Some More Notes A: The One and the Many

A. The One and the Many


The title refers to a classic philosophical problem, a dilemma that intrigued ancient Greek philosophers.  It goes something like this:  from the standpoint of appearances the world seems radically characterized by diversity–“the many.”  You look around and you see dogs, cats, birds, rocks, trees, water, fire, butterflies, your own self, etc., etc., etc.  But if there is only “difference” it becomes difficult to make sense of the world.  For you need some commonality, some “sameness” even to affirm “difference.”  For example, are you “the same person” now as  you were 20 years ago?  You probably would answer, “yes” and “no.”  From the standpoint of radical diversity, from the standpoint of “difference” as the fundamental principle of reality, you could only answer “No, I am not the same person I was 20 years ago.”  Heraclitus, one of the philosophers who held that position, did say that you never step into the same river twice.  But other Greek philosophers began to intuit another principle at work in reality.  For example: take a piece of raw gold ore, refine it, melt it down, pour it into a mold, hammer it out and maybe you have a chalice or some decorative piece.  Is that which we call “gold” different in each instance or is there some continuity, some underlying unity?  Another example: take a seed and plant it, once grown into a tree cut the tree down, use some wood to make furniture, some is burned to make heat.  From the seed to the furniture or the ashes there is some unity that undergoes these transformations and underlying these transformations.  This they called the principle of unity–it is also at work in reality, and it is this which allows us to make sense of the world.  Unlike the principle of diversity, the principle of unity is not obvious to appearances—one has to intuit it through a kind of philosophical intuition.  It is a kind of breakthrough in rational reasoning that the Greeks achieved, but it left them in a great dilemma because the two principles are actually self-negating.  They cannot exist together in the same entity at the same time because they cancel each other out–and yet that is precisely what is needed to be faithful to the world we experience.  So some philosophers simply opted for one principle over the other:  Parmenides opted for Unity–All is One.  Thus difference was considered merely an “appearance”, practically an illusion and not truly real.  Others opted precisely for “difference”–like Heraclitus–“Otherness” is All. There is nothing that is “the same” in reality–it is only a function of our words that anything seems the same.  It was not until you get to Aristotle that the problem is solved sort of, and he shows you how the two principles do not negate each other by introducing a third principle which actually holds them together and leads to his proof for the existence of what he calls “God.”

Now all this is simply by way of preparation for what I really want to discuss: the diversity of spiritual paths.  That bit of philosophical history might help us if we refer to it by analogy, as a kind of very rough paradigm of the way we need to proceed to even see  the problem clearly.  First of all, it is very obvious to everyone that there is an enormous diversity in spiritual paths.  The diversity in this case is two-fold: diversity of methods, and diversity of ultimate goals as presented by each tradition. It is not only that there is Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc., each with its own spiritual methods, with its own claims,  and with its own  expressions of the ultimate goal,  but even within any one of these traditions there are also some amazingly different variants.  And just like with the ancient Greek philosophers, people tend to take one of several possible positions in the face of a deep dilemma.  Some will radicalize this diversity and claim that all these traditions are totally different and have nothing in common.  The problem here is that often this is accompanied by a claim of one’s own superiority or dominance as “the” tradition.  These people see little need to talk to the “other” because there is nothing they could possibly learn.  They tend not to want to explore that “otherness” and see what it might bring.  At the other end are  folks who opt for a kind of radical unity—it’s all the same. A variant of this is simply pointing to a diversity of methods, but of the same goal:  One Truth; Many Paths.    And sometime that alleged sameness is established by simply picking and choosing the elements from each tradition and each experience that fit with one another and ignoring those that don’t.  Also, even here, sometime is found a claim to superiority of a given tradition, but usually in a more refined, subtle manner.

Again, the people who tend to opt for “sameness” also tend to stress the value of “experience” over and against conceptual constructs which tend to go in the “difference” direction.  There are two problems with that: 1. the spiritual experiences among various saints and mystics has an amazing variety even with some common elements among them.  An example:  many Orthodox do not recognize anything valid in the spiritual experience of St. Francis.  Is it simply because of their hardheartedness and stubborness or is it because they simply do not recognize their spirituality in St. Francis.  I think it is a bit of both.  And what happens when you cross the BIG religious divides and look at the experiences of various holy people in their own traditions.  To claim that it is all the same is to overlook some significant differences.  2. The relation between conceptual framework and the “spiritual experience” needs a lot of careful study, and yes, lived experience.  At this point let us just simply point out that one’s spiritual experience is shaped by the conceptual framework that one lives in.  The conceptual framework is not simply a ladder or a boat that one can throw away once one reaches one’s goal–at least not this side of the grave.

