[Introduction] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

“…how shallow, puny, and imperfect are efforts to sound the depths in the nature of things. In philosophical discussion, the merest hint of dogmatic certainty as to finality of statement is an exhibition of folly.” -Whitehead1

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.” -Whitehead2

This essay is written in preparation for my dissertation, tentatively titled Imagination Between Science and Religion: Towards a Cosmotheandric Process Philosophy. In this forthcoming dissertation, Alfred North Whitehead’s and Friedrich Joseph Schelling’s voices will play starring roles in my own attempt to re-construct the philosophical basis for a viable planetary civilization. Special attention will be paid to the methodological role of imagination in both scientific theorization and religious mythopoeia. Raimon Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric experience,” wherein Universe, God, and Human are the truine ultimates in terms of which experiential reality is to be interpreted, will provide the imaginative background guiding my philosophical speculations.3

In this essay, I will focus on Whitehead’s organic cosmology, but Schelling’s and Panikkar’s conceptions of reality will never be far from my mind. The title of this essay is itself a nod toward Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, which seeks to integrate humanity’s ancient spiritual longing for wisdom and compassionate consciousness with its modern scientific knowledge of an evolutionary cosmos.

The important place of philosophy, from Whitehead’s similarly anthropocosmic perspective, is that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences. It follows that:

Philosophy is not one among the sciences with its own little scheme of abstractions which it works away at perfecting and improving.4

Rather, the philosopher is always at work attempting to harmonize the abstract sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology), both internally among themselves, and more generally with our deep moral intuitions and aesthetic feelings regarding the archetypal values inherent to the universe. In this sense, Whitehead sees philosophy’s principle import to be “the fusion of religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.”5

One of the major premises of this essay is that contemporary scientific cosmology has passed into an epicyclic phase of theoretical development.6 The present disorganized assemblage of scientific hypotheses regarding the fundamental laws and material components of the universe has left contemporary cosmology on the verge of a paradigmatic shift whose existential significance may surpass even that of heliocentrism or evolutionism (though it will need to include rather than contradict these paradigms). Whitehead was among the first initiates into this new cosmological story, but grasping the novelty of his vision also requires remembering the insights of the ancients, even if in a modern context. This essay therefore situates Whitehead’s animate cosmology in the context of the larger historical arc of Western natural philosophy dating back to Plato. It also bring’s Whitehead’s philosophy of organism into conversation with several components of contemporary scientific cosmology–including relativistic, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories–in order to both exemplify the inadequacy of traditional materialistic-mechanistic metaphysics, and to display the relevance of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme to the transdisciplinary project of integrating these theories and their data with the presuppositions of civilized society. This data is nearly crying aloud for a cosmologically ensouled interpretation, one in which, for example, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological.7

Almost a century ago, Whitehead warned that if physicists did not begin to reassess the outdated imaginative background of mechanistic materialism in light of their own most recent cosmological discoveries, the scientific enterprise would as a result “degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses.”8 Despite the conceptual revolutions of the 19th and 20th century (e.g., evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories), scientific materialism remains the de facto natural philosophy of Western civilization. It imagines the universe as

irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations…in itself…senseless, valueless, purposeless…following a fixed routine imposed by external relations.9

Such a picture of ultimate reality leaves no room for life or consciousness. It seems likely that this metaphysical oversight is among the reasons for (post)modern civilization’s ecological and socio-economic crises. A coherent philosophy of nature has yet to take root among civilization’s intelligentsia. Several centuries from now, if historians still exist, and if a new image of reality and with it a new civilization are in the process of flowering, the 20th century will stand out not only for its world wars and widespread environmental devastation, but for its disorienting scientific discoveries (like relativity and quantum theories) and the earthshaking technological inventions which resulted (like the atom bomb and the microchip). For a century, the greater part of the thinking heads of our civilization have been distracted by the electronic gadgetry and wartime glory afforded by technoscience.10 This distraction has allowed them to overlook the philosophical incoherence of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead, one of the handful of historically sensitive scientists to grasp what was happening, wrote in 1925 that “The progress of science has now reached a turning point”:

The stable foundations of physics have broken up…The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. Time, space, matter, material, ether, electricity, mechanism, organism, configuration, structure, pattern, function, all require reinterpretation. What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? …[Science] must become philosophical.11

The incoherence of mechanistic materialism stems from its neglect of the importance of harmonizing our theoretical knowledge of nature with the presuppositions of our ethical values, artistic projects, and spiritual aspirations. Unlike any of humanity’s premodern cosmologies, modern scientific materialism has been predicated upon a metaphysical bifurcation separating human consciousness from the surrounding cosmos. This dualism between consciousness and cosmos is the fatal flaw at the core of modern scientific cosmology. Whitehead’s philosophy of science is characterized by the attempt to correct for the widespread deployment of the fundamental fallacy of bifurcation, along with its daughter fallacy, that of misplaced concreteness. In effect, modern science has sacrificed intuitive understanding of the concrete passage and organic unity of the actual universe for the abstract knowledge of its mathematical formulae and mechanical models. No other fallacy occupied Whitehead’s critical attention more than the bifurcation of nature: as we will see, he initially wandered out of mathematical physics and into the arena of full-fledged metaphysical cosmology precisely in order to integrate what had become dissociated. “Coherence,” writes Whitehead, “is the great preservative of rationalistic sanity”12; without it, neither cosmology nor civilization would be possible.

Despite the need for greater philosophical coherence in contemporary scientific cosmology, many leading physicists are growing increasingly impatient with philosophers. “For most of the twenty-five centuries since written history began,” writes Freeman Dyson, “philosophers were important…”

They had a deep influence in the practical worlds of politics and morality as well as in the intellectual worlds of science and scholarship…Compared with the giants of the past, [twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers] are a sorry bunch of dwarfs…So far as the general public [is] concerned, philosophers [have become] invisible.”13

Dyson at least has hope for the future importance of philosophy, if only it becomes willing to ask the big questions once again. Other physicists have become outright dismissive of the entire enterprise of philosophy. “Philosophy is dead,” writes Stephen Hawking, because it “has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”14 Lawrence Krauss similarly argues that much of contemporary philosophy suffers from “intellectual bankruptcy”15:

When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.16

Like Hawking and Krauss, Stephen Weinberg is also of the opinion that scientists need not take the complaints of philosophers seriously:

To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is to tell a tiger in search of its prey that all flesh is grass […] with or without [philosophers], we will continue to [search for scientific explanations of natural phenomena].17

In response to such criticisms, it must first be said that Whitehead was well aware of the danger of supposing that our present definitions, whether they be in the language of mathematical physics or of metaphysical ontology, somehow already contain all the words, phrases, or formulae applicable to the analysis of experiential reality: he called this supposition “The Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary.”18

We experience more than we can analyze. For we experience the universe, and we analyze in our consciousness a minute selection of its details.19

For Whitehead, the role of philosophy is akin to that of poetry: to introduce novel fundamental ideas and verbal expressions as an aid to the ongoing adventure of civilization.20 This obviously makes philosophy’s goals a great deal broader than those of physics; but as I hope to spell out in the course of this essay, it is essential to the health of civilization that lines of communication between philosophy and science remain open and mutually informative. Whitehead, a mathematical physicist by training, had just as much criticism for the habits of his own discipline as for philosophy. He placed the blame for the sorry state of both disciplines primarily on the process of professionalization, which pushes society’s brightest minds to become narrow-minded specialists and technicians with little interest or respect for anything but the operational abstractions of their own field. The fragmentary proliferation of technoscientific disciplines during the 19th and 20th centuries mostly discouraged grand attempts at integration akin to those of philosophers past. “Sometimes it happens,” writes Whitehead,

that the service rendered by philosophy is entirely obscured by the astonishing success of a scheme of abstractions in expressing the dominant interests of an epoch.21

Whitehead’s approaches to philosophy and to science are not typical of his age. A natural born integralist, he came to them from several angles at once: as a mathematician seeking truth in harmonious pattern, as a physicist attempting to describe the fundamental forces of nature, as a pragmatic educator searching for a viable pedagogy, and as an ally of the Romantic poets in their protest against abstraction on behalf of the concrete values inherent to the universe. According to contemporary interpreter Isabelle Stengers, Whitehead’s central concern is precisely modern science’s

lack of resistance to the intolerant rule of abstractions that declare everything that escapes them frivolous, insignificant, or sentimental.22

Much of the hostility directed at philosophers by the physicists mentioned above would seem to be a result, not only of their lack of resistance, but of their outright celebration of the power of abstractions to explain away the depths of mystery inherent to lived experience. In contrast to the triumphant attitude fostered by scientific materialism, Whitehead does not look to natural science, or to philosophy, for reductive explanations. Rather, his philosophizing seeks “direct insight into depths as yet unspoken.”23 The purpose of philosophy is not to explain away mystery, but to add to it “some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”24

As an aid to understanding the radical novelty of Whitehead’s mature cosmological scheme, it is important to first grasp the essential features of his early reflections on the history and philosophy of science. It is to these reflections that the next section turns.

Footnotes

1 Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1929/1978), xiv.

2 Whitehead, Modes of Thought (New York: The Free Press, 1938/1968), 168.

3 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being (New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 34.

4 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925/1960), 83.

5 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 15.

6 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 124.

7 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

8 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

9 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23.

10 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011], 11).

11 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 23 (italics mine). By way of comparison, Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was similarly an attempt “to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically” (Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1797/1988], 5).

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 6.

13 Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books (November 8, 2012), 20.

14 Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.

