What is Man?

Ali Ahmed

Some would say that religions come about from an observation of the world. Earlier societies, bewildered by the majesty of the natural world, turned their fascination into reverence and devotion. Others believe religions are divine revelations. Either way, I think most would say that religion serves as a heuristic device; an interpretive tool or a model. In other words: on the one hand we have the world of men and animals (“creation,” should you accept that). The world is complete and fixed. On the other hand we have all these religions that talk about the world. Lately (I mean since the Scientific Revolution), we’ve held the view that the world, in all its functioning, could be understood in its totality. Reason could make sense of all.

Many, thus, have come to see religion as incomplete or obsolete, the attempts of primitive societies to understand their world and thus they cannot have any real bearing on the enlightened individual of the modern world. Unlike in the past, the world today can be better understood by a finer application of our minds. In effect, what I’m alluding to is the subject-object division that reiterates the idea of how, on the one hand, we have the world-complete, fixed, and static-and on the other, all our thoughts about that world since the beginning. This image helps us see the accepted position of man in the world, or, the detachment of man from the world. This materialistic view of the world has become so pervasive that even those who subscribe to faith ultimately take it for granted, thus believing that the world is complete and that religion provides a view of seeing that world. Hence do we treat the world as a separate entity, a blank canvas upon which we throw aimlessly the colors of our thoughts, hoping that something will stick?

Owen Barfield, one of the closest friends of C.S. Lewis and part of the Oxford group, The Inklings, was a distinguished philosopher and author. In his essay “The Rediscovery of Meaning,” Barfield asks us to

consider the conventional picture of the history of the earth and man. It shows us, first of all, a purely physical earth without life or consciousness; then the arrival on that earth of animals and men as physical objects moving about on it; finally the development by man, out of nothing, of a faculty of imagination and thought enabling him to mirror or copy inwardly an outer world which had existed solidly for millions of years before him. We see the inner world evolving at a comparatively later stage from the outer.

Part of this disjuncture between the inner and outer worlds, or the subject and the object, can be seen as arising from a particular reading of the Genesis account of creation: After the sixth day, the Lord, content with the world now complete, rests. Also, unlike the animals that are brought to life from the earth itself, man is depicted as a creature fundamentally foreign to the “blue rock”; an alien in the midst of all the creatures of the world. “And thus I restrain myself and swallow the luring call with dark sobs,” writes Rainer Maria Rilke in the first of his Duino Elegies, depicting the deep existential cry of humanity. “Whom then, alas, are we able to use in our need? Not angels, not men, and the resourceful animals certainly notice that we’re not at home, not reliably, in the interpreted world.”

Some trace the modern “environmental crisis” (one can see the deep-rooted effect of our thinking in that term) to that account in Genesis. Lynn White, in his widely acclaimed 1967 essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” does just that. But that is not our objective here.

Going back to Barfield’s words, we see how in all our actions we operate from the fundamental assumption that we are, at the core, really disconnected from the world. Our inner reality, the interior world of ideas and imagination, is out of sync with the external world of sensory experiences. In his “Nature” essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully compiles his observations on the natural world. “The charming landscape which I saw this morning,” says Emerson,

is indubitably made up of twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet…To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood

What is it that separates the child from the man? What is it that allows him to be a true lover of nature and to really see the sun? The child doesn’t bring any preconceived ideas of what he should or should not do, nor does he arrange and rearrange his experiences after the fact in order to rationalize what has happened. In short, he doesn’t ask the banal question, “What is the meaning of life?” He is instead actively engaged in making meaning, without even knowing it. The child doesn’t think that life exists outside of him for him to act on, or for it to act upon him. And thus there is no separation between subject and object, between inner and outer.

“Man did not start on his career as a self-conscious being in the form of a mindless or thoughtless unit,” says Barfield in his essay, “The Rediscovery of Meaning,”

confronting a separate, unintelligible objective world very like our own, about which he then proceeded to invent all manner of myths. He was not an onlooker, learning to make a less and less hopelessly inaccurate mental copy. He has had to wrestle his subjectivity out of the world of his experience by polarizing that world gradually into a duality. And this is the duality of subjective-objective, or outer-inner, which now seems so fundamental… (17-18).

