Monday, October 4, 2010

I and the Father are One

It seems to me that for all the words that have been written, most intellectuals--indeed most people--are still essentially dualists in the tradition of Descartes. Of course, in our time we have generally tried to do away with "spiritual" language, and so we don't speak publicly, seriously, about "soul." But dualism remains the standard view by a simple substitution: we talk about "self," for example, instead of "soul." We generally have no hesitation in saying that a person who loses a limb in an accident is still 100% themselves. And this willingness to imagine a self that is separate from the body, and not subject to its various degenerations, is the essential feature of dualist thinking.

The only interesting alternative to dualism occurs when we follow the lead of those who have sought (and found) some kind of divine union. Ultimately, these thinkers overcome dualism not by denying that the body is a part of the "self," but by discovering that there is no-thing called self. I think most Americans will associate this attitude with Buddhism, if they are familiar with it at all; but it's certainly a part of most of the world's mystical traditions. Certainly it's there at the heart of Christianity: "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me."

It is this view that allows Parmenides to declare that "All is One," and this view that forms the foundation of the view of Emerson's favorite mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg:
That at the present day nothing is known concerning the union of soul and body, is proved by the hypotheses of the learned concerning the soul; especially by that of Descartes and others, [who maintain] that the soul is a substance separated from the body, in some place or other; when yet the soul is the inmost man; consequently, is the man from the head to the foot. Thence it is, according to the ancients, that the soul is in the whole, and in every part thereof; and that in whatever part the soul does not dwell inmostly, there man has no life. From this union it is, that all things of the soul belong to the body, and all things of the body belong to the soul; as the Lord said concerning His Father, that all His things are the Father's, and that all things of the Father are His (John 17:10). Thence it is that the Lord is God, even as to the flesh (Rom. 9:5; Col. 2:9); and that [He said], "the Father is in Me," and "I am in the Father" [John 14:10, 11]. Thus they are one.
And of course, finally and ultimately, Yoga aims at this unification--at this eradication of the perspective of separation. I'll save my digression on Yoga for tomorrow, but my general drift here is to wonder, again, whether it's possible to lead students to an experience of this unified perspective, or, to the contrary, if we must accept that the experience seems to come "randomly," or willy-nilly, regardless of temperament, practice, and metaphysical "beliefs."


  1. i haven't been myself since the bris.

  2. Hahaha! (Do they call it that in Adventism?)

  3. no. but "circumcision" just doesn't have the right rhythm, does it?

  4. Casey--quality post. I wish I had time to re-read. Here's a knee-jerk reaction before I get back to work:

    Swedenborg notwithstanding, I'd be VERY cautious about comparing Eastern and Western (particularly Western Christian) notions of one-ness and unity. Eastern talk tends to say (huge generalization alert) that one-ness is 'real' and that divisions like individuality are in some sense specious and inessential. Christianity--particularly Trinitarian Christianity--flatly denies this. St. John, in his amazing and difficult--and I would very much argue, mystical-- gospel, argues something like: -God is love. --Love is relational. Thus ---God is relational. Also recall Christ's prayer to the Father is that "That they [men] might be one--even as We are." But the one-ness we have with each other is not some dissolution of distinctness on the Eastern model. Crucial here--the rosetta stone to whatever this doctrine amounts to-- is the vastly under-examined preposition 'in', wherein imperfect love union "I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine" eradicates the last traces of possession ("I am IN my Father; and my Father is IN Me"). In this interpretation of Christian love, then, individuality is not something that dissolves/dissappears. Rather, it is as forever as Love is--as eternal as God is.

    Anyway--will write more on this later if time. Again, good stuff. Thanks!

  5. That's enough to make me hesitate, Kevin. My interest in Emerson has shaped my interest in Christianity, I guess--so much that I attend a Unitarian Universalist church once in a while.

    But as I sit here with your thought, it feels like one of those ideas that I might be ready for only later (?).

    Curious follow-up: what do you make of the likes of Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil who speak of an emptying out of self? Bad theology? Misinterpreting their own mystical experiences? And there's the Jamesian description of mysticism which includes a sense of "oneness" that I was reading as "universalist" (in the "Mysticism" chapter in Varieties).

  6. Afterthought: this begs the question for me: has anyone ever been enlightened, and saved?

  7. Eckhart I haven't read in quite a while; Weil: not at all.

    But as to 'emptying out' this seems quite compatible with the Trinitarian picture I was floating above. In love, I am so 'into' the other, I am 'taken out of myself'--not in some (merely?) metaphysical sense; rather, the phenomenology is, I want to say, ethical.

    Levinas: when I explicitly say "Here am I!" to the other, I am NOT locating some inner essence; rather, I am 'putting myself out' or putting myself at the service of another. Now: Levinas thinks this is not merely something I DO consciously (in my best moments); it is that mysterious 'non-essence'--IS what we ARE (or rather, 'are for'--the ontological 'is' question, which surreptitiously drops the 'for', begs the question). This original outward-flung/other-ward-ness breaks up the notion of a self as an original internality. My self is, as it were, an address to the other, as though I am understood in the 2nd person before getting to the first. The 'Here am I' is me, as it were, emptying myself out FOR and TOWARDS the other--a directed generosity, NOT a mere direction-less dissolution or emptying. In ethical love--agape-- I am expelled from own internality, as though it were my nature to be presented (and re-presented)to another as gift; and this is more essential than being present to myself. As with a gift, what it is to BE and persist as a self is to be given.
    I take this to be a crucial dividing line between mere monotonous one-ness and a (for me) ethically-acceptable unity which maintains individuality. My individuality is not my concern, of course--it is the other's; but it is of essential concern to the other--and so is indispensable insofar as unity links up with love.
    So: talk of mere 'emptying' (mis)characterizes this movement in a purely negative way. Rather, my presence CONSISTS of a presenting-to-the-other, full stop.

    There is no essential 'given' self; there is only the fact that selves are the sort of things that are given. Selves are oriented outward/elsewhere. No home for self! Israel, the image of the soul, is nomadic. Abraham, recall, 'went out, not knowing where he was going'. On this picture, we too are always 'going out' elsewhere, comissions, given, sent. Ethically speaking, identity is 'found' only in exile.

  8. I think I can meet you halfway-to-halfway, or so.

    The problem that I do see with the Eastern model of Oneness that I'm interested in is that the result is precisely schizophrenia (see Philip K. Dick on this notion, "Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes"). But that's the "florid" state of enlightenment; I'm convinced that many-a-mystic has "gone there," only to choose ("did he just say schizophrenia is a choice!?") to return to the forms of the world. As bodhisattvas.

    Levinas is really hard for me. As I advise others to do with texts that don't resonate with them, I blame myself here: I must be looking wrongly at Levinas, because there are a good number of people whom I trust that are moved my Levinas' thinking. So, that part... I'm still waiting for the 'click' to happen for me.

    It's always exciting and unnerving for me to talk about my own (single) spiritual experience, but one of the clearest memories from that almost week-long ordeal was that at the "crescendo," I could not distinguish between the pronouns "I" and "you," and I even went so far as to feverishly beg my wife to speak in the collective first person: "Say 'we,' please!"

    My interpretation of the event is, of course, subject to disagreement: but this is why I posted the last paragraph from the Borges story: it seemed to me, then, that she and I were one in the eyes of the Universe. And the universe's eyes were our eyes, of course.