Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Circles, Horizons and Depths

"Nature centres into balls,
nd her proud ephemerals,
Fast to surface and outside,
Scan the profile of the sphere;
Knew they what that signified,
A new genesis were here."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson --
"The eye is the first circle," Emerson observes, "the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. St. Augustine described the nature of God as a circle whose centre was everywhere and its circumference nowhere. We are all our lifetime reading the copious sense of this first of forms. One moral we have already deduced in considering the circular or compensatory character of every human action. Another analogy we shall now trace, that every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens."

[Emerson, "The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson," p. 252]

In a classic series of sermons, the great 20th-century theologian, Paul Tillich, observed, like Emerson, that there is a fathomless depth to our being, a depth so great and infinite that it is the ultimate Ground of Being.
"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth," Tillich notes.  "It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated - with that road through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found they are not what what they  believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth." 
"The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being," he continues, "is God. That depth is what the word God means. . . . For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or an unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."
[Paul Tillich, "The Shaking of the Foundations," Scribners, pp. 56-57.]

Thus, our lives are circumscribed by the orbits of the stars and the horizons of time and space, but beyond each such horizon we see there exists yet more distant horizons, including some we can never see. Similarly, there are depths within that delimit our knowledge of who and what we are; yet, they, too, are infinite and each depth yields to a further depth; and even underneath the depth which we must take to be the ultimate of all depths, a lower deep needs open. Such is the nature of the universe and our Being within it.

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