It was 37 years ago that I spent two hours conversing in Kalady, India, with this monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. I had been sick for six weeks before this meeting, so I was a bit thinner and paler than usual. The monk was gracious and eager to chat, so over tea we discussed the comparative merits of Hindu and Christian spirituality. Predictably, I pointed out the centrality of love in the Christian view of God and man. I will never forget how briskly my Hindu host perked up and, with that characteristic bobble of the head and gesture of the hand that only Indians seem to manage, retorted: “…but what is love? Love is union, that is all. Love is union.”
I can’t recall now how I responded then – my brain was still swimming in antibiotics – but that retort has resounded in my mind almost daily since that hot afternoon in southern India. I knew he was wrong. Aquinas did teach us that union in nature is a cause of love, union of wills the essence of love and union in being an effect of love. Union is definitely in the picture. But those nice distinctions presuppose something which was missing in my interlocutor’s analysis: the notion of person.
The problem wasn’t only that he was being too generic, as if he had said “diamonds are just rocks” or “caviar is just food,” and missed an all-important difference in the kind of union love is. For persons are not just species of a genus, or examples of a type; they are unique and unrepeatable. The hard-core singularity that personhood bespeaks – making not only each man and each angel, but even God, utterly individual – makes love an act of will uniting two very distinct and ontologically dense subjectivities.
And love produces indeed a fusion, according to Meister Eckhardt, but not a confusion (fusus non confusus) – communion more than union, an embrace and not a dissolution – an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’ as ‘we’, and not a great amorphous ‘One’. It is “the Lord be with you”, and not the Force. Moreover, love is an affirmation precisely of individual distinction without separation, and not a union that denies distinction.
For me to will someone else’s good – willing the good of the other belonging to the very definition of love – is to want that person to continue to exist and to be ever more fully who and what they are. If we can get beyond merely psychological views of personality and recapture the profundity of patristic and scholastic metaphysical analyses, perhaps common ground can be found in the best of Indian metaphysics. I, for one, am convinced that it is possible, but it will never happen through superficial comparisons – and attempted equivalences – between East and West. What is needed is a full appropriation of the West’s deepest thought on personhood and then the East’s most mature reflection on Selfhood.
(…) So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain. (…)
Shakespeare, The Phoenix and the Turtle