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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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