Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

Spirituality Approach to Theistic Science

What is Enlightenment without Paradox?
Nondualism from a theistic perspective

Nondualist philosophy is examined from a theistic perspective, considering the ideas of Andew Cohen in particular, to see what is non-paradoxical and suitable for exoteric everyday application. Cohen is found to have made significant developments in comparison with traditional Advaita Vedanta, and these developments clearly point toward a theistic viewpoint.

1 Traditional Nondualism

Nondualism has attracted renewed interest in the West in recent decades, through the introduction of esoteric Hindu & Buddhist religious philosophies, and with the support of writers such as Ken Wilber and leaders such as Andrew Cohen. Traditional nondualism, in its purest form, is generally taken to be that of Shankara, and Georg Feuerstein summarizes the advaita realization as follows: ''The manifold universe is, in truth, a Single Reality. There is only one Great Being, which the sages call Brahman, in which all the countless forms of existence reside. That Great Being is utter Consciousness, and It is the very Essence, or Self (Atman) of all beings.''[1]

These teachings are themselves to contribute to enlightenment, a spiritual transformation in which the individual is profoundly changed, to have some kind of liberation from 'the bondage of conditioned existence'. These transformations may be sudden or progressive, and those to whom it happens typically want to share their fortune with others to lead in them in the same direction, with the aim, inter alia, of easing them of their ignorance and troubles.

2 Moral Problem with Nondualism

The well-known 'moral objection' to nondualism is that it does not tell the unenlightened (or enlightened, for that matter) how to live. Classically, the world is recognized as being either completely unreal, or only partially real, and the nondual teaching does not in any way address the ethical or moral dimension of human life. Tradition in Hinduism deals with this issue by restricting the individuals to whom the absolute teachings were revealed to those who have already fulfilled demanding moral and ethical qualifications for discipleship. And even more than that, Shankara himself states that the qualifications for discipleship also demanded an extraordinary degree of detachment from and transcendence of worldly desires.

Now, however, nondualism is available to everyone who can browse bookshops, libraries and websites. Not a few these days are attracted to nondualism precisely because of the disconnection between spirituality and morality, as they see thereby the possibility of some kind of salvation for everyone (including themselves) irrespective of their own moral life. However, a modern sensibility has been brought to bear on the subject, one that has been influenced by Christianity, with the result that nondualism as taught today has developed in interesting and subtle ways. The purpose of this essay is to examine those changes, and compare them with what might be expected from a theistic perspective.

Before proceeding, I remind you of the relevant essentials of what it means for a view to be theistic. Theism is the view that there is an Infinite Absolute that is the source, sustainer and redeemer of creation. In particular this Source is Love and Wisdom themselves, and just as these are the essence of human spirituality, in the Source they are the essence of a Divine Human nature, who is the Lord God of the whole universe. Rational creatures living on planets are created to be distinct of the Source, but are sustained and saved in their lives by conforming themselves to receive the Love and Wisdom from the Absolute, not just on Earth but everywhere necessary, in order to perform good uses from love by means of wisdom. Such an account is derived in most part from Emanuel Swedenborg[2], where it is intended to be a account that is both rational and empirical, and which can be understood eventually without paradoxes.

3 Is the Life of a Nondualist Paradoxical?

Avoiding paradoxes where possible is a good thing for two reasons. Most fundamentally, it is desirable because, from a contradiction, it is strictly possible to logically derive any thesis whatsoever. The only way to avoid that is to have further qualifying conditions; so why not make the situation clear from the beginning? The second reason is that the promulgation of ideas is much easier when they do not appear to have visible inconsistencies.

The recent book 'Living Enlightenment' by Andrew Cohen[3] attempts to make it clear to the lay person what it means to be following the nondualist philosophy, and addresses many of the problems generally found with this view. While Cohen starts from a nondualist framework, and wants to keep that name and agree with writers such as Ken Wilbur, it has been recognised [4] that he has some differences with traditional nondualism. Thus, Cohen develops the philosophy in ways which we need to examine in more detail, but still sometimes he resorts to asserting what are clear contradictions, such as [3, p. 115] ''everything is perfect and everything must change''. His initial response is that this is only a contradiction 'to the unenlightened mind', and he seems happy to remain in such a paradox. Since one of the virtues of theism compared with nondualism is that it does not attempt to include paradoxes, but rather seeks deeper understanding through more redefined discrimination, the issues which lead to these paradoxes and apparent paradoxes also deserve particular attention.

