The subject I’m tackling is more involved than my initial, recklessly confident, estimation would have it. There is some basic philosophical and anthropological ground to be covered before I can proceed to a clearer explication of spirituality. This is the way with inquiries of this nature. They expand and take on their own life, with scant regard for the author’s original plans or desires. My goal, however, is the same. The path is just more circuitous than I expected. So before we go to part 2 (or who knows how many parts?) I present this necessary interlude.
All life is experienced by a person, a subject. Or to put it in terms of process, all life is experienced as subjectivity. This is actually a tautology, since in my view all life is subjectivity, but because of the innate tendency of thought to objectify everything, it doesn’t seem obvious.
Human thought is self-reflective, which gives it the quality of “thought” as we know it, as distinct from whatever kind of thought other animals have. This of course lends an enormous range to human ability—it also brings into greater relief the realm of emotions. Joy and sadness are two primary emotions. Love, anger, and fear are words indicating other important feelings universally experienced. Emotion and action are always linked, so that it is not wholly accurate to speak of any emotion without taking its expression into account. As a more inclusive category we must mention the axis of pleasure and pain, a duality that extends throughout the physical, emotional, and mental aspects of experience, and finds expression in desire and aversion.
The expression of thought in the form of analysis was a very gradual and difficult process. It constituted the effort, in the most basic sense, to understand and master the phenomenal world, and by the time Aristotle began the process of codifying the thought discipline of “logic,” human beings had lived on the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. But analysis could never be the only form of thought, and it was never meant to be. There is no place in it for the expression of emotions. It can describe emotions, analyze and seek to understand them as phenomena, but expressing them is outside of its purpose, and in fact tends to interfere with it.
Our emotions, I would venture to say, are the very flavor of subjectivity. They are practically indistinguishable from the sense of vitality, the inherent feeling of importance that being alive has for a person. In particular, our memory is suffused with it—humanity’s greatly expanded capacity to remember previous experience involves ever-increasing self-reflection and deeper emotional resonance.
In the everyday life of a person, experience is seamless. It is only in reflection that we discern and separate the strands of physical sensation, thought, emotion, memory, and so forth. I am emphasizing emotions here only because the development of analytical thought, what we call science, has by necessity involved the separation of objective knowledge from emotion. It is the entire range of experience, however, that is expressed and manifested as culture. And if we survey all the various aspects of culture, we must admit that emotions are a very large and important element, just as they are in experience. In terms of language, culture takes the form of metaphor. One must understand how general and sweeping this statement is. In truth, all language is representational, and is in that sense metaphor. In a wider sense, however, metaphor expresses the emotional flavor of thought, along with its complex reflective associations. There is no apparent limit to the sophistication of metaphor. From Shakespeare’s second sonnet:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Any first-year literature student can tell you that beauty is not literally a field, and then you can’t dig literal trenches in it. And this is why I maintain that the literal truth is meaningless outside of mere instrumentality. The subjective significance of any phenomenon can only be conceived metaphorically. That does not make it somehow invalid or unreal. On the contrary, it is all the more real in that it expresses the full range of experience, especially including the emotional realm. We don’t, however, turn to Shakespeare to find out how many planets there are in the solar system, or indeed what a solar system is, because that is the realm of analytical thought or science, which has a purpose far more narrow than the general one of expressing human subjectivity as culture. Metaphor, or what the ancients called poetry, is a basic and fundamental form of human expression, which predates science by thousands of years.
I don’t doubt that there are those who would argue that poetry is some kind of irrelevant luxury, something that we don’t need or have perhaps even outgrown. This is nevertheless a false notion. We use metaphor constantly every day, in the ordinary events of life, whether we know it or not. The more complex our usage, the wider our range of expression becomes, and the more freedom we feel intellectually and emotionally. In terms of emotion in particular, the loss of metaphorical range of expression coincides with a loss of affect. And everyone perceives the loss of affect as a frightening thing—we don’t want to be unfeeling machines because experience would thereby have no “quality,” no flavor, i.e. no meaning. Meaning, the sense of importance that we have concerning ourselves as living beings, is always rich in emotional resonance.
I have taken this long route because I consider it very important to understand the link between the basic expression of experience as culture, and the origins of religion and spirituality. Religion, in the broadest sense, is of the same nature as culture—it is a part of culture. More than that, it provided the primary and original structure in which culture manifested. This is because the aspect of experience expressed was considered the primary aspect—but here we are in danger of falling into unnecessary confusion. Religion expressed not merely an aspect, but the idea of subjectivity itself—the experiencer himself, if you will, the soul or spirit, the very fact of experience, of human life in toto.
Prior to any particular experience, any representation of life as content or phenomenon, there is the reality that I am alive, experiencing life, and able to reflect experience in thought and express it through action and language. This is the context for everything else, the one factor, so to speak, that never varies. Speaking logically as I am here, speaking after the fact, it is clear that all events being conditioned by other events, that all experience being subject to change, and all phenomena (the objects of my experience) being subject to change, that the relative nature of existence as we experience it can only be relative because reality itself is not relative, but absolute and unconditioned. Using space as the simplest metaphor available, I would explain it in terms of two objects that we see relative to one another. It is impossible for me to perceive these two objects in relation to each other unless they both occupy a field of space which serves as their background.
This primary awareness, however, is not the product of logic. I only come to it now through logic because I seek to express the fact analytically. Human beings came to this awareness not through a step-by-step process of thinking, but suddenly and without premeditation, with what I call an intuition. An intuition of eternity.
Intuition is a form of thought in which we experience something as true without having a clear perceptual or logical trail leading to this experience. In this general sense, intuition is not necessarily accurate. We may intuit something that proves in the end to be untrue. However, I am using the term in a much narrower and specialized sense. I contend that human beings, by the very fact of subjectivity, combined with the ability to reflect on their own experience in thought, possess an inherent sense of reality as absolute and eternal. Subjectivity itself, the context of every particular experience in a person’s life, represents a direct correlation with reality itself as the context of all individual, limited things.
The philosophical question without an answer: “Why does anything exist at all?” is an expression in analytical form of this primary intuition. The intuition also has an emotional accompaniment: we call it “wonder.” The human stands in wonder at the fact of creation (to use a faintly archaic term), and this wonder is also a kind of awe, a corresponding sense of human limitation in the face of the unlimited reality. My argument is that the intuition of eternity is necessarily produced by the human being’s realization of his own subjectivity, and the corresponding wonder is produced by his realization of self-reflection, of his ability to reflect on his own experience through thought. Metaphors for the absolute are originally and necessarily metaphors for the self.
Language, like every other phenomenon, is limited and conditioned. Therefore it can never express the absolute nature of reality without running up against its own conditioned nature, creating a paradoxical effect, a self-contradiction of expression. The intuition of eternity, and the resultant awe and wonder, are preverbal. The human being struggles to express what he intuits and feels.
It is doubtful, however, that even this primary, preverbal intuition would have enough force to inspire the foundational social structure that we have come to call religion. But there is one limitation, one condition, not only of human life but of all life, that throws the intuition of eternity into sharp relief, that highlights what appears to be a fundamental problem and creates a crisis in the development of understanding—and that is the reality of death. The awareness of death as a universal event constituted the impetus for the formation of religion as the foundation of culture and social organization.