Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Absolute and the Infinite

I'm not a particular enthusiast for the writings of Frithjof Schuon but one observation of his I do find interesting is his remark that, metaphysically speaking, the masculine can be equated to the absolute and the feminine to the infinite. In my previous post on the spiritual risks of feminism I talked about how the cosmic principle of the masculine preceded that of the feminine in ontological terms and, by extension, in their expression as man and woman even though the two are complementary. This seems to me to be the instinctive perception of most people before they are troubled by ideological concerns but it is actually quite hard for the mind to get a hold of because it is not equality and it is not fully complementary either. There is complementarity but there is also a sort of hierarchy. This is brought out in the story of Adam and Eve, and perhaps a good parallel from the natural world would be the sun and the moon but still it is something that would be largely resisted today.

But if we think of masculine and feminine as linked to concepts of absolute and infinite then we can see that the absolute is ontologically prior to the infinite because the absolute is being itself while the infinite relates to becoming or to the absolute in expression. Think of the absolute as a point and the infinite as the rays that stream from that point when it manifests itself and you will see that the one does precede the other even if in terms of creation both are essential.

Likewise with the transcendent and the immanent. These are two aspects of one whole but God is transcendent before he is immanent just as he is absolute before he is infinite. You can say that transcendent and immanent only make sense as a pair but still one must come first just as the Creator comes before the creation. Esoterically the mystery of sex is supposed to be fully revealed only in the higher initiations and one can see that there is a deep mystery here which is why it causes us so much trouble to resolve.


Bruce Charlton said...

Coleridge's concept of polarity (as I get it mostly secondhand from Owen Barfield) is based on the insight that two opposed forces are the basis of generation, of creation - of everything. Surely this is a profound insight into reality.

I think this is a version of the same insight. But I don't much like this choice of absolute and infinite as the two names; not least because the idea of the infinite is deeply non-intuitive - at least in the way it is usually conceptualised.

Coleridge's (I think, superior) understanding is of a centripetal (centre-seeking) forces which is seen as the feminine; and a centrifugal masculine force. The feminine could be seen as order or preservation, and the masculine of chaos/ destruction or exploration - only the polarity of both, simultaneously and indivisably, is truly creative.

(William Arkle develops an almost identical scheme in A Geography of Consciousness.)

William Wildblood said...

Absolute and infinite is just a way of describing the two basic cosmic principles but useful in that it indicates that originally one comes from the other. I see what you mean about infinite being non-intuitive, it's a theoretical thing really, which is why I also categorised these two as actuality and potentiality and gave the example of a central point and the rays that issue from that.

Elsewhere I have written of the masculine as the expanding force and the feminine as the contracting one but there I said that for growth to take place you need the expanding to be slightly stronger than the contracting. Though not too much stronger or everything will fly apart. The contracting is the stabilising force though if it is too strong then growth goes into reverse and you have stagnation.

But I'm not sure how far you can take these analogies.

William Wildblood said...

In fact I see that I didn't categorise them as actuality and potentiality here but I have done somewhere else!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - From the perspective of 'polarity' it doesn't make sense to regard either poles as primary or more important - the vital insight is that they can (and should) be distinguished, but are strictly indivisible.

The standard analogy (over simple) is the N and S poles of a magnet - they really exist; but you can only have both, never one on its own.

But polarity has the built-in assumption of a kind of dynamism whereby the two are continually generated from a common 'process' - it is this underlying dynamic process which is 'the main thing' - so you get a very dynamic understanding of reality. (Supposedly this type of metaphysics can be traced back to Heraclitus.)

William Wildblood said...

I think where we differ, Bruce, is that I trace everything back to the One God but you see even divinity as dual. I agree with you that in the context of creation there is, must be, complete complementarity but all I am saying is that one side of a complementary pair is ontologically more fundamental than the other even though they are always acting together. That is why we place it first when we speak of them. God and Nature, the One and the Many, Sun and Moon, husband and wife etc etc. This is natural way of speaking not just a conventional one I think.

I would like to agree with you because it would make things easier for me. But when I try to think like that something just doesn't add up in my mind and I struggle, very imperfectly I know, to express what that is. I could be completely wrong but I can't get away from the traditional Christian idea of God who is there before all things and from whom all things arise. In my view Creation is his bride just like in Christianity the Universal Church is the Bride of Christ. In these images you can see that one does come before the other even though the two form a dyad.

I am certainly open to correction but my current feeling is that though creation comes from the interplay of two things, spirit and matter we can call them, the former is more fundamental than the latter. I fall back on the image of sun and moon as what I mean.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - For the sake of accuracy; I should point out that the polarity view is perfectly compatible with the traditional unified-but-trinitarian (one-in-three-in-one) view of God - that was how both Coleridge and Barfield argued it.

(After being a Unitarian in his youth, Coleridge became a convinced, outspoken and influential Trinitarian-Anglican in maturity and later life.)

I think they argue that the two poles are Father and Son, and the Holy Ghost is the dynamic unification, or something like that...

It is my personal version of polarity to refer to it as masculine-feminine.

William Wildblood said...

i have never seen a successful attempt to marry the Christian trinity with the masculine - feminine polarity idea. It can be done within the context of subject, object and the relation between the two but then you have to see the Holy Spirit as feminine. It may well be but that's not how it's conceived in Christianity and if it is feminine how does one explain the fact that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Mysteries beyond our knowing no doubt.

William Wildblood said...

I've just thought of another analogy that seems to encapsulate what I'm trying to say here. It's a traditional dance like a waltz in which both partners are equals in the dance but the man leads. That does seem to capture something of what I'm trying to say.

Old Man Sedgwick said...

Curious what are the major flaws you find in Schuon's views?

William Wildblood said...

