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A Conversation with a Friend

January 27, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

This conversation grew out of an exchange I had recently with one of the foremost Christian thinkers of our time.

Enjoy. . .

 What do you mean by independent objective reality and is there a reality in which we all participate?

When I said “independent objective reality” I was intending, by the word “independent,” to exclude the notion that error becomes fact merely because someone happens to hold that error…that “what’s true for me is true for me and what’s true for you is true for you, and they’re both true even if the things we’re believing happen to be mutually exclusive.” I wanted, with the word “independent,” to affirm that what is real is real, even if my own wishful thinking or bone hardheadedness happens to think otherwise; reality’s reality is not dependent on me understanding it exactly right in every detail.

So, yes, we participate in that reality. It is, in the sense I described above, independent of us. It is, however, in another sense, dependent on us: By our choices we change the future; our choices have consequences which matter. However small the ripples we make in the Cosmic Ocean, the ripples are there, and however much those ripples have dissipated (in accord, one assumes, with the inverse square law) by the time they reach Alpha Centauri, those ripples are nevertheless real enough to be felt by those close to us. The future does not entirely depend on us — who could bear the weight of that thought — but some part of it does as we and Nature cooperatively form it, and our lives are a subordinate and dependent act of cooperative creation within Creation as a whole.

And also, not only is reality independent of us in the sense of being independent of our error, and dependent on us in the sense of our choices being real choices and not just us living out our lives as deterministic clockwork mechanisms, but we are dependent on it.

And, I would say, “on Him”: For I believe that the root and source of all being is personal. While God is doubtless personal in a sense very different from how we traditionally understand human personalities, and thus conclusions drawn from analogies to persons we know can be misleading; nevertheless, I hold that He is more personal than we; not less. Thus the  visual images of King and Old Man and whatnot, while admittedly crude, are in that sense superior to images which, under the auspices of intellectual-sounding labels like “perfect substance” or “order of the universe,” might leave us imagining the ultimate reality as a diffuse gas or cosmic pudding or universal grid.

Anyway, I believe we are dependent on ultimate reality, and thus on God. Not only is the spinning out of creation through time, and perhaps through different space-time “branes” in a cosmic “loaf,” a miracle which I believe He opted to enact with complete artistic freedom as to whether to do it and all its details…not only that, but I also think our own person-hood is derivative of His. Our own identities are contingent: We are not who we are permanently from the start, but we make ourselves who we ultimately become. Not so for God, I think: I agree with Aquinas (so far as I can follow him, which isn’t far) in saying of God that “His essence is His existence.” Thus also with His personhood: His, I think, is “thicker” and solider and more real than our own, and is for us the source of our person-hood. Our ability to form intent and to comprehend reality and to be creative and to love are all, I think, “talents on loan from God.”

So I think we participate in reality not only because our bodies are like branches growing from material reality, but because our bodies and our personalities are derivative from the source of all reality (material and otherwise).

Can we view reality as a sea of consciousness in which our individual glimmer is but a partial subset?

This is [a position] one where I can’t say for certain whether I can “get behind it” or not.

Our individual glimmer, if by that we mean our grasp of all reality, is certainly a subset of what really IS. (And if we are in error, then some portion of our individual glimmer is not a subset of what is real, but lies outside the set of what is real. We believe a tiny subset of the set of all that is true, and some of what we believe lies outside that set and overlaps the far larger set of all the stuff that isn’t true.)

I am “iffy,” though, about the connotations and implications of “sea of consciousness.” I think that mental image might be helpful in some ways while being misleading in others…kind of like picturing quanta as “particles.”

As we communicate one to another, the notions of which we are conscious spread like molecules of a gas obeying Boyle’s Law, or like a drop of honey dissolving in the ocean. Memes spread and information likes to be free.  In that sense there is a kind of continuity across all minds of the items of which we are conscious. But there is also, I think, a sense in which our “consciousness” is not sea-like but more forest-like. The individual minds brush one another like trees swayed by a breeze, but identity remains intact and distinct, like the trunks. Even our spouses and children remain other than we. Their minds don’t flow through ours in the same sense that two adjacent gallons of seawater are unbounded and indistinguishable.

Could they ever? Is our inability to experience what it is like to be the other person — not merely to be mistaken for them on the basis of outward appearance, as one sees in a Freaky Friday type movie, but to be them — a witness to an indissoluble identity we each have, or is it a mere “failure of technology,” so to speak, because we don’t all have perfect telepathy?

Here we get back to the God thing, I think. I believe the Eastern Orthodox mystics were on to something when they spoke of theosis, of “divinization”: That through communion with God and contemplation of God we, by God’s invitation and assistance, can begin fitfully to participate in the unifying life and love of the Trinity. Their notion is that the end of our existence (“end” in the Aristotelian sense, meaning purpose or ultimate goal toward which our existence does or should tend) is this consummated union, so that we can say not only to Him, but even to everyone else who is “in” Him. “Thou art in me and I in thee,” and love them as we love ourselves.

