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Chapter IX: The Great Divide

The distinctness of persons, as set out earlier and presupposed in much that I have said, involves also the essential initial privacy of all experience. No one, as I have stressed, can have the experience of another except in the further sense of coming in some way to know about it and being affected by it. We can, I have maintained, form no proper conception of what it would be like to have the experience of another in the way we have it ourselves. This is not a formal or grammatical matter. It is an ultimate feature of what we are, our lot; and this is not incidental, a condition in which in fact we find ourselves but which we might in some way surpass. There just does not seem to be any way in which it could be otherwise. We may undergo enormous changes, as indeed we have done in the extension of our understanding, but there seems to be no way in which any experience could be other than the experience which is had by some individual subject or agent at the time. This is what we find experience to be, for us and for all creatures.

If this is disputed, we have no recourse, I have also insisted, after removal of misunderstanding which I have at various times been at pains to attempt, other than to invite one another to reflect again. Our distinctness and privacy is ultimate, and the vast and impressive ingenuity displayed in seeking to avoid this conclusion simply exhibits more irresistibly than ever how impossible that undertaking is, seeking to set aside what seems most evident from the start about what it is to have any experience at all.

I have spoken of limitation here, but that is only in a special sense. There is nothing to deplore in it, but on the contrary everything to welcome, for it is in virtue of this essential distinctness and privacy that almost everything that matters to us comes about, including our love for one another, our achievements and moral triumph. It presents us also with some of our most difficult tasks and problems, and, as has just been noted, with some of our most distressing situations. This, as I have said, is our lot and our inescapable lot as essentially finite creatures. However much other beings, if there are any, surpass those who inhabit this earth, they are bound in the same way to what we can conceive experience to be and what it is to be finite beings. The initial privacy I have stressed is in fact an ultimate finite limitation.

This last point needs further explication in one respect. I have said that it is just inconceivable for us to have or ‘enjoy’ an experience which is not, as an actual live experience, private in itself to the one who has it. But we say very different things about God. He knows us, we say, from within. Nothing is hidden from him. We cannot flee him even ‘down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind’. At each instant God knows one’s every thought and he knows it exactly as it is for us and what it is for us to be having it. Our entire existence is open to him. There is no dependence on mediation on his side, no judging and concluding. In this sense at least he is omnipresent.

This is an awesome thought, and the implications of it are often more far-reaching than we usually realize. It needs to be handled very carefully, heeding at every point that it is of God that we are thinking. The all-seeing presence of God can be easily parodied and ridiculed, and sensitive people have been properly horrified at pictures or the like impression of the all-seeing presence on the walls of our chambers, with very young children going to sleep with a constant reminder for their last waking thought of the words — ‘Thou God see-est me’. God is not a glorified big-brother, a perpetual spy.

Indeed, no one can be fully aware religiously all the time, not even the most devout. Those who set their lives aside for prayer and contemplation have to give some of their time and attention to normal affairs of their daily round. Indeed, it is usually thought that devotional practice is itself better and healthier if it alternates with other work and interests. Prayer is not an esoteric practice; for truly religious people it should be normal and come about evenly in a fully rounded life of many concerns and interests. It presides over such interests and lends its own quality to them, but not because the contents of our prayers are overtly present. They affect us dispositionally like our thoughts of those we love and admire without literally holding them in our thoughts all the time. Even the most deeply devout and committed persons, and those for whom explicit contemplation is the core of religion, have to admit considerable variation in the intensity and exclusiveness of their contemplation. Normally, the most devout are the first to insist that our lives must be lived fully in the world and with a high place for service and compassion. To try to live in the constant explicit awareness of God and of his awareness of us is self-defeating.

It is also out of line with the way we must think of God and his dealings with us; he does not thrust himself upon us or seek to dominate us with splendours of his disclosure, he comes in gentler ways in the course of normal existence, revealing himself in a peculiar toning of our thoughts and concerns in the world as we find it. He woos us all the more amazingly in ways that do not overwhelm, however profoundly we may be stirred and changed. We have to forget his presence to be all the more deeply and soundly conscious of it. The art of responding to disclosure of this kind calls for all we can give it. The discipline which makes religious existence meaningful is much more demanding than the more overt severities of piety, and it is itself apt to be distorted and travestied, even to the extent of outright idolatry, if we make it our concern to be always literally mindful of the presence of God. The indwelling of God is much more subtle than that. We walk with him in the fullness of our days as they come, and much of the time we have little notion of his nearness. Like Noah in the play we may plead with him to be there more often.

