There is always a story, and a hero. A Jesus, a Buddha, a Moses or Muhammad. A Joseph Smith, a Persephone. The stories are miraculous, tragic, silly. It’s what comes later that is interesting—the cantatas, the NGOs, the Haj.
But first there is a story: the man-god Redeemer, the Chosen People, the last and greatest Prophet, the Lost Tribe, the Big Bang.
Even atheists have Nature, all-powerful, destructive as a hurricane, gentle as a mother robin. Evolution is the plodding agent of Her will. Evolution holds the master plan that used to be the prerogative of Zeus and Jehovah, executing it through Natural Selection in an infinitely complex way over unimaginably long stretches of time. There’s a whimsical, perverse aspect to Evolution, a God with the most serious intentions who chooses merely to start the ball rolling and then sits back for billions of years to see how things pan out.
Long ago our rising consciousness convinced us that a Super Mind must be in charge of the world, controlling everything in it, just as we ourselves had learned to control animals and even other human beings. But the sense of our own individual consciousness, that we exist as discrete minds and wills, inevitably made the eventual obliteration of our separate identities the central tragedy of humankind. We had become like our gods; unlike them, we died.
We take individuality for granted, write laws to protect it, invent supernatural souls to ensure its immortality. We view cultures where collective identity counts for more than individual identity as primitive and irrational. We allow that eye color, even facial expressions and gestures, may be inherited, but not our thoughts, our feelings, our individual states of mind. We are “persons,” even as God in whose image we are made is a person, ourselves writ large. Unity obsesses us, in religion, politics, science. We disdain multiple-god cultures which suggest the variety of human identity. In polytheism we can be many people in one—bad and good, male and female, active and contemplative, sexual and ascetic. We can celebrate our complexity in the images of the gods we worship.
But we see ourselves, as we see our God, as individual and unique, isolated beings whose fate is, to an unbearable degree, in our own hands. Godlings in this temporal world, physically extinguished by death, we live on even after death as glorified but still discrete immortals or as the undead condemned to eternal torment. The individuality we have fashioned and its unavoidable fate create a sense of isolation and despair so profound that we cannot endure it without constructing an antidote to save us from our own bad dream.
Isolation is hell for humans as much as for any honeybee, yet we don’t want to believe that “I” is just a part of “we,” that we swap who we are the way eggs and sperm swap genes. We read, go to movies, make love, talk to friends, listen to music, all of which require sharing ourselves with other selves. But we pretend that we remain entirely individual, not really part of anyone else, not part-Shakespeare, part-Beethoven or even part of our own spouse or lover.
Experience teaches us that the more we participate in the lives of others, the more we realize our individual selves. Yet we still hang on to the idea that we are discrete entities, islands of consciousness, lords of our little realms of being. We believe so firmly in our individuality that we don’t see how much of us is unoriginal, imitative, someone else’s—everyone else’s.
Reason alone—today we call it “intelligence,” “education,” “science”—drives us deeper into ourselves and ultimately into despair (“It’s better never to have been born”). Despair drives us to revelation—almost any revelation. The world can be a hard and wicked place. Better to abandon reason altogether and put our faith in a guru, a savior, thus rendering ourselves permanently infantile, just as we render infantile our domestic pets, dependent on us for all their physical as well as emotional needs, all the while believing that we actually have acted in their best interests. They love us, don’t they? They’re happy. They would perish without us.
Real religion—not just a moral agenda tied to a set of superficial rituals—teaches that doing is knowing, whether by following the Sermon on the Mount or by initiation by stages into a transforming truth or mysterium. Our need for this transformation endures, whatever our particular culture or degree of education. We become what we experience, and are thus transformed. This is why childhood can be so traumatic, so much so that we have to unlearn too much identification with the world around us, distance ourselves from it, learn self-realization, and in the process lose our real selves in favor of individual, isolated identities.
We can’t philosophize our way to a larger itself. We can only get there by going, by participating. It is all journey, no arrival, no resolution, no “answers.” Even our dying is part of the journey as long as we remain connected to something greater than our discrete individuality. Death destroys our unique memories, states of mind and feeling. But death does not obliterate that part of us that is shared. Artists and other public figures are said to live on in their work. But so do we all, in a less obvious way, what we experience and who we are shared not just with our progeny but with everyone we have ever come in contact with. We become part of each other just by showing up.
Nor can we participate in others’ lives without participating in their suffering. We cannot pick and choose what we will experience and what we will avoid. If we refuse to embrace all of human experience, refuse to make certain parts of it our own, we fail to realize who we are both as participants in the greater consciousness and as individuals. We remain imprisoned inside our separate, isolated identities.
