In my previous post, I mentioned my wariness of both orthodoxies and gnosticisms, and I affirmed the primacy of an individual’s immediate experience of Divine Presence in daily faith and practice. A number of challenges complicate the effort to live by such an affirmation.
Over the past three decades, I have taken refuge in the paradoxical religious life of a solitaire.
My faith and practice are rooted in the Christ-centeredness of my Lutheran upbringing and Quaker convincement, yet they are also profoundly influenced by Paganism and Buddhism. The paradox rests in this: I have a faith-led life for which belonging in community is essential, yet I cannot participate in community confessions or rituals which fail to resonate with my inner sense of what is true.
How does one sustain and advance such a life? How does one maintain both personal authenticity and authentically committed involvement in community?
I came to Quakerism because I recognized that such paradoxes are explicitly acknowledged and embraced in the Quaker tradition. Now I see these questions being visited anew in Quaker and allied non-Quaker dialogs online, in print and within and across religious communities.
In future posts, I want to go deeper into these paradoxes. For the remainder of this post, though, I want to describe three needs of human consciousness which remind even solitaires like myself that we cannot be human without other people.
Discerning what is real: The first challenge is that the human brain, as part of its normal functioning, creates, stores, retrieves and intermingles representations [see note] of both material world experiences and imagined experiences. The latter are representations which the brain pieces together from its inner repertoire of sensations, symbols and significances, and which it presents to consciousness as if they might actually have happened or could happen.
Without ongoing communication with other people, I cannot learn how to distinguish adequately between material and imagined experiences.
Granted, as I mature in attentiveness, I may become more disciplined in making such distinctions. However, no child can come to have such full and effective use of human consciousness without interaction with others, without receiving experience-based guidance and feedback from successful peers and elders.
As an important aside, I should note that both material and imagined experiences are real. That is, both have real effect on the brain’s perception and interpretation of its life. Both have real influence on how I understand myself and how I interact with my environment and with other people.
The all-important process of reality-checking, which for sanity’s sake I must learn from others, is not about saying that the material is real and the imagined, unreal. It is about discerning from which sort of reality a given experience arises.
Learning language: The second challenge arises because the faculty of imagination is, in fact, essential if the brain is to reach its full human potential for dealing with both outer and inner reality. The brain must accomplish increasing levels of abstraction: from neurological representations of sensory experience, to representations of categories of experience, to representations of possible changes and interactions among categories, and so on.
In other words, it must be able to name and conceptualize. It must learn language. And it is other human beings who introduce the infant primate to the experience of language.
I will return in future posts to how language both aids and confounds faith and practice and the sharing of faith and practice. The key point here is that the native language I share with those who first taught me becomes increasingly less exact and effective, the less material and more abstract the experience about which we strive to communicate.
Sharing companionship: The third challenge is even more basic and visceral than the human need for imagination or language.
We need company. We need nurture and affection and companionship. It is undeniable that we primates are hard-wired as social animals. At our healthiest and sanest, we live by sharing and cooperation, not by solitary foraging or predation.
Acknowledging this third challenge leads me full circle back to the paradox with which I began this post. I cannot be a solitaire alone. I must have deep, caring interaction with other people in order to sustain myself as a sane and healthy animal, in order to continue to discern what is real, and in order to be able to give expression, either inwardly or outwardly, to what I discern.
And that last points up another paradox. If I experience something and cannot express it, my ability to integrate it into my faith and practice is stymied. However, if I focus my attention on trying to express inexpressible experience, I lose the flow with which Spirit waters my life.
I come back, then, to the divine invitation to be in the present moment—but with an added dimension: the invitation is to be in the present moment with other people, as well as alone.
Even when we cannot agree about how to express what we experience. Even when we cannot trust for certain that we share the same experience or, worse, fear that our experiences contradict each other.
Again I come back to the divine affirmation: when you and I are together in faithful attentiveness, what saves and restores us is not attention to”you” or to “me” but attention to the Divine Presence.
And so it is.
Note: I am borrowing—and grossly oversimplifying— Antonio Damasio’s usage of the term “representations” in Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Viking Penguin, 1994, reprinted 2005) and later works.
Damasio’s research and writing are pivotal in explicating our growing understanding of the neurobiological basis and functioning of human consciousness.