Rising Above the Past - Every Moment

Co-creating a bright future by providing a positive past

A talk given July 18, 1998, at the International New Thought Alliance meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona

by Alan Anderson

Our theme this week is "New Thought: Souls on Fire." There are souls on fire? Where are the fire engines? Well, obviously, there are not any literally burning souls. We all know that many of the most colorful and helpful things that we say are not literally true, yet they hide or reveal something very important.

We are only a few miles away from a city named for a mythical bird noted for rising from its ashes. I refer, of course, to the phoenix. The phoenix myth isn't good science, but it tells us something about regularly occurring new beginnings. We have them much more frequently than did that mythical ornithological abnormality, the phoenix, who allegedly flourished for 500 years between its pyrotechnic performances.

One way of describing what we are doing today is to say that we're carrying on the dialogue begun in the ancient Greek world between, on the one side, Heraclitus, who said that all was balanced change, and, on the other side, the Eleatics, who said that change was impossible, that "reality is one, motionless, unchanging, undifferentiable, and eternal" (Peter A. Angeles, Dictionary of Philosophy).

Then, as now, people wanted to have their cake and eat it too, and some of them, the atomists, devised an ingenious metaphysics that maintained that unchanging material reality exists in the form of invisibly tiny atoms (atom means "that which cannot be cut or divided"); and they also held that change is brought about by the rearrangement of those unchanging atoms. Substitute lifeless quanta of energy for atoms and you get current materialism, the belief that there is nothing basically but lifeless matter or lifeless energy.

If we separate atomicity from materialism, atomicity is a profound truth. Three centuries ago the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, carrying on from Plato's essential insight that only mind is self-moving, reinterpreted atoms as tiny minds (he called them monads), and he distinguished lifeless collections of minds from individual minds. He was wise enough not to fall into the trap of thinking that because all is mind, all is only one mind (many New Thoughters seem to have fallen into that trap, apparently unaware of pluralistic idealism, the belief that there are innumerable interconnected minds). Leibniz gave us some invaluable insights, but his understanding of minds as non-interacting substances still left much to be desired. By the beginning of the 20th century, physics had recognized that the world basically is made up not of material atoms or other substances, but of processes, energetic activity. During the next few decades, Mathematician-and-physicist-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead reinterpreted the supposedly lifeless units of process as living units, experiences, which are the building blocks of the universe, and apart from which there is "nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness," as Whitehead put it. So Leibniz's ideas got clarified and carried forward.

Thus far, this is a beautiful story, and I'd like to say, "And they all lived happily ever after." However, such is not the case, for this is a ghost story. The ghost of the Eleatics, who believed in a changeless one, stalks the land. Perhaps we can do something here and now to lay that pesky spirit once and for all.

The Eleatic ghost is not an altogether unpleasant specter. In fact, many New Thoughters find him congenial. His ideal is in various ways inspiring. All of us at times long for the changeless, the fixed, the untouchable. And there is a perspective from which these divine characteristics are true. God's loving character never changes, God's values are fixed forever and constitute our constant moral yardstick, and God always has been and always will be carrying on the utterly reliable divine role in co-creativity. But this is only half the story.

The processive, active, growing side of God is at least as important as the static side. Apart from the processive side of reality, it would make no sense to say that we rise above our pasts or that there is any co-creation, or any sort of creation at all.

Stories called myths were, and still are, used to explain the basic workings or at least significances of everything. Certainly they are vastly more important than the common mis-usage of the term myth as synonymous with error, lie, mistake, and similar words. Paul Tillich called myths that we recognize as myths by the name "broken myths." We may never be able to get along without myths, but at least some people can recognize them as being myths.

The coming of philosophy and science displaced myth from its prime position of providing meaning for living. There was a time when we all lived happily with unbroken myths. But then, one fine day around 600 BC, an upstart Greek thinker, named Thales, decided that he had a better, literal, non-mythical, way of looking at everything. So he up and started Western philosophy (and science, which for many centuries was indistinguishable from philosophy. Thales and his successors put us into this business of having to distinguish the literal from the figurative.

