Two Arguments Against Physicalism

“Physicalism (also known as Materialistic Monism . . . is the philosophical position that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties, and that the only existing substance is physical. Therefore, it argues, the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” ~ PhilosophyBasics.Com

1)  Presupposing consciousness, evolutionary biology and neurophysiology may account (more or less adequately) for changing states of mind by correlating them with changes in physical structure and processes.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in principle, how they might explain the advent of consciousness,  per se.  For if (for billions of years) we imagine electro-chemical processes taking place “in the dark”, there is simply no reason to think that such processes should ever become “illuminated” — no reason to think that, at some point, there should suddenly be “something that it is like” (on the inside) to be one of those processes (cf. “What is it like to be a bat?“, by Thomas Nagel).

bat2) But even if we assume, per chance, the advent of this or that “emergent state of consciousness”, there is no reason to speak of such a state as being “selected for” (in evolutionary terms) unless it is not ultimately reducible to the material substrate on top of which it appears.  Genes are material…  Brain-states are material…  Natural selection as ordinarily understood  operates materially…  So unless we are willing to grant that, at some point, conscious minds began to contribute something over and above their material substrate, there is no reason to say that consciousness, qua consciousness, is selected for.

If, however, we want to say that consciousness, as such, does indeed contribute something over and above its material substrate–that the physical structures associated with sentience, perception, or discursive thought are selected for with a view to a qualitative contribution to life that somehow flows through them (and not just for their quantitative features, as such), we are at that point leaving a strict physicalism behind in favor of what I would call an “emergent dualism” or mind/body “interactionism”.  If on the other hand, there is no such contribution, then it is simpler to think of some rudimentary “consciousness” (or “interiority”) as being present from the beginning, in any and all material forms (cf. Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin).  But if that is the case, reality is not (and has never been) merely physical.

An alternative would be to argue for the primacy of consciousness (as do, for example, Peter Russell and Bernardo Kastrup), but either way, the mystery of consciousness endures and would seem to remain irreducible….

–>  Recognizing and Honoring the Light of Awareness

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Ask Dr. Robert…

robertosombramarc20211Nearly two years ago, when I wrote this essay on Nonduality, I expressed my intention to introduce readers to some other teachers besides the ones mentioned at the time–other teachers including some who, though less well known, are nevertheless  quite good (perhaps equal to the best) but who are (understandably) much more accessible than their more famous counterparts.  First and foremost, the person I had in mind at the time was my online friend and interlocutor Dr. Robert Saltzman.

Robert is a retired psychologist and photographer who currently resides in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.   I don’t recall precise order of events that led up to our initial acquaintance and friendship, but my first impression of him was very much informed by these paragraphs that I discovered on his website in the Summer of 2011:

“What I mean by “spiritual unfoldment” is the possibility in the human being of finding a center which is more than just “myself,” a center which seems to embody a level of wisdom, empathy, creativity, humor, and joy which is missing in the ordinary, everyday personality, a center, that is, which is not the outcome of thoughts, attitudes, and ideas, but which seems to exist prior to thought. Once this center is somehow intuited by the ordinary self, “unfoldment” refers to the ever-expanding experience of finding meaning and value in living more from that greater center and less from the demands of the everyday personality as it expresses itself in thoughts, fears, and desires.  To put this in somewhat grander terms, that which is finite, time-bound, and subject to death, becomes aware in some way of the underlying ground of being which feels infinite, timeless, and everlasting.

fern_unfurl“I say that this center must be intuited by the ordinary self because intuition is a human faculty which functions beyond the region of conscious thought, and so may provide a kind of bridge between thought and the underlying ground of being. I like to use the word “unfoldment,” because it suggests that this process involves the unfurling or unwinding of something that is already present but needs to be opened up in order that it may function to the fullest within the individual life of each person. If you have ever seen the leaf of a large fern uncoiling, this may provide a good visual metaphor” (excerpted from What is Spiritual Unfoldment?).

Those paragraphs resonated strongly with the insight gleaned a few years earlier from Eckhart Tolle–an insight subsequently clarified and stabilized to some degree as I was exposed to various nondual teachers and teachings on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere on the web.  Still, there are certain things that it is difficult to learn apart from direct communication with someone who really knows.  And, for me, Robert Saltzman became that person, for a time, and provided a significant measure of direct communication (insofar as that is possible via email and Facebook).

