Three men heard of a well in which you could see the face of God. They traveled long and far to look into this well. When they reached it, the man with the long beard looked in and was amazed.
“I saw the face of God,” he said, “and he had the most regal beard I’ve ever seen.”
Then the man with the long hair looked in. “You’re wrong,” he announced. “God has no beard, but his hair flows like water.”
The man with the head-wrap looked in. “You’re both wrong,” he thundered. “God has no beard or flowing hair but wears the finest headscarf in the world.
For millennia, humanity has tried to make sense of the mysterious cosmos in which we find ourselves. But in seeking answers, have we simply been looking into the water to find (and fight over) numerous reflections of ourselves?
The Polish science-fiction author Stanislaw Lem returned again and again to the question of what it would mean for humanity to come in contact with something truly mysterious. Would we be able to understand it? Or, in looking at what is truly unknown, would we simply project onto it our own image?
Most science-fiction assumes that we would find one way or another to communicate with another sentient, intelligent species. Once the semantics are out of the way, the plot usually jumps to the fun stuff: galactic federations, stellar wars. But Lem’s novels rarely ever get past that first step. In books like Solaris, humans spend decades studying an apparently sentient ocean on another planet with no ability to contact it, much less understand its bizarre behavior. In His Master’s Voice, scientists on Earth discover a message broadcast from the stars; the best minds work for years to decipher it and in the end fool themselves into believing they’ve cracked all its secrets.
Lem’s writing isn’t just a hypothetical exploration of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, it also speaks to our own struggle to understand the foreignness of our universe—divinity included. If we were to receive a message from a truly metaphysical source, would we be able to understand it? Or, to paraphrase Lem, would we come to the gate, chip a few flecks of gold off the lock, and hold it up as if we’d acquired all the treasures within?
In the late 19th and 20th century, Transcendentalism, neo-Vedanta, Theosophy, and figures like Aldous Huxley popularized the notion that there exists a perennial philosophy: a single metaphysical truth which has been discovered and rediscovered by religions throughout history. According to perennialists, this truth crystalized into different religious forms according to the circumstances of each culture which discovered it. When a religion began to lose its vitality and stiffen into empty ceremonialism, mystics would reconnect with this truth and revitalize their religion—or a prophet formed a new one.
Proponents of this perspective argued that the so called “mystical” traditions of the world seemed to resemble one another and so pointed to a single metaphysical truth which all of them had access to—a fundamental Ground of being from which emerged the kernel of all faiths.
The perennialists thought this Ground was a reality external to us. But what if this Ground was the base of our own consciousness? In other words, maybe it’s not that we’re finding the same thing “out there,” it’s that when we experience the sacred—an encounter with God—we are experiencing a complete encounter with ourselves.
Carl Jung believed that psychology, the study of our inner world, is a relative late-comer in the development of human thought because we constantly externalize our psyche, projecting our inner world on the outer world and interpreting this superposition in terms of religion, mythology, and folk-belief.
This perspective is a naturalistic one and holds that the true mystery isn’t “out there” but inside us. But just because it’s within us doesn’t make it any less mysterious. Professor Jeff Kripal put it this way: we might reduce everything to the human mind, but in the end realize that the human mind is vast beyond belief. Or in Jungian terms, an encounter with God, is our conscious ego encountering its own, far vaster, Self.
To get in touch with the Self is to touch the core of all sacred experience—the place to which all mystics descend and from which all religions arise. In various ways, religions repeatedly assert that divinity lies within us. Maybe they’re right. And if we find our resemblance in the divine, maybe it’s not because we are privileged creatures made in the image of gods, but because we are coming into contact with our vast inner selves: the foundation from which all gods rise.
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7 thoughts on “Self as God”
Daniel, good article. I agree with it, as long as its clear that this “self” is not at all the human ego or individuality, but something universal to human consciousness that is prior the ego and its individuality and gives rise to these.
I don’t agree on your interpretation of Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy, however, You suggest that he and other perennialists saw the ground of being as external to us, but I think that is incorrect, at least for Huxley. He uses the phrase from the Upanishads, “That Thou Art” repeatedly, and that phrase clearly connotes that there is no separation between that ground and our self, except the separation that our ego itself creates.