We call modern the centuries from the Renaissance onward. Our passion for literal explanations has played an essential part in developing the modern worldview, which increasingly is being recognized as disastrous. Its major theoretical ingredients--certainly not shared by everyone but held by many leading intellectuals--are the beliefs that only sensory perception produces genuine knowledge; that the universe is (in early modernism) composed of lifeless particles or is (as currently widely believed) composed of units of lifeless energy; and that there is no everyday divine influence operating in the universe.

We are going to have to do something about this disastrous worldview that has cut us off from our spirituality. We must choose a better way to go. But which way?

There are four basic alternatives to modernism. Two of them look backward to premodern outlooks, and two of them look forward to sharply contrasting forms of postmodernism.

The first backward-looking alternative is conventional Western religion (and the philosophical ideas associated with it), which is premodern in origin and orientation, and doesn't carry much weight in most intellectual circles.

The second backward-looking alternative, called by such names as perennialism and primordialism, is more intellectually respectable, or at least more fashionable, but is equally backward- looking, although it is associated with New Age and popular Eastern outlooks. It has been touched by the Eleatic ghost; in fact, it may be one of its relatives.

Both of the two forward-looking alternatives to modernism, centered on essentially new ideas, contain the name postmodern, but are worlds apart in content. The first sometimes is simply called postmodernism, but the more accurate name for it is destructive postmodernism. It is characterized by loss of faith in the ability of people to comprehend nature, loss of belief in the capacity of language to communicate fixed meanings, and loss of belief in absolute values. Perhaps its most famous--or infamous--form is Jacques Derrida's outlook known as deconstruction.

The second form of postmodernism is constructive postmodernism. It is virtually synonymous with the process philosophy and process theology inspired largely by the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, and is the view that I consider most helpful in offering an improved metaphysical foundation for New Thought.

It is safe to say that New Thought will not and should not cast its lot with conventional premodern Western religion, the sort of thing that Park Quimby observed was killing one of his patients, and probably many of them. Nor should we go with destructive postmodernism, which is a nihilistic outlook no better than the modernism that it attacks. So the choice for New Thought, and for the world, is between forward-looking constructive postmodernism and backward-looking primordialism or perennialism, which is linked to beliefs in pantheism--the idea that God is all--and impersonalism, the idea that there is no personal consciousness orchestrating the universe. If pantheism and Eleaticism are not identical, they are nonetheless closely allied in spirit.

What do a large number of New Thoughters have in common with the primordialist (or perennialist) view? A substance view of reality, and pantheism.

Let's look a little more deeply at substance and pantheism. To consider anything a substance is to say that it can and does remain itself, acting and being acted on, having experiences (not being experiences) for a greater or lesser period of time (forever, in the case of God, and maybe ourselves). The usual way to define pantheism is to say that all is God, or, in a perhaps more spiritual way, God is all; there is nothing but God. Another way of wording this is to say that there is something that is everything without in any way losing its completeness of power and selfhood. We commonly say that God is omnipotent, having all power. We also commonly say that we have freedom of choice. But we commonly fail to realize that these two assertions--of divine omnipotence and human freedom--are totally incompatible! You can no more have both of them than you can have a square circle. If there is even the tiniest bit of freedom in you or me, then there is that much less than total power in God. I believe that freedom is inescapably in the nature of things; some people believe that freedom is a divine gift; however, even if we understand it as a genuine and irrevocable gift, it equally effectively limits God's power. This is a problem for all pantheists, not just for those in New Thought.

Incidentally, there is no solid Biblical authority for belief that God is omnipotent. Only when the Greek word pantokrator, meaning "ruler over all things" was translated into the Latin omnipotens did the idea of "all-powerful" gain currency. It seems much more consistent with the original intent to say that God is altogether adequate, but not literally all-powerful.

