For me, worldview starts with spirit or what lies behind or within or beneath the obvious. This is why the spiritual life is so important to me. Only when I have a grip on spiritual issues can I move forward and live my daily life effectively.
We each have our own starting point when we approach a discussion like this, and mine is located primarily in philosophy and religion. This is not to say that I reject science or any other point of view, for I try to be inclusive – in fact a worldview that is not inclusive is clearly limited – however I have to have a language or toolkit that works for me. The attraction of these disciplines is their determination to be all-encompassing.
A fundamental reality that ties everything together
I am persuaded that the world does not exist or move completely by chance or accident though they play their part. In other words I believe there is a fixed fundamental source from which everything springs. This is not only our source, it also sustains us and in the end completes us. As Hinduism recognises the trinity of gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) which form part of the one overarching reality (Brahman), I too recognise a Divinity which has no particular character of its own but contains every character imaginable. Like a rainbow it has no single colour, revealing itself rather through a range of colours. For if there is a something that has brought into being everything, it defies logic to think that this something does not itself partake of the qualities of everything.
Coming to terms with the Divine
To attach a name to this Divine is to pin it down to a certain concept which is inevitably wrong; and to label it by one gender or another is similarly wrong. We can for convenience use names like God or Brahman or the Tao, or speak of Him or Her, but language like this merely demonstrates how fragmented and limited we humans are in comparison with the all-encompassing reality we inhabit. For this reason, borrowing from the language of transgender people, I speak of the Divine as They or Them.
A Divinity with such diverse identity is effectively beyond identity, at least in human terms: as neutral as the Ground of Being proposed by the twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich. To establish meaning we humans characteristically focus on certain specific qualities which add up to a kind of human personality. And because it is in our interest to focus on the positive, we have devised deities with positive qualities, such as God and Allah. We do honour to these deities which are, in truth, subordinates of the one all-inclusive Divine, and reject alternatives such as Satan or – my preferred name – Negation.
There is nothing wrong with this very human approach just so long as we recognise it is a choice we have made for a reason, namely the elevation of the Good as our standard in everyday life. The Old Testament presents a God which at times is dark and vengeful, but the accepted version is God who is boundlessly loving (and powerful and knowing). I too prefer to think of the Divine in Their benign aspect, the source and sustainer and completer of all that is truthful and loving.
Everyday interaction with the Divine
For many if not most people, the spiritual life (which is what I mean by interaction with the Divine) is only a small, if not negligible, part of the daily round. I choose to take a different approach because I take seriously the idea that the Divine inhabits everything. If it inhabits everything, it can inform everything, and if we have a right relationship with the Divine, one that is geared to goodness, then we can gain enormously through giving the spiritual life its full value.
How this can happen is another matter. The spiritual world is so immense, so all-embracing, that it seems impossible for any mere mortal to grasp. This is why there are so many different ways of being spiritual. They range from the intensely formal, as in religious liturgy, to the most loosely informal, as in stillness while sitting on a beach. There is no one right way of being spiritual. Typically we employ different methods according to circumstance, making us of the diverse opportunities available to us. So for example I choose sometimes to find the Divine in a designated place of worship; at other times I find the Divine in mindful practice of everyday tasks (cooking, cleaning etc.) or the qualities of nature or people in society, doing good.
How can we make sense of this apparently scattergun approach to spirituality? Quite simply, it is a reflection of the diversity both of the world and its foundation, which I have chosen to call the Divine. While divinity is too great for ordinary humans to comprehend in toto, it is not beyond our ability to interact with at least in part. One of the many gifts we enjoy in our freedom is the ability to choose our own approach. In quiet moments and in times of stress I like to focus of leaf and greenery as symbols of the Divine, for this conveys most meaning and comfort to me; but for inspiration I look to the actions of other humans. One might sum this up by saying it’s horses for courses.
One whole but with layers of reality
However we conceive of the Divine, we are faced with layers of reality that somehow interweave, constituting the whole. Perhaps the most obvious of these is matter, or energy, in which the big bang has produced life and all sorts of species, down to our present-day artificial intelligence and robotics. Another layer of reality is the fundamental forces and laws of nature which, so to speak, bring order to nature. A further layer of reality is the abstract concepts like wholeness, harmony, contrast, balance, together with those like truth and love (or attraction) which move the natural world as well as humanity.
