Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Activity: Socrates, Jesus, and the Wisdom of Love

I’ve been asked to think about thinking, and to write about it. I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the middle of this kind of mess before, and so I’ll admit right off the bat that I cannot be sure which comes first, the thinking or the writing. Maybe my writing is just the trace of an ever-advancing spirit; or maybe my spirit–that in me which thinks–is just a character in a story, a name, given me by the people and the language into whose care I was thrown at birth. Heidegger spoke of being thrown, of waking up in the midst of the world in wonder of its historical depth, and of one’s own impending death. When and if my spirit advances, it does so thinking of such things.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, is learning to die. Not the loving metempsychosis of the Phaedrus, nor even the eros of the Symposium or the grand design of the Timaeus contains the secret of the Platonic teaching. The secret is in the Apology, where Socrates is sentenced to be executed and Plato first falls in love with Wisdom (and so begins to philosophize). The polis, it seems, will never understand the philosopher; to the extent that the people of the city do understand, they tend to take offense. Thinking is not taken kindly by ignorant people awash in gossip and stories. They cannot bear to look at what thinking reflects. It is a mirror too bright with the light of the Good. It blinds their sense-bound egos. They prefer the flat shadows of the cave wall to the eternal depths of the spirit. Socrates willingly accepted the verdict of the polis that he should die, and in so doing raised thinking forever above popular opinion regarding the meaning of ego death.

Death is always my own. I die alone, just as I think alone; though of course I leave loved ones behind after I die, and my thoughts, especially if spoken or written, become events in the world contributing to the new stories that spread in my wake. We can only tell stories, after all, even if we are thinkers, philosophers. Stories are the blood shared between souls, the sea that gives our spirit buoyancy during its passage through this life between birth and death. Though Socrates died to the stories of the city to be born a philosopher, he still believed Wisdom had a chance to enlighten the citizens of some future Athens. He did not give up on humankind. He became a teacher, a caretaker of souls awaiting the death of their bodies on earth and the birth of their spirits in heaven.

Socrates taught thinking, which is no easy task, since thinking is always one’s own. It cannot be taught like multiplication tables or proper spelling. To learn to think, I must remember how to do it for myself, to draw its power up out of my own soul-life. All that a teacher can offer are likely stories which might inspire a student to draw up wisdom from the as yet still waters at the bottom of their own soul. “Know thyself,” says Socrates. Look for the mirror within yourself, see the face beneath your persona reflected back at you: at first, it appears as the face of death, but in truth it is the Image of God.

There was another lover and teacher of Wisdom who walked the earth a few centuries after Socrates. His name was Jesus. He was born into the stories of Jerusalem instead of Athens, a Jew and not a Greek, but his teachings reach beyond any city. Jesus stood before a woman and asked for water out of the well (John 4):

Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” […] The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

Jesus the Christ offered the drink of eternal water, the truth of the spirit, a Wisdom not bound by the laws of any city on earth. He offered the woman the gift and grace of God’s Love. I cannot think how such a gift should be possible with the sense-bound intellect. The reality of the Christ Event (as Rudolf Steiner called it) remains indecipherable to the abstract reflection of my ego. It requires faith, some say. But perhaps there is yet a way to know?

Steiner’s Anthroposophy is an attempt to bring the spiritual in the human to meet the spiritual in the universe. It is Christian in religious orientation, but also teaches a science of the spirit. It is not a gnostic path, per say, but it nonetheless seeks to overcome the limits imposed upon human cognition by the philosophy of Kant. Anthroposophy seeks knowledge of the spiritual world through direct experience in that world. The philosopher-poet S. T. Coleridge made much of the difference between “the Understanding” and “the Reason,” a distinction he said he learned from Kant. Steiner expands upon this difference, noting that the Understanding, and the abstract concepts through which it relates to the world, is supported also by another relation, the Reason, that:

“…does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary consciousness. But [this relation to Reason] does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a ‘concept.’ An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense-perception, but which does not became a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.” (from p. 55 of The Case for Anthroposophy (2010), ed. and transl. by Owen Barfield)

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of Socrates’ or of Jesus’ teachings. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me (and out the other side). Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.

The stories of modern cities are materialistic. Stale and deadening. We are taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. He calls it the etheric, or body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a door to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become the Word.

