COLOSSIANS

There are three fundamental doctrines that characterize the world view generally known as Christianity: Creation, Incarnation and Salvation. They are respectively represented by three famous passages from scripture:

    • In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen. 1:1)
    • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)
    • Then comes the end, when he (Christ) delivers the kingdom to God the Father…that God may be all in all. (1
      Cor. 15: 24 – 28)

Superficially and out of context, these important lines suggest a very ordinary linear world view (first creation, then incarnation, finally salvation) and this is the way many of us learned Christian doctrine in Sunday school. But this is not the way early Christians understood their faith; nor is it how they viewed the world.

The letter to the Colossians, traditionally attributed to St. Paul, contains a very early Christian creed. Even before it was immortalized in this text, this creedal affirmation was recited during Christian liturgies, probably as a hymn:

“He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together…he is the beginning (foundation), the first-born from the dead that in all things he himself might be preeminent…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Col. 1: 15-20)

It is hard to imagine that once upon a time people found deep spiritual inspiration in such an arcane and apparently impenetrable formulation. But find it they did because their sensibilities was attuned to the non-linearity that this creed celebrates. This creed, in fact, articulates a thoroughly non-linear, non-orientable world view.

In Colossians, Christ is presented as the image of God, the first-born of creation. Christ stands “before” all things, at the very threshold of the creative process.

(Here it is important to understand “before” not as a temporal reference but as a structural reference: Christ is the root of all things at all times; he is the universal substructure, the logos. There is no linear time in this cosmology and therefore a temporal interpretation of words like “before” and “beginning” would be inconsistent with the overall context of the passage. As in the Gospel of John (1:1), Christ is to be understood as the wellspring of the creative process, not as its precursor.)

In Colossians, Christ is (1) the substructure of the creative process: all things were created through him; (2) the locus of the creative process: all things were created in him; (3) the objective of the creative process: all things were created for him; and (4) the triumph of the creative process: in him all things hold together and through him all things are reconciled.

Without this final qualification, the universe could be a vast multiplicity of solitary events, a sea of ships passing in the night. There is absolutely no inherent reason why creative acts, even with Christ as their common substructure, locus and aim, should necessarily interact with one another, i.e. exhibit togetherness. In fact, it is counter intuitive that they would; in such a model one event does not require another for its origin, its content or its aim so any interaction between entities would be gratuitous and perhaps superfluous.

But through Christ, things do hold together and bccause they hold together they eventually come to be reconciled (with one another) for him. This holding together is not a passive process of grouping; it is an interactive process of relating. The world is more like an organism than a mathematician’s set. Things merely grouped together do not necessarily hold together, nor do they mutually modify one another; things in our world do.

Interactivity, relationship, is the glue that holds things together and interactivity bewteen two entities can only occur when those entities, though irreconcilably distinct, nevertheless enjoy elements in common. Without elements in common, entities would lead solitary, solpcistic lives. With elements in common, entities have the potential to engage in a process of mutual modification, harmonization, which can lead to mutual reconciliation. Ultimate reconciliation, in which the lion lies down with the lamb, is the state we know of as “Peace”. And that is Salvation, the reconciliation of all things through, in and for Christ.

And now at last we are ready to talk directly of Incarnation, the active, immanent participation of Christ in the creative process. Nowhere in the Colossians’ creed is there explicit reference to Incarnation…because Incarnation is the subject matter of the text itself. The whole hymn is about Incarnation.

It is because of Incarnation that all things share a common element and so undergo a process of mutual reconciliation and so ultimately hold together. It is Incarnation that introduces that common element: Christ.

According to the doctrine of Incarnation, Christ, the first-born of creation and of the dead, the locus, the aim and the triumph of the creative process, also enters the creative process directly as one of its quantum elements: a single historical event. Yet in Christ, “all fullness was pleased to dwell.”

The topology of reality is turned inside out. The whole (fullness) has become one of its own parts. But that part, which is also the whole, because it is the whole, is itself composed of all other parts. Every entity that ever was or ever will be exists in that special part, which is the whole! All things hold together in that special part, the whole. Therefore, that special part, which is the whole, has something in common with each and every other part, every entity in Universe. Every entity has itself in common with the “quantum whole” (Christ). This topology is what establishes the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of relation in Universe.

And so begins the process of reconciliation. Every entity is now engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Christ entity. Through this process of mutual modification, the Christ entity becomes an element in the constitution of every other entity. So everything is in Christ…and now Christ is in everything. In fact, Christ (the Omega) is preeminent in all things.