A well-functioning worldview will not only recognise the existence of these diverse and tangled layers but will also try to find some meaning in it all. Is there something – anything – that predominates? Is there some way of reading the world that makes more sense than other ways and that gives us more help in the challenges of everyday living? For me the answer lies in the area where the static design of existence takes off and becomes dynamic: in other words it lies in the concept of creation.
Creation is central
In my worldview, central to all is the neverending process of creation which begins with replication of life but also includes refinement, which in human terms we often call civilisation. Creation rests on truth which may be understood as the set of things which is ultimately reliable. As such, truth is the state of fitness for creation.
In broad terms our existence moves through four phases: birth, flourishing, decline and death. The first two of these could be classed together as types of creation while the last two are types of negation (I can think of no better term). In the sense that every change can be considered a step towards the final completion of life, creation may be seen as the dominant paradigm. The world is in a constant state of decay, but it is also in a constant state of creation.
How creation works
The mechanics of creation are far more complicated than the human procreation we are familiar with. In a philosophical sense, creation arises in the first place from a state of truth – a rightness or fitness for things to be together and interact. This truth or pre-existing potential has to be activated by an expression of will – two or more beings wanting to join. In human terms this may be love; in other species it is less than that but still a desire to unite.
Such a proposition is obviously beyond proof. The best I can do is offer some examples. One that is fundamental is the “fit” between space and time, such that we can see our existence as being within something coordinated, that is, an alignment of the different dimensions of space and time. Another is the extraordinary arrangement – maybe self-organisation – of variables that led to the so-called primordial soup and thence the formation of life. Creation and its associated processes can be found in the bonding of atoms to form molecules, and equally in the translation of a dramatic idea to music in the guise of a Mozart opera. In all of these stories we see a truth – potential – that is brought into life through an act of conscious or unconscious will. This is a miracle to be sure, but one with a cosmic logic that cannot be denied.
We should not fall into the trap of assuming the world is just a binary structure, a collection of marvellously interwoven positives and negatives. We could indeed say the world oscillates between day and night, summer and winter, good and evil and so on, but there is much that seems to stand outside this scale of values. Timber, for example, is just timber (unless we create a category called non-timber). Nevertheless, it is clear that practically speaking the world turns largely on binaries – things and their negation, or in the case of computing the binary digits 0 and 1.
Broadly speaking, negation may be said to mean everything that is antithetical to life or the improvement of lived experience.
A cosmic plan?
When Christians talk about God’s plan, quite possibly they are talking not about micro-management of people and events but rather the broad structure or status of things being subject to continuous change and refinement. Whether this process has an endpoint we cannot know. In simple terms, if there is a divine plan, it may be the creation of a universe which, through diversity and internal harmony and conflict, endlessly evolves to a point of (so far indeterminate) future significance.
If we accept the proposition that the Divine is limitless, it is untenable to make claims about the direction of the universe, for example that it is micro-managed or macro-managed or maybe not managed at all. By definition, everything is possible. However, we are free to make our own interpretation of things (this whole article is nothing but a personal interpretation), and I choose to think that the universe moves within a very broad set of parameters where specific outcomes occur through a combination of law and chance, fixity and freedom.
How we fit within the whole
I turn now from the cosmic to the individual. At the cosmic level, things are relatively fixed or stable, but at the individual level they become free and fluid. Thus for example, genders worldwide form a standard pattern of male and female with associated characteristics, however individuals push the boundaries of those characteristics and sometimes cross gender boundaries. Overall it is the way of things that an established pattern or mould can be varied by individuals. We see this in the evolution of species, the development of laws, the growth of knowledge through research, and so on.
As human beings we of course think our species is special, and we bolster this argument by saying that we, Homo sapiens, have effective control over the direction of the planet. However, this anthropocentric idea is impoverished, for it fails to recognise the collective importance of all forms of existence. Climate change has taught us this, for climate change is an upheaval in which all are involved, with every living thing and every inert thing playing apart. So, we humans are forced into humility – the humility which, so tradition tells us, we were taught by the gods in ages past but then proceeded to lose. We are – each of us - unique, but equally we are as inconsequential as mere grains of sand.