15 Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (New York: The Free Press, 2012), xiv. Krauss claims to bring “nothing”–traditionally a topic for metaphysical speculation–into the purview of natural science such that it can be used to explain the creation of the universe materialistically (i.e., as the result of blind chance and causal necessity without meaning or purpose). I return to his ideas in a later section in connection with Terrence Deacon’s less reductionistic scientific characterization of “nothing” in Incomplete Nature (2012).

16 Krauss, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” in Scientific American (April 27, 2012), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-consolation-of-philos&page=2 (accessed 11/15/2012).

17 Stephen Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Vintage Books, 1993), 21-22.

18 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 173.

19 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 89.

20 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

21 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 136.

23 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 174.

24 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 168-169.

PDF of “Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology” [and Table of Contents]

Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Table of Contents

I. Introduction: From Physics to Philosophy

II. The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science

III. Whitehead’s Ontology of Organism

IV. Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

_a. The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory

_b. Space-Time in an Ontology of Organism

_c. Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

V. Conclusion: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul
Wordle: Whitehead and Cosmology

Raimon Panikkar on Cosmotheandrism


“I should like to present this cosmotheandric principle with the minimum of philosophical assumptions. And the minimum here is that reality shows this triple dimension of an empirical (or physical) element, a noetic (or psychical) factor and a metaphysical (or spiritual) ingredient. By the first I mean the matter-energy complex, the cosmos; by the second, the sui generis reflection on the first and on itself; and by the third, the inherent inexhaustibility of all things: the cosmic, the human, and the divine.”

-The Cosmotheandric Experience (1993), p. 71-71

Over at Knowledge-Ecology, it seems that my attempt to carry forward the cosmotheandric vision first expressed by Panikkar is being reduced to its theological component. I need to further develop the anthropological and cosmological aspects of the trinity by unpacking, 1) the significance of religious practice in human evolution (reading Robert Bellah’s latest book is helping with that) and, 2) explaining why an ethical response to the ecological crisis implies entering into relationship with an ensouled universe. There is a 30-page essay here somewhere…

OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds

Adam Robbert and Graham Harman have both posted responses to my post about the anthrodecentrism of object-oriented ontology.

I think Adam’s summary of my position as regards the relationship between divinity, nature, and humanity is quite accurate. He chose Raimon Panikkar‘s term “cosmotheandrism” to describe my approach. I’m definitely sympathetic to this characterization and have worked Panikkar’s ideas into several essays on panentheism.

Harman responded in particular to my assertion that OOO needs to articulate its anthropological and theological foundations to avoid spiraling into nihilism.

He writes:

Since footnotes2plato doesn’t seem inherently opposed to the OOO project, I assume that when he says that “OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications,” he doesn’t mean that the way to do this is by restoring human being to its previous grandiose eminence. I don’t think footnotes2plato means that nihilism automatically results from putting all beings on the same footing, and if he did mean that I would argue against it.

I don’t think, after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, that philosophy should or can re-instate humanity as God’s uniquely chosen species, singled out from all other life. I also don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology. It all depends on how we construe the relationship between Cosmos and Anthropos. The species Homo sapiens is not identical to the Anthropos; rather, the latter represents the ideal toward which our species, like all other life, is striving. I follow much ancient Hermetic thought in construing the Anthropos as an archetype active throughout the Cosmos, a potential form of manifestation that, at least on our planet, has been most closely approximated by Homo sapiens. I, like Teilhard de Chardin, think there is a direction to evolution, a curve toward greater complexity and consciousness expressed through deeper interiority. Given enough time, and as a result of the influence of divine lures, the Universe tends to evolve the capacity for a deeper feeling of Beauty, a clearer sight of Truth, and a stronger will for Goodness. I think overcoming nihilism requires articulating a coherent “cosmotheandric” scheme, wherein the role of the human is to more fully realize its potential as a representative of the Anthropos on planet Earth.

I need to unpack some of these thoughts further, but I’m running out the door now. More soon!

Religious Dialogue as Soul-Making: A Prayer to Buddha and Christ

Why Religious Dialogue?

Interreligious dialogue is not a distant possibility but a present necessity. This essay is a response to this need, but it is written also as an intrareligious dialogue. This is because the conditioned nature of my own personality, having been historically shaped into what it is by my unique imaginal participation in certain texts and practices, at first allows me to speak and be understood only within the personal and communal bounds of these traditions.

By seeking out the essence of my own spiritual path, I hope to become more capable of generating wise and compassionate relationships with those who walk adjacent paths. There’s a way in which the intra- and interpersonal boundaries generated by each of the world’s religions also opens them to extra- and transpersonal bonds. These bonds tie the traditions to each other within an ecology of Spirit, each of them creating and receiving love from the other within the space opened up by Spirit’s eternal passage into history.

And so while it may at first appear so on the surface, the condition “we”—the English speaking post-secular intelligentsia, or whoever—currently find ourselves in is not one of lacking an effective method or means of contacting those of “other”—let us say, non-Christian, non-secular, or indigenous—traditions. If “we” have identified ourselves as “the same,” we have already set ourselves in differential relation to “others.” No tradition has known itself as religious or salvific in the absence of a relation to other traditions claiming the same. In other words, the self-consciousness of each of the world’s religious traditions never could have emerged but as a consciousness of otherness. Moving from the historical to the metaphysical register, we can say that differentiation begets identity even as identification begets difference. This seems to be a logical contradiction, when it fact it is the principle of life (or incarnation) itself. The concepts—self/identity and other/difference—are conditioned by one another and so exist relatively. Only the relation is absolute. “Religion” is that which relates, or binds together, this with that, me with you, time with eternity, secular with religious, human with divinity. Religion may appear to us through the expressions and experiences of many religions, but underlying all of them is a universal love for and convergence upon the unspeakable oneness of Spirit (unspeakable because always arising anew, eternally born within and between us).

The need for dialogue on dialogue is now more urgent than ever, since our species’ ability to communicate compassionately across borders is already determining the sorts of worlds being brought forth by an increasingly planetary civilization. Unfortunately, the most powerful form of transnational communication taking place today is governed by the purely economic norms of corporations. The earth and its human and non-human populations are being exploited by these amoral entities. They operate under norms with no system of evaluation but that selected by “the invisible hand” according to the laws of supply and demand. “The strongest will survive, and the species will progress”: so goes the market mantra. Transitioning into a just, peaceful, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization will require that our governing ethos shift away from that of monetarily-motivated corporate entities toward institutions not concerned solely with their own profit. Power must be transferred to institutions concerned for the welfare of all sentient beings.

For the last three or four centuries, the political influence of the world’s religions has waned, but the secular nation-states that have risen to replace them in the hopes of mediating their discord have proven unable to prevent violence. In fact, nations continue to wage war upon one another, always under the pretext of self-defense. It seems that the capitalist logic to which the nation-state is subject inevitably generates economic pressure that leads them to militarily secure and/or expand their industrial markets. One of the underlying assumptions of interreligious dialogue generally seems to be that, in the wake of this failure of the modern secular state, the religious traditions of the world must be among the institutions called upon to reclaim a more enlightened version of their former power and responsibility for directing the course of world history. What is needed is not a return to feudalism and monarchy, nor a re-absorption in “dogmatism, fanaticism, and sectarianism” (MMR, p. 16), but a more integral way of politically mobilizing the world’s great wisdom traditions as a counterweight to the market religion that has come to dominate the planet.

Traditional religion, as it had been known by civilizations yet to planetize, is being re-invented within the crucible of the global encounter of the religions (including secularism). As Haridas Chaudhuri put it, religion is “the undying substance of the spirit of man” that, if it is “destined to play a vital role in the advancement of civilization,” must today “be reborn out of its own ashes” (MMR, p.  15). In the hopes of furthering this rebirth in some small way, the remainder of my intrareligious “confession” will circle around just two traditions, those most responsible for the ongoing formation of my soul: Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. The wisdom of these traditions will be approached in light of the poetic insights of William Blake and John Keats, both of whom sought a new experiential revelation of Spirit at the personal level.

It is not only the various religious institutions that must renew themselves; each person’s consciousness of the religious must also be transformed before Spirit can adequately guide human civilization into the next century. The planetary is personal, since the planet can only be redeemed through the love of person for person. We must each continue to speak compassionately from within in search of the One who binds us all together:

When the two will be made one, both the inside and the outside, the outside and the inside, the superior and the inferior…then you will enter [into ‘The Kingdom’], (Gospel of Thomas, quoted in IRD, p. xix).

Soul-making with Christ and Buddha

Rather than attempt to sum up what are in and of themselves vast and diverse traditions with their own inner tensions and controversies, or deal with the intractable question of who should speak for either, I will take is as a matter of course that Buddha and Christ exist as spiritual beings who are potentially in communication with human consciousness independently of any specific institutions or canonized texts. Though I will still draw from the scripture and practice built up around them, I do so with the assumption that each being is eternally present on the imaginal plane of consciousness and so irreducible to (though not separable from) culture and history. This is a religious realism that stands in contrast to both relativism and exclusivism, since it takes seriously the reality of multiple more-than-human Teachers whose supersensible love and wisdom enters into the world through the power of Imagination. The respective teachings of Buddha and Christ will be brought into dialogue within my own consciousness to exemplify the activity of “intrareligious soul-making,” an activity growing increasingly relevant to the current generation of planetary citizens. A person is not a “conscious atom,” but “a knot in a net of relationships,” and so though what I have to say is peculiar to my own process, I say it in expectation of the resonance and dissonance that it will provoke in others. This internal dialogue is but an opening gesture humbly offered in service to the ongoing struggle for a more humane planetary mythos.

