Monday, September 14, 2009

Spirituality: an Inquiry (Part 3)

Most Christian philosophers in the centuries before Protestantism believed that faith was in accord with reason. Since God created reason, it was an offense to God’s wisdom to maintain that the truth contradicted logic. If we turn to that exemplar of scholastic theology Thomas Aquinas, for instance, we witness a rigorous definition of God that is almost wholly consistent with the process of Aristotelian reasoning. The logic and structure of Aquinas’ thought in this regard is impeccable. Drawing on Aristotle’s proof of the “unmoved mover,” Aquinas explains God as the absolute reality itself. And despite the traditional attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, this God of Aquinas is primarily conceivable in negative terms: without limit or condition of any kind, either in terms of time and space or the conditional abstractions of thought.

In doing so, Aquinas ends up with a God that, for all intents and purposes, is identical to what I call “reality itself,” the context of all conditions being unconditioned. Language and tradition still implied an entity or “Supreme Being” as the moderns came to call it, but it’s doubtful how seriously such an implication should be taken in Aristotelian terms, since such a “being” necessarily involves conditions. What is more glaringly obvious, however, is that language and tradition involved the use of the personal pronoun “He” and all that implies, with its historical background in the Bible, including the Lord of the Old Testament, the Father of the New Testament, and every other personal formulation in the Christian faith. Aquinas never pointed out the metaphorical nature of such language. We can only assume, based on the iron-clad nature of his logic, that he was aware of it, but there is no actual evidence of this. It would be impossible to point such a thing out at the time, because challenging the literal truth of the personal God would be dangerous, possibly heretical. As a man who was thoroughly at home in the culture of the Church, Aquinas would probably not be aware of a contradiction. The distinction between the truth of reason and the truth of revelation was a convenient boundary protecting the philosopher from questions regarding the role of metaphor in religion.

In any case, it doesn’t take a genius to notice, now that science and the secular have created some breathing room for our capacity to reason, that the god of the philosophers, the Godhead, Being itself, this ultimate principle, if you will, of reality, is not at all the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is in all respects a personality, with desires and moods and specific plans for specific nations and people. A better case could be made for the Father of the New Testament, who at least takes a more symbolic role in the theological drama, but then we have the very human figure of Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be God incarnate in the form of man or begotten Son. We not only have the tension between an impersonal and personal conception of God, as the 19th century Indian guru Ramakrishna liked to talk about, but a tension between God as absolute truth and God as a very specific personality. The personal Christian God is involved in history, like an actor performing an essential part in a cosmic play. And in this God’s relationship to his worshipers, a huge variety of human interactions and feelings are reflected.

Spinoza was one of the first to point out the difference between the mythical, cultural God of scripture, and the actual God, which he considered to be the same as Nature. Pascal, his contemporary, famously chose to have faith in the Biblical God rather than the philosopher’s God. By any rational measure, he was wrong, but it’s important to understand why such a great intellect would make such a choice. It is because the personal God allows the human as such, which includes the entire range of thought, emotion, and action, especially including love, to be experienced as cosmically valid, as real, significant, and meaningful. The God of the philosophers swallows the human up, along with everything else, in infinity.

I have taken this brief stroll through the struggles of western philosophy and Christianity in order to arrive at a central point. The creation of the God “out there” who watches us, the personal deity embraced by the theist in alternations of love and fear, is a product of a primeval form of alienation. The helpless subject confronted by the all-powerful and enduring objective world lies at the core of human duality. I argue that it is identical in origin to the idea of the soul trembling before the possible annihilation of death. When subjectivity recognizes that it is already not separate, when the absolute it seeks is realized to be already that which has been seeking, there is no more contradiction. The impersonal and the personal are the same. The “I and Thou” of the encounter is still present as a form of spiritual practice. At the same time, however, the entire superstructure of “literal” truth, with all its mythological baggage, is revealed as poetry. This is the point at which we will have to part ways with the orthodox of all stripes, because the insistence on “belief” is now meaningless to us, but still has an overriding significance to those who cling to the power principle and all the repressions of the social order.

Those of us who find that we are unable or unwilling to use the word “God,” or to employ theistic language in our spirituality, and I count myself among that group, need have no compunction about dropping personal deities from our practice and our daily lives. There is so much cultural pressure in the West around the “God” complex that it has become very difficult to separate oppressive structures and notions from our use of that kind of language. For one thing, there is a constant affirmation of male power with practically no corresponding affirmation of female power. In addition, associations from childhood or from abusive and addictive religious beliefs and practices can even block one’s ability to access an “I-Thou” form of encounter.

Buddhism is the one example of a world religion that did away with most theistic forms of thought, along with reliance on beliefs based on “being” of one sort or another. It is, however, a tradition with its own history, cultural associations, and problems. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a part of any religious organization or group in order to have a spiritual life. At the same time, I have learned from all the traditions, including the ancient and so-called “pagan” ones, insights and practices that are beneficial. Ultimately none of it matters unless I make the initial connection between “self,” subjectivity, consciousness, and what I call the unconditioned nature of reality. It is the “in here” and “out there” that constitutes the binding illusion, and it is felt as fear and denial of death. If the Divine is something separate from me, then that separation might as well be an infinite distance. “Something” with which I have no direct contact cannot have a real effect on me outside of the vagaries of abstract thought. When those vagaries are seen for what they are, one may choose to pick up one form of traditional metaphor or another, or let go of them all. It doesn’t matter. For the knower, for what we somewhat inaccurately call the “mystic,” the experience becomes radically simple, and the language with which it is expressed is often simple as well: love, consciousness, ecstasy, compassion, service, surrender, celebration.


Mike Goldman said...

I think you will find some benefit to using Sanskrit terms which already explore these concepts in detail. In fact it is hard to write anything new about them, they have been gone over for thousands upon thousands of years with great devotion, of course.

The unconditioned Brahman is what you speak of but it is not a different God from manifestations with personality, as Shiva (male aspect, pure consciousness) and Shakti (female aspect, pure energy)...understanding the essential unity of these as one Brahman.

The personal God is found within each of us, for each of us have personality, and each of us is God, for we are all one consciousness.

Chris Dashiell said...

I try to avoid using Sanskrit or other terms because I'm trying to reframe these ideas in modern terms. I know that my nondualistic perspective is nothing new. What I think or hope is somewhat new is my insistence that gods, God, myths, and spiritual concepts are all metaphors for the self.

Mike Goldman said...

No, what you are saying is not at all new, it is the fundamental basis of Tantra, and Advaita teachings. :)

DED said...

I'm still digesting what you've written, but my first impression is that you've concluded (or is there a part 4?) this series of essays, theistic arguments, whatever you wish to call them, quite well.

While my belief system is different than yours (which I stated way back at Part 1), you've given me plenty to think about and ponder as I find my own path.