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⇐ Why is There Anything? :: Spiritual Literacy ⇒

Chapter 1 of God(s) and Consciousness.

Circle of Caring

Compassion and empathy are much needed in our personal lives and in the world. A central question of compassion is “Who is included in our circle of caring?”

These are not abstract questions. Today the recession has created many difficulties. We hear politicians and people on the street intone, “In these hard times we have to deal with reality first. We have to deal with what’s important first. The rest are luxuries we can’t afford now.”

They say this as if it’s obvious what’s most fundamental and everyone ought to agree with them. But the query “What is ultimately most real?” and “What is ultimately most important?” are deep theological, philosophical and spiritual queries.

Different views of God or ultimate reality give very different answers as to what is most important in life and who or what is in our circle of caring and who or what is to be jettisoned as unessential.

 

God

So we’re going to talk about God. This is the first in a series on a topic Unitarian Universalists find a little dicey. We have no trouble with politics, sex or money. But God makes us a little squeamish.

So let’s get right to it: what is God? Let’s start with you. When you hear the word “God,” what thoughts, images and associations come to mind?

Old bearded gentleman
Charles Heston before an enflamed shrub
Impersonal force of love in the universe
Everything that is
Jesus dying on the cross
Something I pray to
Giver of life

The first thing we can say about God is that He/She/It has many different costumes. So when somebody says “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe in God,” she isn’t telling us anything interesting. A more interesting question is “What form of God do you believe in or don’t believe in?”

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a particular form of God. The early Christians were called atheists for rejecting the old Roman gods. Centuries later, pagans were called atheists for not embracing a Christian form of God.

In other words, all of us are atheists: there are some – probably many – views of God that we don’t adhere to.

And all of us believe in some form of God. When asked, “What is ultimately most real?” or “What is ultimately most important in life?” all of us can come up with some answer. We may have to sort out the language and find vocabulary we find acceptable: “God,” “Spirit,” “nature,” “highest truth,” “the Universe.” But all of us have some sense of ultimacy. That is our functional equivalent of God by whatever name.

 

1st, 2nd, and 3rd Person

To begin sorting out these costumes of God (or anything else for that matter), let’s consider three perspectives from which we might view God or anything.

One is to look inside ourselves – an internal perspective. Second is to consider how we relate to what’s out there – a relational perspective. Third is to look outside ourselves – an external or objective perspective.

Ken Wilber, the philosopher who inspired much of this material, refers to these views as 1st person, 2nd person and 3rd person.

As you may recall from grammar school, first person is the one speaking, second person is the one spoken to and third person is the one spoken about. “I,” “we” and “us” are first person. “You,” “y’all” and “you guys” are second person. And “he,” “she,” “it” and “them” are the third person.

All cultures and languages have these perspectives built in. They refer to realms of experience we all know. We study them in different ways.

For example, art is the realm of the first person. What’s most important in art is how something touches us. The same painting or music may strike each of us differently. “Art is in the eye (or ‘I’) of the beholder.”

Morals and ethics are the second person realm. They focus on how I treat you and how you treat me.

Science is the third person realm. A scientist becomes a disinterested third person observing phenomena as impersonal “its.”

What’s most important: an internal view, a relational view or an objective view? …

It’s a trick question. It’s like asking, “Which is better: art, morals or science?”

All are important. They’re just different perspectives. Any complete view of reality or God must take all three into account, preferably without confusing them. We live in all three all the time. We all have feelings and perceptions. We all relate to one another. And we all observe the world around us.

Internal, relational and objective. First, second and third person. Art, ethics and science.

 

Sorting God

Now let’s go back to the question of what is most real or most important. I asked what the word “God” meant to you. We can sort answers into the three perspectives.

Some of your responses were internal or first person: “still small voice within,” my deepest experience, a feeling that arises inside, my true nature, Buddha nature, Christ nature, soul, and so forth.

Some of you answered relationally or in the second person: the one I address in prayer, the one I speak to when I’m confused. Compassion and love refer to ways we relate.

