Robinson: “Each of us, if we are in any way integrated, has a center from which our lives are lived, and our ‘world’ is what is enclosed within the circumference of that circle. Yet often we are more conscious of the edges than the centers, corresponding to the bounds of an animal’s territory which it stakes all to defend. The edges may be hard, the boundaries barricaded, while the centers are relatively unformed. The effect of dialogue is to bring to consciousness, and therefore to strengthen, our centers – so that where we stand will often in the process become clearer and firmer. But we do that by being prepared to soften our edges, to open up the frontiers, and let down our defenses.”
Human beings are world-builders. By now it should be clear that we are using this term in reference to the habitats of meaning that give humans the illusions of security, identity, significance and purpose. These are regarded as illusions simply because they are language-dependent and not found as “facts” in reality. As spiders spin webs out of their own bodies and then depend on their webs for survival, each of us spins a world around ourselves and calls it home.
At the center of my world is “me,” this self-identified maker of meaning. Underneath me are the various supports that hold me up and define who I am. Gender, family, class and tribe are the primary roles that locate me in society and give me recognition as a member. Together we inhabit a shared world called culture, which is a web that stretches across generations and geographical regions and is reinforced by sacred stories called myths. These stories anchor our common identity in a prehistory of ancestors, founders and heroes, as well as in a supernatural realm of gods, saviors and saints.
The movement of postmodernism was energized by the discovery that beneath our web-worlds is a reality much less “solid” than we thought. The foundation of divine providence, for instance, or even something as seemingly rock-bottom as matter itself, are shown to be just deeper constructs of language. The security we feel in being held up by something loving and reliable (matter and mother have a common origin) is perhaps an irresistible need of ours, stemming back not just to our individual infancies but into our existential condition as a species.
And what about the boundary of my world? What’s beyond that? If I don’t think about it too much I can persist in the illusion of a significance and a purpose that continue to infinity. God’s in control, everything happens for a reason, and all things work together for good. It’s a mark of faith not to ask questions, or so we’re told.
But eventually we bump up against … not reality, but other worlds. I am confronted with your very different way of representing reality, and if mine was merely a representation and not the way things really are, I might be worried. We can have differences, but they will have to be superficial, minor disagreements. When push comes to shove, I can’t compromise on my convictions. Not that I won’t. I can’t – there’s too much at stake.
John A.T. Robinson is perhaps best known for his 1963 book Honest to God, in which he challenged the mythological literalism of the Bible and urged his readers to consider the possibility that the divine reality is not merely something bigger than we can imagine, but might even be something other than what we can imagine. Robinson took his inspiration from the likes of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom advocated for a divine mystery beyond our religious conceptions and doctrinal convictions.
The present mystery of reality is not meaningful but beyond the meanings we construct and attach to it. Our dogmatic and aggressive defense of meaning belies an insecurity often unacknowledged – except where we readily point it out in our opponent. If we could relax a little at our edges and meet each other with more honesty, humility and faith, we might realize that our meanings are a lot less absolute and unchanging than we pretend they are.
But as Robinson explains, the condition of our boundaries – how flexible or rigid they are, how open or closed, how responsive to mystery or reactive to difference – is a function of how integrated we are inside. Internal balance, contemplative clarity, intellectual coherence and spiritual grounding are all terms that relate to our center, where each of us is rooted in the present mystery of reality. If we neglect this dimension of our life and become disconnected at our roots, the natural concerns of survival and evolutionary fitness will become combative obsessions at the edges.
Now in this book (Truth is Two-Eyed), Robinson is exploring what he calls an “inner dialogue,” where the spider in the middle of the web – our self-identified ego and the meaning we spin into our separate worlds – opens up (or down) through its own center and into the real presence of mystery.
With “one eye” we see this relationship of self to mystery in terms of communion, between an “I” and a “Thou.” Importantly, this Thou is not the personified god of mythology and doctrinal orthodoxy, but an irreducible “Other” or otherness at the heart of our human experience of reality. This is the Western Way.
And with our second “eye” we see the present mystery of reality less as an interplay of I and Thou, than as a single undifferentiated Oneness playing both parts of the relationship. We are not so much confronted by reality as immersed in it, saturated with it, and essentially the same as it. This is not the same as saying, “I am god,” for the I and Thou are both manifestations of one mystery. This is the Eastern Way.
Robinson is inviting us to consider spirituality as a dialogue of “meeting” (Western Way) and “merging” (Eastern Way), communion and absorption, as our response to the mystery and our identification with it. We can engage this dialogue outwardly, at the table with Christians and Buddhists, for instance, where different constructs of meaning (worlds) seek to understand each other.
But this outer dialogue is not likely to produce the kind of mutual respect and profound appreciation we so desperately need on this planet unless we are each engaged in the inner dialogue of a deep, contemplative spirituality.
Just relax. It’s going to be all right.