First of all I agree that Schuon is an extraordinary metaphysician in a purely academic sense. I wouldn't dispute that even when I don't agree with him. However I personally find his style long-winded and verbose. I just don't think he's a good writer though I've only read him in translation.

But more importantly I disagree with him on several matters. For a start he takes advaita Vedanta as the true description of how reality is and I think that's a mistake as I've said on this blog in several articles. For me the fundamental truth of the universe is that it is personal and that the Christian idea of the Trinity, which Schuon mistakenly claims to be transcended in the Godhead, is a more accurate view of how things are. Even in the Vedanta I believe Ramanuja offers more insight than Sankara who I see as primarily an intellectual and logician intent on defending Vedic religion against Buddhism but in the process taking on rather more from his opponent than he need have. He cherry picked from the Upanishads to make his point, leaving out the parts that accept creation as fully real. This is why he has no explanation for why there should be something rather than nothing. Schuon, following Sankara, does try to get round this with talk of God the Creator being relatively absolute but you can tell it's a clever attempt to create a leak proof system rather than something fully coherent. Or at least that's how it appears to me.

Schuon’s claim that advaita Vedanta is the basic truth that lies behind all religions is just wrong. It’s quite alien to Christianity which is Trinitarian hence its emphasis on love which for Schuon seems to be of secondary importance, certainly lower than knowledge.

I also don’t go along with the Traditionalist view that you have to be a member of a religion to lead a proper spiritual life. None of them stayed in the religion they had been born in, and Schuon's affiliation with Islam was hardly orthodox anyway. So although he condemned the pick and mix approach to spirituality that’s exactly what he himself did.

A smaller disagreement would be about reincarnation which I believe in and Schuon rejects. But that's more of a detail than an important difference since whether reincarnation exists or not does not seem to me to be particularly spiritually significant.

But there is something else which might seem a small matter but which I can’t ignore. Both in his writing and his published photos Schuon seems almost ridiculously keen to promote the image of himself as some kind of superhuman sage. His photos are so posed it’s almost comical. That would reduce my ability to take him completely seriously even without my other reservations.

Anonymous said...

According to rabbinic literature, the androgyne was a creature that existed at the beginning of Creation. It was both male and female and had two faces.

This concept began with the rabbinic need to reconcile the two versions of Creation that appear in the biblical book of Genesis.

In the first account, which appears in Genesis 1:26-27, male and female human beings are created simultaneously. This seems to suggest that Dr Charlton’s view may be correct.

However, another timeline is presented in Genesis 2, here God creates a man and places him in the Garden of Eden to tend it. Then God notices that the man is lonely and decides to create a “fitting helper for him” (Gen. 2:18).

Whilst the first version maintains that man and woman were created simultaneously, the second version claims that man was created first and that woman was created afterwards. This seems to support Mr Wildblood’s view.

Here is a link to the rabbinical androgyne story, which may be of interest,


William Wildblood said...

Yes, the two stories in Genesis seem to be covering the same truth from different angles which rather suggests something quite complicated is going on. But i'm not saying in human terms the male was created first. I don't imagine you could have one without the other. But in terms of cosmic principles I see the masculine as having a certain ontological priority as in when God polarises himself at the beginning of all things he does so as the masculine polarity with the feminine polarity as the whole of creation. Thus Father God and Mother Nature. Basically the idea is that in any complementary pair one must come first.

I just see the standard view of complete complementarity as lacking something important which I am trying (not very well) to define.

Anonymous said...

The absolute may be the transcendent Father-Mother in potential.

The ‘Let there be light’ command might be the Father-Mother projecting a part of itself, and entering into space-time in the first moment of creation.

This would be the first sexual act, and marked when the split into masculine and feminine occurred.

This split created the infinitude of the universe with the transcendent Father-Mother allowing it’s immanent selves (a Father and a Mother) to sustain spirit and matter in creation.

Some version or other of this is believed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Gnostics, Pagans, and others. It is also believed by scientists in their ‘big bang’ theory, and in quantum physics, however much many of them would vehemently deny it.

It is remarkable to me that the divine truth of creation is known and re-known by anyone who looks long and hard enough, however they dress it in the language of their time and culture. The variations seem to me to be the faulty interpretations that come about through filtering through language and culture. But there is always enough of the divine message that gets through so that we really know it is in essence, the truth. In the end, it doesn’t matter desperately whether Dr Charlton or Mr Wildblood, or someone else is correct in the detail, because they are all correct in the essence.

Anonymous said...

In christian terms, the 'Word' or Christ created the world. He is most usually described using male imagery, but sometimes in the bible, God/Christ is described using female imagery. This must be important and significant, or it would not have been done. Here are a few examples from the New Testament. (There are many more in the Old Testament).

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
Matt 13:33

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!
Luke 13: 34

Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? 9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. 10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
Luke 15:8-10

A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.
John 16:21

2 Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, 2 as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: 3 if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
1 Peter 2:2 – 3

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the Channel 4 documentary about women and their roles, as followers of Jesus, and in the early years of the church? The claim is that women had a crucial role as disciples of Jesus, and that they were paired with the male disciples when they were told to go and spread the word. The evidence advanced is that a particular Greek expression for "two by two" is used in the gospel to describe this disciple pairing, and this language form is used when describing animals (male and female) going into the ark, and in Genesis when describing Adam and Eve (male and female). Other language forms are used to describe other pairings in the bible where the pairing of the sexes is not crucial to the context. If there is truth in this, the RC church has carried out the biggest, most successful airbrushing exercise in history.

If you have not seen the programme, you might find it interesting, and so I have given links to it, and to a Daily Telegraph article on it.



William Wildblood said...

Thanks, I'll have a look but I suspect a revisioning based on political considerations. The point you can't evade is that all of Jesus' apostles were male.