Pantheism denies genuine creation; it substitutes emanation (outflowing from God, yet never leaving God, and not even being in time). To the extent that pantheism (or traditional theism) speaks of divine creation, it is unilateral creation, without any contribution by people or other beings. The process thought of constructive postmodernism, on the other hand, substitutes co-creation in place of both emanation and unilateral creation, in all situations. Primordialism considers the world, including freedom, essentially illusory, so it lumps all such problems into the great problem of existence--not that it considers it a problem, since it holds that all existence is only a divine dream. Some people attempt to get out of the problem by calling the sum of whatever is (including divine, human, and other power, wisdom, love, and whatever else there may be) by the name of God. But, this merely produces an abstraction, a name for totality, not anything that represents a genuine reality; in other words it is a lifeless category, not an actuality. Some say that God still has all power, since our decisions are God's decisions, but this is merely playing with words (or maybe it's that Eleatic ghost denying that there is any multiplicity); it apparently is asserting that one thing can be another, in violation of logic. It is self- contradictory. If pantheists were to try invoking physical complementarity of wave and particle, that also would fail, since it recognizes that nothing can be described fully as both at the same time. Primordialists admit that logic has to be abandoned in dealing with the ultimate as they understand what is ultimate.

The question of rising above the past is buried by pantheism in its denial of the reality of past, present, and future replaced by an "eternal now," which could just as well be called an "eternal then" or an "eternal never," since it denies time. We'll find that time is recognized as real and important in the process-oriented view that is constructive postmodernism.

Now, what does all this have to do with rising above the past-- whether you be phoenix or fisherman or philosopher?

So far we have seen that if you were to adhere to a strict pantheism, maintaining that God is all there is, you would have no reasonable grounds for even having past, present, and future; and there would be no genuine human or other beings to do any rising. The most that one could do--and indeed this is about what some varieties of New Thought teach (much as Christian Science does)--is that one should come to realization of the nothingness of appearances and allow God, or reveal God, to be God in perfect fullness, thereby solving whatever problem seemed to be at hand. Make no mistake about it; this is a powerful myth, filled with feeling and overstatement, and enriched by mighty mystical feeling of oneness, which is unquestionable as ineffable experience, but very much subject to question as literal truth. The myth of identity with God is all the more powerful because for its holders it is unbroken, meaning that it is not recognized as myth. Now, let me emphasize strongly that I'm not condemning any of our New Thought founders for settling for these myths; they did the best that they could, and they reached very helpful teachings, still useful, but decidedly outmoded, greatly lacking in explanatory power, in comparison with the best recent thinking. What I am saying does not undercut valuable New Thought practices, only the accompanying half-baked explanations. Symbolic interpretation continues to be extremely valuable. But must we remain in the realm of myths, broken or unbroken? Must we believe in a myth of a God who transforms himself into the world, including you and me, somewhat as Zeus was said to have transformed himself into a bull? Is there no way of embracing literal truth that might be even more powerful than myth? Yes, praise God, there is, and I am going to devote the rest of this talk to it.

I'll deal with it under three major headings. They are: (1) the nature of unity, (2) personality as the ultimate unity, and (3) the succession of unities as the key to healing of all sorts.

First, the nature of unity: The drive toward unity and a psychological experience of it lie behind perhaps everything of value in life. But is unity a given or an accomplishment, something static or dynamic? There is no term more honored in New Thought (and in New Age as well) than unity. One branch of New Thought long ago adopted that word as its own name. There is something in us that longs for unity with others and indeed with all. No doubt, it is what led to the pantheism that I admire as an attempted explanation of unity, but which I abhor as a roadblock on the way to adequate understanding of the genuine nature of unity.

