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Neti, Neti

David Cowles

Jul 11, 2023

“So clearly, God’s primary value, like Sartre’s, is freedom...strange bedfellows.”

“I am not what I am; I am what I am not; I can be whoever I want to be!”

Wow! A Directory of Existentialist Clichés. Just what the world needs right now! But funny thing about cliches – sometimes they are true. That’s how they got to be clichés. Even Polonius was right some of the time.

Our journey of self-discovery did not begin in a Paris café, sitting across from Albert Camus. It did not even begin with Jean Jacques Rousseau 150 years earlier. It began at least 7 millennia ago, and it was first expressed in Sanskrit: “Neti, Neti (not this, not that)” - 7,000 years later it’s still our most profound statement of  spiritual consciousness. 

‘Neti, Neti’ has been translated into the philosophy of post-classical Europe as the via negativa, an ‘epistemology’ based on the idea that knowledge does not consist of knowing what-is but of knowing what-is-not. Both knowing and creating are like sculpting; they chisel away the undifferentiated block of marble to reveal the image concealed therein. I infer what is by knowing what is not!

The via negativa is equally at home in Asian spirituality (the Vedas), Christian mysticism (Nicholas of Cusa), philosophical anarchism (Kropotkin), modern existentialism (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, et al.), and the literary works of Sir Arthur Conant Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). 

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But I am not content - I am not content just to be what I am not, what I used to be but never was, or what I’m coming to be but never will

Why, oh why, can’t I just be me? – The title song for my new, soon-to-be on Broadway, hit musical. Catchy, don’t you think? And timely too. I’m a boomer and from Kerouac to Derrida, I am part of that period of American culture when everyone was asking the same question: “Who am I?”

So why can’t I be this me that I so yearn for? It seems so simple. But that’s not the kind of hairpin I am. Not-being is what I am. If I were to become something, be it a stone or a rose…or a crotchety old man (hmm), I would still not be me, obviously, and worse, I would not be at all. 

So let’s catch up! There is a world. I see it, feel it, taste it, smell it. I am satisfied that it exists: it is! But I am not that world. I know that I am because I am not that world and I know that I am not that world because I am:

Sum ergo non sum; non sum ergo sum!

In fact, I am not even in that world. I exist purely as the negation of that world. But surprise, I am no bomb thrower! No, I negate the world only in order to improve it (i.e., in order to bring it closer to being a true reflection of God’s will, God’s values). That’s the kind of hairpin I am! That’s my mission…should I choose to accept it. Genesis, Creation, Big Bang: there was nothing, aka chaos, the absence of order, of logos, of dike. Then God negated chaos (fiat lux), thereby introducing order (light vs. darkness) where there was none.

Creation ‘proceeded’ in evolutionary stages (six such stages according to Genesis), each negating some aspect of the status quo ante. The ‘final’ stage of creation: creatures capable of continuing God’s creative mission on their own, creatures who can echo his creative mantra, “Neti, Neti!” 

God’s nature is negation, and we are ‘chips off the old block’. By nature, God is an iconoclast, an anarchist. Applied to ‘nothing’, negation generates ‘something’; applied to chaos, negation generates order. 

Contemporary physicists are proud: they have supposedly found a way to deduce something from nothing (‘negative vacuum pressure’). But they are about 13.5 billion years late to the party! God got there first.

On the seventh day, God rested, not because he no longer cares but precisely because he cares so much. He took off the training wheels. It’s up to the created world now to determine its own destiny, but still, as the Vedas say, there is not a footfall of an ant that God does not hear.

Deism is a sham, with all due respect to our so-called ‘founding fathers’ (sic). How could God lose interest in what he had lovingly created? Do humans lose interest in their children after they are born? Of course not, but on the other hand, good parents recognize that they are not their offspring, that their offspring need freedom to pursue the universal creative mandate in their own way.

“God created the heavens and the earth.” Created! ‘Created’ does not mean imagined, designed, manufactured, or assembled. God is not a character in the Lego Movie; he is not even a ‘master builder'.

‘Created’ means created. A true creature, be it a work of art or a universe, is independent of its creator. The universe is totally free and independent of God. God is a functionalist; he did not invest his creation with ornamentation. He is a minimalist; he invested no more in his creation than what is required to maintain a functional universe. 

So clearly, God’s primary value, like Sartre’s, is freedom. God and Sartre, strange bedfellows indeed!


Image: La Madonna della Pietà. Michelangelo Buonarroti. 1498–1499. Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City


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