Wednesday 7 March 2018

Persons or Principles?

For a number of years I was under the impression that spiritual reality could best be known and articulated in the form of principles; abstract truths which could be accessed by the intuition (because I am not talking about a merely intellectual approach here) and then lived. Even though my spiritual formation was through the Masters, individual spiritual beings, I thought the higher attitude was to look for the principles behind them. And they did not discourage this because they would not have wanted me to get caught up in their personalities, something that clearly often proves a problem as can be seen from the history of cults and religious sects centred on a charismatic teacher, practically always with feet of clay, who requires devotion to his person as the price of entrance. At the same time, the Masters emphasised the importance of prayer, and prayer must necessarily be to a person.

I would still say that for the spiritual aspirant it is much better to focus on principles than personalities because this takes you away from the attachments of this world, and the pitfalls of the human ego, to something like pure spiritual truths. And yet there is something else. What if there is a higher sense in which principles actually are persons? What I mean is this.  Does everything not boil down to the question of whether God is personal or impersonal? If the latter then pure abstract principles are the best we are going to get. But if the former then the reality of persons trumps that of principles. 

For example, when Christ said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life", did he mean that literally? I think that is precisely what he did mean. These things were not abstract principle that he embodied but they took their rise in him. And this is why he could say that God is love. Love is meaningless without the reality of persons. If reality, at bottom, is just principles then love is subsiduary to knowledge. It may not have any ultimate truth to it at all. But if reality, at bottom, is Persons, as in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then love is real.

So now I think what I probably always felt when I allowed my intuition to take precedence over my thinking, and that is that God is, well, God and not an ultimately impersonal principle based on an abstraction. This means I am a Christian not a Buddhist since this is the crucial difference between the two religions. Not that I reject the Buddhist approach for it has much to recommend it as a way to step out of the illusionary nature of this material world. It can help to take us beyond the separate self which is the main barrier to spiritual knowledge. But I think it has a hole at its centre which can only be filled by a Person. 

Only if reality is personal can there be love. In the end nothing is truly real that is not personal, even if we must go beyond our customary limited identification with the separate self to discover this.


ted said...

Although Buddhists are not theists, many do worship the Buddha. In this way, I think even in the "impersonal" paths, people will find the personal either through profits, sages, or gurus. The question is Jesus just one of the many avatars, or is He the one that made all the others possible.

William Wildblood said...

But Buddhists who worship the Buddha are regarded as second tier. It's supposed to be an allowed weakness for those who aren't ready or able to grasp the higher teaching.

I don't think the concept of an avatar can be applied to Jesus. He belongs to the Jewish tradition not the Indian one. There can be many avatars but there is only one Christ.

Edwin said...

Every Eastern spiritual tradition I have explored, no matter how impersonal its principles, always leads to devotion or dependence on a teacher, whether embodied or disembodied. The teacher becomes, in effect, God, to whom all love and deference is due. When the teacher is a living man or woman, this necessarily leads to abuses, for they are given absolute power over the devotee, by the devotee, and, as the adage has it, power corrupts. This can happen with Western teachers as well. The abuses of the Catholic clergy show that attributing holiness to men because of their office and professed values can also be a dangerous thing. As Jesus said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God." This seems to be the safe approach.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, abuses by gurus are legion. On the other hand, a real guru would not succumb to this temptation. The trouble is, how many of those are there? Jesus' response is, as you say, the best.

Edwin said...

I just re-read the post and it occurs to me that it might be very useful if you were to supply a definition for the personal. What constitutes an individual? Do you think individuality can be distinguished from personality? From likes and dislikes on the phenomenal level? Schopenhauer thought that the personality we observe is an expression of something beyond the phenomenal, and it is in this something else that he located any real freedom we have, for such freedom he thought to be lost in the physical world, where all is causality, determined. How does a principle become a person?

William Wildblood said...

Good question to which I don't really know the answer! So much depends on how we define words. For instance, a standard spiritual instruction is to forget the personal self which in this case means the self-centred ego and clearly that is not what I am referring to here. Perhaps you could say that our personality is our image of our self to which we cling and which we seek to defend and promote in many ways, but our individuality is our real self, our innate self-consciousness and its intrinsic quality. Perhaps this is what Schopenhauer meant.

I think God creates us as unique individuals reflecting his nature. This is the true person existing on the spiritual level. But when we identify with this in the material world, and mistake our thoughts and memories for our true self to which we become attached, we create the ego which then separates us from the totality of life including God.

Does a principle become a person or is a principle actually a person anyway? I mean is a principle just an abstraction which doesn't have independent existence but is, as it were, the projection of a person, perhaps a mighty angel or personified thought of God.

