In the Middle Ages Europe was known as Christendom. Whatever people’s specific views and opinions about the world, whatever their level of education, they saw the world through a Christian lens. They were like C.S Lewis, who declared, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
The lens or filter through which we see the world is necessarily transparent. We see through it, otherwise we wouldn’t see anything else. And we see objects in the world because the sun illuminates them, but we don’t look directly at the sun itself. The sun is always behind us, as if were.
But a filter is not absolutely transparent, otherwise it wouldn’t be a filter. And the sun is not completely invisible. If we try, we can make out the basic contours of the filter, and we can make out the brightness, shape and colour of the sun in the sky. A filter is semi-transparent. The sun is also in a sense semi-transparent.
Much psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general is concerned with bringing the unconscious into consciousness, in other words in focusing on and bringing to light the psychological filters through which we experience our world, especially our relationships. At first, this can make us rather self-conscious as we become simultaneously aware of our experience and our (usually neurotic) filtering of our experience.
But behind our personal ego filters, there is a deeper collective metaphysical filter which orients us to the world on a more fundamental level. In Medieval Europe, this was Christianity. In modern Europe, this is secular humanism or atheism. In the Middle Ages, Christianity was largely taken for granted. It was not a object of inquiry, but the semi-transparent lens through which subjects experienced the world.
However, this all changed with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Reformation was characterised by a return to the “purity” of textual scripture. The Lutheran slogan was “sola scriptura”. This meant that other forms of religious worship and experience were marginalised or rejected. Out went the mysterious and numinous church liturgies and devotions. Out went the embodied spiritual practices, the pilgrimages, the adoration of relics, saints and martyrs. The Bible was the only trustworthy way to come closer to the truth of Christian revelation, shorn of later superstitious accretions and distortions.
The Protestants of the Reformation were bringing the filters of tradition and the church into conscious awareness. The protest was principally about corruption in the Church, but it soon became more than that. It was a protest against the Church itself, which was seen more and more as an arbitrary and unnecessary filter between the people and God. Would it not be better to give the people access to the Word of God directly? Just get rid of the middle man. Go back to the pristine purity of the original scriptures.
The semi-transparent filters of Church and Tradition were exposed and subjected to direct critical analysis, so that rather than being the lens through which people saw the world, they became an opaque object of intellectual inquiry. The Protestants soon splintered into different factions because they couldn’t agree on exactly how much to get rid of or what the denuded scriptures actually meant.
The confusion ushered in the Wars of Religion, with Catholics and Protestants massacring each other in the millions. It appeared that “sola scriptura” didn’t work. Since people couldn’t agree based on scripture, which could of course be read in a variety of different ways, maybe they should rely solely on Reason in order to reach agreement on how to live peaceably together. Surely Reason was universal and non-partisan?
The “Age of Reason”, commonly known as “The Enlightenment”, quickly took root in Europe. The slogan changed from “sola scriptura” to “sola ratio”. This meant that not only were the filters of the Church and tradition made the objects of critical analysis, so now was scripture. The Bible itself became an object of rational inquiry, an artifact amenable to “Higher Criticism”. The hope was that we could clear away with the superstitious filters of the Bible and discover a purer “natural religion” based on pure reason beneath. Then we would usher in an age of peace and harmony, of liberty, fraternity and equality.
It didn’t quite work out that way of course. Soon the filter of Reason itself was subjected to critical analysis, most famously in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Reason was not the transparent filter we supposed it to be either.
It seems that any filter we use to understand reality can become the object of rational and empirical investigation, including reason and the senses themselves. Whatever our “ultimate vocabulary”, whatever our unconscious, semi-transparent “Umwelt”, we can always expose it to the clinical glare of “objective science”. All our foundational assumptions can be objectified, deconstructed and radically relativised.
Look what happened to literary criticism in the twentieth century. Novels and poems were put on the dissecting table and subjected to all sorts of tortuous operations, from Structuralism and Russian Formalism to Post Structuralism and Deconstruction, via New Historicism, Freudian, Marxist and Feminist Semiotics. A poem is intended to act as a window on the world, as a new lens or perspective through which we can make sense of our experience. But when it becomes the object of our interest, it ceases to act as a filter or lens. A watch can tell us the time, but if we take it apart, it can also tell us how watches are made. But then we don’t know what time it is.
Seemingly straightforward and unproblematic ideas such as atheism are not immune to this process. The recent spate of books about atheism, by critics and defenders alike, means that atheism is now a “thing”, itself an object of inquiry and scholarly analysis, not the implicit invisible basis for serious scientific or intellectual inquiry about stuff that it purported to be. It is no longer the “sun” by which “I see everything else”. It is historically situated. It has its champions and its detractors, its founding myths, its saints and martyrs. It is no longer the transparent or semi-transparent default lens through which we instinctively see the world. It is a filter just like any other.
Is nothing sacred? Is there nothing that cannot be objectified and deconstructed and turned into the subject of a doctoral thesis? Well, technically speaking, there is one thing that cannot be objectified: the subject. We can layer coloured filters over our subjective experience, which can be peeled away and analysed, but we can’t peel away and analyse the consciousness which makes our experiences possible in the first place.
This absolute subjectivity which cannot be objectified is called “Atman”, the Self, by the anonymous ancient sages who wrote the Upanishads: “Eye, tongue cannot approach it, nor mind know; not knowing, we cannot satisfy inquiry.” (Kena Upanishad). The Self is that which sees but cannot be seen, hears but cannot be heard: “He through whom we see, taste, smell, feel, hear, enjoy, knows everything. He is that Self.” (Katha Upanishad).
Self-inquiry leads to the inescapable conclusion that the personal subjective consciousness is co-extensive with and ultimately identical with infinite universal consciousness. Atman is Brahman.
The Universal Self, Brahman, is also known as “Paramatman” in Advaita Vedanta or “Parashiva” in Kashmir Shaivism. The closest word we in the West have to this Absolute transcendent consciousness is “God”. Like the Self, God can never become the object of analysis. We can analyse religions, scriptures and our ideas about God, but never God Himself. Likewise, we can only ever know the Self indirectly: “It lies beyond the known, beyond the unknown. We know through those who have preached it, have learnt it from tradition.” (Kena Upanishad)
So perhaps we can live with the semi-transparent filters of scripture and tradition after all, as long as we understand that they are always only fingers pointing to the moon.
The default reality beyond all filters whatsoever is not atheism or any other negative pretense at neutrality. It is God, God being the only “thing” which cannot be unveiled and revealed as just another filter.
Remember God. Remember Shiva-Shakti. Then remember everything else. God (Parashiva), Self (Shiva) and World (Shakti) are the irreducible root and foundation of all possible realities in all possible universes.