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The Structure of Christian Existence by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 11: Love


In the last chapter, Christian existence was defined as spiritual existence that expresses itself in love. Spiritual existence was then explained as a structure of radical self-transcendence, and its power for both good and evil was emphasized. Yet no explanation was given as to what that love is by virtue of which the peculiar ideal of Christianity is embodied and fulfilled. Is Christian love to be understood as identical with a universal human phenomenon that is in turn continuous with the affection animals show for one another and for men? Or is Christian love something discontinuous from all other forms of love such that a distinct word is needed? In either case, why does love play so central a role for Christian existence, whereas other forms of existence can be more or less adequately treated without special reference to it? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to discuss what is meant by love in the very broadest sense, and then to compare the form love took in the several axial cultures.

In an extremely loose sense, it can be said that every entity loves itself and other entities. That is, every entity is something for itself as subject and perceives the world from this perspective. Everything is appraised in terms of its capacity to contribute to the richness of this momentary experience, which is prized for its own sake. At the same time, every entity has some concern for the future, that is, for other entities still to come; and in its self-actualization, it so constitutes itself as to contribute to that future. In this very general sense, the Whiteheadian philosophy (by which I am so greatly influenced) affirms "self-love" and "other-love" of every entity whatsoever.

Such an ontological context is useful for the understanding of love, but it is better to use the term "love" for something much more limited. Ordinarily, we first apply the word at the level of the animal world. We describe especially sexual attraction and the concern of mother animals for their young as love, and occasionally we observe among animals additional relations to which we spontaneously apply the word "love." We say, for example, that a dog loves its master. But for the most part, the relations in question appear to be instinctive, that is, determined by organic structures other than the animal soul.

The whole presentation in this book has emphasized continuities -- also the continuity between animal and human existence. Such continuity exists also between animal and human love. There are noninstinctive elements in animal love, and there are instinctive elements in human love. But among men, love is importantly a function of the autonomous activity of the psyche. The extensive importance of this noninstinctive love in human beings emerged very gradually through human development. Nevertheless, a threshold was crossed, and human love must be understood on its own terms.

When we limit our attention to human, noninstinctive love, we still have before us an exceedingly complex phenomenon. Much noninstinctive love is unconsciously determined. Needs and desires unknown to our conscious minds control the direction and form of our affection and desire. This is especially clear in the whole area of sexual attraction, in which conscious interests seem to be overwhelmingly governed by unconscious needs. A man who identifies himself with his consciousness often perceives his sexual passions as an alien force with which he must come to terms, rather than as fully part of his very self. When we realize how large a role our sexuality plays in the whole of our lives, the importance of the unconscious element in human love is impressive. Nevertheless, although unconsciously controlled love is of great power in all human life, the love that emerged into importance in the axial period was an activity of consciousness.

Before the several forms of conscious love can be treated, a methodological problem must be considered. If we were comparing sexual attraction in the several cultures, there would be a biological and instinctual common factor that would enable us to display the variety of expressions as expressions of one thing. But love in this noninstinctual, conscious sense has no such common factor. Also, there is not some one word in each language self-evidently equivalent with "love," such that we could study its applications in each case and thus succeed in our comparison. Instead, the decision as to what our question is must be made first in much more general terms, and only then can we institute a comparison.

In what follows, then, I shall mean by "love" any mode of relating to an object as a positive intrinsic value, (I am here opposing intrinsic value to instrumental value. That is, in love one relates to something for its own sake and not only as an instrument to some further goal. That one so relates does not exclude the possibility that the value is a product of the love rather than its independent condition.) in which conscious psychic activity is decisively involved. By "object" here I do not mean a mere thing in contrast to a person, but rather an intentional or epistemological object, which can be either personal or impersonal. In the relation of love, the separation of the lover and the beloved may be overcome, but when no such separation initially exists, it is not appropriate to speak of love. Love requires some distinction between the subject and the object. Even in the case of self-love this is true. The newborn infant is completely selfish from the point of view of an adult, but it does not love itself. To love oneself requires some notion of oneself as one among the entities of the world, singled out for special concern. It becomes possible only when there is some measure of self-awareness, that is, only when the self becomes an object to itself.

On the basis of this understanding of love as positive valuation of an object, we can distinguish four types of love among the Greeks. There was, first, desire. This was attending to the object as that which provided satisfactions to the subject. Its goal was possession. The object of such love might be inanimate things, or it might be something abstract, such as prestige, success, or power. It might, of course, be an object, the possession of which yielded sexual pleasure.

Second, there was adoration. Rather than seeking to possess an object because of the pleasure or satisfaction it yielded to the subject, the subject surrendered itself to the object. Such surrender might afford a certain kind of pleasure, but in this case the pleasure came from being possessed rather than from possessing. Such adoration might be directed toward another person or toward deity or even toward an abstraction.

Desire and adoration as such are universal. Among primitive peoples, they were largely or entirely functions of instinctive or unconscious psychic needs. Instinctive and unconscious elements continued prominent among axial peoples, but these forms of love could also contain a large element of autonomous conscious activity. A third type of love, aesthetic admiration, was more distinctively Greek and reflected the triumph of consciousness more clearly.

In aesthetic admiration, there was no attempt either to gain possession of the object for the subject or to surrender the subject to the possession of the object. Rather, the subject remained subject and the object remained object. The subject was open to the perfection of form in the object and enjoyed it as such, without either desire or adoration. The distance of the aesthetic experience was maintained. Such a relation was possible not only toward objects of art but also toward human beings, in terms either of their physical beauty or of their excellence of character and action.

Fourth, there was friendship. This differed from the others in that it could only be between human beings and must involve mutuality. Furthermore, because it was directed toward another individual it could involve the desire for his good, and in its truest forms it had to do so. However, in other respects, friendship was not independent in its nature from other forms of love. A friendship might be based either on the respective desires of the friends, as each brought satisfaction to the other, or on admiration of the excellence of one another’s character and action.

Self-love was not a category of Greek experience and reflection alongside other forms of love. This was because Greek thought took for granted that each man wanted the good for himself. The question was not whether this was or was not an acceptable motivation for action, but rather what constituted the good and how it was to be obtained. Even in Aristotle’s discussion of friendship, where he made very clear that one could and should wish other men well quite apart from the advantage that accrued to the well-wisher, he also affirmed that there might be limits to this well-wishing since, of course, every man, above all, wishes himself well. Furthermore, the entire discussion of friendship is found in the context of an analysis of how man achieves happiness. The reason for having friends, even where friendship included disinterested well-wishing, was that it was a part of the good life in which alone man found his happiness.

There were those among the Greeks who saw in love of all these kinds a threat to happiness. Concern for an object, whether that be desire for possession, aesthetic appreciation, or even a will for its benefit, placed a person at the mercy of forces he could not control. It subjected him to the pain of loss and disappointment. Hence, in later Greek thought, apathy, which included the absence of love in all these senses, was a much approved state of mind.

At one level, this constitutes a point of contact with Indian thought. There one might well argue that freedom from love was very much the goal. This is true, if love is understood in any of the senses outlined above. Indeed, the profound psychological analyses of the Indians went farther than this.

The Indian was conscious of his own seat of existence in a way largely lacking among the Greeks. Hence, he knew that it was possible to attach himself to this seat in its particularity and individuality, and to attempt to maintain and enhance his separate selfhood. This self-love might constitute a subtler and more dangerous obstacle to the attainment of release than even attachment to other things and persons. It could be prevented only by the realization that the seat of existence is not the true self.

On the other hand, at least in some of its Buddhist forms, Indian thought attained a very exalted conception of love. This love is both so important and so difficult for the Western mind to understand that we must pause briefly to reflect on it.

We have seen earlier that the Buddhist both dissolved the structuring of the world, which is caused by concepts, and overcame the unification of successive occasions of human experience, which is the product of self-identification with past and future. All that remained were discrete and ever-perishing congeries of elements.

