I offer the following in dialogue with Thomas Schenk’s two recent SNS articles, Being a Brain and, A Light in the Clouds. (1)
I am drawn to Sci-Fi stories dealing with the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Bladerunner, The Matrix trilogy, Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon, Battlestar Galactica, and the aptly named, Humans are some examples I have enjoyed.
If my human sense of self is an effect, the cause of which lies somewhere within the un-consciously-knowable parts of my brain,—and, I do not doubt that it is—my actual experience of being a self, so far, has only ever occurred within the confines of my human body: This collection of myriad interactive cells and chemical processes presenting as “James” with the facial pattern, left-handed dominance, straightened teeth, and the troublesome plantar fasciitis I have been walking around with in my heel for the past few years. This is me.
Human bodies are processes that function concomitantly with human lifespans. My maternal grandfather died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 102. Even after a probable stroke, he still looked like himself with the same familiar facial expressions, body language, and gracious tenderness that I have known for my entire life to be “Grandfather.” These beloved patterns of unique self expression were still evident to me even though dimmed by dementia and other symptoms of physical decline. I miss him.
Others have articulated thought experiments about where the “self” could be located in the human body, wondering if cutting off my foot, arm, or ear would render me no longer me. I follow, and value the recognition of true-self as no-self articulated by Thomas in Being a Brain last month (2), as well as by authors like Sam Harris in his book Waking Up (3), Michael Gungor in This: Becoming Free (4), and for centuries by the practitioners of Eastern philosophies and spiritualities. Such experiments demonstrate the impossibility of locating the human self within the human body or even within the brain. Yet, here I am.
Thomas wrote, “Each of us IS. and what we are is an effect the cause of which includes the whole process of Nature’s unfolding and the great mystery that is prior to that unfolding. Thou Art That.” (5) Yes, you are. And so, am I.
The Western equivalent of this insight lies in the encounter of Moses and the burning bush recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Exodus 3:14 the divinity is revealed as, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (’ehye ’ăšer ’ehye), “I am that I am” or, perhaps more helpfully, “I will be what I will be.” (6)
Despite generations of religious scholars attempting to nail down a precise definition, this vague revelation could mean absolutely anything, or actually, everything. It could mean stars, galaxies, trees, mountains, rivers, and the ocean. It could mean earth, water, wind, fire, and the void. It could even mean a human being nailed up on a wooden cross; held down by the neck under a police officer’s knee; or swept aside to the unseen margins by the political, economic, and religious agendas of the powerful of every age. Yes, I am.
Within the Christian theological tradition human beings are created in the image of god. Most of religious history seems hell bent on identifying that image in Platonic abstract as though the deity were a perfect being apart from Nature. What if instead, the divine image is as beautiful as all of Nature and as unique as every single human face? Here I am.
The sense of awe and transcendence that arises as we contemplate the beauty of the cosmos or of the natural world may be enhanced by the immanent beauty of love expressed in the unique faces and bodies of all sentient beings. Jesus, the Buddha, and Mohammed all said as often as you show kindness to the least of your human siblings you have done it unto me. (7) I am right here.
One day I was standing in line at the Mod Pizza restaurant in my area, and I experienced a momentary glimpse of I AM. The collage of human faces in the photo above fills an entire wall in that restaurant. The sign in the central photo reads, “Can you see the real me?” For just a moment, taking in the diversity of people’s bodies and faces in this photo collage, my tearful answer was, “Yes, I see you.” The beatific vision. Then I ordered a pizza. I am pizza too.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.
(1) See, Thomas Schenk’s SNS articles on September 7, 2023 entitled, Being a Brain (online at https://www.snsociety.org/being-a-brain/) and on October 5, 2023 entitled A Light in the Clouds (online at https://www.snsociety.org/a-light-in-the-clouds/).
(3) Sam Harris, Waking Up, New York: Simon & Schuster (2014).
(4) Michael Gungor, This: Becoming Free, Los Angeles: Rare Bird Books (2019).
(5) See, Note (1), above.
(6) See, I Am that I Am (online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_that_I_Am).
(7) See, Jesus in Matthew 25:40; The Buddha in Lily De Silva, Ministering to the Sick and Terminally Ill, (online at https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/desilva/bl132.html#:~:text=%22He%20who%20attends%20on%20the,an%20acute%20attack%20of%20dysentery); and Mohammed speaking for Allah in Sahih Muslim Book 32, Hadith Number 6232 (online at https://hadithcollection.com/sahihmuslim/sahih-muslim-book-32-virtues-good-manners-and-joining-of-the-ties-of-relationship/sahih-muslim-book-032-hadith-number-6232).