Saturday, 18 February 2012

"So that they may be one..."

One of the perennial philosophical questions is the relationship of the One and the Many, God and the World. Although the question is inexhaustible, it comes down in the end to God and myself – for I am both one in myself and other than God: does that make God and myself part of a "many" that includes us both, or is this an illusion of separateness to be dispelled by mystical experience?

The mystics tell us that rest and happiness, for the soul and for the creature, "is to be found nowhere but in the one, indivisible unity that is God.... When all that goes to make up a man’s being has become lovingly one with God, then all the soul’s cries are hushed, and the unrest of longing and of acting has ceased" (John Tauler, cited in Magnificat, 8 June 2011). But self-forgetfulness in God is one thing. Does it really mean that the self ceases to "exist" at all – or even that it never existed? That would appear to be the message of Advaita Vedanta and the great sufi Ibn Arabi, and even at times the Dominican Meister Eckhart. But it is a misleading oversimplification, certainly in the case of Eckhart, maybe in the other cases too (see article).

Is Christianity "dualistic"? Philosophers such as Arthur Lovejoy and Robert Bolton would say so, though not in the sense either of extreme Cartesianism (mind-body) or Manichaeism (good vs evil). Christianity is dualistic in that it teaches that God created the world, and that the world is other than God, possessing (received) being of its own. The infinity of the divine Principle means it can create lesser realities without any diminution of or addition to its own substance – and those lesser realities are indeed real: they may be infinitely less than the infinite, but they are infinitely more than nothing. The being of creatures is freely willed in the groundless abyss of the Godhead. That "abyss" or ungrund where the Son is eternally begotten (and us with him in the "ground of the soul") is the source of all freedom, even man's.

This post has been by way of a footnote to the second chapter of All Things Made New. The image, from Wikimedia Commons, shows the Eckhart Portal of the Erfurt church.


  1. Jacques Maritain’s “Sixth Way” seems close to the Advaitic insight, even if at the end of that chapter he declares that his meditations are not at all derived from the East. His argument is that 1) The contemplative act of the mind is supra-temporal, eternal. But 2) We know that we were born. Therefore, we are confronted with the lived contradiction of being capable of supra-temporal contemplation and at the same time knowing we were born within time. 3) Maritain’s resolution is that we have an eternal identity in God, indeed, that even now God is more “I” than I am “I”, as Maritain writes:

    I, who am thinking, have always existed, but not in myself or within the limits of my personality . . . therefore I have always existed by a suprapersonal existence or life. Where then? It must have been in a Being of transcendent personality . . . and who was, in His own infinite Self, before I was, and is, now while I am, more I than I myself, who is eternal, and from whom I, the self which is thinking now, proceeded one day into temporal existence. (Approaches to God)

    As mentioned, Maritain is careful to point out that he did not arrive at this insight via the Eastern traditions, but he does not elaborate in any detail about the difference between his position and that of the East. To my untrained ears, it sounds an awful lot like Advaita.

  2. It also sounds like the "pre-existence" of the soul supposedly taught by Origen and condemned by the Council of 553. Mark Julian Edwards mounts a good defence of Origen against this charge in his book "Origen against Plato", pointing out the fact that it is perfectly orthodox to believe that the soul comes from the hand of God (or from heaven) and therefore had an "instantaneous" pre-existence, as it were. Even Plato's doctrine of "reminiscence" may have been intended "mythologically". (Josef Pieper certainly seems to read Plato in a sympathetic way in his "The Platonic Myths".) As for Maritain, I must hunt down my copy of this book. There is a lot more to say, but I don't think his position is the same as Advaita. Maybe I'll explore this in future posts. Thanks for an interesting comment!

  3. Thanks for the reply, Stratford!

    Yes, no doubt Maritain did not think of himself as arriving at an essentially Advaitic insight, since he ends that essay by noting that the sixth way was arrived at independently of any contact with Indian thought. He goes on to say that his reflections might help to throw light on the Hindu notion of Atman, which, says Maritain, has not succeeded in avoiding confusion between the divine and human self. But he leaves it at that, and one wonders how to critically distinguish between Maritain’s meditation (“I had an eternal existence . . . [in the] Self in pure act from which comes every self”) and Advaita (Tat tvam asi). I guess Hindus would not say that our identity is “in” the Self but that we are the Self, for starters.