On Christian Liking and Loving

As I mentioned in my prior post, I'm reading James Alison's book On Being Liked. In the book Alison uses the category of "liking" to discuss our experience with God--being liked by God--and our stance toward others. One of Alison's arguments is that in feeling liked by God we are empowered to like other people. What is interesting in all this is how Alison is using the category 'liking' where most Christians use the word 'loving.' That is, Christians talk a great deal about feeling loved by God. Rarely do they speak of being liked by God. In a similar way, Christians claim to love the world, if only as a goal. But I've never heard a Christian say he was called by God to like people.

Here is Alison on why he thinks liking might be a better starting point than loving:

[B]ehind the word 'like' there is an astonishing gentleness. The word 'love' which we have vastly overused can have for us the meaning of a forceful intervention to rescue us, and we can forget that behind a forceful intervention to rescue us, which may indeed be how love is shown in a particular circumstance, there is something much stronger, gentler and more continuous, not dependent at all on needing to rescue us. This is liking us. What I want to suggest is that the word like in all its gentleness is the word appropriate for the extraordinarily unbothered, non-emergency power we mean by creation. It is that gentle liking that is the sign of a power which could not be in greater contrast with the power of the satanic. A power so gentle and so huge that we are not able to be afraid. In the midst of the false manufacturing of meaning and frightening power displayed by the satanic, we are being taught that our being liked and held in being is at the hands of something infinitely more powerful, infinitely restful, and we can live without fear. What is being revealed is the power of the Creator. 'Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.' ... It seems to me that the fruit of contemplation in the midst of the violence which is going on about us...is this: as we learn to desire through the eyes of another [Christ's], so we are given the heart of another, and what we learn is the extraordinarily benign, peaceful power of one holding everything in being, liking and delighting in us, without distinction.
Pondering this I began thinking about the distinctions between liking and loving. Are liking and loving the same thing? Or are they different? And how, if at all, do they relate to each other?

These questions brought to mind an article I had read a few years ago by the psychologist Robert Sternberg in Psychological Bulletin (Vol 102, 1987, pp. 331-345). The article is entitled Liking versus loving: A comparative evaluation of theories and in it Sternberg reviews the psychological literature comparing and contrasting liking versus loving. Sternberg starts off the article with two autobiographical vignettes:
Tom sat right behind Jane in biology class. For Tom, it was love at first sight. From the very first day he saw Jane, he could think of little else: Thoughts of her preoccupied him constantly. Tom was therefore crushed when Jane found herself a boyfriend, Peter. Prior to that time, Tom had never really gotten to know Jane. His interactions with her all took place in his mind. Finally, Tom started having conversations with her and discovered that although he was still madly in love with her, he did not like her a whole lot.

Mike and Louise had been dating for about 3 months. Both of them seemed happy in the relationship, but their friends saw trouble. Louise just seemed a whole lot more involved than Mike. One night, Louise confessed her love and let on to her plans for their future together. Mike was dumbfounded. He had not made any plans and did not want them. Mike told Louise that he liked her but did not love her and did not think he ever could. Mike broke off the relationship the next day.
Boy, do these stories bring back some bad memories from high school...

Regardless, these stories do seem to suggest that liking and loving may be two very different things. We might love people but not like them. Or, we might like them but not love them.

So what do we mean when we say things like "I love you but I don't like you"?

Sternberg starts by contrasting two different models regarding liking and loving. The first model is a quantitative model, that the difference between liking and loving is a difference of degree. Liking, in this view, is simply a mild, less intense form of love.

In contrast to the quantitative model are the qualitative models which suggest that the difference between liking and loving is less one of degree and more a difference of kind. That is, liking and loving are sets that may be overlapping or non-overlapping. Overall, Sternberg reviews three qualitative models.