But this is not a mere static reality; it is a dynamic process. Indeed, it is the origin and prototype of all dynamics. It is the origin of the incurably restless advance of the cosmos.

Just as every entity shares something in common (i.e. itself) with at least one other entity (i.e. the Christ entity), every entity also has something in common (i.e. the Christ entity) with every other entity. And now comes the good part: every entity engaged in a process of mutual modification with the Chirst entity is therefore potentially in a direct relationship with every other entity.

No entity can fail to be in relationship with the Christ entity because then that entity would not be part of the whole and therefore would not exist. Therefore every entity shares a common element with every other entity. Therefore, through the agency of Incarnation, every entity is potentially in relationship with every other entity. Because of the Incarnation, there is solidarity.

Without Incarnation, Creation is trivial and Salvation (reconciliation) impossible.

The model of Christian theology found in Colossians undermines naïve, linear theological notions: past (creation), present (incarnation) and future (salvation). Colossians superimposes all three moments! Likewise, the Christian model undermines naïve notions of logical hierarchy (whole/part, set/subset) by simultaneously affirming and inverting those relationships.

In discussing the structure of reality, we necessarily use ordinary language and ordinary lanaguage (at least today, in our culture) is steeped in notions of temporal succession and logical hierarchy. It is important to realize that when we speak of reality using temporal or hierarchical terms, we are speaking allegorically. Incarnation firmly and finally (sic) eliminates the possibility that temporality or hierarchy could be substructural.

As we struggle back and forth between ultimate cosmological concepts and ordinary language, it is helpful to return, over and over, to the creed of Colossians, which somehow manages to capture the fundamental nature of our world with minimal reliance on temporal or hierarchical terminology.

KANDINSKY…AND THE OTHER WORLD

From the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have speculated that the world of space & time, matter & energy, objects & sense perceptions, the world in which we seem to live, may not be the only world…or all there is to this world. They have conjectured that there may be another world, perhaps very different our world but just as real (if not more so).

We may seek this world beneath the perception of our senses or beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes. Or we may glimpse it, like we do Leprechauns, through cracks that occur every so often in our seemingly continuous everyday experience.

The other world may lie beyond our world, or it may encompass our world, or it may underlie our world. The other world may be entirely independent of and indifferent to our world. Or it may be forever entangled with our world (John Bell). It may thoroughly permeate our world, like an unseen mist or aether. It may be an integral part of what makes our world work (Lisa Randall).

The other world may be an alternate copy of our world (Hugh Everett) or it may be a kind of anti-world, the source of all that we experience as ‘novelty’ in our world (Sartre, Heisenberg, Whitehead). It may diverge from our world (Everett) or it may loop back and intersect with us again down the road, bringing its alternate history with it (Bell, Feynman).

The oldest surviving piece of systematic philosophy from the Western world is specifically dedicated to the question of alternate worlds. The philosophical poem of Parmenides of Elea, On Nature, written shortly after 500 BCE, speaks of a “World of Seeming” (doxa), with which we are all too familiar, and a “World of Truth” (aletheia), with which we are not.

The World of Seeming consists of space and time, objects and perceptions, motion and change…the stuff and categories of our everyday experience. The World of Truth on the other hand is eternal, coincident, featureless and absolutely changeless.

The intuition that there may be another reality, perhaps a more basic one, has informed Western philosophy ever since. Plato’s cave, Christians’ heaven, and Leibniz’ monads are all examples of this kind of thinking. But the last great philosophical system explicitly modeled on Parmenides’ two world theory belongs to Emmanuel Kant. In Kant’s system, the there is a phenomenal world of “seeming”, which we can know, and a noumenal world of “truth”, which we cannot.

In some systems (e.g. Kant’s), the other world (noumenon) is ineffable; in other systems (e.g. Plato’s), the other world (eidolon) may be all that language can meaningfully speak about. Tantric Yoga, for example, describes the world in terms of the ‘sthula aspect’ (things as we see them), the ‘suksma aspect’ (things as we understand them), and the ‘para aspect’ (things as they are). Ordinary language may only be suited to the suksma aspect.

After Kant, the two world model lost its appeal. The modernism and pragmatism of the industrial era gave rise to empiricism (David Hume), materialism (Karl Marx), existentialism (John Paul Sartre) and even positivism (A. J. Ayer). While radically different from one another, these philosophical schools shared a common fascination with the here and now, the realm of ordinary language and everyday experience. It was largely agreed that genuine philosophical speculation outside this realm was impossible and that systems based on such speculation were “meaningless”.