So that seems like a shared consciousness kind of thing. But I think we become more fully ourselves, somehow, in doing that. Maybe I should say: We become our best selves, the selves not distracted by fear of one another.

Now the alternative view would be one in which communion with one another causes our individuality and personhood to be destroyed or dissolved.  In that picture, all which makes up the “me” loses its distinctiveness and is melted away like a lead figurine into a pot of molten lead.  I think this would make God less of a creator and more of a bloated spider eating its young. So that alternative is, at least when put that way, distasteful or even horrifying.

But I think there is also reason to believe it not to be true on the basis of observable evidence. The evidence I have in mind is the lives of saints, or of exceptionally good and decent people, or even merely exceptional people. They who are living out to the full that spark of divinity within them stand out; they do not get absorbed into the whole lump of humanity. Is any man more distinctly himself than a Francis of Assisi, a Gandhi, an MLK, a Teresa of Calcutta; even a Steve Jobs or a Christopher Hitchens? Would the “sea of consciousness” be better for having merged everyone into a whole?  Would the world have been better if Hitch hadn’t been so damned good at being Christopher Hitchens?

Spiritually speaking, is God your basis for reality and do you view God as in and constituting everything that we can recognize as existing?

God is reality, yes. I can get behind that. And I think that all things are real because He pours His reality into them in order to bring them into reality and to maintain them in reality. They exist because He pours existence into them and they would abruptly fail to exist if they were cut off from the source.
But I believe that God is powerful (if that’s the right word? maybe “creative” is better?) enough to make something (many things) which (while dependent on Him and participating in and with Him as He participates in and with them) are nevertheless other than He.

Why do I believe that? Well, a sort of gut instinct leans me in that direction, firstly, but it isn’t only instinct.

I believe that because I don’t believe that the love of God is masturbatory or narcissistic…or that the best of human love, being derivative of God’s love, is therefore all self-love. If Jim is Fred and Fred is Georgette and Georgette is Sarah and they’re all God, then certainly God (and we, with Him) are all collectively a composite divinity that puts Hindu statues to shame in the matter of having thousands of arms and heads. I can get over my merely artistic distaste for that, if it turns out to be reality.  But then, if that’s the ultimate reality, every last scrap of self-giving love becomes merely more love of self. In that case, why bother loving my neighbor, when I find just loving myself so much easier and instantly gratifying…if it’s all the same?

Of course the riposte to this is to say, “If you realize and become convinced at the gut-level that you are Georgette and Fred, then you don’t find it any easier to love yourself than to love them.” Fair enough, but I worry that that might be only a cheap shortcut to trying to make “love your neighbor as yourself” easier: Rather than overcoming self-centeredness, we try to cram everyone else into my notion of self until my self-centeredness doesn’t leave anyone out. I’m not sure it’ll work; at least, I think we find it impossible to really live with respect to people that aren’t very much like us to begin with. And even with them, the “you are me” approach might lead us to project our own goals and approach to happiness on to them, and just assume they’ll play along. A lot of marriages probably get into trouble that way!

For me, I suspect it works better to respect the other as other, and still try to love them as God does. (Not that I’m terribly good at it even then, but it’s a process.)

Do you think as living beings we are fortunate to have awareness of, and are able to observe only a miniscule fraction of the whole?


Do you think the notion of separateness is our individualization of the grand illusion (not the Styx album)?

Well, as I’ve said in my comments above, I don’t think that individuality is mere illusion. For me, it’s a sign of God’s creativity: He’s not a one-hit-wonder, but a God who keeps churning out the hits, in every genre, with remarkable fecundity.

But I do think that illusion, or delusion, or pigheadedness, or the human condition, or wishful thinking, or refusal to confront reality — all those things that St. Augustine called “original sin” or “concupiscence” until such terms got somehow confused with sex and thereby made useless in conversation — tricks us into a sort of competitive individualism which views the individuality of the other as a threat. That illusion divides us one from another and prevents — not to sound like too much of a hippie — the brotherhood of man from being a happy family! It makes us look more like a dysfunctional, estranged, badger-spit crazy, broken-up shambles of a family.

I don’t think the solution to this is to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony and buy them a Coke. I don’t think, in fact, there’s anything much I can do about it at all in the sense of making grand gestures, let alone forcing a solution on everyone else: That just stomps on their freedom and thus on their identity.

But I can, to some small degree, be less of the problem and be open to the solution. So that goes back to the theosis thing. If I am in increasing union with God, then not only am I not divorced from reality, but I am drawn closer to participation in the love of God, which is not only a participation in Him, but a participation in everyone else who is participating in Him.

Thank you, Cord.

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