Harold J Wilson


Contributions to ‘Foothill theology.’



Think of how our real secret as individual selves lies in the hecceity, in the sheer thisness of our lives. That is what Incarnation is about. But it is still a big If, for who/what is it that is incarnated besides a series of random particulars? Aren’t our lives inherently leaky and ambiguous in meaning? Might it be that we are like gods or demons, and does it matter? Could we be both gods and demons in some Buddhist manner of meaning? There is a tradition in Buddhist thought which considers the human as having a range of being from the animal to the godlike or demonic. Gods, in a smaller sense than we in the west are accustomed to use the term, are beings who have achieved a greater energy and focus which has transformed them from ordinary ‘half-asleep’ humans, while demons are beings who have been energized and transformed from ordinary humans by their obsession with greed or lust or power.

But Buddhist Dharma, the Eightfold Path of right living and thinking, does not ordinarily attach to such concepts because it is more important to focus on keeping to the rightful path. Indeed we westerners also, in our compulsions and everyday compartmentalizations of life, detach from our own psychological myths of the self. Man obsesses more about his immediate needs, his species survival and feeding programs, or perhaps focuses more on his dreams of power or fame. And then in his alienated intellect he wants to detach from the earth, to fly; but it is only very gradually that he learns that there is nowhere else to fly to, and that the illusion or the dream of freedom is only an evasion of our here-nowness which we must either inhabit properly or attempt to escape from into some other dream.

Buddhism attempts to wake us from this dream. It may be an excellent philosophy for those whose ego has been formed by Eastern tradition and family-bound cultures, but for the bloated, yet weak, western ego-self, the eightfold path is difficult. The ego, like a five-hundred pound amoeba, leaks out toxically in all directions. A strait path with appropriate byways seems called for which is tailored to our western needs. This question has been answered, historically, by the appearance of the Monotheistic Religions, or to be more specific, the mainline orthodoxies, whether Papal, Calvinistic, Sunni, Shia, or Rabbinic forms of the western tradition. These all pose a transcendent deity as a counterweight to the inflated but unreal sense of self which we have inherited.

From the point of view of these several orthodoxies, one might view western religion as mainly an elaborate avoidance program, a way of domesticating the transcendent so that it can never establish even the slightest claim upon us. Bad poetry plus boredom plus ethical inconsistency add up to an inoculation against being taken in any way beyond our shallow depth. Religion becomes another form of running-in-place, a vulgar form of literary pretension, or it splinters into short-lived cultic connexions which offer the illusion of some further ‘liberated’ self.

Let’s face it, most people looking for God have the same language problem as infants might have looking for the higher mathematics of their circumscribed world. The difference is that most people above the infant stage can pronounce the word ‘God’ while believing that they have, by speaking it, understood what they were saying. We have much the same problem with the word ‘I’. Perhaps the missing concept here is ‘soul.’ Is there another possible self beyond the ego-self, or the consumer-self ? Where exactly is the I, or ‘god –Self’?

Obviously, the answer to all this is so secret because it is not there – somewhere beyond - but here. It is in the common, the everyday, that the mysterious is so concealed that we can finally become convinced that there is no mystery. This is part of why we are so hidden from ourselves. Maybe locating the Mystery is the first big part of solving the problem of human meaning. But then where are the maps and where have their makers gone to? Where are those who wrote the protocols for our own questions ?  Or are they perhaps also a part of the same strategy of divine hiddenness which strews clues in our face but refuses any direct answer from either history or the future.  As you can readily infer, I myself would think so, although many, perhaps most, are content with weak answers to the questions which they are not ready yet to ask   And yet the questions add up sufficiently so that in order to locate any area where there might be sufficient movement, evidence, signs, let alone an answer, a special energy is required, an attention, perhaps of a different sort than previously exerted, so that some vision, no matter how fleeting, is brought into focus. Until you get up into the foothills, you really have no idea of what the mountains are all about.

Well then, but what was it or is it ?  The memory of dreams recedes rapidly from waking consciousness, and our notions of selfhood are remarkably both fragile and persistent, like perhaps our notions of God. Or is God only a kind of sideways glimpse of a higher reality, just out of any kind of direct focus ? And is the self a similar reality, dependent only on the believer’s faith of its body’s tenant that it is indeed a self ?  Perhaps the word ‘I’ should give way to a third-person reference to one’s ‘tenant of record.’

The mystics of various faiths and certainly the monotheistic ones have all posited the ‘real’ self in the higher being of God and taught a Way of Negation which will, if followed wisely, provide a rule of life which detaches us from our hungry pre-programmed lives and the many distractions of living at the consumer level. The alternative Way of Affirmation which values and loves the things of this world has been adumbrated by the poets and artists, but is generally considered too distracting and undisciplined to liberate us from the temptations which beset us or to lead to a real askesis or path of ascent. Perhaps this alternative waits upon the development of a more mature Theology of Creation, rather than an ascetic based upon Soteriology or ‘being saved’.

Meanwhile, since the widely rumoured death of the monotheistic deity as a credible cornerstone of belief, much of modern philosophy has focussed upon the problem of meaning, and particularly the meaning of that which we call the human self. I think it was Sartre who redefined Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum as something like, “I exist therefore I think.” The logical fallacy in this has been pointed out. It ought to read,  “Thought exists,” or perhaps, “ There is thought in it.” Like a god, the ‘I’ was smuggled in by the back door. No one who knew Sartre would be even slightly surprised.