For pantheism, unity is a given. It simply is. All that is is an ineffable (Eleatic) One, which only seems to be many. However, no pantheist--New Thoughter or other--is be able to speak of God for long without also referring to people as if they genuinely existed in addition to God. This may indicate some deep-seated commonsense that at some level recognizes that pantheism is untenable and that unity is something other than the monolithic oneness prized by the Eleatics.

Before going farther into the dynamic nature of reality we need to understand the importance of personality. So let's consider my second point, personality as the ultimate unity.

It was altogether appropriate for the early New Thoughters to reconceptualize God, since the Christianity against which they rebelled understood God to be something like a capricious Eastern potentate, which isn't a very helpful image. However, somewhat like a pendulum swinging from one extreme to the other, they missed the mark of moderation that lay around the middle. They threw the baby of personality out with the bath water of capriciousness.

Would that our founders had been aware of a philosophical movement that was developing around the same time as New Thought: personalism, which recognizes personality as the key to reality. In stating the meaning of person, personalist philosopher Edgar Sheffield Brightman noted that a person is a being, a self, who is self-conscious, able to reason, and able to acknowledge ideal goals by which to judge achievements. Albert C. Knudson pointed out:

In emphasizing the personality of God we affirm, not the likeness of God to man, but rather the likeness of man to God.

I stress that when we speak of God as a person--the ultimate person--we do not mean the old anthropomorphic myth of God as a giant human being, male or female. In reality, God includes qualities of both.

Perhaps the most succinct support for the importance of personality was given by Hartshorne, who wrote:

Personality is the only principle of wholeness, of integration, on a complex level such as the universe must involve, of which we have any experience.

In other words, only the supreme person could be perfectly aware of all that occurs and capable of perfectly leading--but never forcing--all that is coming into existence. Only the supreme person--the ultimate degree of intelligence, love, understanding, humor, self-restraint, patience memory, perhaps more characteristics than we can imagine-- could orchestrate, harmonize, the whole of existence. To be less than personal, would be less than we are. I have no idea what some people mean when they speak of a supra-personal ultimate. Anything nonpersonal must be sub-personal, as most of the universe is. If we understand divine personality as having the utmost intelligence, love, and the perfect integration of them, with all the experience that ever has been, we can only conclude that anything beyond that is utterly inconceivable, and that anyone who claims that there could be anything beyond God so understood simply has failed to grasp what personalism maintains. To suppose that God could have evolved out of anything simpler or could occupy a lesser place in reality than the ultimate of the divine characteristics, is just a form of atheism--which one has a right to believe, but to hold that view after so many wise thinkers have spelled out personalistic views of God is nothing short of tragic. My favorite definition of atheism comes from Hartshorne, who points out:

[The attributes, characteristics, of God] were posited because they were required for an intelligible universe. . . . Atheism . . . declares that the world as a whole must forever be completely unintelligible to us [and] that there is no ultimate standard by which life can be ordered.

Third, The succession of unities as the key to healing of all sorts.

The trick in healing of any sort is to make of the present something not only valuable in itself but also something that will be an easier beginning point for what you want, once the present has become part of the past.

The past plays an indispensable role in the creative process, and you can make your special part of the past your friend and collaborator, in order to depart from the negative influence of other parts of the past.

By this time it should be clear that past, present, and future are necessary notions. Time is real and is inescapable, since time is the succession of experiences, one after another. Even within an experience, there are phases of development, so there is no changeless state of affairs. The past is composed of the experiences that have completed their split-second development and are forever definite; the present is what is co-creating itself in the process of becoming definite, and the future is what hasn't happened yet.

Process thought is saying what New Thoughters have always believed: that what you do now in your momentary experience, changes things. Change your choosing and you change your life.

