I've been thinking about Max Weber and Robert Bellah -- the latter because of his analysis of Weber's paper on “World-Denying Love.” By that he means transcendent love for all, an attitude that all the great Axial age religions — except Confucianism — promoted.
In Buddhism this kind of love is called "metta" -- yes, like my name, though my parents didn't know it when they named me that. Now and then I practice "metta" meditation, or at least I try to. You're supposed to start by loving yourself, then someone dear, such as your husband, then some others who are acquaintances but not close friends, then enemies, and then the whole world.
But I can't do it. I am curious whether a person can build up a capacity for universal love. When I experience love, it seems to be mostly a spontaneous response to the goodness, charm, or beauty of someone else. Surely it must be possible to acquire a stronger sense of love that I can bring on whenever I try.
If some reader has had that experience, I'll be grateful if you'll tell me about it, so I can ascertain whether it is really worth attempting in my spare time. Presumably it is, since the "Metta Sutta" is one of the great Buddhist texts and the meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. We ought to know by now if it is not possible to carry out.
There's a different question, too: whether such universal love is even an ideal that a person ought to pursue. This question was the main controversy in ancient China between Mohists and Confucians.
Mo Zi (see photo), the founder of Mohism, was born in 490 BCE - nine years after Confucius had died. He taught his followers to feel equal affection for all human beings. Not everyone admired the idea -- especially not Confucius, who insisted that love should not be indiscriminate. One should dole out one's affection in an appropriate way, especially through pronounced "filial piety” toward one's parents and much less affection (if any) toward strangers.
But universal love was definitely a prominent ideal during the Axial age -- roughly the millennium extending before and after Christ's death. During that period lived Gotama the Buddha, Christ, and Socrates — all of them promoters of what Weber called “world-denying” or “acosmistic” love, but which I'd prefer to call "transcendent love, in contrast to ordinary, everyday love.
The difference is that sensible, normal people give love to those who will, at least to some degree, reciprocate. Nothing is more painful than unrequited love, and that's not just in the romantic sense. It makes no sense to waste your life taking care of someone who does not even appreciate it. Ordinary love is built up cautiously, by offering a little, getting some back from the other, and offering some more until, if you're lucky, you have a mutually satisfying relationship. This kind of quid pro quo relationship does not have to be taught by a religious leader; it is the practical approach that we all learn in society by seeing people exchange favors and assistance.
But Mo Zi appeals more to me as a spiritual hero. Although he was not really a pacifist, he strongly opposed aggression of warlords and tried to mediate and prevent wars. But when a ruler was aggressive anyway, Mo Zi created a highly-disciplined army and offered his warriors to the weaker rulers to help defend them against aggression.
I don't know that Mohists' universal love was exactly what Christ taught (he didn't urge anyone to go to war, even on behalf of an underdog) but it had strong similarities. And as Weber pointed out, this selfless kind of love (which he called brotherliness) became an important aspect of Christianity, though of course it caused tensions in other spheres of life, especially the family.
Christ, the Buddha, and St. Francis of Assisi were examples of spiritual virtuosi who demonstrated universal love to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who came along, but they could only do so by living as homeless, wandering beggars. People who had regular obligations to kin, neighbors, and co-workers could hardly be so profligate with their resources.
Weber's and Bellah's essays explored precisely the tensions that arose when universal love is practiced as a way of life. But neither writer really wanted to jettison the brotherliness ideal. Though they never quite said so, they both seem to have been searching for ways to reconcile the two types of love.
I think about it too, though it is not exactly an existential problem for me, since I am not overwhelmed by so much love that I have trouble deciding where to direct it. I wish I did. I can't even stir it up when I sit and meditate on metta. Still, it's a question worth addressing.
I have a sense that the answer must come from recognizing the true nature of universal love. I have learned a lot about that from my friend Hanna Newcombe. It doesn't have any defining qualities. It doesn't necessarily manifest itself in any overt way. It doesn't occupy time or space, nor does it require attention. It can go on in the background while you're thinking about other matters. And since it does not take up time or space, it is not material and is not bound by the conservation of energy. You can experience as much of it as you want (or at least as much as you can generate) without taking any love away from anyone else. As Hanna points out, nobody need feel possessive, since there can always be more transcendent love, plenty to go around — at least if you don't confuse it with ordinary love, which is manifested behaviorally.
It's only when you think you have to demonstrate your transcendent love in some physical, overt way that there can be scarcity. We have to conserve everything that exists in space and time, but transcendent love is not physical, not conserved, not scarce. I don't know whether Jesus realized that fact, but apparently Mo Zi did not. He sent his armies to protect the weak, always motivated by universal love.
On the other hand, there's nothing to say that he should not express his love in that way. The only point I would make is that transcendent love has no indicators. You can't tell whether another person experiences it or not because, unlike ordinary love, it's not dispensed according to any set of priorities. If Mo Zi's warriors went out to protect the defenceless victims, that's no proof that they had transcendent love. There's no way to find that out by watching them.
This is the argument I want to elaborate in addressing Weber and Bellah. They picked a good problem to work on. I'm glad I'll have a chance to address it now too.