Beyond Theology, Beyond Atheism, Beyond Nihilism

Rainy Season in the Tropics

To construct a God in the human image is objectionable only to the extent that we have a poor image of ourselves, for example, as egos in bags of skin. But as we begin to visualize man as the behavior of a unified field – immensely complex and comprising the whole universe – there is less and less reason against conceiving God in that image. To go deeper and deeper into oneself is also to go farther and farther out into the universe, until, as the physicist well knows, we reach the domain where three-dimensional, sensory images are no longer valid. (These are, of course, graven images.) For the three-dimensional world seems to appear in a matrix as different from it in form as tones from the flute, as ideas from brain structure, or as a broadcast concert from the electronic apparatus of the radio. Nothing in the information conveyed in the ordinary run of television programs tells us anything about the mechanisms of television. These are almost deliberately concealed. We do not televise through camera 2 a picture of camera 1 televising the show! For what, in the meantime, would be happening to the picture on camera 1?

Thus the idea of an invisible and intangible Ground underlying and producing everything that we sense directly is a situation of just the same kind as that the structure of one’s own retina and optic nerves is not in the contents of vision. It is really no problem for an intelligent human being of the twentieth century to conceive that all his experience of the world, together with the world itself, subsists in some kind of unifying and intelligent continuum. (Think of the vast variety of sound – voice, string, woodwind, drum, brass – reproducible on the diaphragm of a loud-speaker.)

The real theological problem for today is that it is, first of all, utterly implausible to think of this Ground as having the monarchial and paternal character of the Biblical Lord God. But, secondly, there is the much more serious difficulty of freeing oneself from the insidious plausibility of the mythology of nineteenth-century scientism. from the notion that the universe is gyrating stupidity in which the mind of man is nothing but a chemical fantasy doomed to frustration. It is insufficiently recognized that this is a vision of the world inspired by the revolt against the Lord God of those who had formerly held the role of his slaves. This reductionist, nothing-but-ist view of the universe with its muscular claims to realism and facing-factuality is at root a proletarian and servile resentment against quality, genius, imagination, poetry, fantasy, inventiveness and gaiety.[1] Within twenty or thirty years it will seem as superstitious as flat-earthism.

Actually, the sense of being an intelligent and sensitive accident in a doltish universe is an attitude that could arise only in the ruins of theism. For if one begins by looking at the world, not as the form of God, but as some non-divine object, some mechanism made by God, what happens when God dies? The world is felt as mechanism without mechanic. When God is dead, man, who was always defined as a creature other than God, begins to feel himself as other than reality – a sentimental irregularity in a dog-eat-dog system that might have been contrived by the Devil, if Devil there were. Men so at odds with their environment must either bulldoze it into obedience or destroy it. The two choices come to the same thing.

But a superior religion goes beyond theology. It turns toward the center; it investigates and feels out the inmost depths of man himself, since it is here that we are in most intimate contact, or rather, in identity with existence itself. Dependence on the theological ideas and symbols is replaced by direct, non-conceptual touch with a level of being which is simultaneously one’s own and the being of all others. For at the point where I am most myself I am most beyond myself. At root I am one with all the other branches. Yet this level of being is not something to be grasped and categorized, to be inspected, analyzed or made an object of knowledge – not because it is taboo or sacrosanct, but because it is the point from which one radiates, the light not before but within the eyes.

If this is that theological bugbear, pantheism, what of it? One is not equating omniscience with conscious attention or the Godhead with the ego. It is simply an assertion of the perennial intuition of the mystics everywhere in the world that man has not dropped into being from nowhere, but that his feeling of “I” is a dim and distorted sensation of That which eternally IS. In the wake of so many centuries of theological monarchism, plus the recent and persuasive nihilism of certain scientists, it may take some courage to accept so bold an assurance. This is not, however, the mere acceptance of a new belief. It could be that, if that is all one can manage. But I have been trying to suggest all along that this is what one must come to by following the Christian way intently and consistently until one realizes the full absurdity of its (and one’s own) basic assumptions about personal identity and responsibility.

Nevertheless, I have already suggested that the way in which we interpret mystical experience must be plausible. That is to say, it must fit in with and/or throw light upon the best available knowledge about life and the universe. As we enter the latter half of the twentieth century, there seem to me to be three main trends in scientific thought which are at once three ways of expressing the same idea, and three ways of describing the identity of things or events as the mystic feels them.