I'm not sure how far this goes in answering your question.

Unknown said...

In the world of god each human has to have his say, it is a world of endless fascination and puzzlement and no one should refrain from that and let themselves fall in the traps of other formulations or depictions. God, according to my understanding is both personal and impersonal. Impersonal as far as his unknown essence is concerned and personal in the realm of his names which He made known to us through His scriptures. It is the humans participation in these names that enable them to understand the personal aspect of god. It is well known in the world of Islam he is the one, the supporting entity of all existence, the begotten not, nor he begets. The one that has no resemblance. It is the unblocked human imagination where the enlightened intuition rules high is divinely enabled to have access to the real . We are living in a time where the human consciousness has expanded and will continue to expand until it will have access to understanding the truthful reality of the one. Purity of the heat is the base. In the old time god used to select whomever he wants and sends him with his instructions to humanity in light of the need of the time. Now, after the humans have reached maturity they have become able to understand the divine message and to defend it, in a world that believers and deniers have collapsed in each other and they have become able to sort their commotions and differences softly in the realm of the faithful and harshly in the realm of the faithless in a speeding transition toward meeting the truth. Nothing remain in a stagnant state in a flowing cosmos that will end as it has begun. Sun and moon are running to an end in light of their prescribed time. it is strange how the neglected Koran (I mean by its own people ) speaks about the sundering of heaven and earth and the enfolding of them as we have started them, we will return them. Any one interested can read that in chapter 21 called the prophets. The doors have been opened and no one can close them. As we Have internet god also has his internet and ours is pointer to his, in order to know that he knows everything. He called his internet, the mother of the book that contains the web of the alphabetical sounds system through which all processes of our existence, up and down, are operated.. It a time of sharing visions across all types of boundaries to enable each other to reach the necessary self-protection that is to face the truth, before the impending.

Edwin said...

William, What do you mean by our being "unique individuals" that reflect God's nature? I suppose what I am trying to get clear is this: advaita says much the same thing that you say above, about mistaking our thoughts and memories for our true self. But when these are negated, what remains, according to advaita, is undifferentiated awareness, which is our true nature. If there is an enduring personal self, and this self is unique, of what precisely does it consist? How does it reflect God's nature in a differentiated, i.e. unique, way? I am intensely interested in this question and it seems to be at the heart of so much that you write, but I have yet to understand it clearly. Any help you may be able to offer me will be immensely appreciated.

William Wildblood said...

What I think is that God created us as individual souls, giving us a part of his "I am" nature in so doing. So he effectively multiplied himself. But we are a triplicate of spirit, soul and body with spirit as the being aspect, soul as the individual consciousness and body as the threefold lower nature of mind (as in rational mind), emotional nature and physical body. These are what we acquire when we incarnate in this material world. Our goal is to integrate the individual soul with universal or God consciousness but, and this is where I would part company with advaita, in the integration the soul is not lost but unique identification with it is transcended. So our individual 'I' remains as the vessel through which we know our enlightenment to use one word or union with God to put it another way. There must be a vessel to know the enlightened state. Who or what is that? it is the soul, now integrated with God.

So we remain a triplicate like God himself as he is envisaged in Christianity. The problem with advaita is, in recognising the absolute, it denies the relative, failing to see that reality is made of both together not one or the other. The relative is not a lesser version of the absolute created in error through ignorance but the true expression of God in the world.

Creation is not real in advaita but then it has no explanation as to why this world exists. It's a mystery says Sankara.

I wonder how many people who claim enlightenment by means of advaita actually are so in a real spiritual sense and how many have just had an insight about enlightenment in an intellectual sense that they mistake for the real thing? Or even a non-dual experience which is just a matter of aligning the mind with the real for a brief moment but it doesn't reveal the inner truth of existence in a more than superficial way by which I mean it gives an experience of oneness but that does not tell us about the whole structure of the human being or the purpose of God's revelation in the world.

Advaita sees through the illusion of the separate self but does not see the reality of the non-phenomenal individual self which is a spiritual thing that transcends the sensory nature of this world. it is our God given self and evolves through life in this world to eventual union with its Creator. In that union there is no end but a deeper and deeper exploration of the reality of God.

Concerning advaita, the question is not is there any truth in it. Of course there is. But the real question is, taken as a whole how true is it?

Sorry for the episodic nature of my reply but I am jotting down ideas as they come to me. Please feel free to ask me to expand on them if you wish. Also to challenge them!

William Wildblood said...

Abdul, is God's unknown essence impersonal or might we better call it transpersonal? I would see impersonal as a negative thing, something less than personal. Besides,the unknown essence is still I AM while the names are I am love, I am truth, I am beauty, I am glory etc. Whatever this mystery of God's unknown essence is, I believe we can only approach it through the personal, by which I mean the reality of God as Person. Certainly not by denying the personal or claiming it as in any way unreal or untrue.