“Soul-making” is a “system of salvation” and “spirit creation” first articulated by Keats in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law in May of 1819. Keats was after a form of spiritual wisdom that did not “affront our reason and humanity,” and that would reframe many of the problems besetting traditional Christianity. “Intrareligious dialogue” has been defined by Raimon Panikkar as a “quest for salvific truth” that “takes place in the core of our being” as “an authentic prayer open in all directions” that is “no longer concerned with mere formulations of our own tradition or of other people” (IRD, p. xvii). This essay is my experiment in soul-making, which Keats defined as a search for the “proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul.” It could also be called an inward opening, or intrareligious prayer, to Buddha and Christ. I beckon these beings, asking them to reveal, if they will, “the whole human world and also the entire reality” as it is reflected within the microcosm of my soul (ibid., xviii).

Though Keats had but little conscious knowledge of the Buddha, the development of his system of soul-making was motivated by realizations nearly identical to the First and Second Noble Truths, that life is suffering caused by attachment to a transient world.

“Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting,” writes Keats,

…while we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts [and] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck…This is the world—thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure.

The world, or perhaps the soul’s relation to the world, has gone astray. It is this condition and circumstance from which all salvific religion emerges. It was only once I had awakened to the truths of suffering and impermanence—to the waywardness of the human world—that my spiritual path began. As Christ has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Only upon recognizing and accepting my own fallen state can I hope to hear the saving Word within a receptive heart. Otherwise, without the inner silence brought by such recognition, my mind wanders endlessly, grasping at one temporary pleasure after the next, never finding in them the Love I so desperately seek. No matter the worldly progress I may make by achieving money and fame, it inevitably leaves me unhappy and wanting more, since, as Keats writes, I am “mortal and there is still a heaven with its stars above [my] head.” Unless I find Love, upon death I “would leave this world as Eve left Paradise”: sinful and with regret. Such a world remains fallen, what Keats called “a vale of tears.”

The Buddha’s Third Noble Truth suggests that there is a cure for the suffering of this world, and that it may be attained, if not in this life, then in one of the many lives to come. Rather than temporally relieving pain with pleasure, Buddha uproots it entirely, offering a way out of the cycle of samsara through the gradual elimination of karma. Christianity’s way of salvation is often contrasted with Buddha’s, since the former’s focuses on the overwhelming importance of this life as our one chance to prepare for death, after which we may be “redeemed,” writes Keats, “by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven.” Keats finds this a doctrine too “little” and “circumscribed” to be believable. But the larger possibilities of reincarnation are not entirely foreign to Christian theology. One of the first Christian theologians, Origen, articulated a doctrine of metempsychosis in the 2nd century based on the fallen soul’s need of passing through successive stages before returning to God. Rudolf Steiner, a 20th century seer, suggested that, without accommodating itself to the truths of reincarnation and evolution, Christianity would remain too narrowly focused on the salvation of the ego or private personality, rather than the whole cosmic community to which the individual is karmically tied (CMF).

“If we observe the various phases of karmic chain-reaction [or evolutionary reincarnation],” writes Tibetan Lama Anagarika Govinda,

…we become conscious of a supra-individual karmic interrelatedness, comprising nations, races, civilizations, humanity, planets, solar systems and finally the whole universe” (FTM, p. 219).

If I contemplate the life and teaching of Christ, it becomes apparent to me that the meaning of the resurrection is already suggestive of reincarnation, or our ability to be “born again.” If I die to myself, to the reactivity of my physical body and pleasure-seeking soul, I am born again free of sin, like Christ, “not of the water, but of the spirit” (Luke 3:16). This rebirth is my reincarnation, my second chance at life, through participation in the eternally resurrecting Body of Christ. The earth and the cosmos are within this Body, and only dying for the sake of its Life awakens consciousness to his invisible Soul. The meaning of the historical arc of Christian redemption becomes all the more clear when each particular soul is understood to participate in a multi-generational work of uniting itself with the World-Soul and the visible universe it animates. God cannot force change upon the world from outside time and space, since God’s omnipotence is not other than God’s Love, which works only from within the world through the power of animation and the magic of soul (i.e., Imagination). As the particular soul seeks identity with the universal anew in every age, Spirit incarnates more fully into history. Gradually, karma is undone and sin forgiven, since life after life the Love of God for the world becomes more present between persons.

Gautama and Jesus were enlightened human beings whose bodies nonetheless bled upon the cross of time and space, there dying to finitude in order to more fully realize the infinite. “Do you not see,” asks Keats, “how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school a [divine] Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Without living and dying upon the earth, these beings could not fully grasp the nature of the eternal realm from which they came. Even divinity has something to learn from the condition of suffering. But rather than dissolving into the bliss of nirvana or remaining with the Father in heaven after their earthly deaths, they returned as bodhisattvas, vowing to remain in connection with the earth until the sin and suffering of all sentient beings is alleviated.

What form have they taken in their return? It does not seem to be physical or sensible, as then surely more would recognize their presence among us. Rather, these beings have taken up residence within the human soul, there acting as friends and advocates along our path through the school of the world toward spiritual happiness. The supersensible, rather than plainly visible presence of Buddha and Christ accounts for why the current state of human discussion concerning their reality tends to circle endlessly around the relative merits of belief or disbelief. While the secularization thesis (that modernization would inevitably lead to reduced religiosity) has failed, leaving the world more religious today than ever before, in general, the return to religion has tended to construe spiritual claims as merely notional, available for conceptual assent or not depending on one’s psychological disposition or moral inclination. Therefore, while religion can offer justifiable ethical standards, the ontology of Spirit has been bracketed, since no empirical proof has yet been made available that might scientifically verify its reality. For religion to meet both the practical and theoretical needs of a planetary civilization, it must respect the validity of the scientific picture while at the same time pointing out the limited scope of its empirical method. Religion cannot only be critical of science, however; it must also develop its own techniques of transformation to bring the soul into relation to supersensible spiritual realities. Soul-making is an example of such a technique, and can be the catalyst of a new consciousness of religion.

Empiricism has honed only one of the soul’s powers, namely, sensory perception, and due to its great practical successes in technologically extending the reach of sensation, science has tended to ignore the soul’s other capacities. The soul is dynamic, always in motion between its active (poeisis) and passive (paschein) poles. In its sensory mode, the soul passively suffers the world; in its thinking mode, the soul actively creates the world. The reality of Spirit must be considered in the context of this polarization in the life of the soul. A soul whose productive half remained dormant could not experience Christ or Buddha, since these beings are not simply waiting in the outer world for us to perceive. Nor could a soul released from its passionate attunement to the outer world experience their being, since then they would be but figments of inner fantasy evaporating as soon as the fervency of our belief grew tired. The reality of Spirit cannot be known through sensation or conception alone, but must be participated, or enacted, by the organ of Imagination. Imagination unites passivity and activity, perceiving and thinking, and is cultivated by the mutual work of heart and mind one upon the other.

“I am certain of nothing,” writes Keats,

but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination—What the Imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not… The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth (from a letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817).

Science, of course, also draws from both ends of the soul’s polarization, being as much a logical as an empirical method. It is primarily a tool of the mind used to read the book of nature, but its emphasis on empirical data alone prevents it from hearing the divine Word spoken in the heart. The role of religion is to remind humanity that the eye of the mind is in need of the heart’s ear, lest we forget our real desire and true identity.

Who is the soul, what does it desire, and why? These are the questions besetting each individual person, and it is through our unique participation in the imaginative process of soul-making that they are answered. Regarding the issue of identity, Buddha taught some of his students the doctrine of anātman (no-self), while to others he granted the reality of the ātman (whose true identity is Bráhman) (GH, p. 81). This is no contradiction, but rather the result of Buddha’s upāya, or skillful means. His teachings are never final, but offered provisionally as helpful aids tailored to the students that he happens to be speaking with in any given moment. Perhaps in the Buddhist context, the soul is best conceived of as a principle, rather than an entity. According to D. T. Suzuki, the soul is tṛṣṇā, the principle of thirst, or desire. In this sense, the soul does not have desires, but in fact is desire (the polarity of the soul discussed above is here preserved, since as desire it is both an active seeking and a passive suffering). Suzuki also suggests that tṛṣṇā is the creator, not just of the individual soul, but also of the material universe itself. We are the microcosmic reflections of its macrocosmic extent.

“As its highest and richest expression,” he writes,

[the human being] can have an insight into the nature of tṛṣṇā and its working. When we really see into ourselves, tṛṣṇā will bare itself before itself in us…Tṛṣṇā lies in us not as one of the factors constituting our consciousness, but it is our being itself. It is I; it is you; it is the cat; it is the tree; it is the rock; it is the snow; it is the atom” (MCB, p. 107-108).

As was held by Christian scholastics, Suzuki is describing how, from a Buddhist perspective, “the soul is, in a way, all things” (Anima quodammodo omnia). In our literalistic age, the soul is looked for in the body, as if in the heart, the lungs, or the pineal gland. For a pre-modern seer like Aquinas, it is rather the body that is in the soul. As tṛṣṇā, the soul creates and gives form to the physical organism, which is “the coagulated, crystallized, or materialized consciousness of the past” (FTM, p. 68). The organism is the product of billions of years of accumulated desire, the materialized memory of past mental activity. In other words, even the body does not escape the process of soul-making. “Man can never be large enough to possess his psychic organs,” writes psychologist James Hillman, “He can but reflect their activities” (RP, p. 173).

Soul-making is an attempt to become more conscious of how our desires shape us, in body and in mind. Both Buddha and Christ teach that the desire that made the universe can, in the awakened, anointed human soul, become a Love that glorifies and redeems all things.

Trinity and Trikaya

When the teachings of Christ first encountered Greek culture, the Biblical account of the creation of the universe through the power of divine speech was understood to be akin to the role of the philosophical concept of Logos, or cosmic intelligence. The incarnation of Christ meant a radical change had occurred in the nature of the world and the human being. For the Greek convert to Christianity, the meaning of the incarnation is that, as John’s Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). No longer simply a philosophical concept, Logos became a living human person made of flesh and blood. Logos, understood macrocosmically, entered fully into the microcosm.

