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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Universal Love

Another interesting opinion in the NYT on the impossible ideal of universal love. The writer, a research fellow, takes on philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer for his abstract utilitarianism and Jeremy Rifkin for his notion of global empathy. He denies the practicality of the Christian or Buddhist ideal of unlimited compassion. We humans have evolved to relate to and identify with those who are proximate, family and friends who can do us good or ill. That's the best we can do. He quotes Graham Greene that we can only love people, not humanity.

My interpretation of Greene is that he is arguing that love is concrete, between and among real corporeal persons, not an abstraction. Greene's novels I think do portray the possibility of unlimited love one that would agree with St. John's gospel that Love is the transcendent, universal principle which has been traditionally called "God."

But that of course is a "myth" but not in the way the writer uses the word. It is a story and metaphor that points at a possibility in persons, even if it is not yet fully actualized. What Rifkin and Singer, John and Paul, Jesus and the Buddha are pointing to is a dynamic capacity that most of us have acquired--a capax infiniti--for knowledge and for love, an intimate relationship with everyone and every thing in the universe.

As the very argument of the writer shows, that capacity is not self-evident. One can easily show evidence for the meaner, more selfish tendencies in our scramble for the tools of livelihood. In this more utilitarian view (I think it strange that the writer calls Singer a "utilitarian"), people are loved because it is to our self-interest, i.e. basic life needs. (Please refer back to my note on "happiness" and "meaning.")

As Rifkin and Singer point out, there is evidence for a more universal love that rests on a higher capacity than economic self-interest. Perhaps a capacity that is an "accident" of evolution, but nevertheless realizable. It is a capacity pointed out by the great mystics including the Buddha and Jesus.  But I think the best evidence comes through contemplation, that is, the direct experience of one's consciousness that is in tension and in tendency to the infinite.  That experience is found in meditation (some call it "prayer" though I do not) and in action with others, even strangers, towards greater meaning.

The writer is correct in so far as that capacity is born and nourished by a person's relationships to family and friends. In that sense, the capacity to love is a "grace," given by others. But that capacity, once appreciated, can extend to the universe. Universal Love is perhaps more of an ideal or myth than a reality as the writer says. But the capacity for universal love is real and its exercise is the hope for all of us.