4 Living Nondualism after Cohen

Let us look at some of the practical advice that a modern nondualist such as Cohen teaches, and consider each of them also from the theistic viewpoint. In the order in which they appear in [3], they are:

Our personality will spontaneously become a vehicle for the manifestation of that One Self in time. The individual self will become infused with the presence of a powerful and transcendent singularity and will become a dynamic living expression of that which is absolute in this world. [p. 9] Here, as will be discussed more below, it is clear the individual person does not disappear in practical nondualism, but becomes a manifestation infused with the presence of God (the One Self) in a way that is recognisably theistic. The theist may quibble with 'spontaneously' since all the detailed stages necessary known to be necessary, may change 'manifestation' to 'creation', and may remember that the 'absolute in this world' is the immanent presence of God whose nature is Absolute and not 'in this world'.

On the most fundamental, existential level, your questions will be answered because when your heart breaks, you experience an inconceivable, mind-transcending love that reveals a breathtaking mystery that abides beyond time [p. 16] Cohen is clearly talking about his and others experience of the Infinite Absolute Love. But this is in the God of theism, as there is little in original presentation of Advaita Vedanta that even points to Love at all. It is the alternative bhakti traditions which talk of love, and allowed to have residual dualisms, since it is acknowledged that love must always be love of others, never love of oneself (as theism also reminds us).

As long as we are blindly attached to and unconsciously enslaved by any idea that is the expression of the fears and desires of the individual or collective ego, which is the mind of the world that we're living in, it will be impossible to live a truly liberated human life. [p. 26] The theistic advocate could not agree more, and may only differ in the means to correct this situation.

The purification of the vehicle - purification of the fundamental motives, conscious and unconscious, in the personality. Only then will we be truly fit to represent the glory of God without wanting even a small fraction of it for ourselves. [p. 42] This 'purification of fundamental motives' summarises rather precisely our task within theism. The Theistic God is a God of Love, and he relates to us by means of our loves: it is there in particular where we must purify ourselves. And talk of 'representing the glory of God' is again pure theism, since this is the the result of being successfully conformed to receive Love and Wisdom: we become 'an image and likeness of God', a representation.

As strange as it sounds, when some people experience enlightened consciousness, it's not uncommon for them to conclude that now, because they are free, what they do doesn't matter. Some have even said things like: ''What the personality says and what the body does is of no significance whatsoever - it's all an illusion anyway. The only thing that is real is the Self Absolute.'' [p. 42] Here, Cohen address the 'moral issue' of nondualism mentioned earlier. His answer is in part: ''the spiritual dimension of life only becomes apparent through ... profound human transformation. That unborn, unseen reality must become manifest as you and I, so that this world that we're living in will literally be transformed by it. And the only way that can happen is if you and I become a living expression of that mystery and glory, that One without a second, in this world. One without a second means undivided. When there's only One without a second, then only one thing will be expressed, and that is Love.''. This is a good theistic presentation, if 'expression' is again 'representation' rather than identity (as it may have been read by nondualists), and if 'undivided' applied to God does not forbid His sustaining of creation. Still, the essential feature for Cohen, as for religious theists, is that ''[most of] spiritual practice is about the purification of our motivation in relationship to the human experience. That means we make the noble effort to face and come to terms with the destructive nature of our petty self-concern''. Cohen continues ''... in light of our true identity as One without a second'', but theists merely change this to '... in light of our true identity as sustained by the One without a second'.

Cohen says ''The goal is to get to that point where the personality naturally and spontaneously expresses a perfect and seamless consistency of pure motivation. That means nothing is hidden, there are no secrets, and nothing is personal.'' [p. 42] and later ''with a ruthless integrity we must scrutinize our own motives and make the honest effort to find out what our relationship to life is really based on'' [p. 47] which again summarise the spiritual tasks of the theist in the reformation and regeneration of the lives by means of some self-examination. This is provided 'personal' here is taken to refer to ego concerns (selfish loves), rather than even the very existence of a person.

The descent of Grace is not sufficient by itself, Cohen explains, because the conscious experience of divine presence usually grants us only a temporary respite from the ego's endless needs and concerns. That kind of experience, as inspiring as it may be, is just not enough to set us free. [p. 59] This again is the theistic view; that grace may remind us of our tasks ahead by giving us a foretaste, but that the real task consists of living a life full of faith and love.

As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. ... As long as there is a human being who is walking and talking, there is always going to be someone in there who is making the choices. [p. 63] Here, Cohen puts his finger on an essential aspect of theism: that the Divine sustenance leaves us yet free to make our own choices and decisions. We are all given (at least) rationality and freedom to think and choose as if by ourselves. It is these decisions which make us human, according to both Cohen and theism, and therefore the regeneration of this humanity must begin by taking responsibility for our choices.