But then I would say that this whole world of creation only exists to manifest the personal, to give God a face. We only exist as individuals who God may love and who may themselves encounter God in love. Without the personal the universe is just a husk.

Edwin said...

Dear William, My difficulty arises from trying to understand the nature of the individual soul. The principle of individuation is widely considered to be time and space: space situates distinct objects and time, distinct thoughts. Advaita's analysis of individuation demonstrates that anything dependent on time and space has no permanence, as objects and thoughts are constantly changing. This would include the thought of God, the soul, etc. It defines reality as that which does not change; that which cannot be negated. In its detailed examination of all we usually take to be the self, everything, up to and including intellect, or buddhi, can be negated, but something always remains, always is: awareness. It concludes that we are the awareness in which all that is known, all objects, appear, then disappear. This, of course, makes God a transient thought. Advaita concludes that all that can be known is an object. In what way can the enlightenment of the individual soul, or the notion that God multiplies himself in individual souls, escape the dissolution of thought into awareness? What is the principle of individuation you are positing that gives a permanence to the soul that is different from the absolute? If I become one with God, who is the "I"? What separates it and how can oneness be two things, God and the "I"? I am reading Augustine's De Trintiate in an attempt to understand the nature of the Trinity that is supposed to be expressed in our nature as creatures. It's slow going but there are moments of understanding that astound me. Augustine appears to make a distinction between what is known through the senses, i.e. perception, and what we know internally, such as justice, love, etc. The latter he sees as unchanging forms (in the platonic sense, it would seem), and as reflective of God, the unchanging truth. One of the trinities he uses by way of analogy is that of knower, knowing and knowledge. In your description of the individual soul, it would appear that the soul is the knower, and God is the knowledge, and the process of knowing is the union. I realize I am making some demand on your time, but you did invite me to expand on my perplexity. Any thoughts on the above would be appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to consider my questions.

William Wildblood said...

This is the problem with approaching reality analytically rather than intuitively. A rational approach would, as you say, restrict the I to time and space and say that the container is just its contents. But that is, if you'll forgive me for saying so, a reductive approach. Just because the very roots of reality might be timeless, changeless etc does not mean that things that exist in time and space are unreal. Reality is not eternity or time but eternity and time. That's why we have creation and something rather than nothing, which is what the world according to advaita would really be if ignorance was completely overcome. All you are saying is that human beings are not the ultimate creators of themselves. There is something/someone behind them. But that doesn't mean that human beings are unreal or that their individuality does not really exist. It just means that there is indeed something behind all that, which is God. We are dependent on God but then no one denies that anyway!

God creates. That's the essence of it all. And what he creates is real because he is reality itself. Therefore individual souls are real. Don't worry about time and space. This is just the intellect tying itself in knots through theory. When do you not exist in time and space? Yes, the absolute transcends time and space but you never exist uniquely in the absolute. You exist in both.

You ask how can the notion that God multiplies himself in individual souls escape the dissolution of thought into awareness? It doesn't have to! We are not just awareness even if that is the deepest sub-stratum of our being, our being itself. We are this trinity of spirit, soul and body. Your difficulty, I think, might come from restricting existence to the spirit aspect alone but you are never in that aspect alone. That is just part of the totality of what you are.

To see the individual I as a subset of the Universal I, which is what spiritual realization, is does not mean that it no longer exists, only that its centre of gravity (consciousness) has moved from the former to the latter. But this is still within an individual context. Do you think that Ramana had the same quality of consciousness as Christ, let alone the Creator? If you do, you are basically saying that man is God which is what some people do think but which is clearly false. If not, you are admitting that enlightenment must take place within an individual context so even if the realization transcends time and space the realizer remains within those parameters.

Augustine’s distinctions seem good to me. I’ve never read him. I probably should! Advaita is operating (like Buddhist philosophers such as Nagajurna) from the senses and material perception perspective, which is why it appeals to the intellectually inclined. But an internal, intuitive view sees things more simply than that and without the need for analysis and breakdown. It’s rather like my last couple of posts. I think you might be struggling (as I definitely have) with a conflict between your natural intuitions about spiritual truth and this intellectual approach to it which seems very thorough and reasonable but ultimately misses the point I would say.

You know that even in India advaita has been rejected as inadequate by people like Ramanuja and the school of Kashmiri Saivism? And, of course, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity shows it to be at best a half truth which is what you’d expect from something that depends entirely on human reason rather than revelation. Sankara was more of a logician than anything else I think though obviously a very clever one. And he cherry picked from the Upanishdas those bits that supported his thesis. I think the Bhagavad Gita contains a lot more wisdom than anything he wrote.

