The ego is that part of the human personality concerned with one’s individuality, one’s separateness and autonomy. It answers the question, “Who am I that is not all those other people and things out there separate from me?” It begins to grow when we are born and the umbilical chord is severed. We are no longer part of our mother. Now we must stand alone, for ourselves. We stop at our skin, so to speak, and we have to understand that we are different. We are who we are; we are our self. This is the ego. But there is a catch to it.
All of a sudden, this wonderful ego discovers that it’s unbearably lonely. The great triumph of the ego is the realization that I stop at my skin, and the great tragedy of the ego is the realization that I stop at my skin. There are all those other people out there, and they are doing the same thing. They are autonomous; they are themselves; they stop at their skin. Therefore they cannot feel what I feel; they cannot know what I know or think what I think, or even perceive what I perceive. It is a marvel that I can even communicate with them. And what about death? If I stop at my skin, then I must live irreducibly alone for my whole life, and then die alone, forever. This is existential loneliness.
Enter the spirit. If the ego is about how we are separate, then the spirit is about how we are connected. It answers the question, “Who am I that is related to all those others out there?” When we dwell in the ego we know that we are different; when we dwell in the spirit, we know that we are related, that we dance with each other and that the dance creates us, together, a unity. We live alone, to be sure, but not irreducibly alone, for we are also tied together as one whole being. We will indeed die alone, but if we can understand the spiritual truth that we are all one beneath the skin, then we die into love.
Notice that I am not suggesting that either the ego or the spirit is in any way a disembodied being temporarily trapped in our flesh. They are but ways of conceiving of ourselves and of relating both to ourselves and to the world. They are both essential to our understanding of how it is that we exist: We are separate and we are connected. After all, it takes binocular vision to see depth.
What I am suggesting is that human brokenness happens when the ego suppresses the spirit. When the ego takes over, it is triumphant, but ultimately it becomes terribly and tragically alone. Then there is brokenness, and that is the human condition.
Religion is about the healing of that brokenness. It is, in this sense at least, about holiness, that is, wholeness. Religion, religare, is, as one proposed etymology of the word suggests, the great binding together. It is in ego that we are who we are alone, but it is in spirit that we are who we are in relationship. Both are necessary. The idea that one must triumph over and suppress the other, as if they are in an internal civil war, is an illusion. Both are necessary to make a whole human being.
Gnosis—the religious truth, the saving knowledge, enlightenment—is the bringing together into a coherent whole the “partedness” of human life. Gnosis is about the deep and life-changing understanding—in the sense of “standing under,” i.e., a kind of existential commitment to—the idea that the ego and the spirit are in a kind of dance. Knowledge in religion is a matter of healing, of putting together that which has been separated. As St. Paul put it, “For now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known.” As the Buddha put it, “Know the truth and find peace.”
Both St. Paul and the Buddha are telling us something about what we need to do in order to become whole again. Is that salvation or enlightenment? What difference does it make what one calls it? The important point is that when it is found, it changes people’s lives. It makes us different from the way we were, and it brings us to act differently, to think differently, and to be different people.
Again, the Buddha said:
However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you unless you act on them. . . . Read as few words as you like and speak fewer, but act on the law.
And what law is that?
In this world hatred never yet dispelled hatred. Only love dispels hatred.
And why is that? It is because hatred has to do with enforcing separation and difference, driving apart that which is inherently whole. Love has to do with bringing together into a whole that which belongs together, seeing as whole that which is whole.
When a Christian says “I know that my redeemer liveth,” I take the claim very seriously as a knowledge claim, but not in the sense of logic, mathematics, or science. “I know that my redeemer liveth” means “I have discovered the healing of my existential loneliness in an understanding of—a standing under—Christian mythology. I have a deep and personal—a spiritual and existential—commitment to that mythology which lifts me from my ego into my spirit and makes me whole again. It binds me together. This is agape, the love of God, and this knowledge is salvation.”
Now, consider the question of the compatibility of the truths across the various religious systems. Can one religion contradict another? Given this understanding of religious knowledge, I don’t see how. What can happen (and does happen, with truly distressing frequency) is that one religion can insist that it has a monopoly on the ways to achieve this understanding, this gnosis. Such claims are pretty clearly false. Indisputably Buddhism works. And Christianity works. And Judaism works. And Taoism works. And so on. Genuine religion works. Is it not absurd to suggest that, until Jesus or the Buddha or Mohammed or whomever else came along, there was no genuine religion in the world and that it sprang full-blown from their brow? It is just not a question of who has the right religion. It is a question of which religious system works in this cultural context, with these people, for this person, at this time.
Reprinted with permission from Finger-pointing Essays: Toward a Unitarian Universalist Spirituality, © 2007 by Kenneth W. Collier. Available from the UUA Bookstore.
- Finger-Pointing Essays: Toward a Unitarian Universalist Spirituality. By Kenneth W. Collier. 2007. (UUA Bookstore)