Cohen distinguishes though and action: ''the door to liberation is found when you discover that the mere presence of thought has no power whatsoever unless you believe that it does. '' [p. 71] In theism, this statement becomes true if we say '... unless you think from any intention ', which is to bring the thought into the will. (In Cohen's book there is not a fully fledged account of will and understanding.) In theism, one of the spiritual practices is to view (but not adopt) the multitude of thoughts that continually bubble into our minds. We should examine them all, and only allow good thoughts into our intention (the others we have to tell to get lost!) Cohen summarises part of this by saying ''The right relationship with thought is one in which we identify only with those thoughts that are in line with our desire to be free.'' [p. 72]. In fact, we can apply this to the thoughts that are in line with any desire for what is good.

Cohen comes down hard on the Ego: ''Ego is the one and only obstacle to enlightenment. Ego is pride. Ego is arrogant self-importance. Ego is the deeply mechanical and profoundly compulsive need to always see the personal self as being separate from others, separate from the world, separate from the whole universe. Ego is a love-denying obsession with separation, narcissism, and self-concern.'' [p. 81] Furthermore, he says that ''it is only when we take the enormous risk of not looking into it, of leaving the ego completely alone, that we will finally be able to see it for what it really is.'' [p. 84] Here, Cohen is apparently paradoxical, since earlier (p. 42) he talks of purifying our fundamental motives, and if these are 'conscious and unconscious' then clearly some of them are connected to the ego. Cohen admits that his admonition to 'leave the Ego completely alone' stems in part from 'the kind of teacher that I am' [p. 85], and indeed the theistic viewpoint is that the reformation and regeneration of the human person is a process of many steps that begins by using ego loves (such as curiosity, ambition and the love of knowledge) that may ultimately be discarded. Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition when he speaks of 'instantaneous enlightenment', yet even in his own life it is clear that this was not permanently won overnight.

5 Reworking Theoretical Nondualism

In this section, we look at some statements of traditional nondualism that still appear in Cohen's presentation, and consider how they may be yet ever-so-slightly changed so as to be consistent with theism, while keeping a spiritual impact in form very similar to the original intention.

That's when there is no longer any distinction between the inherent perfection of the Self Absolute and that response that is its expression in the world of time and space [p. 17] According to theism, everything good in the world of time and space is in fact belonging to God: it appears as if it is our own when we perform good act, but we must never claim ownership for ourselves and to become 'as God' (Gen 3:5).

To the question ''The ego can claim enlightenment for itself?'', Cohen replies ''Yes, and unfortunately it often does. But if the individual's motivation is pure, if there is a foundation of deep and profound humility, then the realization will not be corrupted by the desire for personal gain, and that's very rare indeed.'' [p. 21] It is clear that nondualism itself has nothing in its logic to stop 'atman = Atman = Brahman' to be reversed as 'Brahman = Atman = atman', and the Infinite claimed for oneself. Cohen's response points to lack of personal gain, but this response begins to make sense in a theistic framework where there is a distinction between Divine and personal objectives.

Cohen describes an early experience as ''that all of life is One that the whole universe and everything that exists within it, seen and unseen, known and unknown, is one conscious, glorious, intelligent Being that is self-aware. Its nature is Love but it is a love that is so overwhelming in its intensity that even to experience the faintest hint of it is almost unbearable for the human body. I saw in that moment that there is no such thing as death, that life has no beginning and no end.'' [p. 31-32] This wonderful experience is correct in almost every detail to the theist, only one identification needs to be remade. This, that really it is 'the life of the whole universe and everything that exists within it ... is one Being that is self-aware'. Since the Divine Life everywhere permeates and sustains the whole universe, one may be forgiven for missing the distinction between what is Divine (essentially infinite & overwhelming) and what is created (essentially finite & underwhelming).

Cohen sees our representation of the Divine as like a mirror [p. 45] which should be spotless. In theism, the manner of representation of the Infinite in the finite creature is more complicated than as a mirror, and in fact takes a whole biological body with all its myriad structures and functions to represent God properly. Discussion of this, however, is beyond the scope of this essay.