William Wildblood said...

A few more thoughts on this, Edwin. What advaita and Buddhism deconstruct is the personal ego or phenomenal self which is built up by the mind out of its experiences and is, as they say, a false self. But it is built on the real non-phenomenal self or soul which is a spiritual self-reflective principle. The soul is like a spark struck from the central fire of God so both is God in that its nature and being are his, and isn't in that it is only a spark not the fire in toto.
The phenomenal self is limited to time and space but the soul can transcend these by seeing its true identity in God and yet it remains as that which sees.

By the way, just because things in time and space change does not mean they have no real foundation or sub structure. This is another mistake. I have changed throughout my life but am fundamentally the same person I always have been. Wouldn't you say the same?

You also ask how can oneness be two things? Well if it is to be known it must be two things. Perfect oneness could not know itself. There must be a mind to know it and if one universal mind why not many as projected aspects of the One that can share in its consciousness while remaining themselves?

You see just as materialists deny spirit so advaita effectively denies matter. Matter may be a part of spirit but as long as creation exists in any form it is a real part. Only God is absolutely real, that is his being is his own, but what he gives reality to has its own contingent but real being.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I have also been thinking about this matter, and hope to say more - but the fact of Jesus is a kind of evidence that the person is primary.

This is then confirmed by what Jesus did, and said, and the way he said it. This constitutes a core reality to Christianity which was quickly lost sight of when the churches were founded - nonetheless it is always there for those who want it.

William Wildblood said...

I agree, Bruce. When you bring Jesus into the equation it seems clear that persons are real and not just absorbed/obliterated in an undifferentiated state of pure being. His message is that we can reach a union with God not that we just become God which would be the only alternative. But what's the point of that from God's perspective or, indeed, from ours? And why would he have bothered with creation just to bring things back to where they were before with nothing positive coming from the whole cycle of becoming? I would say that it is to bring about the reality of persons that he creates.

And if one doesn't accept the reality of a Creator and just posits an impersonal reality then creation makes no sense at all. If pure unity with no principle of differentiation was the underlying truth to everything then nothing could have ever arisen, not even the illusion of something.

Edwin said...

Thanks for your helping me on my way to greater clarity. A famous teaching in Vedanta is that what was not real in the beginning and not real in the end cannot be real in the middle. This is a rationale for dismissing the empirical world. But it always bothered me, for it seemed that just because a thought comes and goes, or an object has no permanence, does mean that it is not real. Our minds are such that they cannot see reality all at once. Our limitation does not negate the world. I think this is what you are saying in some of your comments. On a personal note, if I may, I have noticed that since I have started to move away from Vedanta my relationships have improved: I feel more sympathetic toward people. To put it simply, my heart has become more open. This is to be expected, I suppose, for when you are regarding everyone and everything as merely phenomenal, empathy is diminished. The benevolence that Vedanta allows is not so much genuine good will as it is a kind of reserved indifference: you wish to harm no one harm (ahimsa), but then, there is really no one to harm. Again, thank you for your help. Of course, it's a bit like feeding a stray cat. You'll probably find me mewing on your doorstep for the foreseeable future.

Unknown said...

Thank you William. when I used impersonal I meant non-person after all we are speaking of unknown essence which we can not give it any specification., also when I spoke about his personal names, I did mean to lower it to the human level but to make him graspable by the relative human mind. Of course the mercy of the absolute can not be compared with the mercy of the finite human.This is the contesting point between those who want to confine the fatherhood of god to a specific person and those who want it to embrace all humans, in line with his grace that encompasses all. It is really very hard issues which can not be settled by human discourse that is why we read in the Koran many verses that god keeps repeating that he will settle the human differences, emphasizing the necessity of observing the traits of truthfulness, honesty, empathy and justice in conducting our relation even with strangers. Islam is clear in his loving and respecting attitude toward Jesus as a prophet on equal terms with all other prophets but does not share in the claim that Jesus is god or the biological son of god.

Unknown said...

I just like to put on record my admiration to Edwin on both his honesty and his humility.

William Wildblood said...

Mew away, Edwin! One of the best way to understand things one has an intuition about is being asked to explain them to someone else so I'm helped as much as anyone in this process.

Yes, not ultimately self sufficient, as nothing is except God, does not mean something is not real. God has so much reality he can give some to us as individuals and not lose anything in the process himself.

You're quite right, Abdul. We don't get anywhere without those two qualities.

Unknown said...

Yes we can not be alone in the process of self-knowledge that is why in his gracefulness he appointed the spirit ,the carrier of knowledge, to help the human soul in that task.