A deeper understanding of the 2nd person, and of the Trinity generally, may be garnered from considering them in relation to the Buddhist Trikaya. My reading of the similarities between the Trinity and Trikaya is predominantly an imaginative exercise or experiment, not a textual exegesis of Buddhist or Christian sources (though these will be consulted). I do not mean to equate the two concepts, but to consider them as unique attempts to articulate the differentiated unity of ultimate reality. I’ll begin this exercise by describing the Trinity and Trikaya each in turn, before moving on to draw out their similarities.

For the Christian, ultimate reality is conceived of as a loving communion between Father, Son, and Spirit. God, though of one substance, is nonetheless three persons, since otherwise, there would be no differentiation in the Godhead, and therefore no possibility of love or relationship. The Father is traditionally described as unknowable and infinitely transcendent (GH, p. 152). The First Letter to Timothy says of the Father that “…no one has ever seen or ever can see him” (6:16). The Son is the image of the Father, the transcendent made immanent by being given concrete form. The Son issues forth eternally from the Father, which is why Jesus says “I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself commanded me what to say and how to speak” (John 12:49). The Son could be described as a doorway, or gate, leading to the Father (GH, p. 105). The Spirit is the advocate who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and who remains on earth after Christ’s resurrection to council humanity concerning the power of Love. The Spirit has also been identified with the personal spirit or breath of Jesus that inhabited his disciples (GH, p. 154).

For the Buddhist (of the Tibetan lineage), ultimate reality is conceived of as infinite spaciousness, though not a spaciousness that is opposed to form. As the Heart Sutra says:

…emptiness [or spaciousness] is form; form is emptiness. Apart from form, emptiness is not; apart from emptiness, form is not. Emptiness is that which is form, form is that which is emptiness.

This spaciousness that is not other than form is called the body of truth, or the Dharmakaya. It is the primordial law and cause of all things (FTM, p. 213). The Dharmakaya, when envisioned and expressed in its mode of creative formation, is called the Sambhogakaya. This is the body of enjoyment and bliss. “From it,” according to Lama Govinda, “flows all deep wisdom and profound truth” (FTM, p. 214). The Sambhogakaya might be conceived of as akin to the Imagination discussed above, the organ of soul-making that unites the spiritual and the sensible through the wisdom and compassion of the heart-mind. When the inspired bliss of the Sambhogakaya is transformed into visible activity by incarnating into human form, it is called the Nirmanakaya, or emanation body (FTM, p. 213). In Tibetan, Nirmanakaya is translated as “tulku,” which refers to a reincarnate lama (GH, p. 190) who has re-entered the physical plane not on accident, but consciously. The Nirmanakaya, then, is a consciously created body (FTM, p. 221). Lama Govinda suggests that only through the Nirmanakaya, as seen from within the world of physical embodiment, can the other two bodies be experienced and realized (FTM, p. 222):

Only in the Nirmanakaya can we realize the Dharmakaya effectively, by converting it into an ever-present conscious force, into an incandescent, all consuming focus of experience, in which all elements of our personality are purified and integrated. This is the transfiguration of body and mind…achieved only by the greatest of saints (ibid.).

The parallels between the Trinity and the Trikaya may already have become apparent, but I will attempt to make them more explicit. It must be acknowledged that there is no perfect one-to-one correspondance between the three bodies and the three persons, but rather a rich ambiguity testifying to the deeply evocative meaning inherent in each doctrine.

Thupten Jinpa links the Dharmakaya with the Father, the Sambhogakaya with the Spirit, and the Nirmanakaya with the Son (GH, p. 189). In this scheme, the Dharmakaya and the Father are both recognized as the inexpressible mystery from which all things freely arise. They are the Truth and the Law underlying the manifest cosmos. The Sambhogakaya and the Spirit are recognized as the love, wisdom, and enjoyment of being that pervade the world at a level subtler than the physical dimension. The Dalai Lama describes how, after Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana, though his physical body decayed and disappeared, his Sambhogakaya, or “state of perfect resourcefulness,” continued and remains ever-present (GH, p. 119). Those still devoted to the Buddha’s teaching benefit by relating to this subtler form of his being. This is very close to the message of John’s Gospel, where Christ says that, after his ascension, the Spirit will be sent to remind the faithful of his message and to aid them in its practice (14:25). Finally, the Nirmanakaya and the Son are recognzied in Jinpa’s scheme as emanations or physical embodiments of subtler forces that have been “stepped down” so as to benefit the temperament of ordinary mortals like ourselves. Were it not for the historical emanation of Gautama Buddha, or the incarnation of Jesus Christ, normal human beings could never have accessed their divine teachings.

Another reading is possible. Relating the Dharmakaya to the Father is unproblematic, but Son and Spirit may also be fruitfully understood as parallels to Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, respectively. The relation between the Sambhogakaya, understood to be the organ of Imagination (as discussed above), and the Son becomes clearer in light of William Blake’s oft repeated insight, that “Jesus is the Imagination.”

Jesus is the Imagination, the creative power at the core of man’s being. All things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Savior, the true vine of eternity, the Human Imagination” (BD, p. 159).

If, as Lama Govinda suggests, the Sambhogakaya is the body that provides an exalted vision of higer forms and ideas (FTM, p. 214), perhaps Christ is not (only) a historical emanation, but an eternally born, universal potency lying dormant in the human soul. Through the processes of interplay between heart, mind, and world at work in soul-making, Christ may be resurrected within each of us as an organ of Imagination, thereby granting us participation in eternal Love and bliss. On this reading, Christ is not (or at least not only) an individual who lived and died in Jerusalem during the first century CE (as in Jinpa’s scheme, where He is equated with the Nirmanakaya), but an ever-flowing creative presence available to those whose heart-mind’s are adequately prepared to witness Him.

The Nirmanakaya, then, can be related to the Spirit, or that which is awakened in the individual human being to the imaginal presence of the Son. As Blake put it, the Spirit is “the intellectual fountain proceeding from Jesus to man” (BD, p. 158). It would be impossible to remain a Christian while denying that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, and that he indeed walked the earth as a man in 1st century Jerusalem. That Christ is currently present to  consciousness on the imaginal, rather than the physical plane, does not mean he wasn’t once physically incarnate. His birth, death, and resurrection as a physical being prepared the human vessel for Spirit to enter into and be realized by our consciousness. The ambiguity between the Son and the Spirit, or the Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, is a reflection of the permeability of the physical plane to the supersensible influence of the Imagination. According to Steiner, this permeability is a result of the spiritual transformation of the very substance of the earth brought about by the Christ event (CMF).

Conclusion: Soul and Spirit

“As various as the Lives of Men are,” writes Keats, “so various become their Souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, identical Souls of the Sparks of his own essence.” If religion is to return to play a fruitful role in our post-secular context, it must re-envision itself so that it might speak to the needs of modern people. Nearly a hundred years of depth psychology have made it increasingly difficult to deny the inherently polytheistic tendencies of the soul. According to Hillman, for whom psychology was akin to soul-making, “The soul’s inherent multiplicity demands a theological fantasy of equal differentiation” (RP, p. 167). Each of us is uniquely shaped by our respective traditions, which is not to deny that all of us are also universally drawn toward Spirit. Spirit is such that, as soon as it is named, it becomes multiple. Christ and Buddha are the voices most easily heard by my soul, but it is through a devotion to their teachings of love and kindness that I become capable of hearing the voices of other traditions. There is no more important challenge, and perhaps none more difficult, than this openness to the wisdom of others.

The “New Age” approach taken in this essay could be criticized as leading to a “religion of the supermarket” (DRB, p. 44), wherein an uprooted individual borrows various elements from the world’s wisdom traditions in order to construct a spiritual orientation most comfortable to their personal inclinations. There is indeed a danger of superficiality in such practices, but the growing interpenetration of traditions in our new planetary context has also created new possibilities for soul-making.

As Chaudhuri has written,

…modern man is uniquely privileged to draw upon the manifold richness of world culture. He can select according to the needs and requirements of his growing soul. The selected material, however diverse in form, can be transformed into the harmony of balanced self-development by the creative spark within him, by his authentic self, which shines most in free communication with the boundless universe (MMR, p. 74).

The world becomes a vale of soul-making when earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from heaven, nor soul (or desire) separated from Love (or Spirit). Instead, an economy can be opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates directly in the life of the soul, and, eventually, in the shaping of the body igniting it.

Works Cited

 MMR = Chaudhuri, Haridas. Modern Man’s Religion. 1966. J. F. Rowny Press: Santa Barbara, CA.

DRB = Cornille, Catherine. “Double Religious Belonging: Aspects and Questions.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 23. 2003. University of Hawaii Press.

BD = Damon, Samuel Foster. Eaves, Morris. A Blake Dictionary: The ideas and symbols of William Blake. 1988. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.

FTM = Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. 1959. Rider & Company: London, UK.

RP = Hillman, James. Revisioning Psychology. 1977. Harper: New York, NY.

GH = Kiely, Robert. The Good Heart: A Buddhist perspective on the teachings of Jesus. 1998. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA.

IRD = Panikkar, Raimon. The Intrareligious Dialogue. 1998. Paulist Press: New York, NY.

CMF = Steiner, Rudolf. Christianity as Mystical Fact. 1997. Anthroposophic Press: Hudson, NY.

MCB = Suzuki, D. T. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. 2002. Routledge: New York, NY.

Excerpts of John Keats are from the letter dated Feb 19th, 1819 to George and Georgiana Keats (unless otherwise noted by in text citation).