Each individual life may be said to move through a number of domains, beginning with the spirit or the way we perceive the “life within and beyond.” Spirit arises from our character and personality combined. Other domains of human life include the body, property, learning, work, and personal and other relationships. In all these domains, one way or another, we make our mark, sometimes contributing to the whole and at other times detracting from it. A sign of our humanness, setting us apart from the Divine, is that we never seem to achieve true completeness or integrity, no matter how hard we try.
A truly creative life exhibits certain characteristics in each of these domains – virtues like respect for truth, respect for people and other forms of life, determination to reach higher standards, and so on. And in each case, success comes only when there is encounter with some kind of other – another person, another idea, another state of proficiency, and so on.
Another way of seeing our own personal progress through life might be to conceive of it as the realisation of a series of truths. One example might be the ideal state of our health and fitness at a given time. Another example might be, in respect of property, the balance between simple sufficiency and attainment of reasonable ease and comfort and expression of our essential self – tastes, interests and so on. A third example might be a balance between intimacy and friendship or simple goodwill, or a balance between dependent relationship and independent relationship. These things can’t be easily measured, but we mostly have a sense of whether or not our lives are fulfilled and where adjustments need to be made.
Where all this might lead
There are many futures, not just one. Each individual has his or her own future many times over, and collectively too we have a future many times over. Each person’s horizon is forever receding, as is the horizon for the human race and the planet and indeed the universe as a whole.
For the individual person the key question is whether there is life after death and, if so, what kind of life. Is there indeed a soul which can be the vehicle for life after death? If the soul is understood as simply the combination of character and personality, both of which are limited to the time of life on Earth, the answer is no. This is my position, for I cannot see merit in an argument for life after death, other than the life which resides in other people’s memory and more broadly the incalculable effect of everything we have done while alive. To ask for more – a continuation of life beyond the normal span - seems to me to be greed. We should humbly accept that we live for a certain time in accordance with the laws of nature tempered by chance, and we should be content that this is so.
For human society as a whole, I see the future in terms of advancing civilisation, by which I mean the progress to a world where people behave to each other with goodwill or civility. This may seem a somewhat narrow definition, excluding such things as artistic and scientific achievement, not to mention reconciliation of conflicts in politics and religion. However, the exercise of goodwill is the most effective thing I know to bring about positive change in all sorts of arenas. We can never claim that we have reached civilisation because we never attain perfection, but the drive to improve is always with us.
In regard to the planet and the universe as a whole, we are in even more murky territory. There is no logic I can see in either the continuation or termination of everything. As a mere mortal with the necessarily limited vision which this implies, all I can see is more of the same – whatever that means. Scientists predict the end of the universe at some very distant point in the future, but this view does not coincide with others, and who can make predictions with any degree of confidence? Are we to, for example, disregard the idea of an ultimate refinement of existence – a triumph of goodness – or alternatively a passing into a new cycle of existence? These are matters for conjecture but nothing more.
A worldview is too big to be summarised in just a sentence or two, but I find it helpful to conclude with a statement of key distinguishing characteristics:
Belief in a spiritual or divine underpinning of existence but not one that corresponds to any standard religion
Distinguishing between this fundamental, value-free divinity and the gods we humans have created for ourselves - the gods which “keep us going” in everyday life
Acceptance that the purpose of existence is beyond us to know but that the answer lies somewhere in the endless process of creation, negation, and new creation and new negation
Acceptance that within this framework there is a logic in evil and suffering, which together help to sustain creation and all that we deem to be good
Affirmation of the importance of individual human freedom which acts as one agent of the process of creation and negation, but moderated always by chance which makes outcomes unknowable.
This is a worldview that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It simply says “this is the way I think things are” and accepts that, out of this mix, anything may happen. In the 21st century with humankind having so much power and being internally so riven, we cannot be at all confident about the future; yet history to date is full of impossible triumphs over the odds. Together with this mess of contradictions we have extraordinary “new” developments like the birth of artificial intelligence (almost a species in itself) and the rise of complexity, threatening our very sense of ourselves.
We have to stand back, take a big breath, pause and reflect.