Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Man is Made in the Image of God

A running theme of the writings here, always implicit but brought out more recently, is that God is personal and not the impersonal, or even so called transpersonal, absolute of many forms of mysticism, particularly Eastern but increasingly Western too. So rather than the absolute undifferentiated oneness that these approaches to truth offer, it is the combination of oneness and individuality that is the highest state open to man and the reason for this world of creation in which everything has a value and nothing is illusion except the darkness of separative existence - though even that can become a perceived reality for us if we go too far in its direction.

God is a Person (capitalized because he is the source of all personhood, our possibility of being a person deriving from the reality of him as Person). Do you not feel a sense of relief in hearing that? It means that you are loved, and that there is a purpose behind everything that happens in this world. We are too quick to dismiss this idea as anthropomorphic and say that we have made God in our own image. That may be true for many of the pagan gods, the Thors and the Cybeles etc, but it is not true of the one living God and Creator who is the source and pattern of all the highest and best in us. Of truth, love, beauty, goodness, and of the capacity to give and to sacrifice without thought of reward. Everyone feels these qualities within themselves to some degree, however overlaid by greed, ignorance and selfishness they might be, and everyone recognizes that they are laudable and should be encouraged unless they are sunk so low in self-hatred and bitterness that they cannot rise above cynicism or pride. They are the stamp of the divine Person within us, the reflection of his qualities and, however dim and imperfect that reflection may be, it is still the image of God shining in our hearts, and we can always use it to connect ourselves to our Creator.

God is not like us. We are like him though only so in terms of our purest, best and truest selves. If he had intended us to bathe in the blissfulness of pure consciousness, as the non-dualists would have it, there would have been no need to undergo the experience of life in this world; no need to develop a true sense of values, of courage and the ability to endure suffering cheerfully. But there is the need to learn all these things because they make us actively good rather than just neutral or detached, and that is why we are here. It is why God conceals himself from us and it is why we live in a world of opposites where evil and suffering are not only possible but likely, indeed inevitable. It is only through struggle that we rise and are able to bring out the potential that exists within us all.

So, far from desiring us to deny our individuality, God wants us to develop this from the seed he has implanted within us. He does not want clones. He wants free individuals but ones who are individual not individualistic. The difference is all important. Understand that there is no contradiction between oneness and individuality. This is simply how things are in a universe in which the One is the underlying reality but the many is the expressed reality, and the reason for that is that God, the fundamental 'I AM', finds the greatest joy in always becoming more. It is his nature to give and to expand (through us) and to know both the bliss of being and the joy of becoming which latter is also the means and fulfilment of his fundamental quality of love. Those who think of the absolute as beyond and above all qualities have misunderstood the very nature of God and creation. For the highest truth is not in pure being alone but in bringing being and becoming into harmony, with each completing the other. Isn't a beautiful painting better than a blank canvas? Pure unadulterated oneness would mean that love was an illusion but it is not. It is the essence of existence and that is because God is not one but three in one, and this is reflected in nature whether that be concretely in Man, Woman and Child or abstractly in subject, object and the relationship between them.

Divine reality has been perceived by human beings in this world as sometimes impersonal and sometimes personal. Over the last 100 years or so it has become more common to think that the impersonal conception is nearer the truth, but I regard this as a sad error caused by our current intellectual focus as well as a rejection of earlier (possibly simplistic) ideas about a personal God. I believe God to be personal in his true self-nature but with an impersonal aspect though that is not him in himself but him as the one life as it exists throughout his creation. It is him as immanence. We can identify with this life aspect if that is our wish, but it is a less comprehensive state than the one of relationship with the personal God, the transcendent Creator, a relationship whose basis is love and which acknowledges creation as real. Note that there is a sort of impersonal benevolence when an individual becomes identified with the pure ground of being (manifesting as compassion), but it is not the fiery joy of true divine love which is only known when creation is accepted as fully real in itself, albeit real as an expression of God, and not regarded simply as a lesser state of illusion or dream that is dissipated in the light of the Absolute.

Oneness underlies the multiplicity of reality but it is not the whole picture by any means. It does not make creation insignificant for creation comes about specifically to make something more than simple oneness. An impersonal absolute could never create and, in fact, could never lead to anything. It would just be itself. Creation needs a mind and a mind means a person. There is no getting away from this. God is personal and that means our individuality is real. We do not 'go beyond' it. We do go beyond exclusive identification with it but we retain our unique quality and if we did not what would become of love? What would become of beauty which always needs a form, of goodness which must be expressed and of truth which requires a mind to know it? There is an aspect of pure being to the divine nature but, though this might be shocking to the non-dualist to hear, it is only a part of it. It is the ground of being, like a spiritual counterpart to the body, but it is not God and if you focus on that exclusively you are falling well short of your true destiny as a human being. Man is spirit, soul and body as in his life, his unique quality and his form, and though there is a hierarchical relationship between these parts of his being they are all fundamental aspects of the totality of what he is and can’t be separated. Like his Creator, in whose image he is made, he is three in one. 


ted said...

I once heard someone say this tension between non-duality and duality is not resolved in Christianity, but inhabited.

Aaron said...


I have heard you say in the past that there would not be individuality if it was meant to be discarded, but you know this isn't a good argument. One could say there would not be selfishness if we were meant to be unselfish, and indeed philosophers like Nietzsche have made such claims.

It is known as the naturalistic fallacy - you cannot argue from what "is".

Most religions provide a very coherent theory of why individuality both exists and must be discarded - the Fall, or some version of it. You may discard this theory, but it makes total logical sense.

It seems unwise to simply contradict the testimony of so many wise men and sages from the West and East and to believe that today, the period of lowest spiritual ebb, men such as we see the truth better. Surely in the face of such impressive unanimous testimony of the Sages, and in light of the spiritual confusion and darkness of this time, it is far more likely that our own efforts are a product of confusion and darkness.

And indeed, when our modifications to the testimony of the Sages turns out to have a peculiarly modern flavor, and be peculiarly in line with modern preferences, we should be suspicious. Nowhere in the Gospels is there this concern for individuality. Individuality is a Greek concept superimposed later, and taken from profane Greek culture not the religious Platonic element of Greek culture.

The Sermon seems rather to annihilate any concern with self and individuality, and Love seeks union between two - which is the submergence of individuality. The religion of Love cannot have a very great regard for individuality.

I know you are fond of saying that love requires individuality. This is absolutely true, in that love is an attempt to get beyond individuality. If individuality did not exist, there would be no point in trying to get beyond. There would be no need for love. Love is the cure for the disease. In that sense the disease must exist for the cure to exist. When the disease is gone, Love in the fullest sense is achieved.

Buddhists are commonly thought to say there is no self, but this is not true. What they say is that the true self is utterly beyond this world of appearances, and thus is non-cognizable - non reducible to human thought forms, utterly beyond the categories of this world. In other words, a "mystery" in the true sense - something in principle not reducible to our human thought categories.

What we see as individuality is part of the phenomenal world and thus not our true self. Your desire to cling to your individuality is because you mistakenly think it is your true Self, and are terrified of losing that. That is only normal and rational on your part - annihilation is terrifying and no one wishes for it, certainly not Buddhists.

There seems to be very little room for mystery in your religion. But mystery seems to me the heart of all religion, not in the sense of not knowing something in principle knowable (that would be ignorance, not mystery), but that religion deals with what is not reducible to human thought categories by definition (by being beyond this world).

Religion pertains to the "other world", and our human thought categories pertain to this world of phenomena and appearances. Any attempt to reduce God or our true Self to cozy and familiar human thought categories seems to not pertain to ultimate truth, and I am suspicious of your claim to "know" so much about the nature of the Absolute and of the true Self. An inability to understand the importance of mystery - even what it is - seems to be peculiarly feature of the modern mentality.

Aaron said...

In the end, however, what matters in spirituality is getting beyond this world and our own ego, and all doctrines that help us do this are at least provisionally good - is your belief in a personal God and personal individuality good for that goal?