All the same we have to believe that he is there in fact all the time, he is never absent. For he is himself the absolute sustainer of all, not merely through the contrivances by which one thing sustains the other, but in immediately sustaining those contrivances themselves and everything there is. Creation by its very nature simply cannot be remote. For this reason we have to say that our thoughts and all our experiences are open to God precisely as they are to us. He knows them from within as each one of us does in his own case. But this is just what we have said is impossible. By its very nature experience is essentially private in the first instance. So it is, and I have no intention of modifying at all what I have persistently said on this score. Experience is bound to be private in itself, however readily known to others in further ways; it is bound to be so for finite creatures, but not for God. This is no prevarication. The way we must think about God is radically different from the way we must think about everything else. What holds of necessity about ourselves need not be the case for God.

This is because God is essentially transcendent. We are led to think of him, not as some ordinary fact or postulate, but as some Ground or Sustainer of everything else there is and therefore essentially beyond the way all other things are. That is why, however irresistible he is for our thought, God is essentially incomprehensible to us or ‘passes our understanding’. We simply have no notion what it is like to be sustaining ourselves in being, beyond the sense which is trivial for the present of attending to whatever we find is necessary to keep ourselves alive. There is no inherent necessity in finite existences, only the necessities we find in fact in the way things are and work. We do not know what it is to be uncreated, to find existence essentially in ourselves or to confer it on ourselves. Neither have we any notion what it is to create, in the strict metaphysical or religious sense. The nearest we seem to come to that is in art and fine understanding, and in moral choice. There are obvious ways in which we may speak in these instances of creativity. But it is partial and dependent. Inspiration ‘comes’, the light ‘dawns’, we ‘find’ or ‘see’, we are ‘endowed’ with various gifts and ways to cultivate them, all of which is subject also to the normal facts of existence and our maintenance. We can guarantee nothing except as we are conserved. Even in the one activity which, as I have stressed, is most preeminently our own, namely moral choice, we function in prescribed situations and conditions of our being. Nothing is for us ex nihilo.

For the same reason we have no notion what it is to be not in time or eternal, to have all perfection and knowledge which is not piecemeal and acquired. The divine nature is in itself an absolute mystery. That does not make it in all ways inaccessible. We have, in the first place, to acknowledge it for what it is, and that, far from being trivial, as some suppose, is altogether momentous. But we have also clues, from within the course of our lives and general experience, as to the way, without any compromise of the ultimate mystery, in which we may find this transcendent involved and significant in the particularities of our limited existence. God is near, not just in his essential omnipresence, but in disclosures, in givings and dealing, in response and interventions which acquire a peculiarly intimate relationship. How this comes about and the warrant for it will not be considered further here. I have indicated how I think of it on many other occasions.1 The point for the moment is that there is no repudiation of what has been earlier maintained in asserting that God, as the transcendent source of all there is, must be aware, in a way we cannot fathom, of what our experience is like for all of us precisely as it is for us. What is inconceivable for us is a requirement of the divine nature itself.

It does not follow that God prescribes the course of our thoughts and experience. They are what they are in the way they come about in the situations in which we are placed. My thoughts and actions are what I find them to be in the normal course of things. I do not have to think further to recognise them as solely the experience of the particular person I am. The nature of thought is what we find it, including all the perplexities and puzzles. It is not a sham or a reflection of something other than itself, however it is sustained. Our lives are lived as we find them as finite beings. Nothing more is required at this level for our understanding of what we are like, each a distinct existence. My life is in no way the life of God because it is all expressly open to him.

But this is also where we need to be very wary. For many have passed, from their realization of the essential omnipresence of God, and the inevitable openness of our lives to transcendent being, to the wholly unwarranted supposition that our own existence is simply the existence of the transcendent in us. That belies all that transcendence itself involves. God is as distinct from the universe he sustains as we are from him and from one another. No dependence on a ground or source of our being, however complete and different from all other dependence, modifies what we directly find ourselves as finite creatures to be. We live our own lives, God does not live them for us. There is no reduction of the distinctness of each. What we find to be true of us in our essentially finite nature is not changed or transmuted in itself by any ‘Beyond’ by which we are encompassed and its significance for us. On no account must either finitude or divinity be compromised. The divine infinite is not a prolongation of the finite but its totally ‘other’ source and sustainer.

