Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”
(Anna Bartlett Warner)
Last year, Drew suggested that love and science often appear to be incompatible and contradictory pursuits. While we tend to see love as an emotional imperative rooted in our human identity, science seems to pursue a logical argument to explain it away as a natural phenomenon stemming from biochemical processes in our brains. However, even as recent advances in cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience unravel human emotion’s complexities and provide a unique perspective into how we experience love, there is more to this equation.
Beyond science’s reductive explanation, the Bible advances the idea that love is the tangible expression of the imago Dei (i.e., God’s very essence) imprinted in us and his directive (i.e., God’s desire) for human interaction. So, join me today as we explore the neurological and biblical underpinnings of love.
A Neurological Perspective on Love
From a neurological perspective, studies show that our experience of love involves a cascade of chemical reactions. These chemical reactions result from the production of testosterone, estrogen, serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Each of these substances works in different ways to make us feel blissful, passionate, and emotionally close to our partners.
Helen Fisher, a leading anthropologist at Rutgers University, advances three categories of romantic love: lust, attraction, and attachment. The evolutionary basis for lust stems from the human imperative to reproduce, and it is driven by the secretion of testosterone and estrogen, assisted by the hypothalamus. Fisher suggests that attraction involves a brain mechanism that “rewards behavior” and explains the feelings of exhilaration associated with romantic love. Attraction is facilitated by the brain’s production of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Lastly, attachment, the most critical factor in long-term relationships, depends on the secretion of oxytocin and vasopressin, which assist in creating emotional connections and familial bonds.
David M. Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, suggests that the human drive to reproduce is deeply connected to human love. Moreover, evolutionary psychology advances the idea that love has been selected by nature to motivate couples to create families and ensure the continuation of the species. In other words, the passion of romantic love has definite evolutionary roots. However, external factors like our surroundings and our social and cultural context influence love.
Fletcher, Simpson, and Campbell explain that human relationships have evolved around the overarching concept of a romantic pair bonding to support extended family units, which creates a social environment that is conducive to raising offspring, supporting human development, and facilitating the social structures that are common in our human existence. I do not think these are accidents or coincidences in the evolutionary process. Instead, these are the mechanisms where our propensity for love (i.e., God’s imprint) grounds us in our true, God-given identity.
- Psychologist John Gottman helps us understand how relationships work by discussing The Science of Love in a TEDx talk.
- South University’s psychology faculty unpack the fascinating and complex psychology behind love.
- Serendipity Studio, a public science platform, explores in a blog the concept “Love as an Evolutionary Adaptation.”
- Researcher and professor Abigail Marsh discusses altruism during TED Radio Hour and what motivates us to help others.
- Thomas J. Oord, theologian and SftC friend and contributor, blogs about John Wesley’s concept of love, paying particular attention to its theological, ethical, and biblical implications.
- Drew discusses the intersection of love, human evolution, and the Bible.
God’s Perfect Love Revealed
The New Testament distinguishes four different kinds of love: eros (i.e., romantic love), phileo (i.e., friendship or brotherly love), storge (i.e., love associated with family relationships), and agape (i.e., selfless, unconditional, God-like love). While all pertain to essential aspects of human relationships, the biblical text suggests that the highest form of love is the selfless, unconditional agape love exemplified by God’s engagement with his creation. John the Evangelist captured the centrality of this idea by reminding us that God’s essential nature is love and that he created us to love one another (1 John 4:7-8). Moreover, John explains that violating God’s principle of agape is a radical negation of the physical expression of the imago Dei in us.
This perfect, overarching love is actualized in a God who loved the world by giving up his only son to atone for our sins and empower us to love one another (John 3:16, 1 John 4:11-12). In fact, Paul suggests that human charity, tolerance, kindness, service, and understanding are directly related to our human capacity for love enhanced and directed by God (1 Corinthians 13). In other words, the expression and action of God’s love in us provide the framework to engage our world. Agape is the highest form of love we can aspire to attain.
Clearly, the science of love provides valuable insight into why we have certain emotions and feelings and how we can nurture relationships. As research continues, scientists uncover new facts and theories about love and its intricacies. With more understanding, we can better appreciate the significance of God’s transforming love. God, whose essence is love, enables us to love ourselves and calls us to love him by loving others as an active demonstration of Christian character.
Love is common to our human condition. And, on Valentine’s Day, I know we all want to think of love in terms of Hallmark cards, red roses, and boxed Godiva chocolates. But love is complex, driven by our brain’s chemical reactions and hard-wired for the survival of the species. However, love is more than all that. Love is the indelible mark of God that defines who we are, how we relate to one another, and our surrounding world. The Bible shows that love is the greatest of all human qualities and expressions. We do well when we remember that love is patient, kind, rejoices in the truth, is full of hope, and has no end (1 Corinthians 13). We find our place when we love God with all our heart and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).
In Nobis Regnat Iesus,