This is not to suggest that I willingly accepted everything he had to say– or even, at this point, that we always see eye to eye –quite the contrary.   But I find in him someone who is extraordinarily wise and deeply compassionate and who was, at the time, willing to discuss difficult questions with me–especially as they relate to what he sometimes refers to as awakening to true nature.  I was particularly impressed with his willingness to follow each thread of our discussion to its logical conclusion without getting bored or angry or throwing in the towel when the going got tough.  It seemed we were always able to come out the other side–not necessarily agreeing, but with a deeper respect and appreciation for one another as time went on.  This was exactly what I needed at the time and I remain very grateful for the experience.

god-talk-croppedPerhaps our biggest bone of contention over the years has had to do with the idea of God, the advantages and disadvantages of religious traditions, and the truth-value of religious modes of discourse.  I continue find the Christian categories in which I was raised to be meaningful and am inclined to think that some sort of traditional, religious  culture is good and preferable to the secular consumerism that seems to be replacing traditionally oriented cultures around the globe.  Having said that– and without attempting to speak for Dr. Robert in this regard –I can also say that there is little that I disagree with in his response to the question, Why do you criticize religion?  Indeed, I criticize religion, too–albeit (on balance) somewhat more gently and sympathetically than he does.  See, for example, these various pieces which I have posted here and at Yeshua21.Com over the past 3 or 4 years:

A lessor bone of contention has been the topic of consciousness and whether the hard-problem of consciousness (as it is sometimes referred to ala David Chalmers) is indicative of a level of reality that transcends the material world — a level of reality which we, as conscious beings, somehow participate in (or have access to) in a way that suggests that we are not merely these apparent bodies, but that there pertains to us and our lives a transcendent aspect that is logically and ontologically prior to the unfolding of our material existence.  Robert recently weighed in on this question as follows:

. . . the idea that consciousness exists separate from and prior to the brain is, in my view, pure speculation. In other words, it is a religious idea or a metaphysical one, not a scientific one, although some try to claim, erroneously in my view, that it is demonstrated, or even proven scientifically, by quantum mechanics.

Whether the brain is the source of consciousness, or whether there is some larger overarching consciousness that exists prior to the material world, the human experience (feeling/perception/thought/self-awareness) would feel precisely the same–one cannot see that which sees or know that which knows. Therefore, I say, no human being can be situated so as to know which of those is a true view, or even if neither is.

gullibility test 1 dollarYou won’t find the answer by “self-inquiry” either, I say, or any other approach. That answer is beyond the human “event-horizon.” The only “answer” comes via received knowledge. In other words, you credit some other human being with somehow having access to that which you do not. On what basis you make such a determination, I cannot imagine. If you believe Osho, or Deepak Chopra, or NameYourPoison and take their word for it (no matter how buttressed by logic, scripture, or tradition), you are, I say, acting like a fool.

Science, by the way, does not claim that consciousness is something that the brain does (albeit many scientists do favor that view). Science says that the answer–the solution to the so-called “hard problem”–is unknown, and possibly unknowable. I tend towards unknowable myself.  [posted on Facebook].

While I have no great objection to the idea that the ultimate answer to this question is unknown and may, in fact, be unknowable, I am not yet convinced that this is not a fruitful avenue of inquiry for the spiritual seeker–not as a belief to adopt, mind you, but as a question to reflect upon deeply.  And because there is a relatively large contingent of very vocal atheists who pretend that they do know that consciousness is merely a function of the brain, I regularly respond to them by emphasizing the following:

1)  Presupposing consciousness, evolutionary biology and neurophysiology may account (more or less adequately) for changing states of mind by correlating them with changes in physical structure and processes.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in principle, how they might explain the advent of consciousness,  per se.  For if (for billions of years) we imagine electro-chemical processes taking place “in the dark”, there is simply no reason to think that such processes should ever become “illuminated” — no reason to think that, at some point, there should suddenly be “something that it is like” (on the inside) to be one of those processes (cf. “What is it like to be a bat?“, by Thomas Nagel).

bat2) But even if we assume, per chance, the advent of this or that “emergent state of consciousness”, there is no reason to speak of such a state as being “selected for” (in evolutionary terms) unless it is not ultimately reducible to the material substrate on top of which it appears.  Genes are material…  Brain-states are material…  Natural selection as ordinarily understood  operates materially…  So unless we are willing to grant that, at some point, conscious minds began to contribute something over and above their material substrate, there is no reason to say that consciousness, qua consciousness, is selected for.  If, however, we want to say that consciousness, as such, does indeed contribute something over and above its material substrate–that the physical structures associated with sentience, perception, or discursive thought are selected for with a view to a qualitative contribution to life that somehow flows through them (and not just for their quantitative features, as such), we are at that point leaving a strict physicalism behind in favor of what I would call an “emergent dualism” or mind/body “interactionism”.  If on the other hand, there is no such contribution, then it is simpler to think of some rudimentary “consciousness” (or “interiority”) as being present from the beginning, in any and all material forms (cf. Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin).  But if that is the case, reality is not (and has never been) merely physical.