The Spirit of Intrahuman Dialogue: A Meditation

The following is a short personal reflection written for a course on inter-faith dialogue with Prof. Jacob Sherman.

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“Any interreligious and interhuman dialogue, any exchange among cultures,” writes Panikkar, “has to be preceded by an intrareligious and intrahuman dialogue, an internal conversation within the person” (p. 310, 1979). My personal interest in religion, broadly construed to include both its theological and practical dimensions, arises out of polarized desires: one the one hand, I long to participate in an enduring community’s celebration and worship of divine reality; on the other hand, I remain unsatisfied by beliefs and practices that do not spring from the unique voice of divinity within me. I call these desires polar not because they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but because a certain tension arises in me whenever I attempt to sync up outward observance with inward contemplation. My desire for integration into a religious community seems to contradict my desire for an inward intimacy with the divine. Whether this tension is a mere appearance, or the result of an ontological rift between self and other, is an issue I hope to explore in the course of the short meditation that follows.

Though I cannot fully identify with any religious culture in particular, the sacred texts and esoteric treatises emerging from several traditions continue to offer me guidance on my individual path. I sometimes use the cliché “spiritual but not religious” to describe myself, but this never feels quite right, since religion in general does not strike me as an essentially dogmatic and so inauthentic response to Spirit. In fact, what calls me to the religious life is precisely the unwavering commitment that it entails. Spirituality absent a religious commitment may leave more room for autonomy and freedom, but what if a genuine relation to Spirit requires submitting to the will of something other than myself?

Of course, there is no religion “in general.” There is a vast array of cultural responses to what for now can be called “Spirit.” But even to say the diversity of religions represent responses to the same “Spirit,” or unified underlying reality, underestimates the extent to which each tradition draws from its own sources in pursuit of its own ends. How am I to decipher which tradition represents an authority worth submitting to if so many different options for belief exist amongst which to choose from? This uncertainty leads me back to my own individual autonomy, but there I find only the dizzying freedom of an “I” unmoored from any established norms or worldviews. Independent of the spiritual desires of other people, I am no longer sure what it is that I myself am after, or even what it might mean to be a self in the first place. No matter which way I turn, toward authority or autonomy, I end up confused. Is there a middle path?

Because I need to call it something, I’ll continue to refer to “Spirit” as the underlying reality drawing me to religious dialogue. Whether it is at work in the space between myself and others, or that between me in relation to myself, Spirit dynamically binds together that which may appear separate. Or at least this presupposition is the ground out of which my faith in a divine reality grows and is nourished. Though I do not know if Christianity is truer than Buddhism, or Mohamed more holy than Moses, I have faith that all human beings ultimately belong to the same universe. This faith implies that failures to communicate across cultures or between religious traditions must not be due to metaphysical discord in the cosmos itself, but rather an epistemic misunderstanding or confusion of practical contexts. In other words, it is not what each tradition is trying to know and to become that differs, but how they come to know and become it. Instead of assuming that each religion has its own unique ends, perhaps it is more fruitful to interpret diversity as the inevitable result of finite creatures attempting to know and love an infinitely creative Spirit.

The tension I experience between the desire to seek refuge in a religious tradition and the desire to intuit the divine mystery afresh within myself is unavoidable if Spirit is the relation between beings, rather than a being among beings. Religious traditions may undoubtedly help to support and sustain this relation, but they can just as easy strangle it. Spirit is grander than can be contained by the categories of any public religion or private spirituality. Its source is deeper than either. What if the very possibility of communication between beings (including that between myself and my own being) rests upon the reality of Spirit? Panikkar writes of “intrahuman” dialogue alongside “intrareligious” dialogue, which is a reflection of his cosmotheandric intuition of the interpenetration of the human, the universe, and the divine. If such interpenetration is taken to be metaphysically basic, then reality itself exists in a state of super-position between the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal. The diversity of perspectives making interreligious dialogue necessary is then a reflection of the creative instability of Spirit at an ontological level, where as Panikkar says “everything is ultimate mediation, or rather communion” (p. 240, 1996). Each perspective on divinity exists only by virtue of its relation to the others, and it is in this tension of relation that Spirit brings forth the world anew in each moment (paying due respect to the accumulated wisdom of Its past incarnations in the process, of course).

But how is it that I am capable of taking such a perspective on the religious practices of others? Upon what sacred ground do I stand in order to make such metaphysical pronouncements? Is there some post-religious point of view capable of reconciling the teachings of all the traditions of the world? I can only have faith in this possibility, because there is, admittedly, no such point of view available to contemporary humanity (at least not one that all the religions might participate in affirming). The whole effort of interreligious dialogue must, in the end, be guided by a similar faith. The hope is that reality is ultimately communicable: both that Being itself opens intelligibly to beings, and that beings open intelligibly to other beings; and that, though the truth of reality has not yet been and may never be completely conveyed (at least between beings, if not between Being and being[1]), human beings may nevertheless continue to asymptotically approach the universal translatability of their diverse points of view through sincere cross-cultural and interpersonal engagement.

The translatability of one culture’s relation to Spirit into another’s is never without remainder or distortion, just as a spoken sentence is never identical to the vague feeling which precedes its articulation. But in the act of attempting to communicate, and especially after having done so, the original feeling is itself transformed. It moves into an interpretive field of far greater context and dexterity, gathering greater self-understanding along the way. Translations are expressive trials where initially offensive (even if unintentional) renderings of the other meet resistance until, eventually, conversation becomes constructive and mutually revelatory. The participants in the dialogue begin to learn something, not only about each other, but also about themselves. It is not that the interior space of a foreign tradition becomes fully transparent, but that each comes to inhabit a newly enacted common interiority, a “third culture” or novel way of being human in relation to each other and to Spirit. No doubt these interior spaces will be tenuous at first, since they lack the sedimented historical matrix of symbolism and ritual that protects each of the world’s great wisdom traditions from dissolution in the sands of time. But perhaps what is needed for inter- and intrahuman dialogue is more a way of being than an ideological space to inhabit or position oneself within. This way of being would acknowledge the ontological role of mediation: that all beings are always already interbeings. It is only Being itself, or Spirit, that provides for their diversity and individuality. Spirit is infinite, and finitude its way of entering into dialogue with itself. Strictly among themselves, beings are radically open to mutual influence and transformation. But it is only through their relation to divinity that they gather themselves into a unity, be it a unity of self or community.

This is the faith that guides my daily routines and daring adventures among others. It is an open-ended faith, a path, and not a place of refuge. I believe this openness is not vague and ambiguous, but a clear reflection of the transitional nature of our times. We do not know what religious forms will emerge in the coming decades to lead our increasingly interconnected planet forward, but like Diana Eck, I am convinced that “Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time” (p. 30, 1985).

Works Cited

1. Eck, Diana. 1985. Minutes, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group of Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Geneva: World Council of Churches.

2. Panikkar, Raimon.

—1979. Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics: Cross-Cultural Studies. New York: Paulist    Press.

—1996. “A Self-Critical Dialogue”. In The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar, ed. Joseph Prabhu. New York: Orbis Books.


[1] I do not want to rule out the possibility of revelation, which some traditions claim to be the bearers of.

Religion and the Modern World: Towards a Naturalistic Panentheism

Religion and the Modern World: Towards a Naturalistic Panentheism

“Dear people, let the flower in the meadow show you how to please God and be beautiful at the same time. —The rose does not ask why. It blooms because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself nor does it wonder if anyone sees it.” –Angelus Silesius (1624-1677), Cherubinic Wanderer, 1:288-289

Introduction

The last century has arguably brought more change to the Earth, measured either in terms of increased complexity (of culture and consciousness), or in terms of entropy release (as pollution), than any other 100-year period in the biosphere’s history. Human civilization, and the disenchanted technoscientific way of life which has come to dominate it, is largely responsible for this rapid transformation. Whether it be the population explosion and global poverty, the continuing threat of nuclear war, civil rights, feminist, and other social justice movements, peak oil, or the ecological crisis, ours’ is a world with much at stake for whom the fast approaching future may just as easily bring tragedy or triumph, or perhaps equal doses of each.

In such an unstable and uncertain context as this, how is humanity to orient itself cosmologically, and in the service of what ideals is it to direct its spiritual aspirations? These are not peripheral questions—they inevitably burn in the hearts of every individual faced with the aforementioned chaos. Answering them in an integral enough way so as to overcome political divisiveness while at the same time avoiding the subsumption of cultural difference is essential to assuring the future flourishing of our species and the planet. The possibility of a planetary civilization rests upon re-inventing our complex human identity, such that it is inclusive of our origins as embodied earthlings and our destiny as immortal spirits.

Whether our aim is scientific investigation of the cosmos, or religious worship of the divine, sooner or later we are going to have to articulate a conception of human nature. Are we creatures of God, or products of Nature? Or, is there an alternative conception of humanity (of God, of Nature) that overcomes this false dichotomy? The following essay is my attempt to provide such an alternative: an integral anthropology, or theory of the human, that is neither exclusively theological nor cosmological. After Raimon Pinnikar, my approach in what follows might be called “cosmotheandric,” in that I am attempting to tell a story about human origins and destiny that does justice to our traditional spiritual intuitions and is adequate to our modern scientific realizations. Contemporary debates, especially in popular media outlets, tend to collapse the complexity of the science/religion dialectic into easily digestible slogans derived from the most extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion. The cosmological options are typically dichotomously construed as atheistic scientific naturalism vs. literalistic creationism. These are not the only options. Before moving into a discussion of a third option emerging out of Alfred North Whitehead‘s naturalistic panentheism, I will provide an example the popular discourse that surrounds these issues.