This is a principle which has, on the whole, been exceptionally well preserved in the Hebrew-Christian tradition, and that has been a prime condition of the further insights and experience enshrined in these cultures. They begin with the idea of creation and had a rare grasp of it. But they had no monopoly of that insight. In one form or another, sometimes more explicit and sometimes more confused, it is found in most cultures. It has also serious rivals.

These are various forms of monism, some more extreme than others, and not all, materialism for example, overtly religious. The more extreme form supposes that there is only one undiversified reality, the One. In Western thought the logical model for this was this set by Parmenides. He took his start from the nature of thought as involving predication and terms in relation. But predication itself involves also exclusion within various categories. To say of some surface that it is white all over, while not precluding its being round, rules out its being black. But to deny in this way seems to be thinking ‘what is not’, and that, it also appears, is just what we cannot do — we cannot think just nothing. But, if negation is out, so must positive predication be also. Accordingly there seems to be something radically wrong with thinking as some systematic relating of things. There cannot be such relations or a plurality, but only one whole of being without any differentiation or change.

I put this tersely because it is a very familiar story in the history of thought. Equally familiar is the corrective supplied by Plato who pointed out that negation is never a matter of thinking what totally is not, but of thinking something other than something else, and so we come back again to the notion of rational wholes which Plato identified with the forms as genuine realities. But he was shrewd enough to appreciate also that rational explanation of this kind could never be exhaustive and pointed to an ultimate reality, the Good, beyond being and knowledge, which could only be glimpsed. The forms in turn lent some of their own reality to the otherwise illusory world of particulars, though Plato remained somewhat uncertain what this might be.

These themes, and variations upon them, set the pattern for much subsequent thought in the West. Some adhered, as do certain notable writers of today, to the Parmenidean idea of one reality into which all particulars and varieties are dissolved. Desperate attempts were made to come to some terms with the seeming facts of ‘the many’, sometimes by way of ‘emanations’ whose flight ‘returns to the Alone’ as in Plotinus and his mystical followers, or by the bold downright affirmation of ‘the many’ in defiance of their equally firm rejection, contradiction, if not elevated into a virtue, being thought inevitable here. On the learned and very clear-sighted presentation of this view recently by W. T. Stace2 I have commented at length elsewhere.

Others, like Spinoza, sought to find a proper place for endless variety in the notions of modes and infinite attributes of the One Substance, while yet others returned, with the help of Hegel especially, to the notion of one exhaustively rational whole whose complexities we could not make out sufficiently at present to reach complete coherence in our understanding. F. H. Bradley modified this drastically in the insistence, among other considerations, that there had to be genuine terms in a relation and that the inevitable incompleteness of all our explanations pointed to an Absolute or ultimate Supra-rational reality of which all there is is an appearance, some things being more complete realizations of the Absolute.

By contrast the main line of Christian thinking, while acknowledging, like Plato, a supreme Good or ultimate Perfect Reality as the source of all other being, insisted upon the distinctness of all dependent or created existence, and especially the very final distinctness of persons, from God and from one another — a view usually extended to all sentient creatures, although there were exceptions like the strangely mechanistic accounts of animal behaviour by early rationalists of the modern period such as Descartes. This took many forms, but the unquestioned dependent character of finite reality was affirmed in complete compatibility with the fully distinct reality of all created things. There was little thought of absorption into divine existence, the idea of creation being peculiarly appropriate for the expression and deepening of the sense of dependence along with strictly distinct reality. Indeed, many matters given prominence and a distinctive form in Christian affirmation, such as our own sinfulness, made the idea of such absorption exceptionally difficult, though some fairly recent idealists so modified their notion of sinfulness as to make the difficulty more surmountable.

Christian mystics continued to affirm and stress the closeness of our union with God in mystical experience, and this was often insightful and revealing, but it rarely went the length of claiming participation in the actual being of God. The logic of their claims might seem, on occasion at least, to require such participation, but if it did so the step was rarely taken, it being usually assumed that the language of union and immediacy, while appropriate and indeed unavoidable, had still to be understood in some ‘slantwise’ fashion. The genuineness and full distinctness of our own being was not often put in peril, and almost everything in the Christian tradition, and in the Hebraic background from which Christianity and subsequent Judaism emerged, militated against that. The initial and central affirmation was that both ourselves and the world around us had unquestionable reality of their own, the dependence of finite natures being itself so understood as to require the distinctness both of finite reality and of God. Man was made in the image of God, but nothing would be more objectionable and contrary to the sustained emphasis of both Biblical and subsequent Christian thought than that men should aspire to be God or question the radical difference of human and divine natures.

