"God Is Existence" — Thomas Keating, Thomas Metzinger, and the Contemplative Life

“Every human pleasure is meant to be a stepping-stone to knowing God better or to discovering some new aspect of God. Only when that stepping-stone becomes an end in itself — that is, when we overidentify with it — does it distort the divine intention. Everything in the universe is meant to be a reminder of God’s presence.

“God is existence. In everything that exists, God is present. The greatest reality is God’s presence. The problem is that we only access that presence to the degree that our interior life is attuned to it.”

Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (Paulist Press, 1999)

I’ve been really enjoying the late Thomas Keating’s The Human Condition, in which he describes psychological development through contemplation and meditation. For a brief summary of the three main themes of Thomas Keating’s work, check out this brief video, where he explains in his own words. We might also express something akin to Keating’s view with a footnote to Quran 22:6, al-Hajj (“The Pilgrimage”), taken from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (HarperOne, 2015):

God is the Truth (al-Ḥaqq; cf. 22:62; 24:25; 31:30) could also be rendered, ‘God is the Real/Reality.’ The growth of vegetation from dry earth is a common symbol in the Quran for the resurrection of the dead, as in 35:9: And God is He Who sends the winds; then they cause clouds to rise. Then We drive them to a land that is dead, and thereby revive the earth after its death. Thus shall be the Resurrection! See also 16:65; 25:48–49; 30:19, 50; 35:9; 36:33; 43:11; 45:5; 50:9–11.“

The rest of this particular translation of the Quran uses “the Real” as a title for God, following several Sufi commentators. It’s a term I like very much, with interesting results. For one, it lends itself to lovely metaphors like the above, such as comparing the resurrection of the dead to a tree growing its fruits in a following season after shedding them before. For another, it dovetails nicely with the Sufi idea that while one is not God, God is all, and the spiritual path is to recover one’s unity with God — that Whole of which everything is a part. Further, it’s also an interesting way of making sense of some of the more unsavory depictions of God as a person, by using God as a word for the totality of Reality, which we hardly expect to be favorable to us, but to which we’re terribly grateful when it is. Baruch Spinoza had much the same kind of God in mind (God qua reality) when he said that one must learn to love God without expecting God to love them back. Friedrich Nietzsche had a similar view of Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible as a personification of life thoroughly lived: demanding, mercurial, sometimes even cruel; also tender, even willing to bless at times; bound to people by “commandments,” which can bring calamity when violated, blessings when followed. At the very least, it’s an intriguing idea, and exceptionally comparable to Keating’s own theology.

Keating’s work also reminds me a great deal of modern leaps in neuroscience, especially as outlined by philosopher Thomas Metzinger in The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. For Keating (and Metzinger), our greatest sacred value is Reality, and the throughline of our predicaments is our reduction of that reality into a manageable sliver we call our lives. We reduce the reality of our whole Selves to a false self, an ego we must protect against insult, injury, and even memory — divided against the lion’s share of one’s self found in the unconscious. We create a reduced and thus false self from all the things we tell ourselves we supposedly are or should be, shorn of all that we repress or overlook; and, of course, our immediate cultures are happy to help in that respect, helping you “should” all over your true Self, which is far larger than you can remember or plan for. We do this to others, as well, boxing them into false selves we then bat away or cling to like life-preservers. You meet aspects of your Self in meditation, contemplation, therapy, etc., and the goal is to recognize your Self as exponentially much more than your narrow field of consciousness can take note of.

The problem is that none of these low-resolution simulations are the real self; they’re passing, like leaves on a deciduous tree in autumn. They change as our needs, surroundings, communities — our inner world — changes. But they’re all just transient snapshots, watered-down sketches of the Reality they seek to at once imitate and repress. Shedding the false self for the true Self involves a lot of work: facing traumatic pasts presently unprocessed, disconnecting from cultures and communities that offered security at a price, and even facing parts of ourselves we honestly repressed, such as our shocking capacities to do what we and everyone else insist we never would do. It’s like the old phrase John Bradford was said to use when walking by prisoners, evil-doers: “There but for the grace of God”; in other words, were I in their circumstances, I could just have easily made the same mistakes.

For Keating, contemplation and meditation are practices which help us to learn to seek out and even accept our whole selves, and those of others, rather than fearfully or violently reduce them to what we have all more or less agreed we and they “should” be. Metzinger writes a good deal about how we do this to ourselves, creating ultimately illusory egos; and also of how our brains are wired to do this with our immediate environments. Our bodies can take in only so much sensory data, and our brains thus construct limited models of Reality, even the realities we think we’re immediately in contact with. Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer articulated this some time ago: what we think we’re experiencing is not “the thing itself,” but a diluted representation of the thing itself. We seldom if ever realize we’re dealing in these mere representations, and thus the models our brains construct are what philosophers call “transparent”: like the lenses of my glasses, I see the world through them, without ever noticing the lenses themselves. For Metzinger and Keating, meditation and contemplation are means by which one might “get under” these representations, to glimpse Reality itself (self, others, and the common root we all share, dissolving individuality), or at least recognize we’re dealing in low-res simulations by glimpsing their horizons and terminal points.

It’s not our typical “realities” which Keating refers to as God, but the Reality (with a deliberately capital-R) we’ve spent so much emotional energy closing ourselves off from, whether for security, affection, or the illusion of power; and from which we have, thankfully, failed to separate ourselves. This far greater and richer Reality, hard to bear and yet ultimately redemptive, is Keating’s idea of God, the God we must recognize is there (beyond our narrow “realities”) and with whom we must seek to reunite, only to ultimately realize that there never was a separation to begin with. There was no Reality and you, only Reality — and you’re it!

Or something like that.




Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash