This is part IV of an occasional series on “the anatomy of God.”
Various spiritual traditions have long suggested that God is not separate from us. Rather, we are God and individual somehow at the same time. There is even support for this notion, today thought to be primarily part of the Eastern philosophical and spiritual traditions, in the Bible and in some versions of Christianity. The Gnostic Christian tradition relied on this notion, and the idea of each of us being a manifestation of God was in fact the major dividing line between Gnostic Christianity and what became mainline Christianity in the 4th Century.
What does it mean, then, that each of us is, in fact, God? How can we be God, the entirety, the universe itself, while also being little old bags of skin and bones with a rather limited time span allotted on this planet to ponder such imponderables? This essay will explore some possible answers to this question of questions.
First, we state the obvious: there is a manifest difference and distinction that makes you you and me me. You are over there and I am over here. There is indeed an obvious separation between you and me and between you and me and all other things in the universe.
There is a Western philosophical tradition that examines the ideas of part and whole in detail: mereology. As the link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry makes clear, there is a long history of serious thought about part/whole relations. We won’t be able to go down every garden path in this little essay but let’s examine a few of the flowers as we stroll.
Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian writer and philosopher, coined a new term to unify the ideas of separation and wholeness. Koestler described a holon as a universal unit of organization that is both a part and a whole. Koestler writes in his 1978 book Janus: A Summing Up:
A part, as we generally use the word, means something fragmentary and incomplete, which by itself would have no legitimate existence. On the other hand, there is a tendency among holists to use the word ‘whole’ or ‘Gestalt‘ as something complete in itself which needs no further explanation. But wholes and parts in this absolute sense do not exist anywhere, either in the domain of living organisms or of social organizations. What we find are intermediary structures on a series of levels in ascending order of complexity, each of which has two faces looking in opposite directions: the face turned toward the lower levels is that of an autonomous whole, the one turned upward that of a dependent part.
Koestler’s holon is a very useful explanatory concept that can be used to describe any level of reality. It can also be used outside of physics to describe social organization or biological structures.
We can see also how a human being, as a holon, is both part and whole. We are each of us a whole as a human individual, with obvious distinctions and separations in various ways from other things in the universe around us. We are, however, also part of the planet we live on, the ecosystem we live in, the family that we belong to, the company we work for, etc.
And we are, in the same manner, part of the entire universe. We are also, under this same reasoning, part of God because God as Source is what produces our universe in each moment. The universe is in God/Source, and not considered to be a separate creation. (This is a philosophical/theological position known as panentheism, “all in God,” which is similar but different to pantheism, “all is God.”)
Part & Whole At The Same Time?
If we are both whole and part, human and God-in-its-entirety, at the same time, which level of existence should we identify with? Well, both, of course, but it seems reasonable to me that it is more accurate to state that we are truly God, as much or more than we are the separate human being.
A wave on the ocean is both wave and ocean, but the little wave will find its more substantial identity in the ocean, in its entirety. By sheer size alone, the ocean would seem to be a more accurate notion of self, if we’re inclined to choose one or the other. We are not, of course, required to make such a choice and the more complete realization is that we are in each moment both part and whole, wave and ocean.
A final line of reasoning for this gnostic realization, that we are both human and God at the same time, is the recognition of the fuzzy physical boundaries between us and the universe around us. We can draw a line around our bodies and there is indeed a pretty clear boundary between our skin, nails, hair, etc. (everything that constitutes the apparent boundary between our bodies and the world), and the world around us.
But there is not a complete boundary or separation, despite this apparent separation. Rather, we are joined at all times to the world around us through the various forces acting on us: gravity and electromagnetism in particular (the strong and weak nuclear forces only act at very small distances). We are literally suspended in a web of forces, of attraction and repulsion, at all times. That’s how we stay on the surface of planet Earth and how our bodies don’t just fall apart into their component molecules. This web is very real and there is no clear boundary between us and the rest of the web of reality. We are the web, or at least we are nodes and strands of the web, and where those nodes and strands begin and end is always unclear.
The Creative Advance
Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of modern process philosophy, the school of thought that I find appealing in many ways, added much to this discussion of part and whole, of self and God. In particular, he added the notion of serial becoming, of the “creative advance” of the universe, as the central part of his philosophy. This serial becoming is what we normally call time and it is at the center of Whitehead’s system because nothing exists outside of time/becoming/process.
Whitehead’s mantra when it comes to his philosophical system and his meditations on part and whole was this: “The many become one and are increased by one.” (This is from his major 1929 philosophical work Process and Reality). This means that the process that is the universe is an endless series of novel and creative combinations, of new wholes from different parts, which then in turn become parts of new wholes and so on, forever.
This is one solution to the tricky question that began this essay: how can things be both parts and wholes at the same time, how can we be humans and God at the same time? Well, Whitehead might say, maybe it’s not technically “at the same time” but, instead, a serial manifestation of different identities that oscillate in time. In one moment, the wave is the wave and in the next it is the ocean and the next moment again the lonely wave, but slightly different this time as the advance into novelty continues in perpetuity. And the entire universe is constituted by this eternal flex and flux of constituents combining, separating, and re-combining in new arrangements.
Experiencing The All
Making this discussion a little more concrete and personal, I have, as many of you probably have also, had experiences where I truly felt as though I was the All, where my personal identity slipped away into pure oneness, into God. And yet I came back into my personhood and my “normal” existence a little later. It is not really conceivable how I could have literally disappeared into the All only to come back into my human self with memories of that non-personal experience, because non-personal experience seems like a self-contradiction. If there is no person, no center of identity, how is there experience? Well, this is where words start to fail.
Nevertheless, we may gain some insight into these experiences with the process philosophy notion of constant becoming, of the many becoming one and increasing by one. In this notion, there may well be a highest whole, the universal becoming. In moments of profound mystical impersonal experience, perhaps, just perhaps, we are dissolving into that highest whole.
Or, looking the other way in the holarchy (the chain of parts becoming wholes becoming parts…): maybe we are, during mystical experience, returning to our Source, returning to a state that is simply beyond the subject/object distinction. In one particularly powerful mystical experience of mine, where my self disappeared for a while, as my mind slowly re-constituted and my personhood came back, I asked, without words, “what is this, this experience of no-experience?” An answer came to me in the music that was playing: “Spirit, pure Spirit.” That’s as good an answer, perhaps, as can be given, reflecting the lack of any subject/object distinction in the realm of pure Spirit or Source that underlies the manifest realm that we normally inhabit.
Frankly, I don’t know what’s going on in these moments of impersonal experience, and maybe I’ll never know. The experience ultimately speaks for itself and may always defy our attempts at rational explanation. But I do find it fun and at least a little fruitful to take these stabs in the dark at explanations. God knows we need new answers to these perennial questions than those provided by traditional religions.