First Soul, Then God
by Prof. Syed Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone”
A vast variety of doubts, uncertainties and disbeliefs that besets both those who believe in God and those who disbelieve issue from the original lack in some and a gradual loss in others of a clear idea about the Soul as a Principle and as a Reality.
The central challenge lies in the tendency on the part of the vast number of people to take the body-principle or the body-image as the over-all foundation of their understanding of both this world and of the world beyond. The host of images, from angels to gods, from resurrection to judgement, are after the bodily mode. The preoccupation with body remains the same however the notion of subtle and astral bodies is brought in to contrast and rise above the coarseness and density of the ordinary bodies. Concomitant to this preoccupation with body is the notion of locality applied to heaven and hell, to higher and lower worlds, and ultimately to “God in Heaven”. In such a world where the body-principle or the body-image is so central, all things, whether material or spiritual, are considered after some bodily mode or another. God and Spirit become phases or states of Matter either in its most subtle or most evolved condition. Reason however shrinks from making body as the basic principle of reality and truth (for if reason accepts this principle it will be tantamount to self-denial as reason too would be some form of body and that is absurd).
We are normally called upon to believe in one religious image or another as an act of “faith” or under the force of authority. As faith is generally linked with collective authority, it collapses as the authority that supported it collapses, and what follows is either confusion or unbelief. The hidden materialism of the religious belief in general now becomes the manifest materialism with the collapse of the religious dogma.
Scientific materialism is thus linked with its parent, namely religious materialism. Both rest on “body” as the principle of reality for both seem to take sense perception as the criterion of reality. Both evolve their own dogmatism, their own coercive systems of authority. The passage from one to the other is logical and easy, however disconnected they appear to be. The “unseen” of religious belief based on the body-image and the “unseen” of science based on the micro-world are thus interlinked.
Religious thought seems to rely on two ways out of the dangers of its lapse into materialism. We are often told that reality is not a duality, but a unity of spirit and matter, body and soul, world and god. They are distinct but they are not separate. We are told that dualism is an error, and it results in the degradation of body and of the world. The principle underlying this argument is that of incarnation.
First, we are not told what sort of unity is the unity of spirit and matter. Is it a compound? Are both the components equal in status of reality? Are both spontaneously present to each other? Does one grow out of the other? Does the compound lead to a third, a blend? If so, what is this blend? Are the components, each separately taken, permanent? If so, why their blend is subject to dissolution? And what about the variety of forms, of all that is non-material, from virtue to beauty, from goodness to truth, from reason to consciousness?
As the theory in question does not have any rational answer to these objections, it collapses on the ground of its own principle of unity of spirit and matter. It is difficult to provide according to this theory the very foundation of the principle of unity. What gives unity to the spirit and matter, soul and body? It should either come from spirit alone, or from matter alone, or from both. If from both, it has no independent reality. If it lacks independent reality, it is not even unity but a mere notion of unity, a counterfeit unity. If unity comes from matter, why should it require any such principle as spirit or soul? Why does it not possess unity by itself? As we see every piece of matter as a composite and a manifold, its unity should come from somewhere else. If it comes from somewhere else, it is dependent on that and as such cannot have an equal title to reality with that other principle.
Whatever name is given to such a situation, dualism or anything else, the fact remains that the unity which is so ardently sought by the opponents of dualism is a principle apart and free, existent and real, independent of matter which it brings under order, harmony, and purpose.
The notion of unity without a proper awareness of distinction between the contents of unity cannot be taken seriously on any level whatsoever. It will lead to one absurdity after another. Take a mathematical axiom. Take a proverb containing a piece of wisdom. Is the axiom in its expressed form of signs and equations an incarnation of knowledge? Is that knowledge a unity of what it offers as knowledge and its expression as an equation? Is wisdom a unity of itself with its verbal form in which it is expressed? What does it mean when one says that wisdom is incarnate in a proverb? What has wisdom to do with the sounds of the spoken words or the forms of the script of the words? Similarly, how life and intellect could form a unity with the body and the mind that is attached to the body? How can life and intellect be “incarnate” in body?
