I’ve written before on the existence of hierarchies, but here I would like to take it a step further. Much is made of the “differing beliefs” of religious systems, but at their core all religions affirm a belief in the brotherhood of all people under the fatherhood of the One (okay, God). What are usually seen as differences are not in the beliefs, but in the hierarchy in which these beliefs are expressed. All systems admit all possibilities, but once they are written down, something in human nature determines what will be the focus: human law vs. literal law vs. forgiveness vs. bliss. We pick out certain phrases and words that fit our worldview. It is another argument in favor of that teaching of Socrates: that writing is not to be trusted and only the “living word,” discovered through dialogue, can bring enlightenment. (And of course I am aware of the irony of writing this down, as I’m sure was Plato.)
In this post I will be making use of the metaphor employed by Dr. Maurice Nicoll in his book The New Man, a masterpiece of spiritual insight now sadly overlooked. The focus of The New Man is on the interpretation of parables in the New Testament which describe the ascent of the spirit through several different stages. The operative image, as I wrote in the previous article, is that of a centrifuge, swirling out matter from high density to low, and the basic hierarchy can be called bricks/stone/water/wine. (Or in the analogy of the tree, leaves/trunk/roots/earth. In the analogy of the Divided Line: Opinion/Belief/Understanding/Reason.) Where we stand on the hierarchy can be an indication of our spiritual “progress.”¹
A primer on the different levels:
Brick/manmade: This is the level of human laws, which are necessary to keep order in the society, but which are often taken to be ultimate. These laws change over time, which is why we need legislatures and politicians. Nicoll quotes the story in Genesis XI in the Bible of the Tower of Babel.² The typical interpretation of this story is that people got too carried away and tried to build a tower to heaven, and God got angry and confused all the languages. But Nicoll’s brilliant interpretation tells how the enterprise was doomed from the start: how they made bricks, which are man-made imitations of stones, and “slime (or bitumen) for mortar.” They are using temporary materials and hoping to get something permanent from them, not going about the ritual in the proper way.
Stone/Literal: rigid memory, writing, scorekeeping, revenge, punishment, sin, hellfire. It manifests as ISIS, Inquisition, witch-hunts. The lawgiver–Moses, Manu, Mohammed–is revered and his words are “carved in stone.” Paradoxically, not permanent. It demands adherence to written law, and provides spiritual status symbols such as special offices or clothing. It gives rise to the concepts of better and worse, winning and losing. For all its apparent certainty, it represents the “wandering phase” in the spiritual journey.
Water/Forgiveness: nourishment, “given before,” not a possession–not ours to give. People must live out their sanskara, i.e. compensate for limited actions and ideas, but no judgments are made. It is at this stage that we can begin to use our discrimination, to see the distinction between the temporal and the eternal, between the pleasurable and the Good. We must be baptized or purified in water, but it is still not the final stage.
Wine/Enlightenment: no sin possible, no memory, no limitation, all is One.
What are seen as individuals are unique expressions of a common source, be that the One or DNA/matter, just as a flower is a unique material expression of Universal Beauty. The individual is an illusion, the expression at a moment in time. But as Donne said, “No man is an island.” We are all the Self who have just drunk too deeply from the River Lethe and have forgotten who we are–pure, perfect and complete–and have become affiliated with one particular body. We are the Changeless in a realm of change. Our work here is to remember, aletheia, our Changelessness and to be born again to it.
That said, each “individual” needs to be treated as a sovereign being. Each contains the responsibility and the means to rule over him/herself, to bring about this remembering, this anamnesis. This internal sovereign is called the soul, that “spark of the Divine,” “That of God,” within the different packaging, what Emerson called “The Infinitude of the private man.” Looking only at the packaging, the changeableness, one could say that each is an isolated being and that his/her only responsibility is to him/herself, and by extension to the survival of one’s own gene pool: the “law of the jungle.” This is Darwinian evolution: the ego, taking itself to be the sovereign. Even if one doesn’t buy the expression of the Absolute image, each individual is born from an existing person into an existing society and thus is connected to the whole.
But if we admit of a hierarchy of being, that implies a hierarchy of laws. First are the laws of nature, which cannot be transgressed. As they pertain to the body, we can violate them, but we will pay the price. (Of course eventually the body will eventually fail regardless of how well we care for it.) The other laws of nature are still being discovered or our understanding of them revised. The law of the body, consists of what is material, observable, measurable. The body naturally feels incomplete, and therefore possesses desires.
At its most basic, the manmade law exists to protect the individual body and its “property” from appropriation by another body. This is the law no one is above, that which in the Judeo-Christian tradition is engraved in stone: “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal,” etc. The decalogue, deka-logos, ten words. The law at this level can be seen as a means for preventing me from indulging my desires, and/or as a way to be self-congratulatory about what a good person I am: see “Pharisee” in the New Testament. We can “not kill” another body, and yet kill other souls through indifference or active hatred. We can “not steal” another person’s property, yet claim the gifts freely given to us as our own, as products of our own mind and heart. These are examples of acting from the ego as sovereign.
While it seems to be possible to “break” a law of this kind and not suffer consequences, this is not the case. There are two categories of violation: crime and sin. One can “get away” with a crime, but not a sin. (Ultimately one cannot even get away with a crime.) However, sin is not an occasion for guilt and remorse; it merely means “missing the mark,” and provides an opportunity for engaging in self-correction.
In the hierarchy, in the work to remember ourselves, these laws take on a more universal and “fluid” meaning, a meaning of water, of nourishment. This is the realm of will. We are equipped to water, to nourish the fruits in our own garden, and the gardens of others as well. They take on a positive as opposed to merely prohibitive aspect, an aspect of discrimination of what is true and what is limited. We are led to look for the Divinity in others, to offer thanks for what we have been given. We see the laws as tools in rooting out the ego, in killing the suitors, as The Odyssey would have it. We learn to see and read our own daimon, our template, our source code, and realize that we are not just victims of it, but can alter its contents.
When we begin to remember our own divinity, our universal consciousness, we have reached the law of wine, of bliss. The water in the stone jars is transformed into wine.³ (John II. 1-11) This is the realm of identity, of oneness. As I wrote about Odysseus, “The seafarer is dead–he will never again wander and be tossed about on the salt sea of ignorance. And the harvest is complete–he will no longer need to use his discrimination, because everywhere he looks, he sees the One.”
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¹Emerson wrote of this in his essay Experience: Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday.
²Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Genesis 11, 1-9
³Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now:.” John 2, 6-10