things that Giella says that are quite important for us to hear. Chief among them is the role that secrecy plays in situations like the one he encounters. Secrecy gives added, corrupting power to sin, and in a context like a Catholic seminary, the secrecy of sexual desire—especially same-sex desire—must be necessarily strong. The wicked danger of this, however, is not simply that men keep quiet about their sexual struggles, but rather that secrecy is utilized as a tool of further suppression. And it certainly seems that in some circumstances suppression of talk about a situation is regarded as a solution to the problem, so that if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, perhaps it will go away.

Another critically important aspect of Giella’s comments is his separation of gay priests from pedophile priests. Clearly, in the Venn diagram of these categories, they are not the same thing. There are gay men who are not pedophiles, and there are pedophiles who are not gay. Giella, and the other progressive thinkers I am familiar with, are right to reject the false equivalency that many traditional Protestants hold with regard to these categories. One does not necessarily mean the other.

Venn Diagram Template

Giella is not the only person who I’ve encountered recently who stresses this distinction, and he and the others I’ve read press it even further. They reject any material link whatsoever between desire for homosexual sex, and desire for homosexual sex with boys. For them, it is not a Venn diagram at all, with an overlap of homosexual and pedophile priests, but rather two completely separated circles, reflecting two completely different types of individuals. This makes a kind of sense, if one of your fundamental presuppositions is that homosexual attraction is a good. To the degree that you are committed to that claim, you must consequently reject any association between homosexual desire and categories of deviant desire (of which pedophilia would be one).

Since (on this line of thinking) deviant sexual desires cannot, by definition, account for homosexual and pedophiliac priests, something else must account for this. It is this ‘something else’ that I’ve detected in Giella’s rhetoric, namely, that the tradition itself is somehow responsible for creating this situation. Consider one of his sentences again, “The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration.” The language of ‘integration’ is loaded. Earlier in Giella’s piece he speaks about integrated sexuality, which means, effectively, living openly as an ‘out’ individual. And the suggestion, however subtle, is that somehow it is the Church’s traditional, outdated, and repressive teaching on sexuality that is the real cause of the sex abuse scandals.

Gay Priest

Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa, left, and his boyfriend Eduard. He has lost his position in the Vatican. One also wants to ask, How can ‘integration’ be complete when you must also deny your vows? Isn’t there a disintegration at play as well? The presumption is that living ‘out’ is more honest, even if it means committing perjury. 

Think about this further. If ‘secrecy’ has created a climate of sexual sin, then what better way to address that secrecy than living openly, or ‘out’? The solution hinted at is that if the Church were to update its teaching on sexual morality, these problems would go away.

This, it seems to me, taps into a foundational aspect of Progressive theology—chiefly, and even embedded into the name, the aspect of progress. The logic runs something like this: we know more about sexuality than any time in history. Our knowledge, not surprisingly, exceeds that of the New Testament authors, who were entrenched in their first century worldview. Consequently, our new knowledge demands a re-thinking of those old (i.e., outmoded) sexual ethics. We have matured out of our old cultural taboos, and now we know that homosexual desire is not only not an evil, but a positive relational good. Our teaching must be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s the twist, though. Adherence to the old teaching is not only backwards and anti-progress, it is also dehumanizing. If I proclaim a traditional Christian sexual ethic, which condemns all homosexual practice, then I might be participating in a kind of abuse. My teaching is contributing to the fracturing of personalities, to the denial of central humanity, and even (on some accounts) to increased suicide. This, to me, explains why many of the Progressive Christians I’ve encountered view their teaching as a kind of liberation. They are ‘releasing’ people from the strictures of tradition to live full, ‘integrated’ lives.

Love is a human right

Human flourishing, in other words, cannot exist without sexual freedom.

There is so much to say at this point that I despair of saying it all. I think I will try to say only three things. First, I reject wholesale the narrative of ‘progress.’ Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a common enough (and false) claim that our new knowledge is superior in every way to the knowledge found in Christian teaching. It was there that the beginnings of the science and religion debate began to take shape. Heady with new scientific discoveries, Enlightenment thinkers readily dismissed the whole of Christian teaching, or even re-edited it to meet their specifications. They were guilty, then as now, of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” They didn’t evaluate the old ways of thinking on their own terms—instead, they were prejudiced toward their present and weighted the scales unfairly toward the past. New is not always better. With regard to modern sexual ethics, it is worth noting just how new they are in the history of the human race. Whatever claims they make to scientific basis and universality, these are fundamentally untested theories.

Second, there is something wrong, and even dishonest, about the rejection of categories of ‘disorder’ when discussing homosexual desire. On a biological, even evolutionary account, the purpose of sexual desire is the creation of more members of our species. To do that requires one member of each gender—sperm and egg. It follows that same-sex attraction, if we start with an evolutionary biological account of the human, is an obvious deviation from the norm. It reflects a disordered desire on the part of the individual. I want what I ought not to want as a sexual human being. To turn and sanctify the disorder does not and can not bring the person to greater integration. Instead, it reflects a kind of sanctified nihilism where this world, and its desires, and a form of temporal happiness, are all that matters. That, to me, is anti-Christianity.

Finally—and while this is the most important argument for me it may seem like the weakest—I have faith in the Spirit of God that He has not deceived us in the Scriptures brought down to us. Granted, there are crucial differences between the ancient world and our modern one. Granted, there are commandments and practices which appear to have lost the sting which binds them to us (e.g., women with head coverings, casting lots, etc.). But the Scripture presents a picture of the human person which has not changed—that I, and you, are made in the Image and likeness of God, that there are desires within my body that war against my living out of that image, that I am commanded to resist and submit those very desires to God’s Spirit in obedience, and that obedience looks a great deal like crucifixion of the self.

Saint_Anthony_Abbot_Tempted_by_a_Heap_of_Gold_Tempera_on_panel_painting_by_the_Master_of_the_Osservanza_Triptych_ca._1435_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art-660x350

St Anthony, patron of those who resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Here, as with last week, it hasn’t really been my intention to argue with the line of Progressive Theology that I’ve encountered. In both cases, my goal has been to try and single out and bring a degree of clarity to an element of what is an admittedly large and complex body of thought. A proper argument against Progressive Theology, as I see it, would require a far more robust analysis of the concept of ‘progress,’ and with that a commensurate discussion on the role and sources of authority.

Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.

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One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.

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One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3

 

There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…