Three Frames of Reality: The Natural, Human & Spiritual Dimensions

three overlapping circles

To what extent are we able to encompass and comprehend the Supreme Reality with our finite human minds? What if the Supreme Reality is an infinite and ever-expanding horizon? If the finite cannot encompass and comprehend the infinite, except perhaps in some tangential or partial way, how does this influence our perception of the encompassing and comprehensive?

With what “singular unitive frame”,”multiple pluralistic frames” or “overlapping integrative frame” of knowledge and experience are we to employ in order to symbolize, evoke and represent what we perceive to be the fundamental nature of reality?

For centuries human beings have created “cosmogonies”, that is, mental maps, models and paradigms to symbolize, evoke, express and represent what they conceive to be the ultimate and supreme reality. The impulse to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, what philosopher Karl Jaspers calls the Comprehensive and Encompassing, seems to be innate in human nature.

In attempting to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, ought we to rely primarily upon the Inductive Language of Empirical Science, the Deductive Language of Rational Philosophy, or the Chronological Event-Driven Language of History, or all three? What “epistemological status and explanatory role”, if any, ought we to grant the Symbolic, Archetypal, Metaphorical, Analogical, Parabolic, Dialogical, Narrative, Emotive, Aesthetic and Ethical ways of knowing and being? What attention ought we to pay, of any, to the primal, elliptical , intuitive and evocative “languages” that may include Revelation, Illumination, Vision, Dream, Epiphany, Theophany, Music, Art, Symbol, Ritual, Poetry, Myth, Parable, Narrative, Drama and the Arts?

Temperamental predisposition and epistemological preference will strongly influence which of these “ways of knowing and being” we choose to privilege as we inquire into the nature of the Supreme Reality of “What Is.” Just as there is “no way of accounting for taste,” so there may also be no way of accounting for psychological differences and epistemological preferences.

There are two books in my library by authors with very different casts of mind but that I think should be read back-to-back. The first of these books is Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius (the naturalist), Dante (the transcendentalist), and Goethe (the humanist), by George Santayana. The second of these books is The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness, by Raimon Panikkar.

Santayana is a scientific and empirical naturalist, an aesthetic and sacramental Roman Catholic, and a philosophical and literary humanist — with a love for the arts, learning, imagination and culture. He recognizes a dialectical tension between the naturalistic, spiritual and humanistic aspects of his own complex identity, but he believes it is the creative task of future “philosophical poets” will be to fuse these three horizons of meaning. His intellectual and cultural sensibilities are more European and American.

Panikkar famously remarked, “I left as a Christian, found myself as a Hindu, and returned as a Buddhist, and that without ceasing to be a Christian.” Throughout his scholarly career he distinguished himself as an articulate voice for “deep ecumenism” and “dialogical dialogue” not only between the world’s religions but also between religious, secular, humanistic and spiritual perspectives on life. He envisions them as differentiated yet overlapping and mutually corrective perspectives rather than mutually oppositional and antagonistic.

His approach is radically different from the “dualistic” mode of public discourse on science, art, philosophy, and religion that is common enough in today’s world. Panikkar differentiates and integrate the various horizons of human knowledge and experience, combining introspection and observation, because he is not an “absolutist” or “literalist” about religion, science, or philosophy. But neither is he a “post-modern relativistic  ironist.” His approach is relational and dialogical, valuing both the tacit and explicit ways of knowing, much like Michael Polanyi, author of Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension. His epistemology cares about “Truth”. For Panikkar the search for “encompassing truth” about the phenomena of experience and the acquisition of knowledge must take into account both the contents of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, emotion and cognition, participation and detachment, intimacy and grandeur, perception and judgment. 

In addition to The Cosmotheandric Experience, his other books include The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery; The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; The Trinity and World Religions; The Vedic Experience; Invisible Harmony; and Cultural Disarmament: The Way of Peace.

Throughout all his writings Panikkar seeks to simultaneously  differentiate and integrate the Cosmic, Human and Transcendental dimensions of reality. He sees no need for a “culture war” between science and religion, and views such conflicts as largely rooted in misunderstandings and “reifications” concerning both the nature of science and the nature of religion.