However, later Buddhism carried its negation even farther. Primitive Buddhism sought to extinguish desire, and thus also suffering, through the denial of any eminent reality and through the analysis of reality into a flux of elements. But the status of these ever-perishing elements was itself problematic. Primitive Buddhism had already denied their substantiality and permanence, but the Madhyamika school denied also their reality, thus completing the metaphysical dissolution of reality. This dissolution paved the way for the reinstitution of Reality in the sense of an intuitively and mystically apprehended undifferentiated unity. (In this discussion of later Buddhism, especially the Madhyamika school, I have been chiefly influenced by Thomas Altizer, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology [The Westminster Press, 1961] , pp. 132 ff.)

The denial of reality applied to the human occasions of experience as well. Thus the goal of life became not merely the overcoming of projection of human meanings on the world and of identity with past and future, but, more radically, an overcoming of all distinction and all differentiation. The total emptying of consciousness necessary to such an attainment would seem to the Westerner to lead to total indifference to the phenomenal world. Surprisingly, it did not. In Mahayana Buddhism, alongside the quest for release arose the ideal of compassion supremely symbolized in the Boddhisattva, who renounced Nirvana itself for the sake of bringing enlightenment to an ignorant world.

Compassion was the opposite of desire. Desire was the longing of some subject for some attainment or possession for itself. It presupposed, therefore, a differentiated world. Insofar as one realized the unity in the voidness of all things, desire was impossible and was replaced by total openness to all things and undifferentiated goodwill.

Strictly speaking, ideal compassion was not conceived as a form of love according to the definition of love in this chapter, for in it there was ultimately no distinction of subject and object of love. Nevertheless, its normal description and practice presuppose such a distinction. The Boddhisattva loved all things, and thus the subject-object structure appeared. But since there is finally no Boddhisattva "self," and since all things are equally himself, the dualism was overcome.

In describing the place of love in Greek and Indian existence, it has been possible to omit reference to man’s love for God. For the Greeks, the gods might be aesthetically admired or even adored, and for Aristotle the contemplation of God was the highest good. But the ‘love of God remained one of many aspects of the excellent life. For India, the holy power could take personal form, and believing adoration or loving devotion toward the deity was widely practiced. Nevertheless, bhakti was but one of several ways in which man could or should relate himself to Brahman or to one of the Buddhas in some later forms of Buddhism. For the Hebrews, in contrast, the love of God was the central form of love and the determining principle of all life.

Love of God was the acknowledgment of what he was in his incommensurate superiority in relation to man. Because God was understood primarily as will, the acknowledgment of what he was was primarily obedience. The love that was commanded as the sum of the law was obedient love, the willing conformity of life to his will.

It is extremely difficult to say whether prophetic man loved God for God’s sake or for his own sake. Often the expected motivation was desire for one’s own advantage, and obedience was required because of God’s power to reward and punish. Nevertheless, this would be a very one-sided view of the situation. Prophetic man was not first committed to calculating self-interest and then persuaded that he could achieve his interests best by obedience to God. Obedience to God was right because God was who he was, because of what he had done for Israel in the past, and because of his loving-kindness to Israel. Obedience was all the more right, because God was a just God who dealt with men mercifully, yet according to their deserts. Since what was right and what was advantageous were identical, the issue of their relation rarely arose clearly. Yet it did arise, and when this happened, the Hebrew knew that he must serve God even at personal cost and apart from expectation of reward.

That this question could arise at all points to a distinctive aspect of Hebrew love. Among the Greeks and even among the Indians, that the ultimate reference of concern is oneself was not in question. But where the I-Thou relation was clearly present, this question did arise. There were two persons involved, the human and the divine, and man recognized that love could be directed toward either. A person might be concerned only for himself and interested in the other only as means to his own ends, or he might actually be concerned about the other to such a point as to be willing to sacrifice his own ends. Thus, there arose a distinction of immense importance between love of the other and love of self.

