What is Love?

Originally published at Kindism.org, reprinted here with permission.

While Buddhists focus on the Rights of the Noble Eightfold Path, Christian Scientists focus on things like the ‘right hand soap‘ or the ‘right Sunday School teacher‘ and the ‘right’ dictionary.

Yes, the right dictionary.

You might think all dictionaries are the same, but you’d be wrong. If you’re a good Christian Scientist, you spend a good deal of time ‘with the books’ and to understand them better, you spend even more time looking at words and trying to divine their deeper spiritual interpretation.

Now, I’m no expert on which dictionary is ‘right’, but I have been involved in marathon discussions of what words really ‘mean’ and how they ‘apply’ to me. While this can be an interesting philosophical exercise, and a fun way to spend a lunch hour, it is usually a waste of time.

I happen to have a few spare moments this morning so I decided to compare definitions with the help of a quick google search for ‘definition of charity‘; 40,000,000 results in 0.34 seconds later, I decided to pick the top five or so well-known dictionaries to compare.

Why charity? In 1 Corinthians 13:13 Paul reminds us of the importance of “faith, hope and —” and the greatest of these is “—.” The the translations* all agree on “faith” and “hope” but the last, and most important thing is either translated as “love” or “charity” which might seem like a little thing, but with words and their meanings being important such an alternative interpertations or inconsistency should be exhaustively studied.

Google defines charity as:

char·i·ty/ˈCHaritē/ Noun:

The voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need.

Help or money given in this way.

Synonyms: alms – mercy – beneficence – benevolence – philanthropy


char·i·ty noun \ˈcher-ə-tē, ˈcha-rə-\  plural char·i·ties

: benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity
a : generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need b : an institution engaged in relief of the poor c : public provision for the relief of the needy
a : a gift for public benevolent purposes b : an institution (as a hospital) founded by such a gift
4: lenient judgment of others

char·i·ty (chr-tn. pl. char·i·ties

1. Provision of help or relief to the poor; almsgiving.
2. Something given to help the needy; alms.
3. An institution, organization, or fund established to help the needy.
4. Benevolence or generosity toward others or toward humanity.
5. Indulgence or forbearance in judging others. See Synonyms at mercy.
6. often Charity Christianity The theological virtue defined as love directed first toward God but also toward oneself and one’s neighbors as objects of God’s love.


char·i·ty  [char-i-tee]  noun, plural char·i·ties.

1.generous actions or donations to aid the poor, ill, or helpless: to devote one’s life to charity.
2.something given to a person or persons in need; alms: She asked for work, not charity.
3. a charitable act or work.
4. a charitable fund, foundation, or institution: He left his estate to a charity.
5. benevolent feeling, especially toward those in need or in disfavor: She looked so poor that we fed her out of charity.

Oxford Dictionaries

Definition of charity noun (plural charities)

  • 1 – an organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need:the charity provides practical help for homeless people
  • [mass noun] the body of organizations viewed collectively as the object of fundraising or of donations:the proceeds of the sale will go to charity
  • 2 – [mass noun] the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need:the care of the poor must not be left to private charity
  • help or money given to those in need:an unemployed teacher living on charity
  • 3 – [mass noun] kindness and tolerance in judging others:she found it hard to look on her mother with much charity
  • archaic love of humankind, typically in a Christian context:faith, hope, and charity

Websters is the only dictionary that lists “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity” as a definition. Dictionary.com comes close, with “benevolent feeling” but it is predominantly aimed at “those in need or in disfavor.” Both the Oxford and Free Dictionaries list a ‘Christian’ context/definition, but don’t seem to be able to agree on quite what that is.

This brings up the BIG QUESTION of what did Paul really mean? Are we supposed take what he says at face value and be nice to all of humanity, or give money to the poor?

This is quite a conundrum. Is there perhaps some deeper meaning? I don’t really want to associate with the poor or give money to the needy. I know! I’ll put aside those moral issues and “dig deeper” in the text. I’ll probably also decide that I like love more than charity even though Ms. Eddy used the King James translation which says charity.

After all, God is Love and love is also more nebulous of a concept. God will provide for the needy. What is love anyway? Does Love with a capital “L” mean something different than ‘love’ with a lowercase ‘l’? Time to get out the dictionary again.

* This also brings up the debate over which translation of the Bible is the best. While the general consensus seems to be that the King James Version is the “best” because that’s what Ms. Eddy used, there are some groups who think the New International Version should be used as well for the “more approachable” language (it is also what is used in most of Principia’s religion courses which require a Bible). I also had a professor at college who would the Bible in their original Hebrew and Greek when she wanted to delve in.