Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost. – Dante Alighieri, 1265 – 1321
Human beings seem to be the most evolved creatures on earth. We have covered the globe with our civilizations, we have built monuments, we have developed science and art and religions, and our scientists are currently tinkering with the very fabric of reality as they experiment with quantum physics. Yet, both religious and unreligious, we seem to all understand that we are not quite there yet. We feel a need to transcend our humanity: the Buddhist seeks for Nirvana, the Existentialist wants to weave his own meaning, the Darwinian waits for the next evolutionary step, the Western Christian walks in sanctification, the Eastern Christian in theosis. Nietzsche said that “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal”.
It seems to be the most evident truth about humans throughout all philosophies: we are not done yet. We are not, we become.
Psychologists (psyche, “breath, spirit, soul” and logia, “study of”) will say that what separate us mostly from every other animal is how our minds work, specifically, our self-awareness. Mind is the more scientific word for what we used to call soul or spirit. Self-awareness is the realization that “I exist”, and the differentiation between “I” and everything else. I am an existing entity in a world that is not me.
There is more than that: We are aware of other selves, too. I know that my experience of reality is not everyone else’s reality, but through communication between self and the other, we get to differentiate what is actually real in the world outside, and what is simply our inner experience. A child that falls and feels pain will look to the adults around her and see their reaction, before she cries. If they’re not making it a big deal, she’ll understand that the pain was not a big injury. If they run for help, she’ll know that things are bad, and will cry. In short, our sense of reality is built by our constant assuring that other people are experiencing the same as us: if I see a picture on a wall that nobody else around me sees, I will likely think that I am seeing things, and that I maybe need help. My grasp of reality is off. This is a notion that has to be developed and learned throughout life: some people get it early, some never do.
What I find interesting is how different philosophies relate that concept with our journey of becoming. We know that our individualist society likes to raise our personal experiences above what other people say, I mean, we have all heard “follow your heart, it knows best” and “don’t care about what others say“. That thinking comes from an existentialist belief that we make our selves, we shape our own meaning and values, and our freedom of choice must be above the imposition of anyone else. Again, Nietzsche brilliantly expressed this idea when he proclaimed that God is dead, and now humanity holds its own destiny and meaning in their hands – Wait Lucas, what does that have to do with the death of God? – You see, modern theologians often call God Ultimate Reality, and Ultimate Other. The ultimate communication to assure what is real or not, between self and other, happens between Man and God. He is absolutely not me, and therefore completely Other. It’s what the ancient Hebrews called Holy. Once the Ultimate Other is out of the picture, I am left simply with my Ultimate Self: me.
Many religions and philosophies, I think particularly of classic atheistic Buddhism, picture the final point of human transcendence as a complete abandonment of the self. The acknowledgement that the I does not really exist, that we are simply part of this universe. Our consciousness and feelings that bring so much suffering are to be foregone. All is Nothing and Nothing is All, good and evil are illusions, the self is an illusion. Yin and Yang, all is one. We are dust and to dust we return; our experiences of self are not a big deal in the grand picture of everything.
These concepts are very much true, yet to me, they are lacking something. They seem to go against what makes us human. I mean, we act, we move, we create. Silence and white noise can be the same, like nothing and everything, yet, we humans craft music. We stand in creation as gods who sing and paint, we dance between good and evil, light and darkness. It is a physical fact that all of creation, time and space, is movement, and that if everything stops, nothing will be anymore. Yet we are neither perfect stillness nor mindless chaos, we are somewhere in-between. This is the breakthrough in the ancient account of Genesis: it says we were not simply made from the dust (i.e. we are part of everything, the universe), but that we have the breath of the God who moves, the Spirit-God who moved upon the waters from the beginning. We were made in His likeness. Our existence stands between Creation and Creator.
To transcend to Nirvana, in total negation of self, or to transcend to the Übermensch who is the full embracing of self, are to me the same thing: it’s all about self. To me, transcendence must go beyond self, it must be about the Other. To transcend humanity is not to deny our personhood, but rather to move into deeper personhood: to lay our selves down for the Ultimate Other, and to love our neighbor – the little other selves around us – as we naturally do our own selves. Like a dot connected to infinite other dots in one direction moves from being a one-dimensional thing to being two-dimensional (a line!), through love for the other I am no longer one person in my own closed universe, but I become part of a web of persons connected in love, a mystical union that makes us all one, yet many. A picture of the Eternal Triune Community, the One God who exists in three persons.