We fear the extinction of our individuality because we don’t realize that it is largely illusion, that it was never really there in the first place. As part of a greater self we remain who we separately were and are; we simply stop worrying about our private fates and relax in the knowledge that we—all creation, not just humans—are all in this together: the inanimate stuff of stars made conscious, the universe become self-aware.
Tom – Thank you for this marvellous and indeed stunning post. Though that may be a rather egocentric conclusion on my part. I read through paragraph after paragraph and wanted to shout YES! My only regret is that I have been so late in coming to understand just how truly we are all in this together.
I have been thinking in particular about the invention of the idea of a soul. Most people, I think, assume that it has biblical roots. But it does not. Souls are not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament and to my knowledge not in the New Testament either. The core of the idea comes from Plato who lived almost half a millennium before Christ. He was trying to solve the intellectual problem of how we can have ideas of perfect things when they do not exist in absolute perfection in the material world. He decided there must be another world where these things are perfect – perfect triangles, perfect flowers, perfect people, perfect everything.
This perfect world represented the scientific – not religious – thinking of the day. It’s rather like our scientific ideas today about dark energy. We really haven’t a clue what dark energy might be, but it seems to be the only kind of thing scientists can think of at the moment to explain the extraordinary things we do observe. The secular idea of a soul was adopted by Christian theologians because it represented the scientific thinking of the day. And oh, has it proved useful!
The idea of the soul was discarded long ago as a scientific concept, but its usefulness for controlling the behavior of believers by religious authorities remains. The existence of the soul comes packaged with the promise of eternal life – as you say, it’s a way for my most precious personal ego to survive forever. And it will survive in perfect bliss if I do what religious leaders tell me to do. Eternal life as ME is no longer an idea that personally holds any allure or coercive power over me, but it did for a very very long time.
The invention of the idea of soul also has another hidden and I think immensely destructive result to which you refer – it suggests that salvation is individual. You might not go to heaven, but I can make sure that I do. In other words, we are not all in this together. I can feel superior to you, separate from your sinfulness, safe from it, whatever you do, even it kills me, even if it wipes out the entire human species. Because my soul will survive and go to heaven while you will go to hell. Ha! I know I shall win.
Alternatively, you suggest that we are all in this together, and that if we are, we must participate in the suffering of others. I agree totally. But there are many ways of doing this. And being incomplete as we are, many of those ways are self-absorbed, debilitating, neurotic, self-deluding. As a human race, we still seem addicted to “doing good” by bombing, shooting, punishing, and killing the bad guys. We even then pat ourselves on the back as heroic and patriotic. I have not been able to adopt the pacifist view 100%. Perhaps I was too influenced by the horrors of World War II gas chambers. But we are far too trigger happy. We don’t really believe in diplomacy. We don’t really think that perhaps we too have to change, not just everybody else. We seem to think that because we have the bombs, we have the military, we must be right. It would be nice to say this applies to only America, but it seems to be a world-wide belief: the best way to to impose the right way – my way – is to be the biggest bully on the street. We imprison or kill anyone who does not accept our standards. Then people have to listen, even if they aren’t convinced.
There are two ideas that have most profoundly changed my view of the world in recent years. The first is the belief that there is no other supernatural, perfect world over and above our natural universe – or universes. What is of value is what is now, not some hypothetical future in some other world. And the second idea is the one that is central to this post – that we are all in this together. There is no possibility that I can just take care of myself. I myself depend in my very essence on what happens to all of us.
This is an embarrassingly lot of words to qualify as a mere “comment.” But simply writing them has helped amplify my values. As you say, we need each other even to become what we think of as “myself.” As Shakespeare put it: I can no other answer make, but thanks, and thanks. And ever thanks.
Yours is the best explanation of Plato’s notion of the “forms” or “ideas” I’ve come across, Terry: the Perfect. Also, thanks for pointing out that the idea of the soul is not Biblical,either Old or New Testament (in Christian terms). With my scant knowledge of these things, it has also struck me that Descartes, who opened so many windows, let the side down when he maintained the existence of a soul.
Also, I like the idea that the soul, like so many religious ideas–ideas that now only exist as religious–was originally a “scientific” one. I’ve come to the conclusion that religion was originally an attempt to do what we now look to science to do: explain natural phenomena as well as theorize about the forces behind them. Even today, when I hear a thunderstorm it sounds a lot like anger to me, and I can see how it could be reasonable to assume that if there is anger there must be an angry being expressing it, a very powerful one. It seems obvious those original ideas hung on long after they became scientifically irrelevant because, as you also suggest, they served other purposes as well as because they had by then become “sanctified.”
