Tuesday, February 08, 2011

On Duality

I don't like binary systems. Rather, I don't like that opposites are assigned values and are often defined each by the other. For, example, white is good and black is bad. Straight is good and queer is bad. Light is good and dark is bad. Etc. This idea extends in many contexts to subject/self is good and object/other is bad. And I can't buy it. I try to understand it from a literary, a psychological, and a theological perspective. Lately the last of those three has been most interesting to me. So I will try to explore it a little from a few traditions I know a little bit about.

Many Christians believe that the self (humanity) is bad and that the other (God) is good. The Gnostics, prot-Christians, went so far as to say that the body was an illusion, something to escape. This is in line with many puritanical sects today, those who say "the flesh is weak," etc. Many Buddhists believe the same thing, that humanity suffers categorically and that, to some minds, the only way to alleviate this suffering is to detach ourselves from what makes us human, desire.

Another understanding of Buddhism more in line with the little Hinduism I understand sees Brahman as the ultimate self. Christian, Jewish, and other mystics, see themSelves not as separate from God but in union with the divine. Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German Dominican, was pretty much labeled a heretic for his "panentheism," the idea that God and man are one (but, of course, God is still separate and better).

There are other examples and nuances of each of these positions of course. But basically we can see self as good and other as bad, other as good and self as bad, or self and other as the same thing. To these three options I have today added a fourth. Noah Sobe interprets the pedagogical work of Maria Montessori, after whom the Montessori-type schools are named, and writes about her focus on children's interactions with objects in their education. Specifically, he posits, an object is "an enabling device" to help students "establish the self" (Sobe 295).

What's the point? Okay, my tenuously explained connection is that I really like this idea. I like the idea that before Time we were all part of the Divine, of something Universal and singular. Something - the Big Bang or the creation of man - causes us to disperse. Now it is our choice to return to the Way, either physically or spiritually or what have you. But why, then, do we need the dispersion? For me it's wrapped up in the idea of choice. We need the object, the physical world around us, as an object with which to interact, which can enable us to understand our true selves better. Please note that my concept of "other" and "object" does not refer to any human beings. All souls (whatever *that* means) are subjects and we should respect them as such. To try to tie this concept back to the sloppy ideas at the beginning of the post, basically I say that subject and object don't have to work against each other. They can exist harmoniously, each affecting the other.

Many of you have already pondered this on some level. And many of you probably think my theology is cracked. But this is a really cool turn of phrase for me, so I'm gonna roll with it and add it to my arsenal of language with which to try to express my ideas of the world.


Sobe, Noah W. "Challenging the Gaze: The Subject of Attention and a 1915 Montessori Demonstration Classroom. Educational Theory 15.4. University of Illinois: 2004.

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