Just like the child who truly sees nature, “early man did not observe nature in our detached way. He participated mentally and physically in her inner and outer process.” Lao Tzu tells us in the Tao-Te-Ching that

Maintaining unity is virtuous,

For the inner world of thought is one

With the external world

Of action and of things

The sage avoids their separation,

By breathing as the sleeping babe,

And thus maintaining harmony

He cleans the dark mirror of his mind,

So that it reflects without intent.

He conducts himself without contriving,

Loving the people, and not interfering

The sage challenges the conventional “wisdom” of this alienation between inner and outer and thus returns to this child-like state of wonder and the process of discovery wherein meaning is created. Our minds become polluted for, as Barfield notes,

the vaunted progress of ‘knowledge’, which has been going on since the seventeenth century, has been progress in alienation. The alienation of nature from humanity, which the exclusive pursuit of objectivity in science entails, was the first stage; and was followed, with the acceptance of man himself as part of a nature so alienated, by the alienation of man from himself.

This alienation has reached such a point to find its expression in the line, “The end of earth will not be the end of us.” Don’t get me wrong; I am terribly fond of Christopher Nolan’s work-have been so for years-and Interstellar was a great film. But the idea nevertheless should evoke a sense of bewilderment and a questioning of where it comes from. We have come a long way in our alienation to think of Earth purely as a ball of matter. It is beautiful, yes, but it is just one of many. And should the time come when it can no longer-I wonder as a result of what-sustain us, well, we’ll just hop on to a ship and go somewhere else. However desperate the situation may be, it takes a certain conviction in the separate finalities and completion of the world and of us to think that we can live apart from our mother, our home. “Finite minds regard nature as a confronting ‘other’ existing per se, which the mind knows but does not make” (emphasis added). In his lectures on The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, one of the most distinguished and celebrated poet-philosophers of South Asia, Mohammad Iqbal, depicts-among other themes-the relationship between creation and the creator, arguing for a more dynamic bond between the two. Iqbal continues:

We are thus apt to regard the act of creation as a specific past event, and the universe appears to us as a manufactured article which has no organic relation to the life of its maker, and of which the maker is nothing more than a mere spectator. All the meaningless theological controversies about the idea of creation arise from this narrow vision of the finite mind…from the Divine point of view, there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and an ‘after’.

Iqbal calls it dead on when he says that it is the habit of the finite mind to view the creation of the world as a past event, to believe that the world exists in its entirety apart from us, rather than seeing the organic process of creation whereby which the world grows in correspondence with our own spiritual and creative evolution. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake says that “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (l.115-116). Blake echoes Lao Tzu’s idea of cleansing the mind so as to be able to see infinity, to be really able to, in the words of Emerson, “see nature”. Emerson accomplishes this clarity, this clear vision of infinity when he says,

In the woods we return to reason and faith…standing on the bare ground,-my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space-all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God

Emerson sees nature through the Divine point of view: “there is no creation in the sense of a specific event having a ‘before’ and an ‘after'”. He becomes nothing-free of self-because a stable identity is an illusion, just like the concept of time which divides reality into a mathematical grid in order for us to be able to analyze and understand it. Our personal reality, our identity, is always in flux, always in the making. Exactly like the world around us. That is why Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Literaria Biographia calls creation an eternal act “in the infinite I AM”. “I am” is not defined by fixity. “To be” means “to become”; to be in a constant state of becoming. That is the quintessential teaching of the Buddha: all life is ephemeral, categorized by constant change. One cannot really point to themselves and say “I am this” or “I am that” On the Buddhist path of enlightenment, one realizes that they are, for instance, not “Jeff” or “Angela”, but rather that they are “Jeff-ing” or “Angela-ing”. But of course, that is easier said than done, and the finite mind would rather impose fixities than take the trouble to see the dynamism of reality. It is much easier for us to invest in nouns than in verbs; much easier to believe that what we have or know today is how it has always been and how it will always be. This is also the claim of Uniformitarianism, which actually stems from Cartesianism-the map and marker of the finite mind. We believe that merely by virtue of being born in our family of animal, we are all “human beings“, while the truth is that we are born into a process of human becoming.

