Concrete Love and Universal Love
Two sides of a well-lived life
Teri Daily tells us that we learn to love in the messiness of real life relationships. It takes a lifetime to learn to love, she says, and maybe more. Always we are sheltered in a universal love which is patient and kind, not boastful or irritable, holding no grudges. As a Christian she thinks of the universal love as God. I do, too. But the practical love of which she speaks is not God. It is a window to God, to be sure. God's light shines through it. But God's love is wider and even more generous, shining on all without discrimination.
In the essay on the right (also published as Love Made Gritty) she reminds us that practical, localized love itself is not always easy. Indeed, in learning to love locally we must struggle against our own tendencies to boast, become irritated, and hold grudges. The religion of Islam wisely tells us that the life of faith involves a constant struggle -- a jihad -- against our own tendencies to be less than who we were created to be: carriers of divine mercy. Muslims struggle with this, Christians struggle, Jews struggle, Buddhists struggle, and people who are "spiritual but no religious" struggle. We are all in the midst of jihad against our lesser selves, seeking wisdom from our better angels.
In any case, as Teri Daily reminds us, local love is always gritty: sometimes delightfully so and sometimes painfully so. It dwells in the intensity of felt relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbors; and it always has two sides: deep listening and compassionate response.
Deep listening is empathy. It is the act of sharing in the subjective states of others and imagining the world from their points of view. Active response is reaching out, in word or deed, to help reduce their suffering and contribute to their well-being as best we can. None of us do this easily or consistently. Life is a process of growing in our capacities to love locally, and it may well take a lifetime or more for us to enter into its full depths.
Making an Idol of Local Loves:
The Problem of Localolatry
But local love is not enough. A life well-lived involves universal love as well as local love, and without a capacity for universal love, local love becomes idolatrous: that is, overly-insulated and self-enclosed. In the house of localolatry there are many rooms. We can make gods of our families, our circle of friends, fellow congregants in our community of faith, affinity groups.
The antidote to localolatry is universal love and it has three dimensions: faith, imagination, and practice.
Faith. Universal love is, in the first place, an intuition that while we ourselves may be limited to local love, there is something in the universe that includes all people – and more than that all living beings – in a spirit of tender care. This something is not itself localized in a particular region of space but is instead everywhere at once: a spacious receptacle of empathy in which all things live and move and have their being. It can be felt as a field of love without consciousness of its own, but somehow connecting all things in a mysterious embrace or, conversely, as a personal presence with whom we can have a covenantal relationship and who can be addressed in prayer. It is God.
Imagination. Universal love is, in addition, an ideal that dwells in the imagination as a calling: that is, in inwardly felt lure to widen out, to expand the horizons of local concern and care about the whole of things, all localities included. The ideal functions as an object of hope and catalyst for action. As inspired by this ideal we find ourselves caring about people we do not "know" in a first-hand, face-to-face way, but who nevertheless matter to us. They become family to us in a certain way: our brothers and sisters even though there is no blood relation. We come to speak of the more than human creatures – the animals and plants – as our relatives, too. We do not divide the world into us and them; instead we speak of the whole as a community of communities of communities and lovingly address the others as “all my relatives.”
Practice: Finally, universal love is an activity – a concrete fact in the world -- that can unfold in the dynamics of our own hearts and in our ways of living in local settings. It finds expression when, in meeting strangers, we are naturally inclined to welcome them into our lives in respectful ways and treat them with dignity. It likewise finds expression when we break free of the small confines of over-particularity and seek justice for all people, not just for "our people."
When universal love becomes part of activity in the world, it becomes – interestingly – localized. Its localization can be as gritty as our relations with family members, friends and co-workers. We find ourselves standing up for people who might otherwise be marginalized, ignored, or brutalized. We include them within our local spaces – churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, coffee shops, restaurants, classrooms – in ways that honor their lives and hearts.
