Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Love of Neighbor and Love of God

"Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."

This familiar quotation surfaced several times in several forms in my reading of Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique yesterday. Though it seems pretty basic, it's worth another look. It's kinda important.

Jesus articulated this as the primary purpose of human existence, and it's a concept with traction. He did not say that the authority of the church is the point of being alive. He did not say that the universe was 6,000 years old, and that this concept must be defended at all costs because the Bible is empirically infallible. He called on his followers to do those two simple things, which are really just one simple thing, and in doing so find themselves reconciled to both the world around them and fellow human beings.

It's a pretty straightforward request, and has enough inherent and self-evident goodness about it that even a freethinking enlightenment philosopher like Voltaire can take a hard look and say, "Yup, that's a good thing. I'm up for that." He said it with considerably more grace and wit, but that's the general principle.

What is most striking about his acceptance of this axiom is not the embrace of the second part of the statement. Loving your neighbor as yourself, the ethic of radical compassion, is pretty elemental. But Voltaire embraces the whole thing, both love of God and love of neighbor.

Here's the fuddler: can you do just the latter?

Can an ethic of radical compassion exist if you say: "You know, I'm up for love. That's great. Love is cool. But the whole God thing just doesn't work for me." There are plenty of humanists who make that statement, because the inherent value in compassion just walks right up and gives you a big hug. Who doesn't like compassion and empathy? Besides Hannity, Coulter, and Limbaugh, that is.

On the one hand, I think that ethic of compassion can guide the lives of those who are not people of faith. I'd be willfully deceiving myself if I denied that many secular people live peaceful lives filled with acts of caring for others. Denying the spiritual value and validity of those acts of caring is one of the deeply irritating spiritual ticks of my co-religionists. A God who hates a kindly act because it isn't done in His name wouldn't be worth following. I think you've just got to call something good when it's self-evidently good.

On the other hand, the love of God is in a real sense necessary if you're going to love your neighbor. Why? Because truly loving God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul leaves no room for the love of certain other things. It leaves no space for nationalism, or profiteering, or racial bias, or gender bias, or partisanship. It leaves no space for all of the various categories we use to define "us" over and against "them." That mystic orientation towards something that transcends not just society and culture, but spacetime itself...if done authentically...radically enables us to see past the things that divide us. It enables us not just to love those who are part of "us," but to love across the ultimately meaningless boundaries we establish between ourselves and those we think are our enemies.

That isn't to say that a focus on the transcendent and the eternal can't be subverted and misused. Nearly every religious tradition struggles against those that would use it as a means of coercing and controlling others, or as an excuse for hating others. All sorts of narsty things make absolute claims on us, and when we yield to them, all sorts of unpleasantness occurs.

That said, I think if we are to see our neighbor as ourselves, we have to be able to look past our individual and collective expectations, past even the categorical forms and structures of reason itself. If we're going to be continually growing in understanding and compassion for the often very strange Other, and shattering the boundaries that divide us, we do that most effectively by setting our hearts on that which stands infinitely beyond us.