With respect to Robert’s observation that consciousness, as such, would not feel any different to us (whether it is merely a function of the operation of our brains or if it somehow transcends neurophysiology), it remains the case that what we believe about it does have a practical import.  And, IMO, to believe that consciousness is merely a function of brain-states tends to keep people stuck in duality–imagining, as Alan Watts puts it, that their ego is “something or other, located about half way between their ears and a little way behind their eyes inside their head” (see this Alan Watts video).


So rather than imagining that consciousness is limited to our brains or even to our apparent body as a whole, it seems more reasonable to me (and more conducive to awakening) to think of the world as my body–i.e. the cosmos in its entirety.

the world is your body

Indeed, from where I stand, it seems almost as accurate to say that the cosmos is in me as it does to say that I am in the cosmos.  As Martin Heidegger observes–in a quite different but not unrelated context:

“For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside” (“Basic Problems in Phenomenology” 66).

Thus, the distinction between inner and outer– insofar as it obtains at all –is not nearly as definite or dominating as it once was (see also My Spirit, by Thomas Traherne).  It is with this point of view in mind that I have shared the following observations on consciousness:

But having said all that, I am quite willing to leave this question behind if and for as long as physicalism is not expressed or implied as a default position by whoever I happen to be talking to.  another infinityMoreover, I fully acknowledge the dangers posed by both religious and metaphysical speculation– dangers which I think Robert has in mind when he objects to such discourse –namely, that people who are attached to such mental positions may, in fact be clinging (in fear of death and in despair of reality as it is given) to some vestige of hope for an afterlife that will serve to soften the specter of death and to reinforce their hope and desire for personal immortality.

In that vein, one of the most fruitful exercises that emerged, early on, as Robert and I conversed, had to do with the contemplation of death construed as personal annihilation. What I came to realize through such contemplation is that to be willing to die utterly is to be totally surrendered to the awake space that I Am.  “What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?”,  Alan Watts inquires…  “This is a yoga”, he continues, “this is a realization” (The Nature of Consciousness).  It has been my experience that it is, indeed, helpful to mind the gaps (as the saying goes), but that it is also possible to do so in a way that is very much akin to dying before we die–i.e. it is possible to be so deeply and profoundly aware of our bodies as to be on intimate terms with the silence between each heartbeat; and with the stillness between each breath we breathe.  Resting in that peace, there simply is no fear of death.

come and dieIn short– in spite of our differences –I am very thankful for Robert Saltzman and the opportunity I have had to converse with him over the past 3 or 4 years.  While it is true that he often speaks harshly of religion in general and Christianity in particular (while  I, in contrast, retain a sincere appreciation for many elements of the Christian faith in which I was raised), there are also times when he expresses in rather general terms certain insights which seem to me to pertain to the very essence of the Christian gospel.  In addition to the opening paragraphs on spiritual unfoldment (above) which, to my way of thinking describe the mind of Christ, I was particularly impressed by the following  exchange which I cut and pasted from his Facebook page last summer (2014).  One of his Facebook followers, whose name I have replaced with initials, inquires as follows:

B___ K___:  What I had been wondering about is how the personality functions when the ego dissolves. . . . I mean the conditioned egoic mind and the inborn personality.

Robert Saltzman:  Just speaking personally, I would not say that ego “dissolves.”  Ego has a vital function in living a human life (unless one lives as one of those so-called “god intoxicated” yogis who has to be fed and carried around from place to place–none of that for me, thanks).

The experience as it unfolds for me from moment to moment is that, more and more, impersonal Self is felt as “reality” (defined neither by ideas of duality nor of nonduality–it simply is what it is) and ego is seen as a temporary, limited manifestation within Self called “personality,” or “point of view.”

For example, when earlier Bernard said it was a nice spring day in Montreal, that was ego (his) speaking, and ego (mine) listening. But when he touched upon deeper matters, any distinction between Robert and Bernard disappeared in the face of the truth beyond words that was being expressed. When I thanked Bernard for his comment, he said, “Ah well, takes one to see one,” meaning that either of us could have said exactly the same thing.

Seekers and many deluded teachers like to tell themselves that this work is about erasing or destroying ego (some of the “teachers” have foolishly convinced themselves that they have somehow “transcended” ego) but real understanding has nothing to do with erasing, destroying, or transcending anything.