We do not insist that they resemble us; we do not try to absorb them into our own cultural or religious orbits; we welcome them in their uniqueness. We seek harmony but we know that harmony is not sameness.
The Practice of Pluralism
When it comes to religious life, universal love becomes what the Harvard Pluralism Project calls the practice of pluralism. They describe the practice this way:
Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.
Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.
Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.
Pluralism is based on dialogue. Pluralism is not a “given,” but an achievement.
My suggestion, then, is that the practice of pluralism is a concrete expression of the ideal of universal love, rooted in faith that, in some deep way, everybody deserves respect and care, as dwelling within the wider horizons of divine love. As a Christian I think that the healing ministry of Jesus (including his death and resurrection) is a window into the wideness.
Growth into wideness is an ongoing process and an adventure. One of my own favorite Christians -- John Wesley -- called it the perfection of love.
Our capacities for this perfection are never complete. Always we can be wider than we are. If, as Patricia Adams Farmer puts it, our calling is to become fat souls, then we are never quite fat enough. We all need to put on weight of the spiritual kind, no matter what our body size.
But our souls can indeed grow wider over time, inspired by a faith that somewhere – deep within the universe and also beyond it – there is love that is wider than any ocean and deeper than any sea.
Animated by this faith, we have the courage to love locally and universally, as best we can, building what Martin Luther King called “beloved communities” that do the same. When the universal and the face-to-face come together in a single life -- or even better, a hospitable community of people who live with respect and care for all life -- we see something of a deeper mystery in which all events, including the gritty side of love, become a single, collective story, with no face erased and all included, each unique and none left behind. This is what Christians call church.
-- Jay McDaniel
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a writer. In her recent (and wonderful) book, An Altar in the World, she describes her experience of coming to the Christian faith while a student in college. She writes:
"People I barely knew made a habit of telling me they loved me. They were Christians too, and I guess it was their way of welcoming me into the Christian family. I did not mind, exactly, but since they barely knew me I was not so sure what they were talking about. Did they love the way my right foot turned out, so that I left tracks like a penguin on the beach? Did they love my willingness to make handprinted signs for Bible study? Did they love the way my upper lip disappeared when I laughed? I decided to find out, so the next time one of the Christians said she loved me, I asked her why.
The Need to be Loved in Particular
I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, especially 1 Corinthians 13. The passage is woven into a cross-stitch pattern, recited at a wedding, or printed on a religious greeting card so often that it easily becomes completely domesticated and loses any power to change us.
But I think that one of the reasons this passage has been so easily domesticated, why it lends itself to an unrealistic, romantic conception of love rather than a gritty, real life one, is that we usually end up lifting it out of its context. And when we do that, then love becomes an abstract idea separated from any concrete reality—just as Barbara Brown Taylor found it was among the Christians in her college group. But if we look at Paul’s beautiful description of love as an integral part of the entire letter to the Corinthians, we see instead that Paul is calling for a love that is anything but a disembodied noun.
The church in Corinth is suffering from what a PR friend of mine would call poor impression management. News of their conflict and division has reached all the way to Paul. Members are divided among rival factions that declare loyalty to Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, or Christ. Some are engaged in what might be called notorious sins, particularly those of the sexual variety. Some are unconcerned about how their own practices affect members who are new to the faith or members who live in poverty. And still others claim a superior spiritual status based on the spiritual gifts they possess. Paul’s poetic discourse on love may seem to us to be about love in the abstract. But for its intended audience, this passage is meant to speak to love lived in the messiness of real-life relationships.
Which brings us to the second reason I think this chapter from Corinthians has been so easily domesticated… In addition to the fact that we usually take these words out of their original context, the way Paul talks about love here doesn’t ring true to what many of us have experienced in our own relationships. In this passage love seems to be static and unchanging. And I believe God’s love for us is exactly that. Divine love is patient and kind. It is not coercive and it doesn’t hold a grudge. The divine love revealed to us in Jesus’ life bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Always.