Maybe, for some people. In spiritual matters people are on different levels, and ultimate truth must be presented accordingly.

If someone associates his contingent this worldly individuality with his true Self and cannot see otherwise, then telling him he must give this up will seem like suicide and drive him away from religion in terror and anger.

In this time of confusion and darkness, timeless and unchanging spiritual truths must indeed be adapted in many different layers for our dark minds, creating the appearance of multiplicity and even contradiction that isn't really there.

Esoteric and exoteric truth are always needed, perhaps.

William Wildblood said...

Aaron, I think a lot of our differences might well be to do with language. However I don't agree with your comparison between individuality and selfishness. One is a natural reality, the other is a perversion of that natural reality. The two are not comparable. We certainly go beyond restriction to individuality but in the spiritual world just like the natural one the greater always includes the lesser, albeit seen in a different light. So individuality endures. It really does. Jesus was individual, Buddha was individual and Ramana Maharishi was individual, not that I put their relative spiritual understanding on the same level. Jesus undoubtedly went further than the other two in his spiritual knowledge but that was by virtue of what he was.

I'm afraid these are assertions. One can't really argue about such things but if you believe that spiritual consciousness transcends individual consciousness you are right. If you believe that individuality is then discarded, as you put it, you are mistaken. And you can't say that I contradict the testimony of so many wise men and sages from the West and East because these don't agree amongst themselves anyway. There is no unanimous testimony. The Christian view is not the same as the Buddhist one. The views of Hindus differ and not just because some are more advanced or esoterically aware than others as is often rather patronisingly claimed. Ramanuja and Sankara just don't agree on the nature of ultimate reality and they are both profound philosophers though in my opinion Ramanuja is much the more insightful. Kashmiri Shaivism disagrees with advaita and gives good reasons for that disagreement,

I am nowhere saying that individuality is the highest state but I do say that it is included in the highest state (if there is such a thing, the highest human state anyway) and this is completely at one with the Christian view. There is no love without individuality. Love takes us beyond ourselves as limited individuals but individuality is not a disease as you say. That's an awful thing to think (and by the way you couldn't even think it unless you were an individual). Selfishness is the disease but individuality is a beautiful God given thing. Don't mistake sickness for health.

I don't desire to cling to my individuality because I mistakenly think it is my true Self, and am terrified of losing that. It is part of the totality of what I am though my fundamental being is one with the divine, part of God's being too. The mistake that you and all non-dualists make is not to see that we are always more than just pure being even if that is the most fundamental part of what we are. Here the Christian concept of the Trinity helps. It is a pattern throughout existence and our being is Trinitarian too, part of which includes our individual self. We are not just spirit but spirit soul and body. All these are an integral part of what we are.

If you feel there's no room for mystery in my idea of religion I have explained my ideas very badly. Mystery, sacred mystery and ineffability, is the essence of spiritual truth. So we can agree on that!

I think that like many mystics you conflate ego and self but they are two different things. The former certainly has to go. It is the poison in the system. But the latter is the basic structure that enables us to know anything. Without it we would be less conscious not more so. I repeat that the greater includes the lesser. Just as we include all the qualities of mineral, vegetable and animal so the spiritual person includes all that is human but takes that to a higher and more all-inclusive level. Individuality is not lost or denied but restriction to it, identification with it, is transcended.

However as I said at the beginning much of our disagreement is probably based on words.

William Wildblood said...

Just one further point. The spiritual person must certainly go beyond individuality but what that really means is to go beyond identification with individuality and realise his true self in God. But individuality remains as the form through which that realisation is expressed and the vessel in which it is known.

Aaron said...

Thank you for replying, William, I appreciate it.

I know you do appreciate mystery, William, but not, perhaps, in the manner I mean.

The phrase "pure being" cuts right to the heart of the matter, it seems to me.

The opposition "pure being" and "individuality", with the former held to be a simple monism and the later a field of rich and varied attributes, perhaps gets to the heart of the matter, and why some are loathe to surrender individuality and see it as a good.

After all, pure being sounds tedious, dreary, and boring.