I say that this work is, as in Edinger’s diagram, about ego seeing and feeling the distinction between ego and Self so that ego can enjoy a healthy relationship with Self (Truth). Without a distinction, there IS no relationship, and then all kinds of unbalanced ideas, unmitigated by truth, arise: ego trips, megalomania, delusions of being “Jesus,” etc, or, in the other direction, self-hatred, guilt for being alive at all, etc. With a real relationship, stress eases and ego no longer pursues any urgent agenda (including about attaining “enlightenment”). This seems to me to be a natural process of ego coming at first to recognize, and then to love and obey Self.

I cannot recall where I heard this analogy (perhaps it is Hindu or maybe Sufi), but ego can be compared to a horse. The horse may imagine that it can go wherever it likes, but it soon gets into all kinds of trouble.  Then, with luck, the horse may notice that it has a rider on its back, and the rider knows the territory. Then the horse can relax and provide the motivating force for getting around in life while the rider (Self) guides the journey.

The ego/Self relationship appears everywhere in adage, fable, and folk-tale: “Let your conscience be your guide.” The “higher power,” etc.

galatians 2 - 20 crucified with christWow!  That is so powerful–so insightful…  Despite the fact that Robert tends to discount and eschew the idea of transcendence, in general, and Christian categories, in particular–to my mind, the Facebook exchange above nevertheless expresses almost perfectly what is, as I see it, a very Christian point of view.  The ego, as he describes it, has in Christian terms been regeneratedI am no longer setting on the throne of my heart but have surrendered that throne to Christ (cf. the Self).

To be sure, this is often spoken of in terms of death.  St. Paul writes, “I am crucified with Christ–I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  Elsewhere he writes, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  While in some contexts, his references to death are intended very literally, it is also the case that death is often employed by him (and throughout the New Testament) as a metaphor — a metaphor which,  IMO, may be fruitfully compared to the Sufi notion of fana (annihilation of the self).  Moreover, fana is a notion which appears to have been influenced by the Buddhist understanding of nirvana (i.e. the extinction of the self — cf. nirFana).  But there is reason to believe that the emphasis on the death of the ego in all of these descriptions is somewhat exaggerated.  Thomas Merton explains this as follows:

[The higher religious traditions felt it necessary] to speak in strong negative terms about what happens to the ego-subject, which instead of being “realized” in its own limited selfhood is spoke of rather as simply vanishing out of the picture altogether.  The reason for this is not that the person loses his metaphysical or even physical status, or regresses into non-identity, but rather that his real status is quite other than what appears empirically to us to be his status.  Hence it becomes overwhelmingly important for us to become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences, or as candidates for realization, attainment and fulfillment.  In other words, this means that a spiritual guide worth his salt will conduct a ruthless campaign against all forms of delusion arising out of spiritual ambition and self-complacency which aim to establish the ego in spiritual glory.  That is why a St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of “special experience.”  That is why the Zen Masters say: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (“Zen and the Birds of Appetite” 76-77).

On balance, it seems to me that Robert’s point about the function of the ego is well taken.  In any event, it is consistent with my own understanding and experience.  Moreover, from where  I stand, he seems far more in touch with (what I refer to as) the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit than most (nominal) Christians I come in contact with.

Regarding the Eddinger diagram which Robert refers to, I don’t recall seeing that last summer when I first read that exchange,  but here (perhaps) is a similar diagram which I have reconfigured somewhat in conjunction with my own Christian vision:

self Self jungian psychology pilgrimage of the soul

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to draw this to a close.  If you’d like to learn more about Robert Saltzman, visit his web site or stop by his Facebook page.  Most importantly,  perhaps– as a way of balancing what may have been a one-sided and idiosyncratic presentation  on  my part –you should should consider browsing through the various photographs and Facebook memes that he shares from time to time.   And if you have any questions, feel free to Ask Dr. Robert:)

NOTE:  With regard to awakening, you could do worse than simply remembering these words from (Robert’s friend) the late Bill Gersh:

You get what you get when you get it! 

And in conjunction with that, you should also remember this:

Awakening Never Ends

Pilar - the great aunt of Robert Saltzmans friend and auto mechanic MartínThis photo portrait is by Robert Saltsman:

“Pilar is the great aunt of my friend and auto mechanic, Martín. He brought me to meet her. She lives alone in the old way, the way people grew up on the ranchos on this peninsula. She’s 89, completely compos mentis, and wise. I saw her this morning again to bring her prints of this image. We had a lovely conversation.  This portrait was captured within two minutes of meeting her, hand-held camera, and no stage management.” ~ Robert Saltzman (in response to my inquiry)