And some of you answered in the objective third person: forces that move through the universe, nature, the manifest world.

 

Sorting Traditional Paths

All the major spiritual traditions answer the question of God or Spirit in the first, second and third person.

Hinduism, for example, has Jana yoga which contemplates the nature of self – first person/internal. It has Bhakti yoga – second person devotional relationship to the divine. And it has Karma yoga working with impersonal laws of how things work – third person.

Buddhism has the three jewels or refuges: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha refers to our Buddha nature – first person. Dharma refers to the laws of how the universe operates – third person. And Sangha refers to the community of seekers – second person relationships.

Classical Christianity has a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God the Father is someone we relate to in prayer – second person. God the Son is our inner Christ nature – first person. And the Holy Spirit is an impersonal divine force that permeates the universe – third person.

Unitarian Universalism has seven principles. The first is the inherent worth and dignity of every person – first person. The seventh principle is the interdependent web of life – third person. Between these are five other principles which include justice, equity, compassion, democratic process, peace and liberty – how we relate to one another in the second person.

In this congregation, some of us are looking for happiness or well-being – first person internal. Some are looking for community and ways to relate more deeply – second person relational. Some want to bring more justice and equity into the world – third person systems. Some of us are looking for a mixture of all three of these.

 

Unfolding

One way to begin to sort out the costumes of God is to ask, “From which perspective is God, Spirit or ultimate reality viewed – 1st person/internal, 2nd person/relational or 3rd person/objective?”

As we deeply engage in any one of these perspectives, it unfolds. We evolve in a natural developmental progression.

Another way we can sort out God, Spirit or ultimacy is developmentally. Some views are young – appropriate for a child, beginner or novice. Other views are more nuanced and complete. They’re appropriate for an adult or sage.

This maturation begins with a sense of separation between us and the ultimate. We may be in communion with God or nature, but they are wholly other. Even if we talk with them, there is significant distance between us and God or Goddess.

In the middle range of development, God, Spirit or ultimate reality is more intimate. We are less like spectators and more like lovers in union.

In the higher ranges, we merge with God, Spirit or the universe. We are at One with them. Our self-identification no longer stands apart.

This developmental trajectory goes from separateness to connection to oneness. Ken Wilber calls it communion to union to identification. The Jewish mystic Martin Buber might call it “I-it” to “I-Thou” to “I-I.” [1]

 

Matrix Map

The map on the next page gives three perspectives – internal, relational and objective or 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. It also gives us three levels of maturity – separateness, connection and oneness. If we put them together we have a three by three matrix with nine addresses or nine costumes. All nine are legitimate though some are more evolved. All nine are distinct and yet relate to each other in the matrix map.


Third Person

To make this more personal, let’s look at how consciousness unfolds along one perspective. We’ll start with the third person because it is quite common among Unitarian Universalists. In the next talk we’ll look at the second and first person.

In the modern world as traditional images of God faded, nature emerged as ultimate reality. Today, science may give us the most familiar third person view of life. Many people believe the physical universe is the fullest manifestation of reality. Instead of calling it “God,” ultimate reality is called “nature.”

3rd Person Separate

Classical Newtonian physics sees the universe as a massive collection of impersonal objects interacting through impersonal laws. Like billiard balls bouncing off one another, we may contact each other and communicate. But we remain essentially separate.

This is a third person separate view of ultimate reality.

Martin Buber gives an example of looking at a tree and noticing its shape, color and beauty. The tree remains just a tree – a separate object. He calls this an I-it relationship.

Deism is another third person separate view. Deists believe a Deity set the universe in motion and then withdrew. He no longer tinkers with the universe. The Deist God is not one we can pray to because He isn’t listening. The divine forces of love or creativity are separate from us. Our job is to understand and live harmoniously within these forces.

3rd Person Connection

If we engage the natural world more deeply, we move from separateness to connection. What might this look like?

Many of you say, “My religion is nature” – a third person perspective. Perhaps you walk in the woods or mountains or watch the stars on a clear night. This helps you enjoy the marvelous web of life.

