GUEST ESSAY: Musings on Idealism, Advaita and Christianity
By Michael Larkin
(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed and commented on by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)
|Crypt of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy.|
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.
Discussions at Metaphysical Speculations seem quite often to focus on the relationship between Idealism and Advaita Vedanta. The aim of this essay is to widen the scope to include Christianity, which though nominally declining in the West, still possesses values thoroughly embedded in its culture.
Advaita considers there to be identity between Atman (the individual human soul) and Brahman, the ultimate. Moksha, or liberation, consists in the experiencing such identity in this life. One could take the term MAL (Mind-At-Large) or alternatively TWE (That Which Experiences) to be equivalent to Brahman. The Christian idea of the Trinity isn't that far from that of Atman ("God the Son") and Brahman ("God the Father"). I suspect the third "person", the Holy Spirit, is added to symbolise the principal of communion between Father and Son, which whilst not explicitly mapping to anything in Advaita, I doubt that Advaitists would deny. After all, how is Atman to achieve Moksha without communion with Brahman? I assume that, for example, Advaitists pray in one direction, and hope to receive guidance in the other.
The Christian language is in its own way careful: there are three persons in the Trinity, not three gods; that is, three different aspects of the one God, just as in Advaita Brahman and Atman are two different aspects of an entity that is essentially one. I wonder if one thing that Brahman "gets out" of its relationship with Atman is a sense of the latter's gradual coming-to-understand its true nature – in Christian terms, like the father's delight at the return of the prodigal son. In a way, Moksha for Atman may also be Moksha for Brahman – or as the bible puts it: "Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth".
The difference comes when Christianity not only personifies the Son, but restricts him to one specific human being, namely Jesus Christ. In general, it doesn't see Atman/Brahman as being in all of us, but a special one of us. Not all Christians think this way, however; someone like Gerard Manley Hopkins (a Jesuit priest) in his marvellous sonnet As Kingfishers catch fire, says in its terminal sestet:
I say more: the just man justices;
keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is –
Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
to the Father through the features of men's faces.
Here it seems that Hopkins was open to the view that everyone is a Son of God, a Christ, as plays out in imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ as a means of attaining salvation. "Salvation" here could be taken as equivalent to Advaita's Moksha or enlightenment. What is the salvation from? From Maya, illusion, or, in Christian terms (with the usual Christian overtones of guilt), sin.
What is sin? I'd say essentially, some degree or other of ignorance of what Atman, the Son, really is. The greater the ignorance, the greater the subjective experience of separation by Atman from Brahman, Son from Father. The doctrine of original sin is something that has often intrigued me. It's quite easy to take the story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall as being confined to a few actors. In typical fashion, Christianity lays the guilt on Adam: he is responsible for the fall of everyone, and that is his original sin, inherited by all his and Eve's offspring. Christianity claims that that this sin has to be forgiven if man is to be able to achieve salvation. However, it apportions the task of achieving that forgiveness to one special Man/God, Jesus the Christ, who has to sacrifice his life to atone for the sin (I note the hint of pagan influence: actual human sacrifice is required to appease a god). The special man has to die, but all will be well in the end because his Moksha, symbolised by the resurrection, will thereby become available to all.
However, I don't see the garden of Eden myth with its few actors, or the crucifixion narrative with its one principal actor, as discreet , one-off events, so much as ones that play out repeatedly in individual lives. The "life" to be sacrificed for each of us isn't a literal life, but the intentional loss of the perceived difference between Brahman and Atman, Father and Son. In conventional Christian terms, anyone accepting Jesus as their redeemer has the potential to be saved. We still have to act in accordance with the way Jesus acted. i.e. engage in imitatio Christi, to ensure salvation. Most Christians make baptism indispensable to salvation, but in my view that's just the usual special pleading of religion; the often irresistible urge to make of ourselves exclusive groups of people. I'd say it's as much a case of the psychological need for a feeling of unity and togetherness as it is for identifying with truth.