–>  See more of Robert’s photos on Facebook

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The Eternal NOW

now - past - futureThere is a beautiful distinction to be drawn between “the real present” (a la Boris Mouravieff), aka “the eternal NOW” (a la Paul Tillich, et al), on the one hand, and what we might call “the conventional present”, on the other.  We have the mind of Christ and, as such, God is with us (cf. parousia). But for the carnal (or egoic) mind, the garden of God is but a faint memory and the conventional present is merely a paper-thin means to some imagined future (as the prodigal pilgrimage continues).

peaceBut rather than fleeing tribulation, we always have the option of, Christ-like, denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and entering into life NOW.  Those first two steps are a doozies, to be sure, but in the words of a rather famous Quaker who was active during the first half of the 20th century:

“The Now is no mere nodal point between the past and the future. It is the seat and region of the Divine Presence itself…. The Now contains all that is needed for the absolute satisfaction of our deepest cravings…. In the Now we are at home at last.” (Thomas Kelly, “A Testament of Devotion”)

–> Now is the Accepted Time…

this moment welcomes you

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Skepticism and Faith

i am somewhat skepticalNo doubt it seems strange to many of my fellow Christians– indeed, I must seem intentionally obstinate and confrontational, even –when I (often) press a skeptical point of view when it comes to scripture and to the historicity of some of the core elements of the gospel narratives.  The reason that I do this is not to encourage doubt or disbelief but to drive home the point that the REALITY of Christ– the REALITY that Archimandrite Roman is pointing to in the interview, below –this REALITY is with us always and is accessible whether or not we are skeptical about the scriptures or the historicity of certain aspects of the tradition.  Thus, rather then insisting that the skeptic believe what (s)he doesn’t believe, I think it would be better (at least in some cases) to encourage people to bracket their questions about historicity and, instead, to look within for the living Christ (with an open heart) as suggested by Archimandrite Roman.  Then, once the REALITY that is Christ-in-you is experienced, the question of historicity is no longer a big issue. If every jot and tittle of the the narratives are true, well and good.  If not, their symbolic value remains.  Glory be to God for all things!

NOTE:  This is the last question and the first part of the answer from a 2012 interview republished a few days ago in the wake of Archimandrite Roman’s passing:

What are some ways we can find Christ today, in American society?

2015-0428-archimandrite-roman-braga“Well, first of all, Christ is in you. Christ is not just some nice guy.  He is God, and God is within you. God is in our consciences, in our hearts, in our minds.  He is not something material you see outside of yourself. You find God in yourself.  You descend in your personality.  We are eternal, we never die, the body goes to the cemetery but the conscience, the person, is continually alive.  So when you descend into yourself, your conscious is infinite.  And this infinity is the temple of the Living God. Saint Paul says many times that you are the temple of the Living God because God lives within you.  You find God when you know yourself, when you know who you are. If you neglect that, when you say, ‘I don’t have time to think about myself,’ you will never find God, because God is not something material.  You do not find him in a specific place. God is always with you if you want Him to be with you.  You find God when you find yourself. ‘Who am I?’  Pay attention to these verses of the Scriptures—’you are the temple of the Living God because God lives within you,’ and as Jesus said, ‘remain in Me and I in you. I am the vine and you are the branches,’ and if you do not remain in me you do not have the sap to feed yourself, and you will dry up.  People who complain that they do not feel God are dry branches.  They have to remain in Christ and to accept Christ by saying, ‘Lord, come, I am here.  You created me. Open my heart because You created this heart. You created the door, enter please.’ ”  [More]

–>  God is with you always . . .

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Recognizing and Honoring the Light of Awareness

Quoting from chapter two of Waking Up, by Sam Harris:

waking up“However we propose to explain the emergence of consciousness—be it in biological, functional, computational, or any other terms—we have committed ourselves to this much: First there is a physical world, unconscious and seething with unperceived events; then, by virtue of some physical property or process, consciousness itself springs, or staggers, into being. This idea seems to me not merely strange but perfectly mysterious. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. When we linger over the details, however, this notion of emergence seems merely a placeholder for a miracle” (56).

“The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand— that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character in this moment —is a mystery, exceeded only by the mystery that there should be something rather than nothing in the first place” (79).

These extraordinary statements by Sam Harris (however qualified by him elsewhere) point to a line of demarcation between two fundamentally different orientations towards humanity and our place in the universe–namely, the line separating those who do not acknowledge the hard problem of consciousness from those who do.  On the one hand are those physicalists who see time, space, matter, and energy as primary– and who are quick to dismiss consciousness as an epiphenomenon (if not  eliminating it entirely–ostensibly as some kind of illusion); and on the other hand are various and sundry points of view advocated by those who continue to recognize the qualitative aspect of reality as equally (if not more) important to that which can be objectively measured and quantified under the umbrella of the natural sciences.  In Waking Up, Sam Harris does acknowledge this problem and, despite certain misgivings, decides to employ such terms as spiritual, mystical, contemplative, and transcendent “without further apology”(7).