The position is not so simple in Eastern thought, or so easy to describe. It has been widely thought in the past that in Indian philosophy and religion — and in the spread of these further East — the ultimate reality of finite existences was very tenuous. They did not exist in their own right but only as some kind of dream reality from which it was important to escape or as some feature or ingredient of one all-pervasive Supreme Reality or Self in which everything finds its true reality and meaning. There is much to support this view, and some Eastern interpreters of their own culture to the West have had no small part in confirming and deepening this impression, most of all in the heyday of post-Hegelian idealism which chimed in so well with such views. But there is also much to make us pause and rethink this understanding, and cautious experts of the present day, better equipped and more exhaustive in the range of their studies, have not been slow to point this out. There is much in Indian thought and practice, and in the East generally, to favour a more pluralist view of the status and significance of ourselves and the world around us.

This was a central theme in the work of the late R. C. Zaehner, undoubtedly one of the most notable Oriental scholars of our time. Professor F. C. Copleston, in his admirable recent survey,3 puts the matter well in these words: ‘it may be true to say that whereas in the West pluralism tended to prevail, in India monism came to occupy the central position. But it is none the less a mistake to identify classical Indian philosophy with monism’.4 He adds that ‘obviously common-sense pluralism was the original Indian view, and pluralism continued to be the doctrine of the majority of philosophical schools. Even in the Vedanta tradition pluralism came to assert itself, largely no doubt under the influence of devotional religion but also out of respect for ordinary experience’.5

The appeal to common experience is especially important and intriguing in this context, most of all in doctrines of the self. These often start from moves which are surprisingly close to the ones we are most familiar with today, and of which we are much inclined to think that we are the inventors. There is much consideration of memory and of the unity of experience and, in a way of particular interest to me, to one’s seemingly immediate awareness of oneself as the subject of experience in such familiar matters as pleasure and pain. Professor Margaret Chatterjee has again reminded us very recently of ‘the assimilative capacities of Hinduism as a cultural complex’ which ‘have been noted by almost all researchers into this intricate phenomenon’.6 In the devotional side of religion, as in the Bhakti movement, we come very close to the Western theistic belief in a personal God, and the familiar worship of a variety of gods find its place even in Jainism.

The idea of re-incarnation, so pervasive in most forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, involves at least some initial plurality. There is also the extensive stress on the importance and worth of present experience in much recent Hindu writing, like the massive work of Sri Aurobindo, protesting with great vehemence against the notion that the world around us is a mere dream world, a cosmic illusion, and our own sense of separateness due wholly to ignorance. The effect of world-renouncing teaching of this kind is thought to be truly sinister.7 By contrast we read much of the indwelling of the Life Divine in all life and in nature. It is also well-known how central a place is given in Confucian teaching to the notion of a Power Beyond which works for justice in our present existence.

These varieties of emphasis need no further stressing here. They are a theme in themselves. But they also leave us uncertain, in the final analysis, just what stances they severally involve. After all it was the concern of many prominent idealist writers around the turn of the century, such as A. E. Taylor and Pringle-Pattison, to do justice to the distinctness and freedom of individual persons, within the framework, in one form or another of absolute idealism. The self, so conceived, had its important place as a ‘centre of unification’, but, as experience became more complete and coherent, these centres merged in one another and the Absolute — the peep-holes, in the famous metaphor, enlarging to the elimination of the wall. However essential for our moral accountability it may be that our conduct be our own, as is stressed especially in the notable first chapter of Bradley’s Ethical Studies, the distinctness of persons was dissolved, in the final account, into the Whole of which it was some limitation or appearance. Likewise, when Samkara insisted, in much anticipation of modern thought, that memory requires a self which transcends passing states, a subject distinct from the thing it knows, we also find that this individual self is in turn an appearance of one universal self. So just where do we finally stand?