Several years back, purely by chance when surfing in Gutenberg.org, I came across a book by Edward Carpenter (1920ish?) that is about the pagan origins of Christianity. In it he tries to re-create the mindset of human beings back when we were still very much embedded in nature and still just another species, and not the most skillful one either. I suspect, as he maintains, that we got it right then and have gotten it wrong ever since. What I mean is that when our self-consciousness was less developed we didn’t just believe but knew that we were part of something bigger. The greatest evil that could befall us was to be alienated or exiled from our fellows, because we could hardly be said to exist outside that relationship. He traces the origins of “communion” back to those times, when the entire clan or tribe participated in eating the sacred bear or other animal with which the tribe identified, revered and wanted to draw strength from. The idea of an individual soul to those people would, I should think, have not only been incomprehensible but laughable (reminding me, for whatever mischievous reasons, of the reception the Jesuits got in China when they try to convince the Chinese that homosexuality was evil).
The “problem of evil” you touch upon is unresolvable, I think. I gravitate toward literature, both as reader and maker, because it implies that a good stating of the questions is the best we can do. My scientific inclination also inclines me toward observing human behavior the way a chemist observes reactions in a test tube. When we finally come to the general acknowledgment that we are all indeed individually different in the way our brains are constructed, we may then have to accept that morality, while being socially useful or even necessary, is a construct in much the same sense as is the idea of the soul. Rattling around in my head for many decades now is that comment by Jesus that few people in any generation will hear what he says. By which I took him to mean that you either are or are not inclined toward the kind of message he preached, and the same could be said for any other way of seeing the world. We should hardly be surprised that the best elements of any of the world’s religions have not carried the day, if we take Jesus at his word.
Like you, I can’t entirely renounce violence, though I admit to a cautious admiration of those who do. On the other hand, what you and I have witnessed in our lifetimes shows the complete bankruptcy of those who choose violence either to work their wills on the rest of us or who oppose, at least nominally, those who are out to oppress us. Our technology has so out-run our human nature that it’s a wonder we continue to exist at all.
Tom, yes, I agree that Descartes “let the side down,” as it were. But let us remember just how dangerous — I mean physically dangerous, life-threateningly dangerous – it still could be to express certain ideas that threatened those whose power rested on religious grounds. I know in myself that I could not accept some ideas for years out of what I now think of as fear. Not fear for my life, but fear of being socially disgraceful, of being seen as a disgrace because I didn’t toe the party line.
I agree that our being alienated from nature is a terrible fracture. But I’m not so sure how it happened. For me, the irony is that it is science that has liberated me more than anything else. It is through science that I realized that I’m not in exile waiting to return to my true home in some supernatural world. I already am home. I already am where I belong. Psychologically it has been an immensely rooting and calming realization. As if some great existential misfit has been lifted from me.
I’m not convinced either that morality is entirely arbitrary, cultural, or individual. Obviously much of it is. But whether there are some universal principles that arise out of the very nature of our being human parallel’s Chomsky’s view that despite that words and grammar, etc. are learned, nonetheless all language arises out of a fundamental structure determined by the nature of the human brain. I’m inclined to believe that there are some universal fundamental moral principles as well. If for no other reason than that concepts of fairness, or sharing, or loyalty, of defending ones offspring exist in many other animals than in Homo sapiens. I think some moral principles arise out of the evolutionary imperative.
I do fear our capacity to kill has technologically run so far ahead of our moral imperative to protect life, however. Even the India liberated by Gandhi’s nonviolence is now a nuclear power. I’m not convinced it will not destroy us altogether. I move closer to being 100% pacifist. But I may lack the courage.
I think you need to read Copleston’s ‘A History of philosophy’ to get beyond the common rhetoric you use about what mind is, who God is, and how man’s thinking has evolved over the centuries.
Could you give me a synopsis of Copelston’s main ideas on the subject, KG?
I’m not sure what you mean by “common rhetoric.” Most people I know and know about believe in the received ideas about God, the soul, etc. I find I have to start with square one when starting a discussion on the subject. But maybe you’re referring to the thinking of more “intellectual” folks? I’d love to see you develop your thoughts in more detail. This is a discussion, after all. I like to think we none of us have any vested interests in one point of view over another. And, thanks, by the way, for chiming in. I look forward to seeing more from you.
That author’s ‘History’ simply broadens one’s understanding of life – for example, it discusses the metaphysical thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and, in a more secular respect, the German idealists. Theologians throughout the centuries have bothered to seek out metaphysical truths, e.g., to answer questions such as ‘Who is God?’; ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does life have meaning?’ And even if we are without faith, we should still respect the religious perspective as something more than mere ‘doctrine’. I don’t think it’s meant to be an escape from reality. Whatever you choose to read on that subject, I think you will find that looking beyond oneself to a higher being, even Being itself, opens one onto an answer that philosophy without theology may struggle with but cannot provide on its own. Thanks for your question.
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