The first is the notion that liking and loving have a disjoint set relationship: They are distinct experiences that don't overlap. The second qualitative model is an overlapping set model where the experiences of liking and loving overlap. That is, liking and loving have some things in common but also have unique and separate characteristics. Finally, there is the subset-relation model where liking is one among many features of love. Sternberg summarizes these models in Figure 1 from the article:

In his review, Sternberg eventually lands on the last model, the subset model, the notion that liking is a part of love but that love is a larger, more multifaceted experience. One of the weaknesses of Sternberg's conclusion, which he admits in the article, is that this model works best when we are thinking of romantic or erotic love. This was seen in the vignettes he uses at the start of his article. The disjoints between liking and loving seem to emerge most clearly when we are making a contrast between liking and eros. The statement "I like you but I don't love you" is most often going to show up at the termination of a dating relationship.

And yet, if we think of family love, we can imagine expressing the exact opposite sentiment: "I love you but I don't like you." We can express familial love while admitting to the non-enjoyment we experience around certain family members.

So here's the question I want to ask, prompted by Alison's book: How does Christian liking relate to Christian loving?

My sense is that Christians would see liking and loving the way we see it play out in family relationships. That is, while we are called to love everybody we don't feel called to like everybody. In fact, I've heard Christians describe Christian love in just those terms: You have to love him, but you don't have to like him.

Now here's what puzzles me about this formulation. It seems like, generally speaking, that our understandings of loving and liking are informed, to a certain extent, by the quantitative model. That is, liking seems to be the lower bar when compared to love. Love seems to be the harder and deeper of the two.

But if that is the case, how does that jibe with the common notion that "You have to love them but you don't have to like them"? Are we saying that you have to do this really hard thing but that you don't have to do this easy thing? Seems like if you've already done the heavy lifting of loving then liking should be pretty easy.

And yet, the common refrain "You have to love them but you don't have to like them" seems to suggest that liking is, in fact, much harder than loving. But that seems backwards, that liking is the higher calling. Isn't love, rather than liking, supposed to be the chief manifestation of Christian agape?

And as I ponder this, it occurs to me that something similar occurs with the Christian notions of kindness and love. Generally speaking, we think of kindness as the easier of the two. Kindness is superficial while love is deep. And yet, Christians say they love people while acting unkind to them. Again it seems like, in practice, actual kindness is harder than loving. In fact, imagine asking the world to pick one of the following:
A. That Christians become more kind.
B. That Christians become more loving.
I think the world picks A. The world has seen plenty of Christian "love." What they'd really like to see is a little more kindness.

I think this is what Alison is getting at when he calls liking "gentler" relative to love. Love seems to privilege the big stuff, often at the expense of the smaller stuff. And I think something like this has happened to Christians. When Christians say they "love" the world what they mean by this is that they are concerned about a person's ultimate destiny, are they going to heaven or hell?. This is the big stuff. But in pursuing this big stuff (what Alison calls a "rescue operation") Christians often trample the small things, such as kindness and liking.

And this leaves us in a very interesting situation. A reversal has occurred. Theoretically, we tend to think of kindness and liking as easy and superficial in contrast to a Christian love which is costlier and deeper. But in practice perhaps the reverse has become true. Perhaps Christian love, as it is commonly expressed, has become cheap, easy, and superficial while kindness and liking require the hard work and sacrifice. Maybe the hard things are easy and the easy things are hard. Maybe love isn't agape anymore. Maybe liking is.

Maybe liking the world is the most Christian thing we can do.

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3 thoughts on “On Christian Liking and Loving”

  1. My heart knows, and have known this to be true. Thank you for this! Some times people listen to the educated or to the wise. Will they dare listen to the uneducated or the simple. It would be hard (for me) to say I don't like someone, and say in the next breath I love them. To teach anyone that it is "OK" to dislike anyone is in my mine is a worldly thing. To teach not to like the ways or behaviors of someone is justifiable. I pray that all true believers (that obey GOD) will grow into the MIND of CHRIST.

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