This question involves how we picture and talk about the invisible worlds of our inner life and of surrounding nature. Traditional descriptions reflect human dualities: high and lowly, domination and subservience, victory and defeat, reward and punishment, good and evil, right and wrong, subject and object. An understanding of ecology and some aspects of modern physics has encouraged people to see the world, not as a hierarchy or kingdom, not as a pyramid or chain, but as a web or net where all are connected and interrelated. Every being is part of a larger whole and is itself a whole made of smaller parts; yet the smaller is not therefore inferior. Each is an integral part of the whole with a vital role to play. Scientists go out of their way to emphasize that no part of nature is intrinsically more important or valuable than another and that nature did not evolve in order to produce mankind or satisfy human purposes. Every being and unit has the same essential worth and dignity.
But does it really matter how we talk about and picture nature and spiritual and psychological existence? Is it important whether we call divine being a King, a Father, a Mother, a Warlord, a Judge, a Punisher, a Savior, or whether we call it Ineffable, recognizing that divinity is beyond human comprehension and power to express? Is it important whether we picture ourselves as insignificant material outcroppings in an overwhelmingly lifeless and unconscious universe; as the subjects of divine autocrats; as fallen creatures dependent on divine favor; or as purposeful participants in a living, conscious universe? The trouble is that we find it extremely difficult not to make the figures of speech we use into realities in our minds and hearts, so that we are apt in time to imagine that things actually are whatever we call them, and to shape our thoughts and actions accordingly.
I would like to share some excerpts from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":
. . . I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now, . . . And will never be any more perfection than there is now, Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. . . .
I show that size is only development. Have you outstript the rest? Are you the President? It is a trifle—they will more than arrive there, every one, and still pass on.
I am not the poet of goodness only—I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also. . . . My gait is no fault-finder’s or rejecter’s gait; I moisten the roots of all that has grown.
Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, . . . Dazzling and tremendous, how quick the sun-rise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me. We also ascend, dazzling and tremendous as the sun; . . .
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day? I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then; In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass; I find letters from God dropt in the street—and every one is sign’d by God’s name, And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go, Others will punctually come forever and ever.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, . . .
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers; There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them. Births have brought us richness and variety, And other births will bring us richness and variety. I do not call one greater and one smaller; That which fills its period and place is equal to any.There is no stoppage, and never can be stoppage; If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail in the long run;
We should surely bring up again where we now stand, And as surely go as much farther—and then farther and farther. A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span, or make it impatient; They are but parts—anything is but a part. See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that;
Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that.
I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul; And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is, . . . And to glance with an eye, or show a bean in its pod, confounds the learning of all times, And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero, And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel’d universe, And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.
– Walt Whitman
We may ask: How can we understand the unity and diversity of life, and our relationship to all around us? Does the web of life include psychological and spiritual dimensions? Is there an interdependence of being and consciousness that is equivalent to the physical interconnections in nature? Are life and consciousness byproducts of organic structures, or found everywhere? Is the totality of our "self" in some sense an ecosystem or a microcosm of the larger systems we help to form? In what ways have the invisible realms of existence and consciousness been explored through the ages, what has been discovered, and how can it help us in our lives? Let’s turn to some of these questions. (A talk given January 2006)