Monday, October 19, 2015

yet another excursus: the one, the many, and love

For many years my Sunday afternoon reading discipline was The Song of Songs. I collected translations and editions of the book, which  is one of the most unusual in the canon of either Jewish or Christian scriptures. God is not mentioned. Rather it is a passionate love poem with very physical imagery. There were many rabbis who opposed its inclusion in the list of sacred books. Others claimed it is the holiest of books, an attitude which has prevailed, so it is read on Pesach. Since for Christians, every Sunday is a little Pascha, it seemed perfect reading. Although there are nearly as many interpretations of the book as there are readers, from it's being a purely pagan love song to a sublimely spiritual paean of the love of YHWH for Israel or of Christ for the Church, they almost always agree it describes each character's yearning for the other. (Although if one takes seriously the image of the Church as the body of Christ, it gets complicated.)

Confession:  I wrote those words about a month ago, and rested from all  my work. Then I rewatched the Wachowski's Matrix Reanimated, with its struggle between the one, Neo, or Mr. Anderson (the son of man) and the many, Mr. Smith, and I thought I should blog on.

The question of whether there is one or many is one of the most fundamental, and recurring, problems in our understanding of the universe. One god or many? One brotherhood of man or many races and tribes? One source of everything, or random emissions from random black holes? The tradition in which The Song is preserved covers both possibilities. First comes a creation story in which the gods (elohim, a plain as day plural that gets called a plural of majesty, like the royal we, to save monotheism) create mankind, and  then follows one in which YHWH creates Adam, the earthling. One creature who is neither male nor female, or both male and female, and who gets divided to make a suitable helper for the 'him'. After that there are two, and Eve is the mother of all.

Whether we agree with the adequacy of these origin stories or not, some sort of parallel versions of them continue to be trotted out to explain our origins. The most popular now is the Big Bang, which more or less follows the order of Genesis's first account, if not its timing. Evolution rather than particular creation provides the birds of the air and plants of the field, and humankinds, with a variety of 'hominids' arriving from time to time, but with us, the Wise men, prevailing. Still, it seems we cling to the hope at least for one original parent, whom we have now called Lucy, the African Eve, from whom all of us are said to have descended. And we hope to find one Theory of Everything.

Tina Turner wisely asked, 'what's love got to do with it?'. It is the role of love in the chosen purpose or destiny, of Neo in The Matrix Trilogy--and the Wachowski's don't make it clear which is the correct situation--which reminded me of the complexity of love. Neo has a lover, Trinity, and in the Platonic sense they each must have something the other wants to acquire. Yet each dies for the other without knowing how their love will be rewarded. Then they revive each other with a kiss, like YHWH breathes into the earthly one, the Adam, who becomes a living soul. Perhaps if Neo will just return to the source, all will be well and all will be one. But there's a difficulty with oneness. It's what we often seek, but it also can bring loneliness, even in or perhaps particularly, in marriages. In God's Trombones, James Weldon Johnson's retells the second Genesis creation story and gives God a motive, something that isn't found in the original text. God says, 'I'm lonely--I'll make me a world.' In the Christian tradition, the world, or at least mankind, doesn't take to being merely a creature, and the rest of the story, as represented by Johnson's following 'The Creation' with 'The Prodigal Son', is about God's efforts to reconcile the world to himself.

But must one be lonely? Must one feel that there is some other person necessary to make one's life complete? Maybe my upbringing was unusual, but that is the idea I was taught, not just by my mother's firm conviction but by nearly every movie I saw or book I read. It was the idea I accepted until I spent three years mostly wandering around in a kayak, not thinking explicitly about much of anything except what I needed to see in the wind and the waves if I were not to drown six miles from dry land. I never thought about learning anything from my adventure until it was over and I was sitting in one of those circles of getting-to-know-each-other that were so popular in the Pacific Northwest in the early 21st century. I told the folks what I had been doing, and 'the facilitator' asked, 'what did you learn?'. Without thinking, I answered, 'we're all one'. Not red and yellow black and white folks are one. Red and yellow folks and starfish and corn are one. Black and white folks and orcas and seagulls are one.

It's been a long time since I watched Matrix Revolutions, so I don't know what Neo decides as he approaches satori. And I don't claim to be approaching satori. But I think my quick answer and Johnson's poem have something important to say about the most satisfactory sort of love and why it is often so disappointing when love is directed to one person. God didn't say that he would make him a man. He said he would make him a world. I didn't think of the world as one in a separate way. I came to think of it as an us, and that we are one. There is, in this worldview, no other. That there is an other is an illusion. There's just us here.

There are some obvious difficulties with this worldview. It means part of us have really stupid ideas and want to take really stupid actions, and they're still us. It doesn't lead to some sort of happy peaceful playground because we recognize that we're all one. Often it leads to acting on Jesus' admonition that if our right hand offends us, we should cut it off. But it requires we recognize that the hand we're cutting off is our own hand. We're put in the chariot with Arjuna as once again Krishna asks, 'who is the slayer and who is the slain?'. But this is my interpretation of life as a love story for the whole big bang. There are others.