Then there are moments when you don’t feel quite so separate. You aren’t just a spectator. There’s more going on than can be seen in a photograph. There’s a deeper connection. The communion moves toward union of self and other. The tree seems less of a curious “it” and more of an intimate “Thou.”

Robert Frost wrote:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
[2]

Frost doesn't address nature as a personified being he can talk to in the second person. The crow, snow and hemlock remain third person objects. But his inner mood is touched by and connected to them in some mysterious yet tangible way.

e. e. cummings wrote of "leaping greenly spirits of trees … and of love and wings and of gay great happening illimitably earth." [3] Trees and wings and earth remain in the third person – he's not talking to them. But they feel more like lovers than separate objects. This is union with nature.

The poetry of Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder also point to a sense of union.

One theory says the earth is a complex organism called “Gaia.” Gaia isn’t a personified being we talk to. It is a third person objective object. Yet we are inside her. Caring for Gaia is caring for us. We aren't so separate. Our fates are deeply connected.

3rd Person Oneness

If we continue to go into this to what Buber calls I-Thou union, it evolves into Oneness or Identification: I-I merging.

I experienced this once as I walked through the woodlands. I noticed a black butterfly in the dusty path. I knelt to see her. Her ragged wings were too weak to lift her into the air. As I watched her abdomen expanding and contracting in labored breath I imagined myself on my deathbed. I knew I, like this butterfly, would die some day. It’s our nature to move around in this world and then die. In this we were exactly the same. Yes, our bodies and nervous systems were very different in countless ways. But in the end, she would die and I would die. This was more important than the shape of our limbs. In this most important aspect, we were truly One.

This wasn’t a first person perspective with me talking to my inner butterfly. It wasn’t a second person perspective with me talking to the external butterfly in any meaningful fashion. It remained fully a third person objective view. And yet, in what was most essential – life passing into death – we weren’t separate or even connected. We were poignantly One.

Then the moment passed.

If you’ve had similar moments, then you've known God, Spirit, Ultimacy or Nature as a third person identification or third person Oneness.

 

Expanding the Circle

I’ll leave it here for today. Next time we’ll look at the first and second person perspectives to see how they unfold.

Still, some of you may be asking, “So what? What does this have to do with my daily life?”

I hope this will become obvious as we explore further. We’ll see that these perspectives and levels of maturity affect not only how we see God or what’s most real in life. They affect how we see anything and everything, including who is in our circle of caring and how we hear one another.

When people intone God or what’s fundamental or what’s most important and you disagree with them, don’t attack their value system or their God. That’s usually futile.

Instead, listen deeply to hear their perspective. Are they concerned for the well-being of themselves or family? In other words, are they coming from an internal first person perspective? Are they talking relationally about the importance of love, friendship, caring and civility? Or are they talking externally about how the world works? First, second or third person perspective?

All three are valuable. The internal view emphasizes self-responsibility. The relational view emphasizes how we are held accountable for what we do. And the objective view emphasizes humility and how tiny each of us is in the vast web of life. We need all three in today’s world.

Then sense the person’s level of development. All levels, including the youngest, have some value. Rather than attack their understanding, appeal to a slightly more inclusive, more mature version of their perspective. That encourages natural unfolding. And it’s more likely to succeed.

But first we need to have a good sense of our own view – our own preference. Where do your views of God, nature or reality fall on the matrix map? What are your views maturing toward? What perspective do you bring to the circle of caring?


_____________

Notes:

l. Martin Buber, I Thou , (Charles Scribhner’s Sons, New York, 1958). Martin Buber talks about I-it and I-Thou relationships. The I-I is my own extrapolation of his language to and even deeper merging.

2. Robert Frost, New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1923), p. 82

3. e e cummings, Xaiper , (Liveright, 1994)

Read more:

Why is There Anything?

Chapter 2: Spiritual Literacy

Chapter 3: Consciousness

Chapter 4: Is God Real?

Summary