Going back to the first point about how we view religion as a heuristic device on the one hand, and hold the world-complete and static-in the other. Essentially, we go through life as if it were a series of mathematical problems, and faith the answer sheet that comes at the back of the book. There are those of us who, when confronted with one of the riddles of reality, look back to the back and think, “this is not the answer I was looking for”. Thus do we question the validity of this “answer scheme”, and we either reject it out rightly, or call for a revision so that it may correspond with the answers we have in our head. On the other hand, there are also those of us who, privileging the scheme, believe that the questions and the answers cannot ultimately be reconciled, and the only solution is to abstain from the riddles-become a hermit. This is really the divide between the world of action and things and the world of thought; the outer and the inner; the object and the subject. But there are also those-albeit few-who, if we continue with this metaphor, concern themselves not so much with the complexity of the question, nor the appeal and reliability of the answers, but rather with the grubby work of meeting the riddles and the doubts head-on. Amidst the racket and chaos of existence, the confusion that is only becoming more pronounced as more and more of us struggle to stand upright in a world that is rapidly running out of space, the call to faith is a personal call away from a senseless universe towards apotentially sensible one. And I stress the word “potential” for man is indeed God’s creative principle on earth and religion a guide for the eternally ongoing construction of the cosmos.

“It is the lot of man” writes Iqbal, “to share in the deeper aspirations of the universe around him and to shape his own destiny as that of the universe, now by adjusting himself to its forces, now by putting the whole of his energy to mould its forces to his own ends and purposes. And in this process of progressive change God becomes a co-worker with him, provided man takes the initiative” This trust of vicegerency, of being an ambassador to the Divine, a nexus between the heavenly and the earthly, was offered to the mountains for they are the greatest in height of all creation and every morning do converse with the heavens. “Verily we proposed to the Heavens, and to the Earth, and to the mountains to receive the ‘trust’, but they refused the burden and they feared to receive it. Man undertook to bear it, but hath proved unjust, senseless!” (Quran 33:72) This trust of being a co-worker with God is called, neatly and appropriately in Barfield’s words, Participation. To participate in the making of the universe-think creating the world of the dream in Nolan’s Inception-means to hold no distinction between subject-yourself-and object-the world. You are the cosmos and the cosmos is you, or as Alan Watts says, “you are something the whole world is doing, just like a wave is something the whole ocean is doing.” The Quran speaks of a correlation of signs between the horizon and the depth’s of one’s inner being: the macrocosm and the microcosm. To participate hence means you see this correlation and experience the constant flux, the constant evolution of both one’s consciousness and the cosmos, together. And if man does not evolve his consciousness, “the inner richness of his being, if he ceases to feel the inward push of advancing life, then the spirit within him hardens into stone and he is reduced to the level of dead matter.” When instead of seeing oneself as part of the cosmic dance that includes all reality-everything from the unseen to the seen worlds-man chooses to rather be separate; when man finds purchase in a stable “self” rather than a fluid identity; and when he believes that the world is as static as his inner self, man becomes dead matter and thus proves “unjust, senseless!” In other words, recalling the words of the wise Mufasa, instead of being part of the ongoing circle of life, man sits apart from it all and is content to be a mere onlooker. It is no wonder then that when things begin to look rather grim, we start packing up our bags, hoping some intergalactic taxi will pick us up any moment. We’re not really at home on earth. We’ve forgotten that the fate of human existence is intertwined with the fate of the earth; our destinies are bound together-a single narrative of mother and child.

So, how do we get back on track and reclaim that storied relationship? Well, if you call this 1-800 number, I’ll send you a 900-page report on how to live life right. And if you call right now, I’ll double the offer and send this absolutely…no, none of that. You find our own way. Just be open to the possibility of religion as a guide in the face of constant change.

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