Philosopher Keith Ward arrives as a similar conclusion in his book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion. In the chapter entitled “Has Science Made Belief in God Obsolete,” he writes:

“It is just possible that we are at the beginning of a fourth stage (of human historical evolution beyond the three stages of local pre-literate, classical and text-based reasoning, and informed critical inquiry) of a truly global consilience among many different cultures, and among religion, the humanities, and science….

“If religion is fully humanized and open to the critical methods and established truths of the sciences, and if science is used in the service of human welfare and the flourishing of all sentient beings, there can be a long and positive future for human life and for whatever forms of life may develop from it. That is only likely to occur if scientists and religious believers engage in serious, sensitive, and enquiring conversation. For that to happen, both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism will have to be set aside in favor of something more self-critical and humane. If that does happen, religion will not disappear, but it may, and it should, change.” Of course so will science continue to change as well.

Some writers and thinkers who engage the three frames of Nature, Humanity and Spirit will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to reduce both Human Beings and Transcendent Spirit  to “epiphenomenon” of Nature, which they conceive as being exclusively immanent and physical. They therefore employ the strategies of “reductionism” (of mind to matter), elimination (of mind as “the ghost in the machine”) and “strong emergence” from primally lifeless and mindless matter to the spontaneous and contingent emergence of both life and mind.

Others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to conceive of both Nature and Human Beings as either Free Creations or Necessary Emanations of Spirit. Western “theistic” religions tend toward the idea of “free creation” while eastern “pantheistic” and “acosmic” religions tend toward the idea of necessary emanation of Transcendental Mind or Universal Spirit.

Still others believe they ahave good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision the Supreme Reality as Divided between the Realms of Spirit and Matter. This world view we call metaphysical or ontological dualism. Epistemological dualists believe that we know “the really real” in two ways that are related to these two realms of Spirit and Matter. We know the spiritual reality through the methods of illumination and intuition, introspection and contemplation. We know the natural reality through the methods of empirical science.

Still others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision Human Beings as a “dialectical tension and creative synthesis” between the dimensions of Invisible Spirit and Visible Nature, of eternal essence and temporal existence. They will regard Mind and Matter as mutally causal, although some who hold this middle view will tilt toward the primacy of Mind while others will tilt toward the primacy of Matter. Perhaps this is what Pascal had in mind when he said that “man is the glory and the scum of the universe.” We seem to possess two natures in one. Mind and Matter may not be dual realities so much as a single reality with two aspects, “the implicit order” and “the explicit order” as David Bohm put it. “Panpsychism”, “process pan-experientialism”, “neutral monism”, “dual-aspect idealism” and “non-materialist physicalism” are all associated with this integral view that seeks to stand mid-way between the worldviews of  Idealism and Materialism but without splitting into Cartesian Dualism.

In his books The Big Questions in Science and Religion, and again in More than Matter: Is There More to Life than molecules? Keith Ward summarizes each of these interpretative perspectives. His own orientation seems to a complex blend of “dual-aspect idealism” and “open or process theism”, but he offers a generally fair and informed treatment of other perspectives, including those like “materialism” with which he disagrees.

Being something of a “sober realist” about human nature and the prospects for the human future, I don’t expect to see a new breed of philosophical poets and transcendental humanists “set aside” the polarities between “religious fundamentalists” and “atheistic fundamentalists” any time soon, for each of these is having way “too much fun” demonizing, dehumanizing and ridiculing the other. If Chris Hedges, author of When Atheism Becomes a Religion, is right when he says that  “war is a cause that gives life meaning,” then it is also surekt true that engaging in “culture wars” must also give life meaning…at least for some folks who need “enemies” to conquer and vanquish.

One of the paradoxes is that the more they violently oppose and attack each other in their mutually exclusive objectivist and literalist ideologies that more similar they appear to those on the outside. A relational and dialogical epistemology and methodology that honors both the Tacit and Explicit dimensions of reality and ways of knowing has a different orientation than either pre-modern religious dogmatists, the modern scientific objectivists, and the post-modern ironic subjectivists.

“Culture wars” of many kinds – religious and secular, political and economic – are probably here to stay. But it is encouraging to consider the possibility that there remains the option of “The Third Culture” that transcends exclusive polarities and mutual hostilities. Nature, Humanity and Spirit remain as “three frames of reality” that will continue to reconfigure themselves in different kinds of relationships to each other from age to age. They each function as “master templates” to help us understand our relationship to the Encompassing and Comprehensive, to the Supreme Reality in which we “live and move and have our being.”


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