Our True Self is always paying attention in a way that we are usually not conscious of. And when we discover this Self - this mysterious depth that is already awake - we find that which is miraculous. We discover who we truly are. It's the Self that we cannot see with the mind, but when we experience it directly we will understand what it means to be enlightened. And when we liberate this Self that mysteriously sees and knows what we cannot see or know with our conscious mind, we will begin to respond to life in ways that, left to our own devices, we never could. [p. 76] Cohen is here using the phrase 'True Self' to refer to what theists call the internal spiritual mind. Most of us only come to this state after death, but then Cohen's description is remarkably accurate in describing a new 'heavenly proprium' (as Swedenborg calls it) that cannot be seen by our existing natural minds.

Cohen talks of the revelation of ''true conscience'', which is the unexpected manifestation of intense compassion. True conscience emerges from that very same mysterious part of our own self; it expresses a kind of care that the personality could never understand. It's the true heart, which is not the heart that we normally identify with the personality. [p. 77] Again we see Cohen expressing views that could not have come from traditional nondualism, but which clearly come from a person (or God) who works in a theistic framework. As he says beautifully, ''The degree to which we are able to liberate ourselves from self-concern will be the degree to which we are able to recognize that our true nature as human beings is love.'' He is only mistaken in thinking ''It happens automatically. This is one of the miracles of human life.'' It is well known that the God of theism mostly operates behind the scenes.

In the impersonal view, which is the enlightened perspective, the ego and the entire personal world that it creates is not seen as being real. That world is revealed to be empty of meaning, value, and purpose, ultimately serving only to perpetuate the existence of a separate self that doesn't really exist. [p. 104] Cohen speaks from the nondualist tradition, but this is immediately contradicted by the next page, which has a purely theistic observation: When that impersonal Self Absolute begins to emerge in consciousness as a living presence, the ''personal," instead of being the impenetrable fortress that the separate ego abides in, becomes a permeable vessel through which the impersonal Self Absolute seeps into this world. [p. 105] It is the idea of theism that the internal spiritual self can be modelled as a vessel that receives the Divine sustaining influx. This useful idea of a 'permeable vessel' is a development of strict nondualism toward the ideas of theism.

Cohen agrees that ''there's really nothing personal in either the absolute or the relative dimension of our experience,'' [p. 105] and insists that the ''enlightened perspective always points us to that which is singular, empty of anything personal, and free from any and all motivation that comes from ego.'' [p. 105] This reveals a failure to recognise the true nature of person as constituted by love and wisdom, a constitution that in theism applies primarily to God as the Lord, and then derivatively to us as persons sustained by influx. There is no 'ego compulsion' in the Lord, and when we conform ourselves to his life there need be hardly any in us either.

Cohen seeks ''That place of absolute singularity [which] is where true freedom and enlightened understanding are found. That is where the relative and the Absolute, the personal and the impersonal, merge and become one. In that mysterious place, they become one unbroken universal unfolding that is free from the bondage of duality.'' [p. 107]  Here, lacking the conceptual means to discriminate Source and creation, or between personal loves and Infinite Loves, Cohen has to resort to paradoxical assertions to make his point.

Cohen ends with the contradiction mentioned earlier, that ''This apparent paradox - that everything is already perfect and everything must change - is the complete picture of what enlightenment is all about.'' [p. 115] He says that paradoxes for the unenlightened mind may still be in his system, because ''the mind exists in and as duality itself, and therefore, by definition, cannot see beyond it to that place where no duality exists'' [p. 116]. Swedenborg as a theist agrees that a full understanding of the genuine truth concerning spirit and nature awaits the enlightenment at comes from the eventual awakening of our inner spiritual mind, but would insist that partial or 'apparent truths' may still enter our understanding even now, and may usefully portray spiritual reality without any essential contradictions. This allows some kind of rational understanding of spirituality, even if it is still incomplete. Sometimes, theistic portrayal may be more indirect, using representations in the structure of Sacred Scriptures, in order to allow a more external understanding.

6 Conclusion

We see from this examination of Cohen's book ''Living Enlightenment'' [3] that the actual practice and understanding of 'nondual discipleship' requires ideas that go beyond traditional Advaita Vedanta. Many of these ideas turn out to be very similar to those advocated by Emanuel Swedenborg in his rational account of how theism should be understood.

Ian J. Thompson Department of Physics, University of Surrey
12 January 2005  (wiewp1c)


G. Feuerstein, quoted at www.wie.org/j14/advaita.asp.
E. Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, 1763. Online at www.theisticscience.org/books/dlw/dlw.html
Andrew Cohen, Living Enlightenment, Moksha Press, 2002.
See www.andrewcohen.org/store/item_b22.asp or www.livingenlightenment.com or http://www.enlightennext.org/
See for example http://www.geocities.com/brianperkins77/304difference.htm.
www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org