The other was initially and primarily God, and in this relation, the love of the other must take ultimate precedence. However, the love of God as person transformed also man’s relation to his fellowman. In preaxial culture, this relation had been one of solidarity governed by principles of give and take. It had always included elements of spontaneous affection and generosity. But in that context, the question of the right balance of concern for self and concern for the neighbor did not arise. Even among the Greeks, we have seen, concern for the neighbor was treated within the context of presupposed primary concern for self. Despite highly developed individuality, and the capacity to distance himself as one individual among others, man’s natural self-centeredness as such did not come into question. This could occur only where the other as person could demand personal devotion, even at the cost of personal satisfaction -- and that happened only in Israel. Once it had happened in relation to God, the question of the right relation between man and man arose in a quite new way. Self-centeredness was no longer simply given. The deeper reality of all things was to be found in God’s perception of the world, and in that perception, each person was only one among others. Hence, the genuinely appropriate relation to one’s neighbor and to oneself was the same. One should love one’s neighbor as oneself.

The demand for equal love of neighbor expressed the situation of personal existence before the personal God. The love that was demanded was a matter both of motivation and of outward action. A person must seek the good of the neighbor for the neighbor’s sake, just as he sought his own good for his own sake. Nevertheless, the demand was addressed to the person as will and was a demand for that which the will could fulfill. Hence, it was not to be interpreted as a challenge to the natural and inevitable self-centeredness of man’s feelings. If a man willfully sought his own benefit at the expense of his neighbor, he was guilty of violating the commandment of love. But whether, when he acted justly, he was really concerned for the neighbor’s good, rather than for his own righteousness, was hardly a serious consideration.

Prophetic man transcended himself in that he could see himself as one object of love alongside others. But the impartial love required of him must be a love of which he was capable in the free exercise of his will. In Christianity, this limitation was broken through. The same commandments of love of God and love of neighbor remained. But the meaning was transformed. Love was understood as a motive, a state of feeling giving rise to willing and to acting. Thus, what was commanded or required came into conflict for the first time with man’s natural self-centeredness of feeling. Even if he went far beyond all reasonable demands of self-sacrifice in favor of the neighbor, even if he gave all his goods to feed the poor, he must recognize that this might not express the requisite attitude or inner state. But then, the love that was required was no longer under the control of the will. In the last chapter, the connection of the radical demand for love with the primacy of grace and the sense of original sin was discussed. The remainder of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of the reason for the necessity of this love for the fulfillment of spiritual existence.

Love has importance in every tradition. Especially in Israel, it is clear, love to God and fellowman was central to the law as a whole. Nevertheless, that which was commanded in these laws could be almost equally well expressed by the commands of obedience and justice. Only in Christianity did love as something transcending such obedience and justice become in itself the fulfillment of all that was required. This means not only that the love involved was something new, but also that the need for such love was now unlimited.

Each of us perceives the whole of reality from his own limited standpoint and evaluates it in terms of its contribution to himself. At the same time, he feels spontaneous concern for others, independently of their contribution to his own welfare. He can and does experience admiration, devotion, affection, and sympathy. It is not helpful at this level to ask whether this spontaneous love of the other constitutes altruism in contrast to self-interest. When a person acts on behalf of someone who has won his sympathy, the welfare of the other person has become his interest -- it is a new self-interest altered by the genuine concern for the welfare of the other. Self-interest and altruism merge unproblematically.

Insofar, however, as the self objectifies itself as one self among others, its relations with other selves cease to be simply and naïvely spontaneous. Among axial peoples, there was judgment about proper and ideal relations with others, and this created critical self-consciousness about one’s immediate impulses and feelings. But as long as the basic self-centeredness of feeling was taken for granted, man’s primary attention could be directed away from himself toward others and toward his relations to them. Natural self-centeredness and spontaneous concern for others remained.

However, in spiritual existence, man objectified and experienced responsibility for his basic self-centeredness of feeling. He judged this against the norm of genuine love of God and neighbor and found it corrupt and corrupting. Furthermore, the transcendence of the spirit over itself meant that man was not simply bound to the primacy of self-regard. Yet the judgment against self-centeredness and the awareness of self-transcendence did not lessen the power of self-centeredness. Instead, they heightened it and transformed it from a mere fact into sin. A self-centeredness that was simply given and that attended to the things of its world became a self-preoccupation that cut off the possibility of healthy openness to others. The self could manipulate all a man’s relations with other selves, even his feelings about them and their feelings about him, for his own sake, and it could do so consciously and willfully.

