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.

Teilhard de Chardin and the Christ-Cosmos Correlation

Speculative realism has emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human existence against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).

In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all.

Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon (1999)  to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos.

“With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things–the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge” (AoE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.

“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution–which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation grows. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation. Anthropogenesis is now culminating in Christogenesis.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire” (AoE, p. 280).

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Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…

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.

Belief in a Personal God

The following is my response to the theologian Jason Michael McCann’s blog post about the personal nature of God in the Christian tradition. Yesterday, he posted a critical response to one of my short essays on materialism and imagination that I will also respond to soon.

JMM,
The distinction between truth and fact (which I understand to be similar to that between archetypal/a priori and experiential/a posteriori knowledge, respectively) is very helpful. Your point that Medieval Christians were not trying to explain the measurable motion of matter, but rather (as I see it) to understand the existence of personality in the universe (which, indeed, seems to require entering into a loving relationship with this universe and His/Her/Its* personality or spirit) is also well taken. Post-Enlightenment materialists like Richard Dawkins refer to the “God hypothesis,” and dismiss it as unscientific since scientific explanation must refer only to natural phenomena. God is supposedly immaterial because supernatural, and to admit the existence of such a being (with each of His/Her/Its usual characteristics, especially omnipotence) would put all scientific attempts to explain the universe by reference only to physical phenomena in a rather uncertain epistemic situation. All the sudden, natural phenomena no longer exist and behave as a result of arbitrarily imposed “physical law,” but instead draw their being from the Being of God, and act according to His/Her/Its grace. But Christianity is not committed to an engineer’s conception of the universe, wherein “God” serves the role of explaining how the whole thing was designed and put together. God is not, as I imagine Him/Her/It, a clock-maker who oversees the proper functioning of the cosmic machine, interfering with its natural processes to perform miracles at various points of human history. God, rather than a hypothesis, is the very basis of my own existence, confirmed not by scientific proof but by the immediate relationship or felt presence of divinity in my personal and interpersonal life. God is present in my life as the voice of conscience which I know guides not only myself, but every human being. It is not my voice, it is the voice of God. His message and only commandment is simple: “Love.” We do not always have the ears to hear this voice, of course. We can become deaf to its gospel. Sin is a reality.
As for your reading of my thesis [“that autonomous human imagination and creativity is able to construct its own reality”], I would remove the words “autonomous” and “own.” The human imagination is to the divine imagination what the microcosm is to the macrocosm. As Coleridge put it, imagination is: “…the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and is a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.”
You write: “Like the primal relationship between mother and child, the primordial relationship between Creator and creature is one which occurs within the interiority of the human spirit without the demand of either party lacking concrete reality.” The notion of our relationship to God being only interior feels lacking to me. My relationship to the exterior cosmos as God incarnate is no less revelatory (indeed, perhaps it is more so). Earlier in your essay, you spoke of personality being a pre-requisite for sociability. I’d want to balance this statement by pointing out the opposite but equally reasonable notion that personality depends upon relationship. I do not think there is a specific point in time when a developing human becomes completely “cognitive” or self-conscious. There is a continuous movement toward more consciousness, if we’re lucky, but never a sharp break where we move from “dependent” to completely autonomous. My identity is never fully my own, as I remain dependent for the entirety of my life upon my relationships with others. Others are forever like mothers, in this sense. I can only be as intimate with myself as I can be with others, since I come to know who I am as a result of the way others respond to me. Personality is constituted by love and its need for both expression and recognition. I note in closing that the notion of a personal God would (if the above is valid) imply that God is not unaffected by human love.
*(sorry for the clumsy use of pronouns, but I think the nature of God is neither exclusively masculine or feminine, nor exclusively personal… Men [Him], women [Her], and children are made in the image of God, as is the universe [It]).

Power and Presence in Theology

Another response to NRG’s questions for me on Pharyngula:

I have trouble conceiving of God as all-powerful because of the problem of evil and my experience of human freedom. I associated God’s omnipresence with “will” even though, for God, there is really nothing to “do.” From the “perspective” of eternity, God is already everywhere and everywhen at once. It is when omnipresence get’s stepped down into its human incarnation, that it becomes will or desire; unlike God, humans between birth and death have a particular embodied perspective on space-time, but volition is our means of approaching the infinite presence of God. To actually unite with God’s infinite presence, I believe one would have to die for the love of or in love with all other sentient beings. We only get one chance per lifetime to will the infinite in this way. It is not easy, I suspect, to remain fully present to others in such a way during one’s own death.

I should remind you that I am playing here, that I have indeed stepped outside the strictures of scripture and am making this up as I go along, so to speak. Am I just feeling that these nice ideas should be true, or am I willing that they be so out of the power of my own imagination? I think I do feel and will that they are so. But I think this. My thinking is not separate from my feelings and my will. This is the mystery of the Trinity: three persons/functions, one God/Self. I do not think the intellect could know anything at all without volition (will) and judgment (feeling) involved in the act as well.