For the physicalist, reality is reduced to natural history and cosmology as it is observed and deduced to be unfolding in time– horizontally, as it were –based exclusively on that which seems empirically verifiable.  From this point of view, the meaning and purpose of human existence, if not denied entirely, is limited to the degree of satisfaction that we experience, over time, as we pursue any number of finite goals–be they passing pleasures or (relatively speaking) more enduring projects.   For the non-physicalist, on the other hand (i.e. any point of view that acknowledges the hard problem of consciousness) reality retains an element of transcendence, together with the potential, at least, for a kind of vertical realization which recognizes and honors the light of awareness and realizes the dignity of Being as an end in itself.  [Note: It has been brought to my attention that some physicalists do acknowledge the hard problem and that Sam Harris may fall into this category (look for type-B materialists in this article by David Chalmers). This does not effect the general point I am making about the relevance of this problem to our consideration of the light of awareness and the dignity of Being.]

vertical and horizontal6 As I see it, the naturalistic world of the physicalist– unfolding, as it does, merely on the horizontal plane –is a misleading representation which offers only a limited and (ultimately) impoverished view of reality (i.e. it merely documents the way in which reality appears to unfold from the standpoint of our analytic minds and our ego’s instrumental use of reason).  The real world, on the other hand (i.e. the qualitative world which is acknowledged by a wide variety of other, non-physicalistic perspectives) retains a vertical aspect which reflects the timeless truth of transcendental awareness– an aspect of reality that may also be referred to as Reason or Spirit (in the  broadest sense of the Word ) –and which somehow transcends the unfolding of empirical subjects and objects in space and time.  This vertical dimension of reality is, as I see it, prior to (and a condition for the possibility of) the horizontal.  Nevertheless, we are quite naturally tempted to mistake the horizontal dimension for the whole of reality and thereby to neglect that which has been variously referred to (by  Boris Mouravieff, for example) as the Real Present and (by Paul Tillich and others) as the Eternal NOW.   While most readers will have heard of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, the Quaker author Thomas Kelly wrote in much the same vein two generations earlier:

The Now is no mere nodal point between the past and the future. It is the seat and region of the Divine Presence itself…. The Now contains all that is needed for the absolute satisfaction of our deepest cravings…. In the Now we are at home at last.” (Thomas Kelly, “A Testament of Devotion”)

And without implying any endorsement of his overall philosophy, it seems to me that another facet of this richer, more comprehensive point of view is very adequately formulated by Rudolf Steiner as follows–namely, that there is, in transcendental awareness, a deep and very profound intelligence in which we participate:

steiner animation“…thinking must never be regarded as merely a subjective activity. Thinking lies beyond subject and object. It produces these two concepts just as it produces all others. When, therefore, I, as thinking subject, refer a concept to an object, we must not regard this reference as something purely subjective. It is not the subject that makes the reference, but thinking. The subject does not think because it is a subject; rather it appears to itself as a subject because it can think. The activity exercised by thinking beings is thus not merely subjective. Rather is it something neither subjective nor objective, that transcends both these concepts. I ought never to say that my individual subject thinks, but much more that my individual subject lives by the grace of thinking“ (from “The Philosophy of Freedom”).

To be sure, the empirical subject seems real enough in its own right and it is not surprising that we misunderstand ourselves to be separate individuals who exist over against one another in a physical environment which is continuously changing over time–an environment, nonetheless, which we imagine to exist in an entirely “objective” way (i.e. whether or not it is illumined by any living intelligence). It is no secret, however, that when this point of view is taken to its logical conclusion, our existence appears utterly absurd and the entire drama appears to be unfolding with no ultimate end in view.  But this apparent meaninglessness and purposelessness only obtains if (and for as long as) we imagine that there are subjects and objects which exist apart from the thinking which transcends them and that the truth and being of our existence (in the hypothetical absence of such thinking) is coextensive with the duration of our apparent bodies.  In fact, no such “objective” existence can be demonstrated and our real truth and being is not to be found apart from the transcendental awareness which is prior to the unfolding of these apparent bodies in space and time.  But for those who have yet to recognize and honor the light of the awareness, as such, and who, as a result, are tempted to doubt that such thinking exists, the hard problem of consciousness endures and will continue to provide a much needed clue.  As Sam Harris put it, “The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand . . . is a mystery, exceeded only by the mystery that there should be something rather than nothing in the first place” (76). Leaving aside the question of what it might mean for anything to be “in the first place” (i.e. apart from consciousness), this is indeed a thought provoking mystery–which brings to mind a famous line of Heidegger’s:

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” ~ Martin Heidegger, “What is Called Thinking?”