At this point, if we are truly open and truly honest to what we have, we find ourselves in a similar dilemma as the ancient Greek philosophers.  The “cheap” solution is to opt for one side or the other of the dilemma—the deeper thing is to hold on to both at the same time!  Unfortunately we do not have our religious Aristotle to solve our problem–and perhaps that’s good–but we do have a “word” from our Hasidic friends to help us out and encourage us:

There were two Hasidic brothers who both deeply thought about the things of God and the mystical path.  It seems that in a discussion they were having they discovered that they held a contrary view on a very important point.  Neither one could convince the other of his rightness and the wrongness of the other’s view.  The argument reached a frustrating point of no longer being fruitful in any sense.  One of them suddenly got an idea.  “Let us go to so-and-so and we will lay out our positions and he will decide which one of us is right.”  They agreed; they went to their friend, and their friend listened to them deeply and was troubled.  “I don’t see a way out of this.  Both of you can’t be right; one of you must be wrong, but I can’t tell which one it is.  But let us go to the Rabbi, he will determine this.”  So off they went to the Hasidic Master and presented their dilemma.  He listened to them intently.  Then he turned to Brother A and said, “You are right.”  Then he turned to Brother B and said, “You also are right.”  Then the friend exploded in exasperation, “But they both can’t be right.”  And the Rabbi turned to him and said, “You know, you also are right!”

(Caution: This story may be hazardous to your orthodoxy.)

All of the above is by way of a kind of prolegomena to a future reflection on the thought of Abhishiktananda, one of the most remarkable spiritual figures of the 20th Century.

B. St. Thomas Aquinas:  “At the end of all our knowing we know God as something unknown; we are united with him as with something wholly unknown.”

The problem with Christian piety (and theology) is that too often it does not take seriously enough those amazing words of Aquinas—it is too often that Christian spirituality does not embrace the Mystery of God, but only a kind of pretend “mystery” which is easily controlled by a clerical church.  And furthermore this cripples the Christian encounter with the great religions of the world.

  1. One of my favorites, Shaikh Ahmad Al-Alawi:  “It is not a question of knowing God when the veil be lifted, but of knowing Him in the veil itself.”
  1. And finally a word on “nakedness” from Merton:

“The inmost self is naked.  Nakedness is not socially acceptable except in certain crude forms which can be commercialized without any effort of imagination(topless waitresses).  Curiously, this cult of bodily nakedness is a veil and a distraction, a communion in futility, where all identities get lost in their nerve endings.  Everybody claims to like it.  Yet no one is really happy with it.  It makes money.

Spiritual nakedness, on the other hand, is far too stark to be useful.  It strips life down to the root where life and death are equal, and this is what nobody like to look at.  But it is where freedom really begins: the freedom that cannot be guaranteed by the death of somebody else.  The point where you become free not to kill, not to exploit, not to destroy, not to compete, because you are no longer afraid of death or the devil or poverty or failure.  If you discover this nakedness, you’d better keep it private.  People don’t like it.  But can you keep it private?  Once you are exposed….  Society continues to do you the service of keeping you in disguises, not for your comfort, but for its own.”

  1. Louis Dupre:  “Negative theology means far more than that we find no adequate names for God.  It means, on a practical-spiritual level, that there exists no failproof method for reaching God, and hence that my only hope lies in the humble awareness of my inadequacy.  My lack of faith, my pschic limitations(including the ones that spiritually incapacitate), the radical worldliness of my age, this is the dark cloud I must enter deliberately if I am to find God at all.  It is the cloud of my own estrangement, my own waylessness.  No spiritual life can take off without passing through an intense awareness of the emptiness of the creature.  This is the lasting message of all negative theology, especially of Meister Eckhart’s lesson of absolute poverty.

The message seems far removed from the aspirations of a culture predominantly bent on self-fulfillment and self-achievement…  Current secularism has questioned far more than the doctrine of God.  It has jeopardized the possibility of lifting our minds and hearts beyond the objective world we know and control.  The very attitude toward existence required for the idea of God to make sense has vanished.  We have become the efficient, objective and responsible inhabitants of a well-organized closed world.  Amazingly enough, deep down men and women still nurture the aspiration of breaking through the enclosure into the free space of transcendence.  To realize this aspiration, however, they must first become aware of their own moral and spiritual predicament.  A precondition for spiritual life is the willingness to enter into our own radical profaneness, to recognize the practical atheism by which we conduct our affairs and to admit that it is not only the name of God we have forgotten but also the natural piety which alone enables man to speak the name truthfully.  The aspirant to spiritual life must learn a new attitude before he learns new concepts or practices.  Unconditional trust without knowing what it is we trust, willingness to let go without knowing whether anyone will ever catch us, preparedness to wait without knowing whether we will be met.  Total looseness and unconditional trust are the virtues negative theology teaches us to cultivate.  There could be no more appropriate lesson for our time.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.