This is not the place to try to resolve these ambiguities and varieties of emphasis. That is an enormous task to be left to the appropriate experts. There is a great range of emphasis and concern, ranging from familiar facts of common experience — or what seem to be such — to the notion of one pure consciousness in which the distinction of subject and object disappears8 entirely. But I refer to such matters now in pursuance of my own insistence, which is quite central to everything I maintain in metaphysics and religion, that there is here an ultimate divide which it is of the utmost importance for us to recognise and cope with, as far as we can, in all further reflection on systems of thought and religion. Where, precisely, on either side of the divide we place various schools of thought or individual thinkers is another matter, though of great importance for further understanding and estimation of such thinkers — it is indeed a major guide-line through much labyrinthine thinking. But what I wish to stress in particular here is the finality and vital importance of this divide. We further nothing but confusion if we neglect it.

We must not diminish or obscure this central divide, basic in logic and practice, in our understandable eagerness to remove barriers and find common factors in our various attitudes and faiths. Compliance and tolerance are splendid virtues, but we do no service to them in the long run if we blur or obscure radical differences of outlook and belief where they exist, or blunt the edge of fundamental distinctions in matters of thought. Costless toleration is of little worth. It is not the way of constructive cooperative thinking. Accommodation in practice is a further matter and of great importance, and dialogue must continue. But that is quite compatible with deep differences of view and conviction. The boundaries do not mean that we should not meet across them, quite the contrary; there never was greater need of meeting across boundaries of place and ways of thinking. But we must not refuse to recognise the boundaries where they exist, and we must continue to respect them when we traverse them in thought or practice. No one can have a foot on both sides of a genuine divide, though we may poise ourselves above it in suspension of belief and uncertainty.

The divide in question now is the one between various forms of monism, some of which may be extremely elastic, and the view that present existence, indeed all finite reality, is genuinely real and distinct from the one transcendent source of all being other than itself, together with the further view, which usually goes along with the first, that persons, and to my mind all sentient existents, have a full ontological distinction from one another and from any natural environment that is found to support them. The two main wings of this central claim usually go together, the main threat to the distinctness of persons usually coming from the supposition that they are all, in the final analysis, some modes or limitations of one ultimate being. There is, in simpler terms, a dualism of man and God and of individual persons and their environment, including other persons. This does not make any finite reality self-subsistent. We depend on one ultimate source of all being, and we depend more immediately on one another and the world around us. This dependence is not in question. No one exists or functions in a vacuum. But dependence is one thing, identity another. The distinct identity or persons is ultimate, however sharp our limitations and the conditions within which we find we can function.

The elasticity and richness of some systems of thought on the further side of the dualism I have just noted present no radical alternative to the divide itself or any reduction of its finality. It is not a matter of gradually moving from one extreme to the other without any perceptible point of division to be traversed. There is a genuine and radical divide, although it may not always be clear on which side of it some system of thought should be placed. Some systems are more coherent than others, although it is not too difficult to determine as a rule whether they are monistic or not. Some faith or outlook may have ingredients out of line with the general tenor of its claims, and this may make placing or specification difficult in practice. But that the divide itself is logically ultimate seems beyond doubt.

This is why it is so important, as a prime condition of clarity of thought and of mutual understanding, that we should try to settle for ourselves, most of all in speculative thought, on which side of the great divide we are standing. There is no evading the issue, and it cannot be much postponed if our thought is to progress to some purpose. For almost anything we hold further about our own state and our destiny will be much affected, and at almost any point, by where we find ourselves on the basic issue of our own ontological status.

This is very evident, and also of exceptional importance, where views of salvation and the central religious meaning of existence are concerned. In the next chapter, which brings this study, as presented hitherto, to its close, a brief indication will be given of the way the major differences in our understanding of our own status affect our notion of religious salvation and the way it operates.

  • 1.

    For example in Chapters V, VI and VII of Our Experience of God, Allen and Unwin 1959. and in Chapter 1 of my Jesus in the Faith of Christians, Macmillan 1981.

  • 2.

    Mysticism and Philosophy, Macmillan. 1961. See also Chapter XV of my The Elusive Mind. Allen & Unwin, 1969.

  • 3.

    Philosophies and Culture. Oxford 1980.

  • 4.

    op. cit., p.21.

  • 5.

    op. cit., p.21.

  • 6.

    Gandh’s Religious Thought. Macmillan 1984, p. 129.

  • 7.

    Cf. my own World Religions (Jointly with R. L. Slater), p. 180.

  • 8.

    See W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy p.194-206.

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