Keeping in mind that I don’t claim to have a very complete or sophisticated understanding of Heidegger, I nevertheless find many of his observations in What is Called Thinking? very powerful and very suggestive of the kind of ontological comportment that I am pointing to.  Heidegger continues as follows:

what is called thinking”The reason [we are still not thinking] is that this most thought-provoking thing turns away from us, in fact has long since turned away from man.” “Once we are so related and drawn to what withdraws, we are drawing into what withdraws, into the enigmatic and therefore mutable nearness of its appeal.  Whenever man is properly drawing that way, he is thinking….  All through his life and right into his death, Socrates did nothing else than place himself into this draft, this current, and maintain himself in it. This is why he is the purest thinker of the West.”

NOTE:  This very special thinking which transcends the empirical ego (together with its subject/object relationships) must not be confused with the discursive thought of the intellectual– nor, by any means, with the kind of rational calculation or instrumental reasoning utilized by the egoic mind in its own self defense or in the imaginative pursuit of personal happiness –but must be seen to involve the spacious awareness and alert stillness which provides the (nondual) background for any and all such foreground (dualistic) cogitations.  For after all is said and done, it is this transcendental thinking (construed as an end in itself) which constitutes the real meaning and purpose of our existence–and it is in this light that our most authentic temporal pursuits derive their meaning, as well.  As such, the egoic mind is somewhat analogous to the Moon which appears to us (at first) to be luminous in its  own right, but which (as we later realize) is only shining by virtue of the Sun which it reflects.  Perhaps Heidegger is suggesting something similar in the Beitrage, when he writes:

Those who idolize “facts” never notice that their idols only shine in a borrowed light.

In any event, it really does seem to be the case that our individual subjects live by the grace of a thinking which transcends them (as Rudolf Steiner so eloquently puts it).  As such, it is only insofar as we recognize and honor the light of awareness that we can enjoy the dignity of Being that is our birthright.  By taking up our cross and placing ourselves in that draft, we simultaneously enter the kingdom and know eternal life . . . HERE and NOW . . .

moon and sun

“For you who revere my name, the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2).

“When around one everything has become silent, solemn as a clear, starlit night, when the soul comes to be alone in the whole world, then before one there appears, not an extraordinary human being, but the eternal power itself, then the heavens seem to open, and the I chooses itself or, more correctly, receives itself.  Then the soul has seen the highest, which no mortal eye can see and which can never be forgotten; then the personality receives the accolade of knighthood that ennobles it for an eternity.  He does not become someone other than he was before, but he becomes himself.  The consciousness integrates, and he is himself.  Just as an heir, even if he were heir to the treasures of the whole world, does not possess them before he has come of age, so the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself, for the greatness is not to be this or that but to be oneself . . . (Kierkegaard, “Either/Or”, Vol. II, 177).

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I Am the Resurrection and the Life

“Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14).

NTWrightFrom time to time over the last couple of years, I have enjoyed reading and listening to N.T. Wright–a New Testament theologian who is admittedly brilliant and from whom I have learned a great deal.  But I wonder sometimes whether he and some of his most loyal readers are being a bit too easy on themselves when they seem to insist that the only plausible explanation for the historical events that followed Jesus’ purported resurrection is that– following his crucifixion –he must in fact have walked out of an empty tomb (more or less as reported) and physically appeared to his disciples before finally ascending to the Father.

For my part, I cannot demonstrate that this didn’t happen–that, rather, Jesus’ body did go back to dust like every other body that we have any experience of –nor, for that matter, do I really wish to.  Indeed, I do not deny for a moment that he lives–quite the opposite!  But there is something not quite right about an understanding that brooks no opposition — often insisting, as they do, “that if Christ be not raised, [our] faith is in vain” (as if this requires an empty tomb) — especially when we consider Paul’s remarks concerning resurrection, in general, that we “do not sow the body that shall be” but that “it is raised a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:17, 37, 44).  Just what, after all, is the point of continuity between the new life and the old that requires the physical transformation of these earthen vessels once the life has been snuffed out of them?  And while one may certainly argue that something of the sort is implied in Paul’s writings, is it not strange that he seems to have no knowledge of the women at the tomb and other rather important details found in the Easter narratives?  Indeed, one can only laugh at the outrageous suggestion that he would intentionally “air-brush” the women out of the story (as has been suggested by Wright and/or some of his followers).