But that’s not the kind of love we experience in our relationships with one another. Even with those we truly do love, we’re not always kind, we find ourselves at the end of our rope, resentment can develop over time, and sometimes relationships break. On our best of days, we hope and strive to become more like the lover that God is. But we have to learn to love.
So maybe 1 Corinthians 13 would be truer to human love if it read: love becomes patient, love becomes kind, love becomes less coercive, boastful, irritable and resentful. Love bears more and more things, believes more and more things, hopes and endures more and more things. We have to learn to love. To the extent that we live centered in God’s perfect love, we succeed. To the extent that we live centered in our own ego, we fall short. Either way, though, learning to love is a lifelong project. And it takes a lot of practice.
When I meet with couples who are entering into lifelong committed relationships, I often tell them this relationship will be one of the primary ways they will become the people God dreams for them to be; in other words, it is one of the main ways they will become holy. Somewhere in the midst of jockeying for closet space, experiencing together the disappointments of lost jobs or unfinished dreams, discussions over whether or not it’s OK to use bungee cords to hold the kitchen chairs together, and the changes that inevitably come with age, there will be chances upon chances to learn what it means to be patient, kind, humble and honest, to learn what it is to forgive and to be forgiven, to hope and to endure.
But it’s not just our romantic or family relationships that teach us how to love. Our friendships do, too. As we share our vulnerabilities and our pain we learn that love is trustworthy and steadfast. As we change over time we learn to love with an inherent flexibility. As we laugh together we learn the joy at the heart of love. And our communities help us learn to love with greater humility, seeing past our own needs and opinions to the needs and opinions of others.
We learn how to love from our non-human relationships as well. Our dog Lottie is eighteen years old. She has worsening eyesight and painful joints, and she occasionally becomes disoriented. And now as I watch different members of our family sometimes carry her to the door to go outside, I realize that we are learning the tenderness and compassion that comes with love.
We are also learning even more deeply that a creature is worthy of love not because of what she can do or achieve, but simply by virtue of her very existence. By planting seeds and caring for the soil, a gardener learns that some relationships require consistent care, patience, and above all faith. And our fondness for the places where we grow up teaches us that the things that we love form our identity and make us who we become.
This isn’t to say that we learn how to love equally from these different types of relationships. As a mother with two very young children, practicing medicine and being perpetually on call, I sometimes did a better job triaging patients and medical conditions than I did setting priorities in my personal life. A kind woman at church, a few years ahead of me in life experience, recognized exactly what was going on. And one day she gently said to me: “Teri, remember. Living things first: People, animals, and plants, in that order.” It became my personal triage mantra for several years.
But although we rightly set priorities among our types of relationships, any connection or bond we experience can call forth in us a greater capacity to love—it is an opportunity to participate in God’s great love, to learn how to love, and to grow into the people we were created to be. In fact, that is the only way it happens, and I believe this is incredibly good news. In an age when the myth of self-sufficiency runs roughshod over any acknowledged need for community, it is good news that the greatest spiritual gift according to Paul is one that can’t be attained in isolation but only in relationship.
It is good news that, no matter how much it may seem that we are at our holiest the first hour of the day (before we come into contact with anyone else), the truth is that the occasion for which we have to ask forgiveness is every bit as important on the road to embodying a more perfect love as a moment of tranquility is—every moment throughout the day is sacred in its potential to change us. And as with anything that takes practice, sure, we are bound at times to fail at loving well. But the good news is that life is a web of connections from which we couldn’t escape if we tried, and so a second chance is always right in front of us—in fact, we have the redemptive grace of a million second chances.
See, life is lived and love is learned in the messiness of real-life relationships—whether in a first century church in Corinth fraught with division, or a twenty-first century church somewhere in the world, or the many learning labs that comprise the lives of us all. And for the comfort that knowledge brings, thanks be to God.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (HarperCollins: New York, 2009), page 103.