Religion in the News

The power of religious and cultural ideology, according to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is the single most important issue facing human civilization in the 21st century. During a recent debate in Toronto with author, Christopher Hitchens, Blair cautioned against the wholesale desire to rid the world of religious belief:

“The 20th century was a century scarred by visions that had precisely that imagining at their heart, [giving] us Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot. In this vision, obedience to the will of God was for the weak, it was the will of man that should dominate.”

Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, argued that the divide between religion and philosophy is foundational. For him, reason and faith, scientific skepticism and scriptural sanctification, are unambiguously opposed ideals. Not the will of God, but basic respect for human dignity ought to be the basis of morality:

“We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral persuasion of Socrates and our own abilities, we don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong.”

The crux of the disagreement between Blair and Hitchens seems clear: For Hitchens, our values can and should emerge on the horizontal plane of history out of basic human sympathy and autonomous reason, while for Blair, the nature of Goodness is revealed by a divine authority, inserted into time along the vertical axis of eternity. Hitchens rejects all notions of “celestial dictatorship,” while Blair rejects the hubris that lack of faith in a higher power implies. But, despite their differing emphases, the two men may still be carrying the same cross. It cannot be overlooked that Hitchens, in mentioning Plato’s teacher, Socrates, implicates himself in an idealist tradition of verticality. And Blair, a life-long politician, cannot deny the power of common sympathy and the importance of rational discourse on the horizontal plane.

Both men, it seems, are bound by the interpenetrating axes of time and eternity, the conscience of each of them called to bleed for something larger than their own skin in order to make sense of life. Each is compelled, by reason or revelation, to reach beyond mortality in their measurement of life’s ends. Hitchens, a materialist, argues that modern science has provided an awe-inspiring vision of an immense and mysterious cosmos, but that this awe is more terrifying than edifying. Not divine providence, but suicide by over-expansion is, in Hitchen’s eyes, the true fate of our universe. He does not shy away from suggesting that, without God, our carnal existence is ultimately meaningless but for brief encounters with “the important matter” of what he is willing to call “numinous,” “transcendent,” and “ecstatic.” He desires to clearly distinguish between belief in a “supernatural dictator”—an idea he finds morally and intellectually bankrupt—and the sense of the transcendent and numinous.

On this final point, Hitchens and Whitehead would be in agreement. Traditional notions of an all-powerful extra-cosmic Creator deity capable of entering into and re-directing the causal course of natural events upon a whim do not align with our scientific knowledge, nor for that matter with our moral intuitions of how a benevolent God should behave. An all-powerful deity that does not prevent the evils that are a daily fact of creaturely life cannot also be all-good.

Whitehead, like Blair, is an example of one for whom philosophy and religion are not at odds. As Blair put it, belief in God is for him “clear, insistent, and rational.” The challenge for philosophy is not necessarily to oppose the religious impulse, but to adequately articulate how God and the world are related.

The moral and intellectual arguments that Hitchens marshals against religious belief are not relevant to Whitehead’s philosophy of naturalistic panentheism. Hitchens’ brand of atheism, though it is perhaps a reasonable response to those strands of Abrahamic monotheism that conceive of God in the image of an imperial ruler, nonetheless remains an inadequate cosmological and psychological basis for civilized life. In the next section, I attempt to demonstrate why.

A New View of Religion

“Philosophy attains its chief importance,” according to Whitehead, “by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought” (p. 15). The revelations of modern science concerning the regularities of nature have made belief in miracles seem antiquated and superstitious, but the religious impulse itself seems to run deeper than the need for magic tricks offering proof of the divine.[1] As Hitchens admits, humanity’s sense of the numinous and transcendent—of “something beyond the material, or not quite consistent with it”—is what distinguishes us from other primates. We are not only the wise, but also the uncanny species. To be human is to participate in both time and eternity, to be embedded in history with an intuition of infinity, our birthright an experience of what Thomas Berry called incendence.

The vast majority of human beings feel compelled to respond to this feeling of incendence religiously, either as evidence of a personal deity (as in the Abrahamic and some Vedic traditions) or as evidence of an impersonal creative plenum or ground of being (as in Buddhism, Taoism, and many indigenous traditions). Whitehead’s dual conception of the ultimate in terms of God and Creativity, respectively, helps us understand these cultural differences, as will be explicated below. A naturalistic panentheism both acknowledges the nearly universal human proclivity to religiosity, and indeed the reality of the divine, while at the same time providing a cosmological picture that satisfies Hitchens’ demands for non-supernatural scientific adequacy.

There are three distinct but related questions that must be considered in order to unpack Whitehead’s speculative scheme: (1) “is there a divine reality (to which experiences of the numinous, transcendent, and ecstatic refer)?”, (2) “do our inherited cultural expressions of this reality pass basic ethical and epistemological tests of adequacy (that is, do these traditions align with our moral and intellectual intuitions)?”, and (3) “is relating and giving voice to the numinous basic to human nature, and therefore to civilized life?”

These three questions correspond to (1) the metaphysical/ontological, (2) the practical/theoretical, and (3) the anthropological relevance of the divine. Each question will be explored in turn.

(1) For many atheists like Hitchens, modern science and philosophy are interpreted to have all but eliminated the need for and evidence of a divine reality. The physical universe is understood to be meaningless and non-teleological, the seemingly “finely-tuned” constants underlying its mathematical regularities deemed entirely accidental. Whitehead, on the other hand, takes the same empirical evidence and interprets it through a more adequate metaphysical lens. Rather than relying upon the notion of randomness to account for the excessive order and harmony of the universe (which, it should be said, is the exact opposite of an explanation), Whitehead’s naturalistic panentheism overcomes the misplaced concreteness[2] that allows abstract entities like “randomness” and dead mechanical “forces” to pass for satisfying causal explanations of natural phenomena. Stepping out of Hitchen’s mechanistic cosmology of explosions, colliding surfaces, and entropy and into Whitehead’s living universe of interpenetrating wholes requires a cognitive and somatic gestalt shift in perception. Whitehead is not just providing a new set of ideas to account for the order of the external world; his metaphysics is an attempt to make perceptible a way of thinking with the cosmos so as to achieve co-presence with and as the Wisdom of an eternal and ever-lasting God. This God is not extra-cosmic, but directly participates in the unfolding of the universe by luring its creative longing toward certain ideals.

“[God] does not create the world,” writes Whitehead,

“he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (PR, p. 346).

Unlike traditional theism, for which the trend toward order “[arises] from the imposed will of a transcendent God,” for Whitehead, these trends arise because “the existents in nature are sharing in the nature of [an] immanent God” (AI, p. 130). The existence of a divine reality is affirmed while avoiding attributing it with the supernatural power to create ex nihilo that has been criticized by many philosophers, including David Hume. Whitehead sought to “add another speaker to that masterpiece,” namely, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (PR, p. 343). Divine causation, rather than being an imposition from outside the natural world based on power alone, instead works within this world based on moral persuasion. It could be argued in summation that, for Whitehead, ours in an ordered and beautiful universe because God desires that it be so, and because all creatures, as participants in God’s nature, tend to grow toward these divine ideals.

Skeptical atheists like Hitchens interpret modern scientific cosmology, specifically Georges Lemaître’s inflationary theory and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, to have proven beyond much doubt that our species, an interesting but peripheral and accidental twig on the billion year old tree of life, has mysteriously awoken to consciousness in a hapless universe moving inevitably toward heat death.

As Hitchens put it so eloquently, if also partially, during his debate with Blair:

“I come before you as a materialist. If we give up religion, we discover what actually we know already, whether we’re religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates, on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon.”

Hitchens here emphasizes the absurdity of our purely empirico-physical understanding of the larger cosmos. Based only on sensory observation of primary qualities like mass and motion, and mathematical analysis of them in terms of measurable quantities, the universe reveals no apparent purpose. It is only the poetic indulgence of the human imagination that fools us into believing otherwise.

Whitehead laments the consequences of such a disenchanted perspective on the cosmos:

“The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves [turning] them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, p. 54).

In responding to Hitchens rather disheartening philosophical interpretation of scientific data concerning the larger cosmos, it would be instructive to recall Whitehead’s statement in the opening pages of Process and Reality that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (p. 7). The mechanistic materialism that was born during the Scientific Revolution has proven immensely useful for technological endeavors, but in attempting to give an account of the universe entirely in terms of meaningless matter in motion, it commits what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy concerns the false attribution of concrete actuality to what remain abstract conceptual models.

The philosopher Jean Borella has located the cause of this false attribution in what he terms the “epistemic closure of the concept,” which Wolfgang Smith suggests “consists in the elimination from the concept of everything that proves recalcitrant to linguistic or formal expression” (SM, p. 50). Borella’s analysis is based upon the distinction he makes between language and thought, wherein thought is assigned primacy and language is defined by its supportive and communicative function. The “epistemic closure of the concept” is the very foundation of scientific materialism, because unlike the conceptual thought of the philosopher, for whom maintaining a certain “openness to being” is paramount, the scientist is after exact, formalizable definitions. While the philosopher’s aim is to use concepts in order to achieve a non-discursive contemplative vision of the truth, the scientific materialist “is constrained to reduce phenomena to ‘pure relations,’ that is to say, relations which are independent of the beings which enter into them” (ibid., p. 51). In other words, abstract mathematical formalisms describing the relations between actual occasions obscure the complex reality of those occasions, committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Borella explains:

“There is thus [in scientific materialism an identification of] the concept and its object, since the latter is likewise a concept, whereas in philosophical knowing the concept is only a means by which the object is known: essentially transitive, it remains thus ontologically open. The Galilean universe is therefore a universe of object-concepts which move in a conceived space-time” (ibid.).

