The greatest commandment, so says Jesus, is that we love our neighbor as ourselves. I confess that I have always had a difficult time understanding, let alone obeying this commandment. I take it to mean that God wants me to love everyone. I frankly find the idea of this impossible.
It is always dangerous in an LDS forum to bring up a mission story — who knows what flood gates of like narratives you will open — but I will risk one that illuminates my problem. I remember once teaching a discussion on my mission. (In Korea that in and of itself makes it a memorable event!) The young man we were working with was intelligent and curious, but also arrogant, smug, and patronizing. He was our most active investigator and I remember pouring a tremendous amount of energy into thinking, preparing, and praying over this young man. At the end of the discussion my companion and I were talking about the investigator and I came to a stunning realization. I did not like him. In fact, I affirmatively disliked him. I disliked his company and conversation. I disliked his character (or at least what I thought was his character). I disliked his mannerisms, and his affected university-student way of talking. I just didn’t like him at all. This, I realized, was a great sin on my part. I was supposed to be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and I didn’t even like, let alone love the man to whom I was supposed to be ministering. What was more, I really didn’t know how I was supposed to go about obeying the commandment that I was clearly breaking.
Now there have two stock answers to this dilemma. The first is that we should ask God and he will transform our hearts and we will come to love our neighbor. The second is that we should serve our neighbor. I don’t find either of these responses completely satsifying. No doubt God can make us love those that we do not, but that has been a rare event in my experience. Furthermore, their is a certain deus ex machina quality to this response that offends that semi-Pelagian corner of my Mormonism. God’s commandment must be more demanding that a simple request for his grace.
Service is difficult because I find that my capacity for action far exceeds my capacity for concern. I can do good deeds for a fairly large number of people. (I generally don’t, but I have seen myself do it in the past, so I know it is possible.) However, I find that lack the capacity to care deeply about large numbers of people. I simply seem to lack the ability to assimilate the information necessary to understand and care about the particularity of very many individuals. At the same time, I lack the energy necessary to direct real emotional interest toward large numbers of people.
I care deeply about my family and about my friends. However, I find it difficult to extend out beyond that. I am in awe of bishops or other noble souls who seem to have the capacity to know and care deeply about a group as large as a ward. So large a group, I fear, probably exceeds my current ability to love or care about deeply. And God wants me to love everyone!
There are some other solutions to this problem that I dislike. One is to love mankind, in the abstract. This is the cheap charity of Rousseau, in which one elides over the difference and the particularity of individuals and loves instead some vast amalgamation of them, whether it takes the form of the “masses” or “the human spirit” or some other iteration of the same concept. This kind of regard strikes me as a very different sort of thing than that illustrated by the samaritan on the road to Jerico. Also, I find it politically a bit frightening. Lenin was a great lover of the masses, and Pol Pot seemed genuinely interested in the fate of the proleteriat. I would much rather have misanthropes who love their friends and family. (Of course this may simply be a way of saying that I like me.)
A related solution to the problem of universal love, is to reduce people to cardboard characters. We can thus love Frank as a “poor person,” or perhaps we can reach out to Francis as “a lonely widow.” This seems better to me than a Rousseaian universalism, but it still seems to fall short of loving a person. That requires a greater investment in their life and character, an investment that places greater demands on my finite emotional resources.
I notice that in my last sentence I slip into the language of economics. I frame the problem in terms of allocation and scarcity. Love of family and friends is an perhaps an efficient solution to the problem. It invests my limited energy to love in those places where the love is likely to matter the most. On the other hand, this seems like a pitiful response to the invitation of the one who invited us to love as he loves.
I understand Christ’s love as a universal engagement with our particularity. As such it seems almost paradoxical, and certainly beyond my capacity. And so I am left sinning, which perhaps makes me less of a Pelagian than my posturing suggests.