Spiritual definitions have always been a bit of a sticky wicket for me. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring various beliefs, but none of them ever seemed quite right.
Most of them were theisms: monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism. ... While I found something to admire in each of them, I felt a bit like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit in the home of the three bears.
The problem is, it was somebody else’s house.
Exploring the options
The teachings of Jesus the Galilean often inspired me, but the dogma that grew up around him seemed at odds with much of what he said. What do you make of an admonition to “judge not” when Jesus’ followers these days spend so much time sitting in judgment? To “pray in secret” when so many condescendingly announce, “I’m praying for your soul”? To turn the other cheek when so many self-proclaimed Christians clamor for war?
Indeed, monotheism seems vulnerable to abuse by its very nature: The temptation to disguise one’s one biases as “the will of God” and attempt to force or intimidate others into heeding them will always be there. Not all monotheists succumb to this temptation, but enough of them do that it made me uncomfortable identifying myself with such a movement.
I found polytheism fascinating. The myths surrounding many gods in various traditions offer amazing insights into human history and psychology. They shed light on our attempts to explain the world around us and offer evidence of the connections we share with other humans and with nature. But I couldn’t take them literally. The gods were, it seemed to me, archetypes that offered important knowledge, but not actual celestial beings.
Pantheism was appealing – except for the fact that, if everything is divine, how is that different from everything not being divine? A definition that is all-encompassing loses its meaning. And its power.
Atheism isn’t even a belief so much as a philosophical statement: “I am without god(s)” is what it literally means. Atheists will tell you as much, and that’s all well and good. But it’s a negative statement, and I realized I wasn’t interested in defining myself in negative terms anymore.
I realized, at this point, that all of these beliefs related, in one way or another, to god(s) – beings presumably superior to human beings. Humanism was different, but it focused (naturally) on humans, and I was attracted to a broader approach that recognized humanity as just one strand of thread in a much larger tapestry of the universe.
The Thomas revelation
I started describing myself as “eclectic” to indicate I was open to strands of philosophy from various traditions, but the description that always resonated with me most strongly was a saying attributed to Jesus in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, a work with ties to both Gnostic and mainstream Christianity:
“If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But rather, the kingdom is within you, and all around you.”
That sounds a lot like pantheism, but there’s more here than meets the eye.
In some quotations, Jesus refers to it as the kingdom of God; in others as the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” to the ancients meant the celestial firmament, or, metaphorically, the highest state of being. To say that the kingdom of heaven was within was to say that, inside each of us, there exists the highest state of being. But there’s something more: It’s all around us, too, if we only choose to recognize it!
Key to the kingdom
The key in discovering this celestial kingdom is recognition, or awareness, that it exists. Roald Dahl once said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” That might sound like you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias, but I’m convinced that’s not what he meant. The point is, unless you’re looking for something – even something ordinary like a loaf of bread in the supermarket – you’re not likely to find it except by a lucky accident.
The second-century philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer and mathematician, referred to the highest heaven as the Empyrean. It was a place of elemental fire and perfect light. Hence the Latin name, incorporating the words for fire (pyr) and the prefix for within (em). The translation could be “in the fire” or “the fire within.”
Within us, and all around us. The kingdom of God. For Ptolemy – who was not a Christian but an Aristotelian – the Empyrean was the seat of God – pretty much the same thing Jesus referred to. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian, either, since Christianity didn’t exist until after he died. The saying attributed to him in The Gospel of Thomas reflected an insight that transcended Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy or, really, any other belief system.
In fact, it wasn’t a system at all. It was, and is, a state of awareness and a gateway to achieving that awareness. The first step is to understand that the gateway to kingdom is within. This is because awareness always comes from within. Although it’s expressed in celestial terms, looking for the kingdom in the sky is futile: “or the birds of the sky will arrive before you.” This is why, I think, the saying is constructed the way it is, placing inner awareness of the kingdom before the declaration that it is also “all around you.”
The message seems plain: You won’t recognize the kingdom around you until you first become aware of and acknowledge it in yourself.
Heaven or hell
That’s where it – and you – are forged “in fire.” And it may feel more like hell than heaven. That’s why, I suspect, some turn away from it. The light from the fire is too bright, and the heat it generates too much for them to withstand. To recognize the kingdom is to recognize self, and only through that recognition can one begin to acknowledge the kingdom that exists all around us. Perception is the necessary precursor of awareness.
And awareness is not a belief system or doctrine or series of commandments. It is pure, undiluted understanding. But to go back to Roald Dahl’s observation: the belief that understanding can be attained always precedes understanding itself. Those who wish to find this magic, this alchemy of the soul, must first believe that it is there to be found.
Not in the sky. Not in the sea. But in the celestial core of the self.
Suddenly, the Psalmist’s declaration can be read in a whole new light: “You are gods; you are sons of the most high.” Not offspring of some old guy with gray hair and a beard sitting on a mythical throne in some external heaven. But scions of the highest celestial reality that exists within us and functions as the seat of divinity. The seat of self.
The spirit within.
When I realized the implications of this – that awareness, and the quest to attain it, was at the core of my being – I understood why the various “isms” I had explored all fell short of what I was searching for. Those “systems” shared the same desire for meaning, but each began by seeking it on the outside – in the sky or the sea, as Jesus said, or in a “holy book,” a sermon, a culture, a set of commandments or social expectations.
Hard work or easy answers
It’s easier to exist in an external system than in the fire. The answers are provided for you. You haven’t found them yourself, and they may not even apply to you. They’re like prepackaged fast food that has lost most of its nutritional value sitting on a shelf in shrink-wrapped cellophane. If you’re diabetic and they’re full of carbs, they could kill you. If they’ve lingered on that shelf past the sell-by date (e.g., are no longer relevant), they can make you sick.
If you start by looking within – by figuring out whether you’re a diabetic or allergic to peanuts or at risk of a heart attack if you eat fried food – you’ll recognize the kingdom outside: what’s good for you. It’s scary to look within, and there are plenty of people on the outside with their own agendas who want to keep you from doing just that – so they can sell you their prepackaged answers and get you hooked on them.
They often do this by offering to replace the scary aspects of self with a different kind of fear: threats of condemnation if you fail to do as they say. But such threats are false, and facing false fears never fostered growth. It’s only by facing the seat of your true fear – inside you – that growth will occur.
I call this dedication to awareness Empyreanism – or Panempyreanism, because it exists “within us and all around us.”
When it comes right down to it, I guess that’s what I am: an Empyreanist. I decided I’m done trying to make myself fit in someone else’s house. Goldilocks has gone home.