But regarding these purported events of 2000 years ago, many of Wright’s readers– diligently following their leader –often dismiss alternative theories out of hand, depending a priori on the presumed cogency of Wright’s energetic assertions that only a literal, bodily resurrection (complete with an empty tomb and postmortem, physical appearances) can adequately account for the transformation of the disciples and the growth of the early church (as if the belief in his resurrection, whatever the details, would not have had a similarly profound effect– with or without the historicity of the Easter narratives –provided that this belief was also accompanied by the REALITY that is the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit).  Indeed, it seems to me that, together, these latter factors are more than sufficient to account for both the transformation of the disciples, the growth of the early church, and the evolution of the Easter narratives themselves–and that (apart from any dogmatic professions of faith) some such scenario is much more plausible than the rather narrow range of options that N.T. Wright would have us consider.  One need not imagine that all of the early disciples experienced the presence of their risen Lord in precisely the same way for the legends of the empty tomb and the physical, postmortem appearances to arise therefrom.  And once the ball got rolling, it would have been difficult for any of the faithful to discourage the process even if they were so inclined.

In addition, it is worth noting (for future reference, perhaps, as we continue to study N.T. Wright’s admittedly brilliant and valuable body of work) that the real growth in the early church took place among gentiles–not among Jews.  As such, however much Jewish culture and categories may have influenced the initial Christian message and the way in which it was initially understood by the first Jewish believers, we must keep in mind that the Jews by and large rejected that message and that Greek and Roman categories most certainly (and rather significantly) influenced its reception among the gentiles–and very quickly began to influence its further theological development, as well (all of which is just to say that the emphasis on the essentially Jewish roots of the Christian gospel is not the only thing to consider as we attempt to understand its reception and rapid promulgation throughout the Roman world).

he-livesSo what’s my point?  If I am not trying to disabuse people of their belief in a literal, historical (“bodily”) resurrection (complete with “empty tomb” and subsequent “ascension”) — and I’m not, assuming it is an honestly held belief — why am I writing this?  My intention, I assure you, is merely to illustrate that, from the beginning, the resurrection was often spoken of in metaphorical, symbolic, and Spiritual terms– as well as literal, historical, and bodily terms –and that to be honestly skeptical of the latter, does not prevent one from experiencing the Spiritual REALITY that is also expressed in terms of the former.   As the old song says, you ask me how I know he lives . . . he lives within my heart . . .

So in the final analysis, it seems to me that we should teach the historical narrative without apology, while at the same time taking care not to discount the possibility that those who are skeptical of its historicity may nonetheless come to a saving knowledge of the truth–i.e., that they may come, indeed, to know the living Christ; the One who IS before Abraham was; the One who IS the resurrection and the life; the One who, as such, must be sought among the living and not among the dead:

Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:56-58).

Have you not read what was said to you by God, “I Am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).

“I Am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Indeed, let us acknowledge that while the historical narrative preserves the gospel in symbolic form, it is the living Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Lifethe alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end — whether or not the body of Jesus of Nazareth went back to dust sooner or later (like the body of John the Baptist, say–or that of Lazarus); or whether in fact it did not go back to dust at all (as traditionally imagined).  For if we can allow for just a bit of ambiguity in this regard, we will not only find ourselves ministering to a larger pool of potential disciples of Christ (including many who currently think of themselves as atheists or agnostics), we will simultaneously gain a great deal of sympathy and support for the teaching of the historical narrative, as well–even among those who remain honestly skeptical.  Christ is Risen! Glory be to God for all things!  Sounds like a win, win proposition to me!

–> Christian Vision

pascal

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The Light upon the Candlestick

Over the years, I have found myself returning again and again to Spinoza.  And, over the years, I have also felt considerable resonance with various strains of Quaker thought.  While  I have long been aware that there is a connection between the two, I recently learned more about that connection when I discovered this document at the Quaker Universalist Fellowship:

THE LIGHT UPON THE CANDLESTICK

You can scroll through the entire pamphlet on this page, or you can jump to the various sections, or view a facsimile of the original title page, by clicking the links below.

A google search will turn up lots of additional information about Spinoza and the Quakers, including a very interesting chapter in this book:

The Third Force in Seventeenth Century Thought, by Richard Henry Popkin:

third force foreshortenedIn the process of exploring The Light upon the Candlestick and other pages at UniversalistFriends.Org, I noticed a request for submissions pertaining the paradoxes of Christian universalism and decided to alert them to some of the material at Yeshua21.Com.   After exploring several Yeshua.21 articles, they offered to feature extensive excerpts from The Universality of Christ and I cheerfully gave them permission to do so.  Many thanks to Mike Shell and our Quaker Universalist Friends for the good work that they are doing at UniversalistFriends.Org.

–> The Universality of Christ

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