There is another group of perennialist, however, that includes the likes of Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon, Marco Pallis, Titus Burckhardt and several others, whose perennialism was hostile to naturalism, and who grounded their perennialism in a rather abstruse metaphysics. Although I disagree with that aspect of their perennialism, reading these thinkers has deepened my understanding of spirituality.
I consider myself at least in part a perennial philosophy pantheist.
Hello Thomas, thank you. I’m glad you liked it. Im curious what others think of Huxley. It’s not clear to me that having no separation between Ground and self is necessarily naturalistic. I could see it interpreted in either way. – But perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Huxley, I’d be happy to hear you advocate for him as a naturalist!
Thank you, Daniel.
“…we constantly externalize our psyche, projecting our inner world on the outer world and interpreting this superposition in terms of religion, mythology, and folk-belief.”
Ludwig Feuerbach is one of my favorite philosophers for articulating the human tendency to project ultimate values onto a deity and metaphysical construct. His books, “The Essence of Christianity” and “The Essence of Faith According to Luther” are both excellent examples of his thought.
Here is a poem I wrote after an experience I had that touches on the phenomenon about which you write:
I had a momentary glimpse
during my twenty-minute sit today.
A glimpse of my self–my small self.
My ego, fearful, anxious self.
My thoughtful, feeling, wanting self.
My self that others see and
with whom they interact
more or less easily.
To glimpse is to see
to be aware
Then who is doing
this glimpsing of me?
Nice piece, unfortunately I have to disagree on two central points:
`To get in touch with the Self is to touch the core of all sacred experience.´
Buddhist wonder why people believe in a “Self” with upper case “S”. So do neuroscientists.
`This perspective is a naturalistic one and holds that the true mystery isn’t “out there” but inside us.´
This inside/outside distinction presupposes dualism, with (imho) is incompatible with naturalism.
Josef: I think it is a matter of semantics. My understanding of anatman/no-self in Buddhism is that there is no individual entity separate from everything (i.e., no creature/creator or human/deity distinction). Therefore, to answer such questions as “Who am I?” or “Where am I?” for a Buddhist is to simply say “yes; interconnected with everything and everywhere. I am the sky, I am the sun, I am the trees, I am you, I am.”
Taking this perspective, the inside/outside dualism dissolves. The mystery isn’t “out there” or “in here” it is everything and, the great wonder is, “tat tvam asi: You’re it!”
Hello Josef. I wonder if you’re misunderstanding the way Jung distinguishes lower-case “self” from upper-case “Self.” The first is associated with ego and the second is associated with something akin to Atman in the Hindu tradition. Of course, you could argue that the Buddha specifically disagreed with that tenet of Hinduism (anatman – “no-atman”). From my perspective, there’s a lot of confusion about what we mean by “ego” or lower-case “self” which I think lead to misunderstandings. Much like the english “love” has seven different words in Greek, “ego” or “self” is similarly a conflation of many different concepts: 1) physical self: sense of physical self (proprioception, coordination, boundaries of the body, etc.) 2) social self: sense of individuality in a group; and/or our social personas/roles 3) Freudian ego (as in ego vs. id or superego) 4) Moral: the moral characteristic of pride/pridefulness (as in “ego”tism. “self”ishness) 5) Consciousness: the self / ego as the conscious mind — This last one is still distinct from the ontological claim of Dependent Origination that Buddhism makes – roughly: there is no such thing as self-as-distinct-from-world. Everything depends on everything else to exist. — And all these notions of self are still different from what Jung meant by the capital-S “Self.”
As for your comment about dualism — I put “out there” in quotes for a reason. I don’t necessarily think there is a discontinuity between what we perceive as the physical external world and the world of our thoughts and emotions. But there is a difference between physical “outer” world of objects and subjective “inner” world of thoughts, emotions, and (importantly!) our experienced reconstructions of the outer world (where our psychology and physicality meld together).
Dear Daniel (and James), regarding “Everything depends on everything else to exist”: Buddhists are a diverse bunch, and some of them may indeed believe that “everything depends on everything …”, but by no means all of them. See Bhikkhu Analayo: “Dependent Arising and Interdependence” Mindfulness, 2021, 12, 1094-1102 https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01544-x (open access).