Each experience necessarily rises above the past out of which it emerged, and most obviously and significantly out of the line of experiences that it thinks of as itself--serial selfhood I call it. However, the new experience does not necessarily improve on the past. It improves only in proportion to the extent that it accepts the possibilities provided for it specifically by God. It is as if God surveys all the food in a gigantic cafeteria and offers the most delicious and nutritious sustenance to the experience. But, like the children that in some ways we still are, we complex and amazingly free experiences may choose to spit it out and even strike out at the offeror. When I say that we may so act, I mean that we lead our bodies to do these acts. We are the supervising minds of the servant-minds that constitute our bodies. God, of course, supervises--leads, lures--both ourselves and our bodies.

From this it should be clear that in a panexperientialist (all is experience) outlook, we are still justified in saying that all is mind or spirit; all that we lose is the unjustified assumption that mind or spirit is substance in the sense of continuing stuff. Mind, correctly understood, is the name for any sort of psychic activity: feeling, sensing, wanting, willing, whatever. Each psychic unit is an experience, developing for a fraction of a second of awareness and then forever being an object to be experienced by later-developing experiences. The awareness that one experience has of another is an extrasensory (nonlocal) perception (Whitehead coined the word prehension to refer to this perception or feeling). Each experience-- and God too is a succession of experiences--is unique. It feels (prehends) earlier experiences, and it is in this sense that it includes them. Because each experience is unique, there is no way in which any experience can be any other experience, although it includes in itself (feels) all earlier experiences and will be included within (felt by) all later ones. This is how it influences them. So, we see that all of us--including God--are interconnected, never separated, but never identical with one another. God is everywhere without being everything, by virtue of God's being an essential ingredient in every experience, without which the experience could not be at all. There is, of course, no place for God or anyone else to be except in an experience, since there is nothing actual but experiences.

Especially since some claim that the ultimate reality is just a field of all possibilities, I emphasize that, to the contrary, there has to be an active personal God to select from among all possibilities. If ever there had been a state of nothing but possibilities, that is all there would be today; there would be no actualities. Whitehead concluded that the present could do nothing but perpetuate the pattern of the past if it were influenced only by the past. So there must be a supremely wise ultimate person (God) who knows all possibilities and presents to each arising experience the best possibilities for it to choose in blending the influences of the past and the possible. It is inadequate to consider God merely a field of all possibilities; we need an active God to select from among all possibilities those best for us and to present them to us. At any rate, without God, there could be nothing significantly new.

Now that we understand the nature of each experience, we can see the essence of the meaning of unity. It is no pantheistic identification of everything with everything else. Rather, unity is a perpetually occurring coming together of the many to form new unities, new ones made up of the many. Whitehead put it into a nutshell: "The many become one, and are increased by one." This is like the motto of the United States: e pluribus unum: out of many, one. The main difference is that out of the many come not one unity, but innumerable unities (experiences), each of which immediately upon its formation becomes part of the many out of which the next ones come.

When the co-creation of a novel experience is complete, it is God who most adequately includes it with unfading clarity forever. The relationship of God and all units of the world--God's body--is summed up in the term panentheism, the view that everything is within the ultimate person, God, and God in some sense is in everything. "In him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). To understand this inclusion, we need to recognize that mind is not a static something (however nonmaterial that "thing" may be). Mind is activity. It was at least partly because some people believed that mind was a substance that they fell into thinking that because all was mind (about which they were correct), therefore, all was one monolithic mind (which is a dreadful error).

If we are wise, we will accept consistently and enthusiastically what God offers (and of course our persistent desires are at least hints of what God is suggesting). Each time we choose wisely, we contribute that experience to the past, thereby raising the quality of it, decreasing the contrast between what God offers to us and what the past is like. If you choose to accept this theory, you will have another way of visualizing what you are accomplishing. Summarizing creation: There are three essentials for any act of creation (and any decision, any choosing, is an act of co-creation, bringing about something that never was before): (1) the past, (2) God's leading (but never forcing), and (3) the decision, or choice, of the experience as to what mix of past and perfect possibilities it will select. I have put this into what I call the creativity formula at page 109 of our book New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality:


By the way, the divine offer is what we sometimes call the indwelling Christ. It is the power of persuasion, of charm. Hartshorne says, "God charms every creature irresistibly to whatever extent is compatible with that creature's level of freedom."