Yet it is a misunderstanding, one I was guilty of for a long time.

"Pure being", instead of being taken as a description, is in fact a mere negation of any assertion you could make in terms of this world and human thought categories - we cannot discuss it in terms of attributes or anything relating to this world. It is wrong to "assert" that it has no attributes either, as that is a positive description. In short, it is a true "mystery" - beyond human thought categories, utterly beyond this world.

So the true Self isn't a dreary monism void of anything that could lend it interest - rather, we can only apprehend it by saying what it is not (Buddhist "annatta"), and make no assertions about it - since human cognition relates only to phenomena in this world.

That is why the Christian author of the Cloud of Unknowing, to take an example, talks of "unknowing" rather than piling on this-worldly attributes to the Divine.

That is why the "silence of the Buddha", and the mystics, is profound, not ignorance. And the chatter of theologians can seem childish.

And yet, "pure being" properly understood as Mystery, rather than devoid of anything that could lend human interest, is compellingly fascinating to us - why do we thrill to "mystery" in literature, art, nature, etc, why is the mere word "mystery" so potent and magical, and held to suggest thrilling states of mind that pertain to our ultimate destiny. We are surely not thrilling to mere ignorance that an expansion of consciousness (earthly cognition) can, perhaps, one day clear up.

When "pure being" is understood properly - and it is an unfortunate phrase - it is seen as anything but dreary.

You talk of being "more conscious" - yet humans appear sensitive to something that is MORE than consciousness - more than human thought categories.

While all the mystics have denied that our goal is to become MORE conscious, they didn't mean to become sub-conscious. We need to be super-conscious, go beyond it.

An expansion of purely human consciousness is a modern goal, surely. The religious goal is supra-conscious.

What then, if a concern with this-worldly individuality erects a barrier between us and this Mystery that is beyond any categories in this world and yet is our most compelling interest?

Than retaining this worldly individuality would be seen as a tragedy, would it not?

That is why I say that a proper appreciation of Mystery is essential to the religious vision.

Aaron said...

What we think of as "ourselves" are transient attributes that we possess rather than are. Indeed, our attributes are different at different stages of our life. There is "something" behind all this that is our true Self, and is timeless.

You talk of "growth", yet strictly speaking we are not supposed to grow, but be stripped away till "nothing" is left ("no-thing" of this world of appearances). "The people wish to increase, but the Sage grows less every day", said Lao Tzu. Figuratively speaking, of course, we "grow" by getting closer to our ideal state.

Should we wish to cling to these transient attributes rather than realize our ultimate destiny as noumenon (the Divine)?

Just because our true Self is not "something", does not mean it is "nothing". Rather, it is beyond the categories of the phenomenal world, and as Wittgenstein said, of what we cannot speak we must remain silent" (since speech only refers to the world of appearances and not the noumenon).

This is why the Sages have always only offered one way to our ideal state - the via negativa, in one form or another. We "grow" by stripping something away, whatever it is. Any idea of "expansion" or "growth" in the literal sense is a modern idea that relates to this world, and is not a religious idea.

Because, for the noumenon to "grow", the phenomenon must diminish. And our destiny is to become noumenon, Divine.

Aaron said...

Some more clarification -

I am not against individuality per se - who can be? That would mean annihilation, suicide, and no spiritual tradition recommends that. Such a position would be nihilism, not religion - but against phenomenal individualism. Is that not what you mean, William? An individuality that is of this world, that "grows" (changes)?

Advaita Vedanta does not advocate annihilationism either - the "I" does not become annihilated. It is not mere suicide. Non-duality means that the divisions - the dualities - that characterize this world do not apply to the true Self, which exists outside this world, which is noumenon, at one with the Divine which is also noumenon.

Buddhist "annatta" completes this by going one step further - the "thought" that Vedanta says is our ultimate being, Buddhism sees as still in this world, and thus not Self.

When St Paul says, "not I, but Christ within me" - he expresses the same concept. Not the Paul of the world of appearances with his various transient attributes, but the timeless transcendent Christ.