Although Whitehead’s cosmology challenges many of the same assumptions of Aristotelian physics that Galileo was lead to criticize, he nonetheless recognized that mechanistic accounts of natural phenomena couldn’t be the whole story. The Galilean approach, though it provides for a great deal of prediction and control of non-living matter, does so at the expense of a comprehensive, qualitative account of the cosmos as a whole (which includes the more-than-physical phenomena of life and intelligence).

While for a materialist like Hitchens, cosmic inflation suggests only a dead universe whose random and fleeting order is destined to evaporate into nothing, for a panentheist like Whitehead, “…the expansion of the universe…is the first meaning of ‘organism’” (PR, p. 215). Like Plato before him, Whitehead recognizes in the macrocosmic processes something analogous to the growth and development of a living thing.

Similarly, while for Hitchens the doctrine of evolution implies that organic life is a directionless wandering motivated only by the desire to survive the blind selection of an uncaring external world, for Whitehead “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms,” wherein the more complex organisms represented stages of “emergent value” (SMW, p. 107). In other words, if Darwin’s evolutionary theory is non-teleological, then it is an incomplete theory, since the history of the universe, both beyond and upon our planet, clearly displays a tendency toward greater states of organizational complexity. Of course, Darwin was only trying to account for the process of speciation among plants and animals on Earth, not for that among the microscopic organisms studied by particle physics (electrons, protons, atoms, etc.). But even among earthly bodies, if mere survival were the only game in town, matter would have been quite content to remain in the mineral state. Why trouble itself with the challenges of eating and procreation if life as a rock would have sufficed?

Whitehead’s evolutionary cosmology, besides avoiding the bifurcation of nature into organic v. inorganic, attributes the experience of “enjoyment” to all enduring forms of order that arise amidst the cosmic process. Organisms do not just stoically endure their existence by responding passively to the harsh givens of their environment; they feel compelled to take the speculative risks necessary to deepen their experience and enjoyment of existence.  Evolution is the story of the great successes of speculation of countless generations of diverse organisms to come before us upon this planet and within this universe. Every moment of our human experience as organized beings—as cosmotheandric organisms—inherits a relevant past billions of years in the making. Our human bodies are the accumulated achievements of the decisions of ancient bacteria. Within the nucleus of bacteria are the accumulated achievements of primordial hydrogen atoms who suffered a transmutation into heavier elements within the core of a prior generation of stars. Life seeks not just survival, but an increase in the intensity of its enjoyment, which is to say a refinement of the contrasts available within experience for conceptual valuation. In short, the more capable an organism is of perceiving and expressing truth, goodness, and beauty, the more evolved it is. The desire to move toward the end of heightened experience is described by Whitehead as an adventure of ideas. This desire, or Eros (divine lure), is the reason for evolution from simplicity to complexity. Deeper beauty, purer truth, and greater goodness are the ends of Eros.

The metaphysical background of modern scientific cosmology, as brought to the surface and articulated by Hitchens, is an overstatement based on a narrow range of facts. His conclusions about human nature and the fate of the universe, though rightfully rid of supernaturalism, represent an inadequate appraisal of the full spectrum of evidence available to human experience. Purpose is not simply a human contrivance, but can be seen and felt at work throughout the universe. The excessive harmony and upward trend toward complexity evident in our universe testify to the presence of an immanent divine lure. The epistemic closure of scientific materialism occludes one’s view of the presence of these trends, such that the clear, formal definitions of an abstract system come to replace our immediate perception of a value-rich world.

(2) The notion of a persuasive God working from within the world to bring about the most beauty and goodness that is possible is not entirely without precedent in humanity’s cultural expressions of divinity, but for the vast majority of those practicing within the Abrahamic traditions, the idea probably sounds foreign. Hitchens major criticisms of religion center around the ethical and epistemological inadequacies of orthodox theology, wherein an all-powerful and all-knowing God designs and creates the world from nothing, a world that then somehow falls from grace into sin. In this scenario, according to Hitchens, it seems that God “makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.”

From Whitehead’s perspective, such a cruel picture is clearly an inadequate basis upon which to worship the divine, whose nature, even for orthodox believers, is also supposedly all-loving and all-good. That humanity has, for the most part, poorly depicted the nature of God in its popular cultural expressions is no argument against the reality of the divine. This shortfall demands of us not the abolition of religion, but a more philosophically coherent response to the sense of incendence that makes our species uniquely religious.

“Religion,” says Whitehead,

“is an ultimate craving to infuse into the insistent particularity of emotion that non-temporal generality which primarily belongs to conceptual thought alone” (PR, p. 16).

The role of philosophy, which finds the numinous and transcendent “among the data of experience,” is to weave the particular religious impulses that result from such experiences into some general scheme of thought. Philosophy, without developing a close relationship with religion, would become psychologically ineffectual; and religion, without calling upon philosophy, would sink into emotional tedium. Some “supreme fusion” between the situatedness of particular emotions and the universality of ideas must be effected.

As Whitehead put it,

“The two sides of the [human] organism require a reconciliation in which emotional experiences illustrate a conceptual justification, and conceptual experiences find an emotional illustration” (PR, p. 16).

Through an ideal interplay between the emotions of religion and the concepts of philosophy, Whitehead sought to widen humanity’s moral outlook, so that the interests of individuals might begin to align with the general good (PR, p. 15). Not a culturally exclusive set of doctrines and dogmas violently clung to, but a universal respect for the goodness of life: this is the essence and end of the religious impulse for Whitehead.

As was shown in answering question (1), Whitehead’s God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense, nor is God entirely transcendent. The evils of the world-process are suffered as much by God as by finite creatures, since God is in effect the soul of the universe. God is understood to be the original creature of Creativity, its “primordial, non-temporal accident” (PR, p. 7). Creativity is “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact” (PR, p. 21), and also “that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality” (PR, p. 31). The true omnipotence of God is expressed, not as the ability to alter events from an unaffected state beyond the universe, but as the ability to remember and incorporate for all eternity the character of each and every actual occasion as it arose from and receded into the flux of the creative process. God perpetually unifies the ongoing cosmic process by providing the initial aims and perceiving the final results of the concrescence of all finite creatures, including the universe itself. God is the assurance of permanence amidst the unstable dynamism at the root of reality.

Process is considered ultimate for Whitehead (PR, p. 7), seemingly making it more eminently real than at least God’s primordial nature. But God is complex, relating to the world through more than one face. The consequent nature of God must also be considered, wherein due to interpenetration with time and process, the divine transacts with the actual world to shape and be shaped by its enduring characteristics of order. “Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty,” says Whitehead. “Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other” (PR, p. 349).

Some non-Western traditions, like Buddhism and Taoism, express the ultimate nature of reality in terms of an impersonal creative principle. Whitehead points out that, by relativizing God’s power in respect to Creativity, his cosmology may seem to have more in common with Indic and Chinese conceptions of the ultimate (PR, p. 7). Creativity, however, can never exist by itself, but only as embodied or exemplified by some actual entity (following Whitehead’s categorical scheme, wherein only res verae are real); God and the World are those actual entities by which creativity is instantiated and made actual (PR, p. 29). Finite creatures never experience Creativity in the absence of its having been characterized by God and worldly actualities (RWS, p. 283). This is not to say that non-theistic religious traditions like Buddhism are incorrect in their assessment of ultimate reality, but that what makes experiences of Śūnyatā, or Emptiness, distinctively religious (because numinous and transcendent) is that “Creativity as prehensively experienced is always characterized by divine attributes” (RWS, p. 284). Even within many Buddhist traditions, Emptiness is characterized as wise and compassionate, which lends support to the notion of God’s participation in all our experience of reality.

If Blair is right, and the sociopolitical power of religion is the most important issue of the coming century, then inter-religious dialogue ought to be our civilization’s most pressing concern. No civilization, according to Whitehead, can continue its adventure in rationality absent a vigorous expression of the human sense of sacredness (MT, p. 120). Without some widespread cultural consensus regarding its nature, the sacred is bound to “retire into a recessive factor in experience” (ibid.). The consequences of such an apparent lack of universal orientation towards the sacred are evidenced by our global society’s increasing dependence upon the marketplace to determine its values. Money and property have overshadowed wisdom and compassion as the measures of individual and communal well-being. The inevitable result of failing to come to general cosmological consensus regarding our species’ spiritual aspirations will be the continued forfeiture of ultimate metaphysical authority to the shallow, entirely relative trends of the consumer economy. Widespread balkanization and the eventual triumph of barbarism seem like the most probable outcomes of this trajectory. Philosophical[3] dialogue across cultures concerning religion is not a mere academic curiosity, but will be the source of the vitality of any continuing civilization humanity may hope to bring forth.

(3) As with all attempts to philosophically assess the ultimate nature of reality, and to determine how civilization ought to orient itself around this reality, a naturalistic panentheism must finally articulate its theory of human nature, or anthropology. Are the transcendent, the numinous, and the ecstatic basic to human experience? Even Hitchens agrees that they are, but still disagrees with Whitehead about how this fundamental feature of human nature is to be interpreted and culturally expressed in religious forms.

For Whitehead, our experience of moral ideals—our conscience—“is the experience of the deity of the universe” (MT, p. 103). The very fact that we can disagree about ethical situations is evidence that some standard of judgment, some intuitive sense of what is just, exists to arbitrate our claims. Disagreements are opportunities to see the world from a wider and more complex perspective, to be more inclusive of differing expressions of the ultimately and incomprehensibly real.[4]

“When the Western world accepted Christianity,” writes Whitehead, “Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers” (PR, p. 342). Whitehead goes on to criticize the “idolatry” of what became the Holy Roman Empire, namely its projection of the structure and function of Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rule onto the court of heaven. All the Abrahamic forms of religion that have come to dominate Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East have been infused with tragedy, according to Whitehead, because their willingness to obey tyrannical rule produced histories full of divisiveness and bloodshed (ibid.). “The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar” (ibid.).

