Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: the sum of the universe

yin-yang-15470Progress. Different people have different ideas of what we should be progressing towards, but there’s a general consensus that we can progress, even if one’s idea of progress looks like regression to others. The idea of progress requires that time take the form of a ray, beginning at some point and moving in a single direction. There’s support for the idea in many interpretations of evolution: organisms evolve complexity across time, and complexity is considered higher than simplicity. Political science certainly supports the idea, as the discipline would be pointless without it. But the foundation of the idea rests on the Abrahamic faiths, with their ideal of a true god of justice, chosen people and the eventual conquest of evil by the forces of good. If you were raised in “the West”, then the philosophical ideal is deeply ingrained in your thinking…even if you were raised without religion. This ideal has driven history, the interpretation of history and continues to drive the events becoming history. But is it shared across humanity?

The question is fundamentally one of the relationship between binary opposites: good and evil, black and white, day and night, alive and dead, yes and no, ad infinitum. Or as Claude Levi-Strauss posed the situation in his seminal work, The Raw and the Cooked. These pairs are obvious to the human psyche, and it appears that they always have been obvious. The importance, then, is in what relationship develops between the pairs and their human examiners.

It is not precisely true that the Abrahamic faiths are founded on the idea of good defeating evil with finality. The selections of works that form their canons suggest it, but those selections were guided by very earthly principles of politics and power. The interpretations of those canons for consumption by lay believers certainly leads us to believe that the role of good is to vanquish evil, but even that rests on selectively reading the texts.

Job, for example, is put through his trails because of a wager between God and Satan. The two are clearly operating together on the supernatural plane in less than fierce battle. We’ll be off the theological reservation in contemplating the idea that God and Satan need each other, but that is what’s suggested. And such a suggestion is far from being an anomaly.

In the Orient the relationship between binary opposites takes a much different form and produces very different models for worldly action. The role of the binary pairs is elevated to the highest of spiritual heights. For the Hindus the gods are locked in a cyclical dance of creation and destruction played out over time spans that are purposefully incalculable. It is simply the way of the universe, and the mathematical summation is zero. Good is in exact proportion–over the long term–to evil. One cannot vanquish the other because they require each other.

Could you identify good outside of its relationship with evil? Would the day hold any meaning if not for the night? Can life be a celebration without the mourning of its passing?

In Yoga and Buddhism there is a fundamental acceptance of this state. The interplay of binary opposites makes the world go round, but that interplay is at its root an illusion (maya). A human’s greatest possible achievement is to transcend the illusion, to go past the binary opposites. That’s what enlightenment is, or as close as we can come to a positive definition of it. The traditions themselves do not accept positive definitions; they say what enlightenment is not, and what it is not is everything associated with life, i.e. the cyclical round of binary opposites. This is why vegetarianism plays such an important, spiritual role in these traditions–exemplified by the Jains refusal to even pick fruit. Sustenance through taking life traps the eater in the binary world of life and death.

Further East, the Chinese conceptualize the binary opposites with the graphic Taijitu (“diagram of the supreme ultimate” or just “yin-yang” if it’s a tattoo). Taoism regards the situation very differently than the Indian traditions. It is not something to be escaped, but rather to be cultivated in such a way that balance between the two is achieved. Harmony with the way of the universe is the goal, and while it can be cultivated, the highest affirmation is “to be as a ball bouncing in a mountain stream”. Perfection is in letting go, because perfection just is and exists everywhere, all the time.  The interplay between the equal opposites produces perpetual motion, but the sum of the universe is still zero.

There are Western examples that contradict the supposed Abrahamic position. Nietzsche’s uber-mensch is not so much an Aryan overlord as a philosophical man who transcends the world of binary opposites. He recognizes them clearly, and affirms them vigorously. He is the man who says “Yes!” to life. “Yes” to even pain, hunger and death. “Yes” to the proposition of doing it all, even the worst, over and over and over again.

I am not arguing that we should base our worldly actions on the belief that they will come to nothing. That sort of resignation is self-defeating insomuch as it logically leads to inaction. But as we strive to make the world a better place or improve ourselves or fight the good fight, we must consider that the path is one without end. To see victory as possible, no matter how long the time line, is to invite frustration and disillusionment. The sum of the universe has always been and will always be zero; consequently, the final victory of good over evil (or it’s opposite) is as impossible as day triumphing over night.

4 replies »

  1. To see victory as possible, no matter how long the time line, is to invite frustration and disillusionment.

    Amen to that Lex. When you continue the “good fight” aspects of the Universe change anyway – so the target moves. The effort has more weight than the outcome. Nice thoughtful piece.

  2. This insight will come as unwelcome news to the young (meaning my students) who believe that the capacity for good far exceeds that of evil, and will therefore triumph before their next text message.

    BTW, the mere mention of Levi-Strauss gives me catatonic flashbacks to grad school.

    Thanks for the piece, Lex.

  3. They were raised to believe it, Denny. And then we wonder why they become disillusioned and cynical when confronted with reality. The other response is to withdraw into the constructed safety of The Church in its worst manifestations where the psychology of the nursery need never lead to psychological maturity.

    But i don’t think that abject cynicism is the only answer. My feeling is that when Gandhi talked about perfecting yourself rather than the world he was getting at this. At the individual level the problem is tractable, but the cart must remain before the horse.