The doctrine of the redemption enables Christianity to set Jesus up as a special – nay unique – individual, who alone was both God and Man. Whilst I can accept he may have been special to a degree, I don't see Jesus as being unique. We are all both God and Man, though most of us don't realise it, not yet having experienced Mosksha/salvation. Christianity has a tendency to make key figures take the burden of action in its narratives. Take the doctrine of the virgin birth, for example. Begetting babies is in my view quite wonderful enough without positing some kind of intervention by the Holy Spirit; moreover, ordinary reproduction unites us all in common humanity – or atmanity, if I may coin the word.
It seems to me that Christianity, in positing Jesus alone as God, inevitably distances the rest of us from the possibility of enlightenment /salvation. At the same time, it attempts to have its cake and eat it by insisting that through the doctrine of the redemption, salvation is rendered possible for all. This somewhat lessens personal responsibility for achieving it, although one still has to join the club (be baptised) and live a relatively blameless life to achieve salvation. It's no bad thing to do good acts, refrain from harming others, and so on, in fact these are probably necessary for achieving enlightenment. But they aren't sufficient, because behind our acts is our motivation for doing them, and this needs to be more than the essentially selfish desire to attain paradise, or to avoid punishment in hell.
Not all Christians think alike. Some of their interpretations can be subtle, and where they are, they might at least in principle be able to be entertain the concepts of Advaita Vedanta such as Atman and Brahman, where one is essentially the same as the other. Idealism, I suspect, is compatible with both Advaita and the more nuanced interpretations of Christianity. The "thoughts" of MAL/TWE (or the various processes occurring within it), generate illusion/Maya when filtered through human perception. What Bernardo allegorises as "dissociation" is what creates that perception, and restricts our capacity to apprehend the true nature of reality; what creates our illusion of an existence independent and separate from MAL. We aren't, I don't think, in any sense to blame for this. For Atman to be a vehicle for Brahman to experience itself as if from a second-person perspective, it's maybe inevitable, all part of the patterns and regularities of MAL.
What I see as interesting aren't so much what one might term noumena (views from Brahman's perspective), and phenomena (views from Atman's perspective), but the way that the two views interact and, possibly, generate the qualia of mental experience. Qualia, in a way, could be considered the lingua franca between Atman and Brahman: a language they can both understand, albeit that their native tongues are different, the former's being self-reflective, and the latter's (if Bernardo's suspicion is correct), not.
If MAL were like human beings, then it'd be easy to imagine that it's playing some kind of game: it would supposedly know everything in the same kind of way we do, albeit at an inexpressibly higher level. I'm reminded of Alan Watts' piece about what to tell children about God, where it's all a game of hide and seek, of God hiding from himself through us. While for a time I was enamoured of this view, I'm coming around more to the view that MAL isn't just a grander version of us, with essentially the same kind, albeit incomparably more extensive, level of self-reflectivity.
It may be more that human beings (and maybe to some extent other organisms), could be considered as MAL's "organs" for coming to explore itself in a self-reflective, subjective fashion, which isn't its native way of apprehending itself. Thereby, perhaps it's learning and evolving through the Brahman/Atman schema, and perhaps both aspects are necessary for that to occur. By "evolving" I'm not saying that it's enhancing its capacities, so much as refining its appreciation of itself.
Advaita, whilst intellectually sophisticated in comparison to the average run of Christianity, lacks something of the personal. Which is harder? One can understand Advaita, at least intellectually, integrating it into the everyday life of Atman, or accept Christianity with its greater degree of subjectivity, and integrate that into one's intellectual life. It strikes me that there are pros and cons of both approaches, and that either way may prove effective in discovering the truth of what one really is.
All of the foregoing represents my personal musings on Idealism, Advaita and Christianity. I haven't by any means solidified them into personal doctrine. It represents my current thoughts, and of course, those may in time change. I present them for comment, criticism, call it what you will, and if I learn anything from that, all to the good.
Copyright © 2018 by Michael Larkin. Published with permission.