Christianity’s Galilean origins also suggest another, humbler possibility, however. Historically realized in the person of Jesus Christ is the great potential hidden in every human heart: the ability “to slowly and in quietness operate by love,” finding enjoyment not in some future reward, but in “the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world” (PR, p. 343). Jesus presents us with a God whose nature is not that of the kings of Earth, ruthless and brusque, but that of a more heavenly patience, able to suffer even death and to wait millennia for the mass of humanity to awaken to his message.

Whether or not human nature is inherently Christ-like, or that of “imperfectly evolved primates,” as Hitchens claims, makes all the difference in the world. In the former case, we are capable of self-transcending love. In the latter, we are limited by our own selfish instinctual desire for pleasure, helping others only in cases where it does not harm ourselves. The contrast between the animal/cosmic and the angelic/spiritual aspect of our nature need not be drawn so starkly, however. As has been shown above, a continuity can be said to exist between God, humanity, and the universe.

“There is a kind of perichoresis, ‘dwelling within one another,’” writes Panikkar, “of these three dimensions of reality: the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic—the I, the you, and the It” (MFH, p. 214).

Holding in mind Whitehead’s doctrine of divine participation in the becoming of the world, it could be said that within the human being, the cosmos is giving birth to a new God. God, like the cosmos and the human being, is “an incompletion in process of production” (PR, p. 215). The birth, death, and resurrection of Christ could be said to be taking place through the historical awakening of the human spirit to itself and to the divine milieu within which it is embedded. But two thousand years after the presence of the kingdom of heaven was announced as at hand, we are still struggling to develop the ears to hear and eyes to see it.

Poets are perhaps those most immediately aware of the incarnational process unfolding deep within the human soul. Their heightened intuition raises to consciousness the subtler, more obscure dimensions of experience, perhaps approaching the creative skill of divinity in their finest moments of imaginative reverie. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake beautifully expresses the false assumptions of orthodox theology and contrasts them with the true implications of the Word’s becoming flesh:

“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True.

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Blake’s intuition concerning the experiential delight that energy takes in its activity contradicts both materialist interpretations of modern physics, for which energy is the blind ability to do work, and ascetic interpretations of orthodox monotheism, for which instinctual energies are sinful, leading us astray from God. Like Whitehead, his imaginative vision of the human soul’s relationship to the larger cosmos overcomes the bifurcation between the spiritual and the material that runs through so much of Greek philosophy and Middle Eastern theology alike.

The human being, from the panentheist perspective here expressed, is not a peripheral feature of cosmogenesis. Because of the complexity of our organization, we are perhaps unique among earthlings in our ability to attain full consciousness of eternity, and thus also of time. This makes each of our moment-by-moment decisions of special importance to God, for whom complete actuality “must also be understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation” (PR, p. 350). God’s consequent nature is “God in his function of the kingdom of heaven” (ibid.), biding together all living things into a unified cosmos. The excess of creative freedom and degree of appetition achieved by the organization of the human organism means we have a deeper intuition of the primordial nature, and a larger impact upon the consequent nature of God than any other finite creatures (at least on Earth). Human consciousness can potentially come to know God’s ends, and it can rejoice in their continual accomplishment. Not only that, but when we express love and kindness, it allows God’s moral relation to and concrete reality within the world to become that much stronger, just as our expressions of fear and greediness pushes God that much further into irrelevance.

Whitehead’s understanding of human nature is such that both God and the cosmos are of the essence, as a thorough anthropological study inevitably leads to uncovering, challenging, and revising our theological and cosmological pre-suppositions. His is a prime example of a cosmotheandric metaphysics.

Panikkar’s cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity in particular has continued relevance in our age not as pure theology, but as anthropology. This is not because, as in Feuerbach’s philosophy, God is conceived merely as a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called personalization. To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis.[5]

Conclusion

A naturalist panentheism does not build its case for the existence and importance of God upon logical or sensori-empirical proofs. Rather, the evidence for God, it can only be suggested, lies for the most part buried in the prediscursive silence of the human heart, which William James proclaimed is “our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things” (TWB, p. 62).

This non-sensuous perception of the divine’s presence in and influence upon the world is the reason for religion. Human beings cannot help but overflow with the desire to worship the Wisdom that has created and shaped the nature of all things. This worship, when ideally expressed, becomes the play of spirit with itself. A planetary awakening to the true, cross-cultural nature of the sacred would require nothing less than the widespread transfiguration of individual consciousness to a form historically experienced only by a few contemplatives and mystics. Given a clear vision of the divine-human-cosmic connection, our civilization may gain the reinvigorated spirit of adventure it so desperately needs.

“God is the fire within me,” writes Angelus Silesius,

“and I am the light in him. Do we not belong to each other intimately? I am as rich as God. There is no grain of dust that I do not have in common with him; dear people, believe me…God loves me above himself. If I love him above myself, I give him as much as he gives me…The bird is in the air, the stone lies on the land, the fish lives in the water, and my spirit is in God’s hand…If you are born of God, then God flowers in you, and his divinity is your sap and adornment” (CW, 1:11-80).

Materialistic anthropology reifies the non-discursive experiential origins of religion, back-grounding its true sources by drawing our attention away from the meaningful ambiguities constituting perceptual reality. It directs us instead to a simplistic definition: “a set of beliefs in the supernatural.” This definition of religion produces epistemic closure, a closure effecting how both contemporary religious and secular people think about their lives and the world. Theories and other verbalizable “beliefs” about reality overshadow and conceal the complex (but still common!) experience of incendence that comes along with being born and dying as a human being.

“Stop!,” continues Silesius,

“What are you chasing after? Heaven is within you. If you are looking for God anywhere else, you will always miss him” (ibid., 1:81-82).

The religious impulse is central to human life and provides the moral foundation for civilization. It is of our nature as human beings to be “spirits in God’s hand,” to be participants in the heavenly economy of love while alive on Earth. The old concept of religion, wherein God is a thing to be believed in, must be re-conceived in light of the cosmotheandric revelation of today: God is a Self to be experienced, and heaven an earthly paradise.

Works Cited

(1) Griffin, David Ray

Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism (2001)

(2) Panikkar, Raimon

Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics (1979)

(3) James, William

The Will to Believe (1956)

(4) Smith, Wolfgang

Science and Myth: What we are Never Told (2010)

(5) Silesius, Angelus

The Cherubinic Wanderer, Vol. 1

(6) Whitehead, Alfred North

Adventures of Ideas (1933)

Modes of Thought (1938)

Process and Reality (1929)

Science and the Modern World (1925)

(7) William James

The Will to Believe (1956)

(8)  Munk Debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair in Toronto, Canada on Nov. 26th, 2010 (transcript)


[1] Matthew 16:4 – “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of Jonah.” Matthew 12:40 – “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

[2] This fallacy is explored more thorough on p. 10

[3] “Philosophy is love of the divine Sophia, that is to say, the self-revelation of the Principle itself; it is the desire for the knowledge by which the Absolute knows itself” (Jean Borella, quoted in SM, p. 50).

[4] Reality is “incomprehensible” not because it is irrational, but because reality is ultimately process, forever outrunning its own completion in order to reach toward novelty.

[5] Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.

 

Divine Imagination

I’ve been having a very stimulating discussion with a Christian theologian named Jason Michael McCann. He has held up a mirror to my ideas and allowed me to see them in a new light. His criticisms are fair and I hope we will each benefit from continued exposure to what may turn out to be radically different readings of the Christian tradition, as well as differing ways of expressing the Christ-impulse at our particular moment in history. I think it is already evident that JMM and I share similar perspectives, but for better or worse, my spiritual speculations and interpretations are unmoored from the venerable doctrines of any particular Creed or Council. I am not very systematic, either, and so to call any of what I do here on this blog “theology” is perhaps misleading. There may be some philosophy here, but I know for a fact there are many analytically-trained philosophers who would dismiss the expressions of my love of wisdom as poetic nonsense. I’m less interested in theo-logic, or any attempt to rationalize or justify a transcendent God, than I am in expressing what Raimon Panikkar has called the “cosmotheandric principle.”

In short, the cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity speaks to me not as a theology, but as an anthropology. This is not because, like Feuerbach, I think God is merely a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Teilhard de Chardin called “personalization.” To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis. (Incidently, Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.)

Perhaps the primary difference thus far uncovered between JMM and I concerns the role of imagination, which is not, for me, unrelated to the nature of the divine-human relationship. I dwell on the spiritual significance of imagination in what follows.

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk,” writes John Keats in a letter to Shelly. Blake went so far as to call imagination “the Divine Body of lord Jesus, blessed for ever.” Blake saw clearly that the old quarrel between Plato and Homer was alive and well: the abstract philosophy of “Newton’s single vision” was in his day “warring in enmity against Imagination.”

Why is imagination so important? Because it constantly challenges the intellect’s attempts to systematize experience. A deadened imagination lead the Pharisees to place the letter of the law before the Spirit (Mark 2:3-28). Not even stone tablets can survive the fiery caldron of imagination that lights the hearts of the faithful. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which is not to say that scripture should not be read and respected. It is just a reminder that the Spirit’s revelations are ongoing, and that the doctrines codified by learned councils must be balanced by the poetic prayers and visions of mystics.

I believe the incarnation of the Word is an ongoing historical event that is re-making the world from the inside out. Human beings are participants in this divine-cosmic drama, and there is no higher form of worship than divine imitation (humble imitation!). Our task is to imaginatively body-forth an earth whose economy runs on love instead of envy and hate. Not closer adherence to law, but a transformation of the human heart-mind is required.