This formula relates to any one experience. To understand its contribution to healing, one must consider the cumulative effect of repeatedly choosing God's way--God's plan for rising above the past. Since we (the successions of selves bearing our names) make probably about ten choices per second, this does not rule out "instantaneous" healing, since there are many generations of experiences in a few seconds or minutes. Each positive decision lessens the contrast between the past and the divinely given possible, and thereby makes the next step easier. My wife, Deb Whitehouse, explains it this way:

Perhaps you have been to a carnival or fast-food place and seen a net cage full of soft, bright-colored balls for children to climb into and play with. Suppose you were standing in the middle of a great pile of those balls, and you decided that you wanted to create a solid red background for yourself. Your present background is, of course, multi-colored. So you select red balls and toss them over your shoulder, one ball at a time. If you persist, you will eventually be standing in front of a red background. You have changed your background, and you can similarly change your past by what you do in the present, one choice at a time.

In conclusion, what we have discovered reduces to irrelevance any proclamations of pantheism or impersonalism (interesting as historical artifacts and perhaps still useful as broken myths, but dispensed with in the elegant constructive postmodernism that is personal, panentheistic, and process-oriented. This is the foundation that we should insert under the beautiful structure of New Thought practice, which cannot very much longer survive on its crumbling old theoretical foundations. As we rise above the past not only of our bodily, financial, and social conditions but also of our outmoded theories, we shall, in the fullest sense, be co-creating a bright future by providing a positive past.

For more information on a process-relational orientation, see Experience: All There Is, and Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement, and the links at the end of it, as well as numerous writings linked to the Anderson and Whitehouse part of the New Thought Movement Home Page. Among the more helpful quotations from Hartshorne in Brief Excerpts from Whitehead and Hartshorne are the following:

[OO 80] . . . our cells respond to our feelings (and thoughts) because we respond to their feelings (and would respond to their thoughts if they had any). Hurt my cells and you hurt me. Give my cells a healthy life, and they give me a feeling of vitality and at least minimal happiness. My sense of welfare tends to sum up theirs, and their misfortunes tend to become negative feelings of mine. I feel what many cells feel, integrating these feelings into a higher unity. I am somewhat as their deity, their fond heavenly companion. They gain their direction and sense of the goodness of life partly from intuiting my sense of that goodness, which takes theirs intuitively into account.

[PCH 691] Of the dualities connected with psychicalism, the key one for me is, singular and composite. Groups of sentient entities are not necessarily also sentient (fallacy of composition), nor are members of a group that as a whole does not feel necessarily insentient (fallacy of division). From whom did I first learn about this? It was not Whitehead but Leibniz, who saw it with the clarity of genius nearly three hundred years ago.

[PCH 692] Not only did I reason to psychicalism from my theism, but the converse reasoning also was important for me. If, without psychicalism, theism is incoherent, so, without theism, is psychicalism. How can many psyches, each of whom (Plato) is to some extent self-moved as well as moved by other self-movers, constitute an orderly cosmos [if there were no God]?

[PCH 700] My ultimate intuitive clue in philosophy is that "God is love" and that the idea of God is definable as that of the being worthy to be loved with all one's heart, mind, soul, and entire being. This definition I owe to Paul Tillich [1886-1965] [See Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 10:12 (cf. Micah 6:8); Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30]. I conclude that therefore love in its most generalized sense is the principle of principles. It is creativity, stressing one of its aspects. Whitehead says that "Love, imperfect in us is perfect in God." It is with his help that I have been able to generalize this to apply to nondivine actualities generally, [Charles Sanders] Peirce [1839-1914] hints strongly in the same direction and so does [Henri] Bergson [1859-1941].

In some respects this talk is a continuation of Deb Whitehouse's Phoenix Rising.

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