The second way in which the religious thought seeks a way out of its hidden materialism is the idea of the symbol. Now the entire discourse takes a big leap. It is amusing at times to see how the advocates of incarnate truth turn to the symbolic approach to body and world without realizing that they are embarking upon an absurd enterprise. From “incarnation” to symbolism there is a great feat of self-contradiction. If they believe in incarnation of life, intellect, meaning and wisdom, each incarnate in the form and body of this world, then the truth is where the expression is, life is where the body is, meaning is where the vehicle is. But this is impossible when one is dealing with the symbol. In the symbol, the sign is here whereas the meaning is somewhere else. Signification is not embodiment. Otherwise one should completely drop the concept of the symbol. The reason for all this confusion is that it is often forgotten that a thing cannot be a symbol and a reality at the same time.
The last resort, a very powerful one, for religious thought to preserve its materialistic bias in favour of the body-principle of the body-image is the myth, the convergence of the principles of incarnation and symbolism.
One of the ways to look at myth is that while its contents may or may not be symbolic, its totality is symbolic. Each detail within a myth may be a concrete thing as a physical phenomenon but all those details constitute a symbolic whole. When the details too are turned into symbols along with the totality we have an allegory, not a myth. Where the details approximate to the principle of incarnation, the totality rests on symbolism. The enthusiasm in modern religious and psychological thought for the study of myth seems to be based on this dual character of myth, its concreteness and its symbolism. The symbolic character of the myth in its totality derives not only from its wholeness but also from such contents as contradict the known laws of nature. While the total lifts the mind above the mundane levels of reality, those contents or features which contradict the laws of nature as we ordinarily know them point to the nature of that higher level as above nature, above time and space, above the division of self and world. In other words, the concrete details are a fiction; the illogical features point to another sphere where other laws are operative; and the symbolic total is the window opening upon reality.
The dualistic structure of myth, its concreteness and its symbolism, its fiction and its reality can under no circumstances be brought under the idea of incarnation, under a full unity of the material and the non material. Hence, the use of myth by the incarnationists amounts to a poetic use, not a philosophical use.
Like any intuition into the mystery of reality myth as a communal intuition shared and transmitted by generations within a culture requires a source and an addressee in its descent as a story. The source of myth cannot be myth. If it is a symbol par excellence, myth should have for its source a realm where reality does not require a symbolic garment, where reality is truth, truth reality, without the opaque medium of the symbol. The addressee of the myth is the sage, the priest, the philosopher who returns the myth to its real source. By this act the sage becomes one with the source. There is no longer any gulf between the source of a myth and its apprehension by the sage. Hence, the healing and transforming role of the myth in general. While the holistic effect of the myth or the story in general is unconscious and limited to the states of liberation from the clutches of the mundane word, its true power lies with the sage who has the gnosis of the myth’s significance.
Both symbol and myth point to a realm above and beyond body and above and beyond the laws that structure and govern body and bodily motion.
The myths lift our minds to another principle of motion. A non-material principle, totally independent of body, physical energy, and physical relations and quantities. That principle is the Soul.
The soul is the motion of all motion; the energy of all energy; the one and the diverse power imparting faculties and efficacies from moth to man.
The soul is the bodiless principle that gives existence and life, reason and knowledge. Its powers are so great that the Soul may enchant some to the extent that they may regard it as God. While Abraham sought God in the world and in the heavens, he once looked at the rising sun and exclaimed, “This is the greatest of them all”, and as he was about to bow before it, he was alerted to a greater presence from deep within himself, and he then said, “Had I not been guided, I would have taken this sun as god.”
Abraham understood that the physical luminary that was rising before him was a representation of another luminary which had no physical form, and no fixed or changing locality. Neither it rises nor it sets, and even that luminary of which the sun was an unmistakable sign was not god. Neither the sun by whose presence our eyes have their sight nor the Soul by whose presence we have life and reason – neither of them is God.
As we hold the principle of Transcendence to affirm the variety of the religious forms (as under no circumstances the infinity and the eternity of the Transcendent Reality can be equated with one or another religious form), so we uphold the principle of the Soul as an omnipresent unity both in nature and in man to affirm the variety within our universe, the vast variety of the forms of life, intelligence, knowledge and association.
Unless we have a principle which is at the same time a reality which is bodiless and above all extension and mass, one and diverse, with an unfailing unity and omnipresence, unless we have such a principle, our leaping unto the Supreme from the body and the form of this world will turn the Supreme into an idea or form after the mode or the image of things that are embodied here. That will surely lead to superstition and fear, confusion and doubt, disbelief and arrogance. With the reality of the Soul within them and around them both the believer and the philosopher will have rest from confusion and disbelief. Hence, first Soul then God.