Columnist, literary critic and long time atheist, Christopher Hitchens, was asked a very good question recently. During a live discussion on Moody Radio, Associate professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Bryan O'Neal, asked Hitchens whether or not he loved his wife.
After a short pause, which may have provoked a more serious discussion at the Hitchens dinner table, he replied to the affirmative. An odd question for theological debate? Personal, yes, but not out of place. Theology is not limited to what we can explain materially and love is certainly fair game for the Christian who asserts a supremely loving being as their God.
Then came a slightly more strange proposal from the prof. O'Neal suggested that, given the confines of a purely material universe, telling someone you love them is akin to reporting to them that you have a stomach ache. The debate was interrupted by traffic updates and all the usual interference rush hour talk radio suffers from, so the answer Mr Hitchens was attempting to give was unclear.
Nevertheless, O'Neal's question does present an interesting quandary to the materialist take on things. If we are no more than the material, then loving someone is a material event. The two are not identical, although my own experience of both reveals some similarity, but they are principally confined to the same cause. Our material bodies react to what it consumes or, in the case of love, beholds.
Although a materialist is capable of describing the love event, perhaps in chemical or biological terms, he is unable to provide any moral justification for its presence in human relationships. Unfortunately, if we treat our feelings of love in the same way as we treat our stomach ache, we may be tempted to act upon the lack of feeling as much as the presence of it. This may explain many divorces which end because “we didn't love each other anymore.” If we are just a pile of cells then we have no recourse to persuade anyone to stick it out when the going gets tough. Stomach aches, like feelings, come and go. If love is no more than a firing of a synapse or an interaction of our chemistry, then perhaps the most appropriate reason for divorce is, “I feel much better now.”