Washing Dishes and Other Sacred Acts: A Brief Introduction to Ultimate Reality
by Jay McDaniel
Philosophers like to ask the question “What is ultimate reality?”
OK. What is it? Here are four possibilities.
The Timeless Source: When they ask this question, some philosophers are looking for a source of everything. Here is what they say: “Ultimate reality is the source from which all things emerge at all times: a dimensionless point from which the universe emanates.” They add that the source is beyond time and space; and beyond good and evil too. They say that its gives rise in a continuous way to everything we see around us and find within us. For them ultimate reality is an mystery beyond words and names, an un-nameable yet creative abyss. The universe is the perpetual dance,sometimes tragic and sometimes not, of this source.
The Supreme Being. Others will say: “No, ultimate reality is not a creative abyss; it is the personal creator of the universe. It is a supreme being, with intelligence and a will of his or her own, who loves us all, seeking our well being like and sharing in our suffering, like Buddhist bodhisattva or a Jewish messiah.” For these philosophers ultimate reality is a creative and guiding presence, a holy Thou in whom the universe lives and moves and has its being. We can pray to ultimate reality and when we pray someone is listening.
Let’s say that there are two sisters in a kitchen having a friendly debate about what is ultimate – the ultimate energy or the cosmic bodhisattva – and their mother comes into the room with a dishrag in her hand. She sees them arguing and holds up the dishrag: “The ultimate reality is this dishrag.” she says. “It’s your turn to wash the dishes.”
The Present Moment. All three of them laugh, because they realize that she has a point. They may or may not have had valid intuitions concerning an ultimate reality, but there is also a sense in which they were lost in their heads. There is something ultimate about the here-and-now of the present moment with its dirty dishes and the need to wash them. The ultimate reality is whatever is happening as it is happening.
The Interconnected and Everchanging Universe. Then the mother’s mother comes in the room and says “I just lost my job.” She had been helping support them, and now, all of the sudden they realize that they are going to be in tough economic times. It occurs to them that the present moment, with all its vitality, cannot be separated from the surrounding world with its vacillations, and that the moment is itself a partial product of everything else that happens. This gives them a new way of thinking about the ultimate reality. It is the interconnected and ever-changing universe itself.
Who is right? Is one of these realities more ultimate than another? From a Whiteheadian perspective they are all right. The mother is right to recognize that there is something ultimate and irreducible about each moment of experience in the here-and-now. The moment is an occasion of experience and it cannot be reduced to abstractions in the mind, to an un-nameable mystery beyond all words and names, or to the will of a beloved Thou. It is the sheer happening of what happens, whatever happens, in its particularity. It is the dirty dishes and the washing of them, including the feelings and thoughts of the washer.
The second sister also right to believe that the universe is embraced by an ultimate compassion who beckons each being toward wholeness and shares in its sufferings. She trusts that this compassion can also be a guiding presence in her life, an indwelling lure toward the fullness of life relative to each situation. The Supreme Being appears, not as someone who creates the tunnels of our lives, but who is present as the light at the end of each tunnel. The supreme being is a source of fresh possibilities and a companion to the world’s experiences.
The first sister is right to recognize that there is a kind of energy – Whitehead calls it creativity – of which all things, including each present moment of experience, is an expression. This creativity is present in the happening of dirty dishes and our washing of them, but it is also present in the happening of what happens to other people, too, and to their creative response. And there is always more to it than any of its expressions. It is a kind of unfathomable substratum from which things continuously emerge. It is manifest, among other things, in their own creativity, their freedom to respond to their circumstances in ways that are pre-determined by the past. But it is not a creator of the world. It is the creativity of the world. Even the supreme being is a self-expression of it.
And other course the grandmother is right, too. There is something ultimate about the interconnected universe which changes at every moment, but which is the cosmic context in which we live and move and have our being. It is the web of life itself. Thus there are, in a way, four ultimates or four realities which are ultimate in their respective ways, relative to the question at hand.
What is the question?
1. What is the activity of which all things are expressions? Here the answer would be creativity.
2. When I find myself in times of trouble, is there a beneficent power who can provide me with possibilities for hope? Here the answer would be the supreme being.
3. If I want to be centered in my daily life, is there a reality to which I must be attentive at all times? Here the answer would be the present moment.
4. If I want to get perspective and live in harmony with other people and the natural world, what context should I take into account? Here the answer – or part of it – would be the web of life.
The question “What is ultimate?” has different meanings relative to different contexts. The same applies situation applies to the question “What is important?” Different contexts require different answers. If a friend is suffering and needs your listening ear, the present moment is most important. If you are trying to figure out the consequences of your actions on the natural world, the interconnected world is most important. If you are seeking trying to awaken to the pure energy of which everything is an expression, the creativity may be most important. If you want to trust in the availability of fresh possibilities, the supreme being may be most important. Except, in Whitehead, the supreme being is a supreme becoming, too, since she shares moment by moment with the world’s sufferings.
Now let’s take the word “God.” Which of these four realities should this word refer to? Most people use the word “God” to refer to the supreme becoming: the Love Supreme, to quote John Coltrane. But mystics in various traditions will sometimes use the word to refer to the un-nameable abyss from which all things emerge; and others will use it to refer to the sheer inter-connectedness of things or the absoluteness of the present moment. Like all words, the word “God” can be used in different ways relative to different context, and there is no single right or definitive way to use the word.
This makes it a little hard to define atheism. Most people will say that the atheist is someone who rejects God’s existence. Typically this means that the atheist rejects the existence of a supreme being. But many people who are atheistic are rejecting a very specific image of such a being: --namely that of a male deity who can manipulate the world at will, who knows the future in advance and is exceedingly authoritarian, demanding obedience and threatening punishment. Whitehead himself did not envision a supreme being in this way. He believed that God, understood as a supreme being, does not know the future in advance, because there is no future to be known until it occurs, and also that God is not in the business of reward and punishment. He thought that God was Christ like, not Caesar like. God is love. As George Hermanson says, God is a melody maker and we give some back to God, too.
Let’s go back to the dishes. Here we are at the sink, hands in the water, taking over a duty we should have been doing all the time. We have responded to the call of the moment: our mother’s call and love’s call. We are enjoying being together, available to the sacrament of the present moment. We are using biodegradable detergent, sensitive to the web of inter-being. Our father comes in the room and asks what we are doing. We say: “We are exploring ultimate realities.”
How many ultimate realities are there? They cannot be counted. Insofar as there are an infinite number of present moments, there are an infinite number of ultimate realities. Indeed there is a sense in which each person, each blade of grass, each planet, each molecule is an ultimate reality, just in being what it is. But perhaps Whitehead's philosophy is helpful because it highlights four realities which are ultimate in their ways: the abyss, the supreme being, the present moment, and the interconnected universe.
It is sometimes thought that all religions point to the same ultimate reality, but in fact they may illuminate and be centered around different ultimates. Process philosophers call this complementary pluralism. Zen points to the present moment, for example, and Christianity to the supreme being. It is also important to note, though, that the religion of daily life for most people may not be oriented around anything ultimate at all, but rather in making it through the day, in a spirit of harmony and intensity. The little questions count, too. Like "where's the dishrag?" There's no need to make an ultimate of ultimacy. The very living of a life has ultimacy for the one who lives it.