And yet, among the few things which we have to thank the Post Modernist French thinkers for, there is precisely this focussing on the status of the self, the I-word which continues to haunt us. If you somehow believe in it, grammatically and therefore, to a degree, also metaphysically, you have, for them, remained a theist. If you believe in a cosmos of mathematically ascertainable relationships between planetary bodies, stars, black holes, light and energy, voila, you are definitely a theist!

This would no doubt come as a surprise to many scientific positivists and longtime, self-considered, atheists, but as I tell them at my Oxford pub, “What you don’t realize is that they have moved the goalposts. You may like to think you are an atheist, but if you haven’t kept up with the criteria, you may not sufficiently disbelieve in order to qualify.”

Now it has certainly been pointed out that those who have followed the self-admiring postmodern demythologisation of the self/author/reader/text still hang on tightly to all the little comforts of being a self/author/reader as well as some of those monetary benefits accruing to them from the present copyright laws. Hume said it all some time ago. You may not be actually able to observe the principle of causality empirically, but you still have to live by the general assumptions of cause and effect. You do have to live in the commonsense world, even if you pretend not to believe in it.

But perhaps pretending that you don’t believe is only a fashionable career strategy like academic Marxism used to be. Perhaps the social scientists in their academic fashions somehow manage to describe only a mad mockery of the reality which we inhabit, somewhere between god and demon and the grammatical assumption of an ‘I.’, while, secretly, they are quite as at home in this unreal world as the rest of us.   

Coming back to the notion of Incarnation, one of the difficulties is that we seem to be condemned to a seriously dualistic mental fix in our sense of who and how we are which interferes with or contradicts any holistic perception of our way of being-in-time. Because of our persistent binary concepts, we have to see our life as divided between body/spirit (soma/psyche) or mind/body along with childhood/adulthood, this life/ afterlife, male/female, etc. This is somehow basic to the way we think and cannot be easily discarded or transcended. Given all these contradictions, what then can Incarnation mean for us?

Well, to begin with, I would say that we are in all our various manifestations, bodied forth, embodied in, expressed through, our forms of being here and now. The soi-disant ‘post-moderns’ say that our reality is ‘socially constructed’ but actually it is more than that. It is life-constructed, chemically and biologically constructed, cell-constructed at some very basic level; even, dare one say it, constructed of the same material as the cosmos. So, if we are the cosmos become sentient, become suffering and self-transcending, is this only a ‘social construction’? Well, we owe them something for focussing the question in such a way that we can see the alternatives.

It appears to many of us that our lives are also Self-constructed – by our many choices, failures, dilatory pauses, and personal courting of occasions of sheer good fortune, or bad. Disease, death, inheritance, genetics, and possibly hard work, all play their part in assembling a future which is never entirely certain though never empty of hope. But whatever our life is, it is incarnated in all of the foregoing, bodied forth, made real by what and whoever we have been; our ‘thisness’, or ‘hecceity.’

 The post-moderns have described themselves as non-humanist, as indeed they should because they have called the category of ‘human’ itself into question. Perhaps there is a sort of basic honesty in considering ourselves a cosmic solecism, an accidentally sentient animal who makes language games as a kind of compensation for living and dying uselessly. If that is the alternative to thinking of ourselves as little Lords of the Universe, perhaps it serves a valuable moral function. We have not done so well in caring for our own planet, have we?  We may need a small dose of humility. The triumphalist rhetoric of politicians, pretending to understand economic cycles, of the Papacy totally ignoring the population bomb, of  scientists whose notions of progress forget the obsession with power of those who control and fund them; all this perhaps demands some counter-rhetoric which appropriately downsizes our claims to further moral achievement.

And yet, and yet, is that all we are? What about the god and the demon who lurk and incubate within us? Perhaps we are not yet human, not only human, much more and less than human. So much is in those easy words, ‘human,’ ‘self’, ‘I.’ Perhaps all the binary logic is, at the end, more confusing than clarifying. But sentience and transcendence have a kind of equivalent meaning, don’t they ? Do you not believe so? Don’t we feel called to go beyond who and where we are? Isn’t that our ultimate poetry, our fate? Are we not, in some basic stratification of our being, little gods who must seek to worship a further, higher, Deity, if only to avoid the demonic potential which waits within us to drag us into the other, more seriously destructive capacities of sentience, of power games, sheer obsessive sensuality, the ‘limit experiences’ in which many, like their Postmodern master, Michel Foucault, seek to lose themselves?

But, then, Incarnation, our inselving in life, embodying in time, is somehow always ahead of us, beckoning us forward, not just something limited to biological programs, chemical reactions, ‘social constructions.’ It is, in a way, our ‘God Program’, presaging Theandric Being, our becoming more human, more Godlike, more real, more here-and-now; rooting us in the present which is, after all, our future as well as our past.

Perhaps as a religion Christianity fails, as all the world religions do, to answer all our questions about human, personal life, let alone about God. But the one thing which it does in an outstanding and exemplary way is to somehow combine the ‘thisness’ of individual being  with the universality of human – which is to say individual but also biological, chemical, being – into a notion of sentient personhood. This may be an ideal which most of us have yet to live up to, but it is also a concept of selves as centres of existence which reflect some higher purpose in the universe without which we wander lost in our inherited animal natures.

One way to escape from our binary thought-pattern is to see different polarities in tension in our lives, especially this tension between our individual particularity and the humanity which calls us into a higher sort of social and spiritual existence. This is the natura naturans of our being en Christoo or ‘in Christ;’ that higher nature which is meant to nurture us into its own fulfilment of our humanity.