The Mysticism and Cosmology of the American Genius Howard Thurman, a lecture at CIIS

Last night I had the privilage of attending a lecture by Brian Swimme and Bonnie and Kashka Wills on the thought of Howard Thurman. Brian is a mathematical cosmologist who teaches at CIIS here in San Francisco. Bonnie is a Restorative Justice Facilitator in Oakland. Her brother Kashka is a former literature professor turned poet. They focused both on the ethical and cosmological dimensions of Thurman’s work, which I will attempt to summarize below.

Though he was a Christian pastor, Thurman was critical of Christianity because of the extent to which it had strayed from the religion of Jesus. Jesus’ religion might be summed up in one word: Love. Thurman saw Love as the source of cosmic kinship–a stern yet kind intelligence that functions to maintain the Life of the universe. He thought American Christianity in general had become narrowly focused on personalistic, as opposed to cosmic love. Love lacks a cosmological dimension when it fails to deal honestly with the adversaries of hatred, fear, and deception. Rather than resorting to sentimentalism in regard to these matters (“be a good person!”), Thurman plunged right into the deeper nature of hatred. While acknowledging that vengefulness can bring one down to the level of their enemy, Thurman also recognized the great power that sometimes comes from meeting adversity. He thought hatred may sometimes be necessary to overcome the sense of worthlessness instilled in the oppressed by their oppressors. It produces one with the surplus energy needed to speak truth to power despite fears of breaking long established taboos of racism, sexism, etc. In the end, however, if hatred cannot be released, it dries up the creativity of life as we become unable to focus on anything but our enemies.

Bonnie emphasized the importance of a cosmological dimension in Christianity, since without it, we dwell to heavily on the personal and familiar and forget the extent to which we are creatures of the earth, embedded in a much larger, and stranger, community of life. Thurman’s cosmological orientation (“the earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which my body comes”) places him way ahead of his time (he was born in 1899). He felt quite deeply the increasing rootlessness of industrial life and blamed the increasing prevalence of mental illness on our species’ increasing alienation from nature.

It is his emphasis on the cosmic extent of Love that draws me to Thurman most. His is undoubtedly a cosmopolitical vision. I’m fascinated by the possibility that Love may eventually overtake power as the most prevalent shaping influence of human society.

Buddhist and Christian Soul-Making

So far as I know, John Keats coined the phrase “soul-making” in a letter to his brother and sister in May of 1819.
He writes:

“…suppose a rose to have sensation. It blooms on a beautiful morning. It enjoys itself–but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun–it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances. They are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it): I say ‘Soul making.’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God. How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as forever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I–low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

Keats offers his scheme of salvation as an alternative to the Christian religion, which he says later in the same letter has disenchanted and depersonalized the world because of its obsessive monotheism. Without an “elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other,” the Intelligence is unable to mature into Individuality. The Soul remains a potentiality unable, through the schooling of a living universe, to self-actualize.

I’m interested in the spiritual fruits that may mature by bringing Keats’ scheme into conversation with Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. For the Buddha, selfhood was an illusion to be dissolved. Ego is not only a source of suffering, but its cause, since only such a false sense of identity allows one’s inherent Buddha-nature to become deformed by grasping after the fleeting images arising and perishing in the round of samsara. Samsara, for Keats, is the vale of tears. Nirvana is realized when our true identity, dependently co-arising with all that is and is-not, replaces the false identity of the ego.

The teachings of Christ suggest that within each of us dwells an innocence akin to Adam’s prior to the Fall. Through love of our neighbor, the world, and God, each of us may be born again, “not of the water, but of the Spirit.” Then, “not I, but the Christ in me” lives eternally within the heart of the Creator. The world becomes a vale of soul-making when Earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from Heaven. Instead, an economy is opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates even in the shaping of the dust from which our bodies emerge and return. Each becomes, like Christ, a Son or Daughter of God. The Soul gains an identity by making itself particular, learning from the trials of the World aided by the universal Intelligence aflame within it. Soul-making is no less a task for humanity than incarnation is for divinity. To become who we really are: perhaps in this mission both Buddha and Christ are our partners.

I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in an essay to be posted soon!