Between Heaven & Earth: The Historical Dialectics of Transcendent Longing & Human Fulfillment

To be a human being is to live between the immensities of “heaven and earth.” It is to live in the dialectical tension between seemingly contradictory instincts, intuitions, needs and desires. Some people choose to split these divergent impulses off from each other. Some even go so  far as to deify one impulse and to demonize the other. For those who perceive reality dualistically the words “heaven” and “earth” suggest two opposing casts of mind, the heavenly-minded and the earthly- minded, the ascenders and the descenders.

In Raphael’s famous painting of “The School of Athens” Plato is pointing with his finger upward at the heavens while Aristotle is gesturing with his whole hand downward at the earth. Surrounding Plato and Aristotle are the many luminaries of ancient Greek philosophical culture, each with his own vision and version of the nature of reality and the place of human beings in the grand scheme of things. It has been said that the more things change the more they remain the same. We, too, have our ascenders pointing upward and our descenders gesturing downward, with most folks content to function on the “horizontal plane” with little attention to the transcendental-immanent vertical axis of being and existence, time and eternity.

The history of human consciousness and culture can be viewed as a continuing dialectic between ascenders and descenders, between those whose native predisposition is to turn their attention toward the heavenly, transcendental, eternal, infinite, invisible, intuitive, contemplative and ineffable dimension, and those whose native predisposition is to turn their attention toward the earthly, temporal, finite, visible, rational, empirical and observable dimension. Highly creative persons tend to complexly integrate what most people segregate. More conventional people people tend to be directed toward one of these two polarities rather than the other. It would not occur to them that dualistic polarity can be integrated and transcended through a non-dual complement or coincidence of opposites.

Whatever our natural cast of mind, it eventually gives rise to its own way of life. Some of the most familiar dualistic binaries as alternative ways of life include the following: The Way of Being (Essence) vs. the Way of Becoming (Emergence); The Way of Agape vs. the Way of Eros; The Way of Contemplation vs. the Way of Action; the Way of the Ascetic Siddhi vs. the Way of the Ecstatic Tantrika; The Way of the Mystic vs. the Way of the Prophet; The Way of the Solitary Taoist vs. the Way of the Civic Confucian; The Way of the Visionary-Intuitive Platonist vs. the Way of the Rational-Empirical Aristotelian.

Not only does this dialectic between “heavenly-minded ascenders” and “earthly-minded descenders” express itself in the polarity shifts between one epoch of history and another, but it also plays itself out within each historical epoch. For example, within the early modern period we witness the dialectical tension between the humanistic Renaissance and the theocentric Reformation. In the high modern period we witness it again in the dialectical tension between the Scientific Enlightenment and the Transcendental-Romantic movement. In the late modern period we witness the dialectical tension between the Positivists on the materialist, mathematical, logical, calculating, quantitative, objectivist empirical side and the Phenomenologists on the metaphysical, musical, aesthetic, creative, qualitative, subjectivist and inter-subjective intuitive side, with American pragmatists and French existentialists caught in the ambiguous middle. William James leans toward the phenomenologists and panpsychists while John Dewey leans toward the positivists and materialists. Both talk about the primacy of “experience” but what they mean by “experience” is as equivocating as the existentialists use of the word “existence.” These words are employed in the service of different world-views. Some are gazing up in rapture at the heavens with Plato while others are studying the particles and patterns of nature with Aristotle.

As I’ve suggested already there is no reason why the twin impulses toward transcendental longing and human fulfillment cannot both be given their due, but this requires a radical shift from dualistic thinking to a non-dual paradoxical approach that allows for and embraces the “complement” if not the “coincidence of opposites.”  The Universal Human in any age, whether primal, ancient, medieval, modern or contemporary, will endeavor to heal the rupture between the two sides of our paradoxical duplex nature. Right Brain awareness, intuition and feeling will provide he encompassing context for Left Brain knowledge, reason and thinking as both sides of our brain/mind work together in the quest for transcendent meaning and human fulfillment.

 

Encountering the Primal Mind and Culture: Four Contemporary Responses

What are the primary ways that contemporary people can and do respond to their encounters with the primal mind and culture? Let me suggest four basic relational options:

One approach is simply to ignore the Primal Mind and Culture and to be indifferent toward it. There are those who are so deeply and unconsciously embedded in their own modern cultural milieu that they have no curiosity about primal Peoples who once walked this earth or about those primal Peoples who still inhabit it today. As the saying goes, “They don’t know and they don’t care.”

A second approach is to respond to the Primal Mind and Culture with a range of negative emotions and antagonistic thoughts. They have decided for whatever reasons that primal Peoples of the world have been and remain savages – ignorant, superstitious, wild, dangerous, irrational, evil and perverse, and that modern, secular, rational, scientific, technological, “educated” and “civilized” people should know better than to have any silly romantic ideas about how primitive people once lived.

A third approach is to respond to the encounter with an idealization of the primal mind and culture, and even perhaps to recover the primal way of life as an alternative to modern “civilization” that many believe is heading toward inevitable self-destruction. Some people today attempt to combine the primal and the modern in their clothing styles and home decor, describing themselves as “primitive-chic.”

A fourth approach is to respond dialectically, that is, to weigh both the successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons of primal life, thought and culture. This approach involves realizing we can learn the lessons of the past, both positive and negative, but we cannot return to the past. It is long gone. But there may be aspects of the primal way of seeing the world and living within it that we moderns (along with post-moderns and trans-moderns) could still learn to apply to our contemporary world.

These four relational options are also in play as people encounter each period, epoch, age and era of human history. We can be indifferent and avoidant toward that which is alien and foreign to our experience. We can be hostile and reactive. We can be fixated and enchanted. And we can by dialectically engaged in both sympathetic appreciation and analytical critique. How we respond to the challenge of encounters with “the Other” will reveal our own embedded cast of mind and habitual response to that which takes us outside our familiar comfort zone.

How do you respond to the challenge of encountering the primal mind and culture? What do you see as its strengths and weaknesses? To what extent are the primal mind and the modern mind so different that they resist integration? To what extent can we build a bridge between them while respecting their real differences?

The Integral Nature of Cultural Paradigms

VILLA SOPHIA

Lighthouse_glasgow_spiral_staircase

Each “cultural paradigm” can be thought of as a self-referencing integral whole. Each one will have some commentary on the elements of Ontos (Being) and Ecos (Nature), Spiritus (Spirit) and Soma (Body), Psyche (Self) and Polis (Society), Mythos (Myth) and Histor (History), Logos (Reason) and Pathos (Passion), Ratio (Logic) and Eros (Beauty), as well as Personage (Individual) and Cultus (Community).  And that is why it is difficult to falsify or displace cultural paradigms. Each part supports the whole in a complexly networked relationship. Moreover, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Each cultural paradigm forms an encompassing or totalizing gestalt that resists the presence and pressure of other encompassing or totalizing gestalts.

Varieties of Primal, Ancent, Medieval, Modern, Post-Modern and Trans-Modern Perspectives toward the ineffable mystery of “Reality” all fall under this principle of self-referencing symbol systems, meaning-models, language games and forms of life in which each element supports the stability and integrity of the whole.

This assessment will hold true even if we follow Jean Gebser’s model of primal-ancient-medieval “unperspectival”, modern…

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