Does the reality of a soul, or of a soul not confined to the body but extended into the world, mean that “God did it?” No, as I said above, I don’t think the idea of God does any epistemic work when dealing with natural phenomena (the soul is “natural” in that it is part of the manifest world, part of the actual phenomena constituting our psychological experience as people). All that it means is that “matter” is not the ultimate explanatory principle.

I was raised with a foot in both Judaism and Christianity, and became an atheist around 11 or 12 when I first read Stephen Hawking’sA Brief History of Time.” I believed until about 17 that “science would win,” as Hawking has since suggested. I saw Western religious institutions as dogmatic and oppressive, and their scriptures (which I’d yet to read much of) as deluded and in flat contradiction to the facts of science (or the claims of scientists, a distinction I wasn’t yet able to make). But then I took a psychology class in 11th grade and read the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Alan Watts, among others. I realized that something intrinsic to human nature inextricably lures us toward the sacred and would continue to do so despite the success of the scientific method. I begin to study philosophy more closely in college, and realized soon after that the “facts” of scientific materialism didn’t necessarily hold up after sustained reflection on the history of science (Kuhn). I came to see also that there existed a rich diversity of thriving philosophical attitudes concerning the ultimate nature of things–in short, I came to recognize that materialism was not the only conclusion to which one could be lead based upon the last 400 years of natural science.

“God” is an idea I play with, an idea I admit I cannot know fully, or even know how I know what little I may know about it. But everything I experience points me toward this “strange attractor” called God (or Hegel’s Absolute, or Plato’s idea of the Good, or Teilhard’s Omega).

When I first watched the following clip from an interview with Jung, I was intrigued by the expression on his face after being asked if he believed in God… “difficult to answer…” Something like the feeling he must be experiencing behind that smirking face guides my intuitions about the divine:

God did it, or aliens?

“NRG” posting over on Pharyngula asks me:

Why impute an admittedly Unknowable Omni God to explain currently inexplainable phenomena, if it’s much more reasonable, based on what we actually know, to assume that other citizens of the universe, evolved like us but to a much greater degree, are responsible for such phenomena? To make it shorter: Why say that God did it, when it’s better to say that Aliens did?

I wouldn’t marshall the concept “God” as an explanation for a natural phenomenon (explanation of the universe itself is another matter, as strictly speaking, the universe as a whole is not a “phenomenon” available for scientific observation–I’ll say more below). I suspect that if the miracles of the Old Testament turned out to be the handiwork of a technologically advanced extra-terrestrial species, Christians would no longer be satisfied that this presumed being, “Yahweh,” mistakenly worshipped by the Israelites, was in fact God. God is not a being among beings, a species among species. God, for a Christian (at least for a philosophical Christian like Augustine, Aquinas, or Hegel), is the Being of beings. God is Creator, and not creature (this doesn’t necessarily mean God is entirely separate from creatures, just that, while creation participates in God, God still transcends creation’s immanence).

Francis Crick had the same intuitive reaction to the complexity of life on the molecular level that Intelligent Design advocates try to rationally justify their belief in God with, but Crick correctly recognized that aliens are more likely to have engineered this marvel than Jehovah. But then again, this just passes the buck back another layer of explanation: we’re still left wondering who/what created the first living organism capable of such intelligent design. So maybe it is better to say aliens did it, but it is still only relatively better.

The universe contains many marvels assuring its continued existence as cosmos instead of chaos, but I don’t think resorting to “design,” whether theistic or naturalistic, is the best way to explain it. William Paley and Charles Darwin share more in common philosophically than is often admitted (ditto for Hegel and Marx). Design is itself a paradigm, and it does theoretical work whether one’s analogy compares God to human designers (who select for traits in domesticated animals) or one compares Nature to humans (as Darwin did). The universe cannot be explained by way of design (natural or divine) unless we are prepared to accept a dualistic framework, where one substance (God or Nature/Laws of Physics) shapes and lords over another (human beings/life).

I read Plato with great joy, especially the Timaeus, where he suggests it is a “likely story” that the universe is a living creature, rather than a clockwork. The universe is unique among science’s objects of study, because unlike natural phenomena in general, it does not and cannot show itself all at once. The scientist, like Plato, lives in a natural universe in the process of becoming. Neither can say anything for certain about its shifty and transitory nature, but each can offer a probable, or likely story. Fiction or non-fiction? Well, the difference is not so clear, but we can be discerning… Plato’s story remains a bit mythical, but his student Aristotle grounds his teacher’s celestial ideas in the more concrete matters of life on earth. Ideas (“ideas” in the Mind of God, or “causes” of Natural Selection) do not “design” or shape organisms from the outside, in Aristotle’s biology; rather, organisms give actual expression to God’s creative and intelligent potential.

There is no need to speak of “God” interfering with the course of events in Aristotle’s cosmos. The notion of an interventionist deity has more to do with Modernity than it does with traditional theism.

As for aliens, I wonder how much this possibility can be distinguished, in practice if not in theory, from the medieval notion of angels, or the pagan belief in faeries? Might not alien abilities and attributes be just as fantastic as humanity’s earlier iterations of the strange and unknown intelligence potentially lurking beneath the more mundane appearances of our universe?

[I’ve since posted several more comments on similar themes.]