This self-preoccupation is spiritual pride. This word is not to be narrowly understood. In its narrow use, "pride" may be juxtaposed to modesty or humility as two modes of personal bearing. Or pride may be understood as having a high opinion of oneself and one’s abilities. In these senses, pride is a limited and manageable problem and even has much to commend it. Self-centeredness in the self-conscious man can manifest itself in these ways, or in self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. But it can equally well, and perhaps more insidiously, manifest itself in self-pity, self-condemnation, and fearfulness. These are all alike forms of self-preoccupation.

It is no wonder that the radical self-transcendence that leads to self-preoccupation is sometimes regarded as a sickness. It does disrupt and distort the spontaneous and healthy relations possible to those who live unselfconsciously. What is required if this sickness is to be escaped at the level of spirit is a genuine concern for the other that is free from self-regard. That is, the vicious circle of self-preoccupation is broken only when a person loves others without regard to the effect of that love on himself. That means that he loves others without regard to the fact that only by such love can he break out of his self-enclosedness. But every effort to love, in order to break out of the misery of self-preoccupation, is also an expression of the self-preoccupation and is condemned to intensify it.

Love is, therefore, on the one hand, the only salvation of the spiritual man and, on the other hand, unattainable by his own efforts. The spiritual man can only love when he is freed from the necessity to love, that is, when he knows himself already loved in his self-preoccupation. Only if man finds that he is already accepted in his sin and sickness, can he accept his own self-preoccupation as it is; and only then can his psychic economy be opened toward others, to accept them as they are -- not in order to save himself, but because he doesn’t need to save himself. We love only because we are first loved. In this way, and only in this way, can the spiritual man genuinely and purely love.

This discussion of love has illustrated the greater extremes of both evil and good that appear at the level of spirit. On the one hand lies the corruption of spontaneous feeling by self-preoccupation or pride. On the other hand lies the possibility of Christian love -- a love that uniquely transcends self-centeredness in a genuine concern for the other, untainted by concern for its consequences for the lover.

No Christian should lay claim to any simple embodiment of such love. In the totality of his relations to any person, he must recognize a great complexity of feeling -- instinctual, unconscious, and self-seeking. Nevertheless, the whole can be, and often is, redeemed by the presence of an element of genuine concern for the other as a person.

One peculiarity of Christian love is its independence of the merits of the one who is loved. So long as the self-centeredness of human interest in the world was unquestioned, love as motive had to be evoked by some property of the object loved or by some property unconsciously projected on it. Men could love only what presented itself to them as lovable. When love was commanded, as in Israel, it could no longer be a matter of love as motive. The effective motive of obedience to such a command was the desire to be righteous rather than the concern for the other as another.

But for the Christian, love is the possibility of openness to the other as another and concern for him as such. It is made possible by the gift of an undeserved love, and hence it cannot seek a deserving object for its expression. The possibility of its occurrence consists in a freedom from the sickness of self-preoccupation, and, hence, the prior relation of the other to the self cannot be relevant.

In Christian love, we are free from bondage to ourselves without ceasing to be the self-transcending selves of spiritual existence. Lover and loved retain their full personal, responsible autonomy. Love imposes no demand on the one loved; it seeks, rather, his freedom. There is no merging of self and other, as in the love of desire and adoration.

Christian love saves spiritual man from the sickness of self-preoccupation, but this does not imply that it leads to euphoria. Openness to the other is openness to his sin and suffering as well as to his joy, and that means that love brings pain. At a certain level, love greatly increases the suffering of the lover. There has always been in the world a vast amount of human suffering, and to love one’s fellowmen means that this suffering must constantly be a part of one’s own experience. But this suffering does not destroy the sufferer as does the suffering of self-preoccupation. Instead, if he does not flinch from it, but rather continues to love, his capacity for love increases, and his suffering can be accompanied by a deeper peace and joy.

Here we touch on a part of the innermost mystery of Christian existence, the many-faceted truth that only he who loses his soul can find it. It is a truth that all of us find repeatedly confirmed in our own existence, and in which, yet, we have only the most fragmentary participation.

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