Ironically, however, the scientific and industrial focus on the World of Seeming led intellectual history in an unexpected direction. Just when it seemed possible that a fairly simple model of reality might be able to account for all important phenomena, everything suddenly changed. The intellectual history of the 20th Century can be seen as the gradual but total collapse of the naïve hope that all scientific, philosophical, ethical and political problems might have simple, straightforward solutions.

If the 19th Century ended with optimism that determinism, science, humanism, democracy and socialism might satisfy all of humanity’s physical, intellectual and spiritual needs, the 20th Century systematically debunked each of these fantasies. Einstein’s relativity, Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Godel’s undecidability, Bell’s non-locality, the horror of Hitler and the tyranny of Stalin shook our intellectual and moral presumptions at their very roots.

Much as we had hoped to dissolve the complexities of cosmology and ontology with simple, “ordinary language” solutions, rigorous inquiry has taken us in exactly the opposite direction. While our everyday life relies overwhelmingly on our sense of space and time, locality and continuity, matter and energy, enduring objects and personal identity, science is suggesting that each of these bedrock assumptions may be flawed, vacuous or at best epiphenomenal.

Instead, we are learning about worlds in which space and time can be bent, stretched, squeezed or even eliminated, where objects are made up of nearly featureless sub-atomic particles, quanta, or even one-dimensional strings. Nothing is as it seems to be and nothing seems to be as it is.

These 20th century trends in science and philosophy closely intertwine with comparable developments in the arts and nowhere more so than in the world of paint.

While Impressionism is normally seen as the gateway to “modern art” (and in some ways it is), I think it is more apt to view it as the culmination of the classical era. Just as Empiricism was the final flower of classical philosophy, so Impressionism was the final fruit of classical art. Both movements ultimately reduced the world entirely to sense perception and obliterated any trace of a non-sensuous “reality” that might underlie phenomena.

The first truly “modern artists” were Van Gogh and Cezanne. Van Gogh used the tools of the Impressionists but used them to reveal an underlying reality (pattern) well beyond the scope of sense perception. As surrealism is to realism, so the art of Van Gogh is to Impressionism.

Cezanne, however, went even further. He rediscovered structure beneath appearance and miraculously found a way to portray that structure using the purely sensual tool of paint. In many ways, it could be said that Cezanne painted Kant…or even Parmenides.

From Cezanne flowed Picasso and the Cubists, and in an entirely different way, Matisse. They collectively discovered that that structure did not have to be spatially continuous and that it did not have to coincide, at least not rigidly, with the sense data it supported.

At this time, a young Russian by the name of Kandinsky, was beginning to paint. In his earliest works, Kandinsky delivered a world very different from the world of ordinary experience. Part dream, part hallucination, part fantasy, Kandinsky’s early world preserves the identity of subject and the structure of ground, albeit often almost interchangeably, but with a dynamism, palette and perspective unlike anything we would recognize in everyday experience.

The name of a 1911 work, Romantic Landscape, sums up this early era in Kandinsky’s career. As his work matured, landscapes became more abstract and the relationship of colors and forms became the real subject of his works.

Then in 1913, in Painting with White Border, Kandinsky experimented with a new technique. He situated his imaginary world within another, wider world by means of a “white border”. While he is not yet exploring substructural worlds, he is moving conceptually toward the recognition that the world of subject-object, space-time and sense perception is not the only world worth exploring.

Later that same year, Kandinsky began to paint canvasses that no longer have any representational content at all. Light Picture and Black Lines begin a new era in his art. No longer is Kandinsky abstracting from the world of everyday experience and reformulating that world according to a new logic and a new aesthetic; now he is creating his own worlds ex nihilo via paint, color and form.

In 1919, he paints White Oval, a rounded rhombus containing an entire physics of fanciful forms, situated within a dark, vague border that suggests nearly empty space. This world is like a womb, self-contained within larger reality. Modern cosmologists might recognize this as a Bubble Universe, an apparently self-contained and finite universe that is in reality simply a “bubble” in a foam of similar (or not so similar) universes.

During this period, Kandinsky regularly organizes paintings around an irregular geometric shape. For example, Red Oval (1920) depicts what modern cosmologist might call a brane, a finite or infinite space situated within a space of higher dimensionality.

In Red Oval, all the inhabitants link to the brane (or to something else that links to the brane). Some objects link to the brane at one end point only, others at both end points. Objects may equally well link to either side of the brane or they may run through the brane like arrows. The alternative qualities of these entities suggest our own experience with the baffling behavior of various subatomic particles and quanta.