While all these traditions differ, the "unity" being sought is not annihilation of the essential Self - as non-duality and Buddhist "annatta" is often taken for - but the "vine and branch" kind of unity of that goes beyond the divisions and thought categories of this world of appearances and phenomena.

But of that, we must remain silent. We can go no further in thought, but must experience. And the road to such experience has been laid out by the great Sages.

William Wildblood said...

You know Aaron, I think we probably are on the same page but expressing things differently. I have only emphasised individuality to counter those who would deny it completely in the context of spiritual understanding. I would never mean to imply that the spiritual is not beyond the individual. But that remains the vessel in which the spiritual is realised. How else could it be known?

This is the point. That an individual soul created as such by God has the possibility of entering into the life of God. That experience is so overwhelming that it can seem self is obliterated. But it isn't. It endures as a particular and unique individualisation of its creator and it expresses is realisation in its own unique way.

And regarding your next comment the visa negativa is incomplete on its own. It must be balanced by the understanding gained through the via positiva. In one sense there may be no growth but in another there certainly is. Do you think the realisation of the Buddha is the same now as it was 2500 years ago and will be 10,000 years hence? You might say he has transcended time so the question is meaningless and shows a misunderstanding of Nirvana but I think the real misunderstanding is of those who would use eternity to deny time and not see that the two coexist so that growth into higher states of being is endlessly possible. Those philosophies which abandon becoming completely for being alone have only half the story.

William Wildblood said...

Just seen your latest comment. You are actually wrong. Advaita does in effect deny the individual self. In its concept (and it is a concept) of reality there is only the Self. Advaita is against individuality per se as you put it. Certainly it gives that a conditional reality but it does so only to take it away again and leave it in the world of ignorance. It is not compatible with Christianity and nor is Buddhism really, and I believe the Christian vision to be greater precisely because it teaches that what God creates is real not ephemeral stuff to be transcended in realisation and left behind in the phenomenal world.

The thing is you say you are not against individuality but in everything you have written here you have actually been against it. Like all non-dualists you are denying common sense reality. My position is that the absolute and the relative are both part of the whole. Non-dualists empty the world of meaning in their rush to the absolute and that is their error. Yes, of course the absolute is the absolute but that does not mean the relative is nothing. An understanding of the implications of the Trinity has a lot to teach us in this respect.

Anyway we have both said enough now! And as I say we very probably are on the same page, only expressing things differently. You are right from the point of view of a passive realisation but the moment anyone expresses that or anything or is active in any way or thinks or is creative or relates to another then the individual is present, and that's the beauty of life and why, yes, there is growth even after realisation and why there is hierarchy even in the kingdom of heaven or among the Buddhas if one puts it that way.

Aaron said...

Thank you for responding, William. I know my comments are long and can be tedious :)

Well, I do think we have some irreconcilable disagreements, but also some basic core agreements, and that is good.

Following the Buddhist notion of "skillful means", the kind of religion that you and Bruce Charlton are developing, which incorporates many distinctive aspects of the secular modern mentality, and contradicts the timeless wisdom of the Sages at many points, may well turn out to the best vehicle of liberation for our time.

Pyrrho of Elis, and Mahayana Buddhists, believes that spiritual liberation is achieved by not making any dogmatic assertions whatsoever, because they develop your ego and attack you to the world - however, for the Mahyanists, dogmatic assertions are fine if they lead to liberation. That is what matters.

So - you may be doing God's work, for all I can tell.

Thanks for your responses, and good luck!

William Wildblood said...

Your comments are not long and tedious at all, Aaron. They're stimulating and interesting even when I don't agree with them! You see, I don't think what I say here conflicts with earlier spiritual teachings at all. The 'timeless wisdom of sages' is not all the same. There is a real difference between the Buddhist/Advaita position and the Christian theistic one and I'm in the latter camp because as far as I'm concerned it chimes more with reality and my experience with my teachers as detailed in the book of which this blog started as an extension.

Anyway thanks for this conversation. I'm sure we both agree that it's what in the heart that matters more than what's in the head.

best wishes