One of the student reflection papers I read and graded this week made the incessant point that "God is simply another name for Self," and that "God is NOT Other." I think the student viewed his position as a non-dual one, where God basically collapses into the Self.
However, I pointed out in my comments that the position he seemed to be making was actually quite dualistic and was simply one more manifestation of our usual all-too-human tendency toward black-and-white thinking. After all, "God is only self" is just as rigid as "God is only Other."
This seems to be the move that many young people and non-traditionalists are making these days. Fed up with an oppressive and judgmental version of "God as Other," they simply swing to the other side of the dualism, thereby preserving the fundamentalist, black-and-white approach we all have such a tendency to fall into.
I tried to explain that in the Christian Mystical tradition - and in the Wilderness Mysticism I've been developing - we swing continually back and forth between "God as Self" and "God as Other." In fact, we actually inhabit the space in the middle between the two. This, it turns out, is the major point of the trinitarian approach. Here, God-as-Other might be viewed as the First Person of the Trinity; God-as-Self is the Second, and the circulation back-and-forth - or the creative tension in between - is the Third. The traditional Greek word "perichoresis" expressed this insight perfectly. It means "the dance around," or - as Brother David Steindl-Rast often puts it - "the Round Dance of the Trinity. In Latin, this gets translated as "circumincessio."
"God is Other" is like seeing a beautiful mountain peak on the horizon. We long to head over to it, climb it, explore its beautiful waterfall, glaciers, alpine lakes and wildflower meadows, and get the expansive view from the top. But once we arrive, we are led deep within to see that the mountain is also a reflection of a similar grandeur that dwells in our innermost core. In other words, we are led to see God as Self.
However, when we move within, we find that there are actually ENDLESS depths, and that our core self is actually OTHER, at least when compared to the surface level on which we usually live our lives. In fact, the further we move within, the more we eventually open out to a kind of inner sky (as Thomas Merton once described it), with vast and endless possibilities that extend far BEYOND anything we've ever known! Here, "God as Self" has miraculously shapeshifted once again into "God as Other"!
Put another way, we can say that longing (which implies an "Other") is the dynamic side of be-longing (where God is Self). And belonging, it turns out, is the settled, fulfilling side of longing. And we dwell smack dab in the middle - in what Christians call "The Holy Spirit" - the mutual love, knowledge and enjoyment of the other Two. This ability to swing back and forth is in fact not just an idea, but A LIVING, BREATHING PRESENCE!
How amazing this nondual spiritual journey truly is!
Photo: Paintbrush and peaks, near Paintbrush Divide, Grand Teton National Park, WY
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.