But all of the activity in this world takes place in or just above/below the brane. Compared to the higher dimensional universe in which it is situated, the brane is something like a pancake. The characters in this landscape behave remarkably like the “strings” in some versions of string theory.

Beginning in 1922, Kandinsky’s paintings show the influence of the Bauhaus. However, he incorporates that influence into his own style to make it even more powerful. In the Black Square (1923), he inserts the architectural forms of Bauhaus into his brane-world. During this period, Kandinsky’s painting become increasingly dynamic and he begins to explore motion as a “thing in itself”. In Yellow Accompaniment and One Center (1924) the subject of the piece is its dynamics. The colors, forms and constructed objects just serve to make that dynamic visible. They are the molecules of water spinning in the vortex.

Accent in Pink (1926) depicts a brane world, inhabited not by shapes but by bursts, eruptions of color. Kandinsky paints these bursts so that the viewer actually sees the eruptions in process.

Music had a profound influence on Kandinsky’s work and in this era, his works begin to take on the quality of musical composition rather than architectural arrangement. At the same time, Kandinsky begins to explore the semantic nature of artistic forms.

In Levels (1929) Kandinsky creates a hieroglyphic language, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and adds a grid to help the “reader” decipher the “text”. Striped (1934) and Delicate Accents (1935) continue this trend; but the apex of this period may be Succession (1935) which presents symbols on a grid reminiscent of musical notation. In the context of other worlds, Kandinsky is here exploring the notion known today under Wheeler’s rubric “It from Bit”. Reality is information, it is essentially a code; perceptions are merely clues to that code.

But it is with Movement 1 (1935) that Kandisky’s total embrace of other world ontology begins. This canvas presents a fantastic assemblage of branes, self-contained mini-verses, hieroglyphs and geometric forms of varying dimensionality linked by strange, string like objects running throughout. From 1935 on, Kandinsky’s works are predominantly characterized by these same elements.

Until recently, philosphers exploring the idea of another world were limited by the notion that all worlds must at least form a self-consistent and orderly whole. Beginning with Movement 1, Kandinsky challenges that assumption. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Dominant Curve (1936), for example, presents a chaotic variety of topologies somehow co-existing harmoniously on the representational plane of the canvass. It suggests that a multiplicity of inconsistent realities may lie beneath the more or less routine world we accept as real. Grouping (1937) continues this theme and explicitly shows these incongruous regions co-existing and in some strange way perhaps even using that incongruity to reinforce one another.

Capricious Forms (1937) situates a foreground of perpetually moving and morphing organic entities in a static, rectilinear background. Kandinsky is using the elements of his multi-verse to construct a universe that reminds us at least in some ways of our familiar world. He may be suggesting that our rectilinear world is emergent from, or a special case of, the sub-structural multiverse.

This leads naturally to Thirty, another 1937 piece, that suggests thirty unique solutions, some rectilinear, some organic, some musical, some hieroglyphic to the basic equations of ontology. Like M Theory, Thirty suggests that there may be more than one right answer to the riddle of cosmology.

Finally, Around the Circle (1940) begins with a somewhat typical assemblage of unexpected ontological entities, all approximately co-planar. But then it adds a window which suggests a sort of “worm hole” into another far off multiverse which is itself a collection of infinitely varied, yet perhaps subtly different, entities. With this work, Kandinsky suggests that dimensionality may exist not only within worlds but between worlds; the process of deconstructing classical reality could turn out to be infinitely regressive.

Kandinsky does not offer a single, detailed ontological theory; that is not the job of the artist. The role of the artist is to challenge “common sense”, to point out the unrecognized assumptions that underpin naive realism and to suggest certain directions we might travel in pursuit of deeper truth. This Kandinsky did, brilliantly!

The task of the 21st century thinker is to try to understand the “many-worlds” nature of reality that theoretical and experimental science is revealing. What are the limits of variety? How can unity emerge from such diversity?

At one time, it was in vogue to classify worlds as “real” or “imaginary”. For many centuries, Parmenides “Way of Seeming” was understood as illusion compared to his eminently real “Way of Truth.” But that facile way of thinking won’t cut it any more! Today we know that we have to take all worlds into account in order to understand Universe. As we continue on this intellectual journey, we would be well advised to return often to Kandinsky for inspiration. His paintings offer countless different models for the role of the ‘other world’ in our universe.