The ultimate nature of our universe is personal
We may well consider ourselves fortunate to live in our modern, technological age. We enjoy luxuries our ancestors would have envied. We take for granted a living standard undreamt of for ordinary people not so long ago: security, rights as citizens, material well-being, competent health care, fulfilment of individual aspirations, wholesome food and stimulating entertainment. But our secular, urbanised world also has its dark sides.
Our industrial and consumerist society destroys natural community. It breaks us up into individuals who have to manage on our own. Often it leads to indescribable loneliness and isolation, to people living within the four walls of their homes as in a prison from which they cannot escape.
A painful example of this came to my attention when I was visiting Vienna a few years ago. A taxi driver told me that in an in an inner-city flat the bodies of two elderly sisters had been found. They had both died of natural causes, and he told me some of the details.
The discovery occurred when the electricity board decided to install a new meter. The inspector could not obtain access to the flat. In the end he called in the police. They broke down the front door and found the dead bodies.
Medical examination established that the two sisters had died twelve years earlier (!) of old age. One of the sisters had outlived the other by about a month. She had rolled her sister in a carpet before she had herself died. No one had noticed their absence, the police had declared, because the two sisters paid all their regular bills for rent, gas and electricity by standing order.
Twelve years they lay dead and unburied, and yet no one noticed! What about the neighbours? What about family or friends? Did they not have any close acquaintance who missed them? And why was there no call for help when one of them fell ill and died? Was there no one whom they could trust and to whom they could turn for support? The taxi driver who told me this story was an immigrant from Turkey. “Allah forgive us”, he said, “for building cities where all people are strangers to each other.”
This may seem an extreme example, but it illustrates well the loneliness of many of our contemporaries. At the time when they are most needed, the traditional buttresses to our identities are being eroded: the extended family, the parish community, cultural homogeneity, the friendly neighbourhood, companionship in the workplace. People starve of a lack of intimacy and of healthy friendships (see: Ch.LASH, Men in Darkness: Psychic Survival in Hard Times, New York 1990).
We are `the lonely crowd’. We are like Jean-Paul Sartre’s bus passenger standing at a bus stop with twenty others whom we do not know and do not speak to.
We are not on our own in the universe
“My case is different”, you may well say. “I have a loving family, pleasant workmates and wonderful friends.” I do not doubt it. Fortunately, a good many people have. Personal relationships are necessary for survival. They can only be sustained by creating small clearings in our concrete jungle, clearings in which relationships can flourish. Such protected spaces are our home, our immediate neighbourhood, our circle of friends. Within the ocean of the faceless crowd that sweeps us along, we have our small islands of human friendship.
I have dwelt on all this to make you aware of how important relationships are for our human existence. In a manner of speaking we live for them. It is intimacy, genuine love, being known by name, being needed by other human beings, that makes our life worth living.
If this is the case, if the personal aspect of existence means so much to us, why should we regard it as of secondary importance when considering the nature of the universe? Does our experience not rather show that the whole universe itself must ultimately be personal?
What I mean is this. A physical scientist may well describe you as a heap of atoms and molecules -, but will that convince you that your experience as a person: the acquisition of knowledge, your awareness of self, your giving and receiving love, are of less account? Will you not rather think that your power of reason and your personality are of higher value than the biological infra-structure that supports them? Are you less a person, because you are made up of atoms? Do you feel human consciousness counts for little because the material earth is so much more bulky than we are?
Why then surrender to a view of the universe that is totally physical and mechanistic? Sure, the Big Bang was driven by nuclear forces. The galaxies are thousands of millions of stars made up of atoms that interact according to physical laws. But even if there were just one planet – our own earth – that has produced life and intelligent personalities like ourselves, does it not show that our universe is basically more than mechanistic, that it is capable of producing thinking and loving persons, that it is ultimately personal?
Seeing the mystery of seeing
We can approach this in a variety of ways. The basic insight is to recognise the mystery in our own perception and thought.
Those familiar with physics may want to start with the strange influence which observation has on giving to indeterminate elements of a wave function a definite value. Physicists generally accept this so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, but they cannot explain why measurement by an intelligent being should determine the outcome of something that is, in itself, not determined. Observation is thus regarded as something intrinsically different from anything else in nature.Does it not reveal a special role for intelligent life in the universe? See: F.CAPRA, The Tao of Physics, Wildwood House 1975; The Turning Point, Wildwood House 1982.).
In the Gospel Jesus Christ says:
“Blessed are the pure of heart: they will see God!” (see: Matthew 5,8).
“I am telling you the truth, unless you are born a second time, you cannot see the realm of God.” (John 3,3.).
Seeing the religious dimension, the dimension of mystery, the dimension of God requires another level of awareness. It is like a re-birth, coming out of the womb a second time and looking at the world with fresh eyes!
It is difficult to describe this new insight. Perhaps we may call it the transition from seeing mere objects to suddenly discovering the personal dimension in reality. Hindus speak of shifting attention from hearing to the Hearer, from seeing to the Seer, from speech to the Speaker, from knowing to the Knower. They do not only mean a switch from reflecting on the mysterious fact of our own seeing and knowing, but on seeing and knowing as such. If we are a universe of seeing and knowing, then who is the ultimate Seer and Knower?
“He who dwells in your understanding, yet is other than your understanding, whom your understanding does not know, whose body is your understanding, who controls your understanding from within – he is the Self within you, the Inner Controller, the immortal.
He is the unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the unknown knower.
There is no other seer than he,
no other hearer than he,
no other thinker than he,
no other knower than he.
He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the immortal.”
Bruhad Aranyaka Upanishad III, 7, 22-23; see R.PANIKKAR, The Vedic Experience, London 1977, p. 709.).
God meets us from all directions
If the universe is ultimately personal, then God, the source of all Being, is personal. In fact, “God is the personal depth of reality” (see: K.WARD, Holding Fast to God, London 1982, p.6). Yes, we experience something of the power of God in the eruption of a volcano or the explosion of a supernova, but we equally meet God’s tenderness in every intimate human embrace. It is because God is the personal depth of reality that, as human beings, we are starved when we are fed on bread alone. We need friendship.
When we study conscience, we meet the same phenomenon in another form. We spontaneously respond to Ultimate Reality as to a person. In acknowledging our responsibility for good and evil, we implicitly accept a deeper relationship to a personal power who can judge us. In a mechanistic universe we would owe nothing to any single thing.
The most profound truth that can be stated about the reality of the world is that, in the ultimate analysis, it is a personal reality. Relationship, and especially genuine love, are the highest aspects of our life. We have to conclude therefore that our Origin, our Ground of Being, cannot be a nebulous force, a blind impersonal energy. He/she must be a reality we relate to as a You, a “Thou”.
At the same time we must remember God is more than a human Thou, more than just anybody.
If we imagine a Somebody, we imagine him or her approaching us from one direction: from this place or that, from the right or the left. It is then a limited someone, a person.
But the Thou of God meets us from all directions, from the roots of existence, from other persons, from all that happens to us. God is the Source supporting us and meeting us from all directions.
A New Catechism, London 1970, pp. 488-502.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of incarnation