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.

 

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