The first is the growing recognition that causally connected or related events are not separate events, but aspects of a single event. To describe a causal relation is a fumbling way of recognizing that cause A and cause B go together in the same way as the head and the tail of a cat. This implies that earlier events may often depend in some way upon later events, somewhat as an electric impulse will not depart from the positive pole until the negative pole is established or connected, or as the meaning of a word in a sentence is determined by words that follow. Compare, “That is the bark of a tree,” with, “That is the bark of a dog.” The sentence as a whole is the event which determines the function and meaning of the “separate” words. Perhaps the best illustration of this way of understanding causality is that the even rainbow does not occur without the simultaneous presence of sun, atmospheric moisture, and an observer – all in a certain angular configuration. If any one of the three is absent, there is no rainbow. This may be difficult to understand in the case of the absence of an observer unless one remembers that every observer sees the rainbow in a different place. Where, then, is the rainbow? A little consideration will show that something of the same kind must be true of all experiences, not only of flimsy and transparent luminescences, but also of such apparently solid things as mountains.

The second is the tendency to think of the behavior of things and objects as the behavior of fields – spatial, gravitational, magnetic or social. The reason is that careful and detailed description of the behavior or movement of a body must also involve description of the behavior of its environment or surrounding space. Where, then, does the behavior start? Inside the body, or outside it in the surrounding space? The answer is in both and neither, because it is best to abandon the body and the space for a new descriptive unit, the body-space, the organism-environment, the figure-ground. It is important to distinguish this way of looking at things from old-fashioned environmental determinism, which describes the organism as moved by the environment rather than moving with it.

The third, long familiar to biologists, is what Ludwig von Bertelannfy has called Systems Theory. This is approximately that the structure and behavior of any system is only partially accounted for by analysis and description of the smaller units that allegedly “compose” it. For what any of these units is and does depends upon its place in and its relation to the system as a whole. Thus blood in a test tube is not the same thing as blood flowing in veins. For an organism disposes itself in and as various parts; it is not composed of them as one puts together tubes, wires, dials and condensers to make a radio.

These are, then, three ways of approaching the world as a unitary and relational system which are highly useful in the sciences but strangely unfamiliar to common sense. For the latter derives from political, constructionist and mechanical models of nature which, in turn, strongly influence our sensation of the person as an enclosed unit of life excluded from the world outside. But these unitary, relational, and “fieldish” ways of thinking in the sciences give immense plausibility to non-dualist or pantheist (to be frightfully exact, “panentheist”) types of metaphysic, and to theories of the self more-or-less akin to the “multisolipsism” of the Hindu atman-is-Brahman doctrine.

When, for example, we consider the full implications of the way in which we see the rainbow, and realize that this is also the way in which we perceive the clouds, the sun, the earth and the stars, we find ourselves strangely close to the “idealism” of Mahayana Buddhism, Berkeley, and Bradley – but with the great advantage of being able to describe the situation in physical and neurological terms, and no gobbledy-gook about “minds” and “souls” to offend the prejudices of the tough-minded or (should I say?) hard-headed. And to such as these the subjective experiences of the mystics are always suspect, for might they not be distortions of consciousness brought about by stress, self-hypnosis, fasting, hyperoxygenation or drugs? There is, then, a more structural and objective foundation for that leap of faith in which a man may dare to think that he is not a stranger in the universe, nor a solitary and tragic flash of awareness in endless and overwhelming darkness. For in the light of what we now know in physical terms, it is not unreasonable to wager that deep down at the center “I myself” is “It” – as in “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.”

If this is a hope, or a fervent belief, Krishnamurti is right in saying that it should be challenged and tested with the question, “Why do you want to believe that? Is it because you are afraid of dying, of coming to an end? Is this identification with the cosmic Self the last desperate resort of your ego to continue its game?” Indeed, if this Supreme Identity is, for me, a belief to which I am clinging, I am in total self-contradiction. Not only is there no sense in clinging to what I am; the very act of clinging also implies that I do not really know that I am it! Such belief is merely doubt dressed up. The final meaning of negative theology, of knowing God by unknowing, of the abandonment of idols both sensible and conceptual, is that ultimate faith is not in or upon anything at all. It is complete letting go. Not only is it beyond theology; it is also beyond atheism and nihilism. Such letting go cannot be attained. It cannot be acquired or developed through perseverance and exercises, except insofar as such efforts prove the impossibility of acquiring it. Letting go comes only through desperation. When you know that it is beyond you – beyond your powers of action as beyond your powers of relaxation. When you give up every last trick and device for getting it, including this “giving up” as something that one might do, say, at ten o’clock tonight. That you cannot by any means do it – that IS it! That is the might self-abandonment which gives birth to the stars.

Alan Watts
Beyond Theology (1964)

Painting by Frederic Edwin Church: Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866)

1 “A proletarian and a poor man,” writes Josef Pieper, “are not the same. A man may be poor without being a proletarian: a beggar in mediaeval society was certainly not a proletarian. Equally, a proletarian is not necessarily poor: a mechanic, a ‘specialist’ or a ‘technician’ in a ‘totalitarian work state’ is certainly a proletarian…The proletarian is the man who is fettered to the process of work.” Josef Pieper, Leisure: the Basis of Culture (1952)


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