The Ventriloquist

An online publication at and outside the boundary of evangelical Christianity.



April 2013

The Problem of the One (Within) and the Many

by Matthew Nelson, on Theology, April 2013

Ever so vivid in my memory, I recall Dr. Mills’ theatrical antics in front of the classroom in the Dixon Ministry Center in Introduction to Philosophy. In one of the earlier lessons in the class, Mills effortlessly expounded on a perennial and foundational philosophical issue taken up in the Presocratic period: ‘The Problem of the One and the Many.” The ancients were plagued by the tension between unity and diversity in nature; namely, how one fundamental element might be the source of a variety of manifestations, objects, events, and the like. Corresponding to this was the discernable reality of simultaneous constancy and change. Heraclitus (540-480 BCE), Dr. Mills instructed, preferred to accentuate diversity and dynamism over unity and stasis, by using the act of stepping into a rushing river as an analogy to explain his ontological insight: “You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you. It scatters and it gathers; it advances and retires.” So as not to be awash in the chaotic flux of reality, Heraclitus asserted that there was a unifying principle – the “logos” – that coheres all things – providing substance and structure – so that we could perceive a river as a river. Conversely, Parmenides (510 BCE) advanced a perspective that we commonly associate with the Eastern philosophical tradition that the world of multiplicity and change is an illusion and “the One” as eternal, undifferentiated, immutable, and unmoving is really all that exists.

I then went on to learn in my graduate studies that some posited that there was just one fundamental element (1), others saw an animating force/rationale like Heraclitus (2), while others championed the perspective of Parmenides through the lens of paradox (3), relativism (4), or pluralism (5). Years later, I find myself returning to the world of the Presocrates and their “Problem of the One and the Many” to elucidate the struggles of the present.

Though I’d like to believe that Cedarville University has advanced beyond the dogmatism, authoritarianism, and insular political and other thinking that characterized my time there from 1999-2003 (with notable exceptions), recent developments indicate not (i.e. the issuing of creedal “white papers,” the dismissal of Dr. Ruby and President Brown, and the liquidation of the Philosophy major). In fact, I have, due to these abrupt and brash actions, reason to believe that a return to its fundamentalist, legalistic past may not be too far in the offing. Should Cedarville be “girding its loins” for a protracted campaign against more progressive ways of thinking, they had better “count the cost.” The future belongs not to the current administrators and donors, but to the young Christians in their charge. And these students, as Emergent Church leaders have been quick to point out, are not marching in lock step with the established ecclesial leadership. Given this inter-generational theological/social drift that seems well under way in America, I have hope that Cedarville’s religious Machiavellianism is not long for this world. In the twenty-first century, Christian students just won’t allow their minds to be in bondage as spiritual serfs to a theological vassal. No, the moral buoyancy that the Millennial generation exhibits, according to pollsters and demographers, with regard to climate change, marriage equality, and poverty, and its resistance of the consumerist and materialistic tendencies of its Baby boomer forebears, revitalizes my hope.

To you Cedarville students who spurn an occupation of your minds and spirits, I want to offer you some edifying thoughts. As Jesus says, “For those who have ears to hear,” I’d like to cast the ancients’ “Problem of the One and the Many” as an instructive metaphor for how we might help Cedarville University cognitively, spiritually, and morally evolve by sharing some reflections on the following topics: courage, authenticity, and pluralism.

Every Evangelical pretense of certainty to the contrary, existence with all of its multilayered, multifaceted complexity is murky. Reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Saint Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “At the present time we see indistinctly by mirrors offering enigmatic reflections.” Such is reality as it is; a reality that the Presocrates understood all too well in their wrangling over the “Problem of the One and the Many.” Deeper study into their world reveals wildly disparate interpretations of reality, even verging on the absurd (Parmenides thought ”The One” was an actual rounded object). Nevertheless, a diversity of perspectives lead to even more insightful and generative understandings of the nature of it all (6). Yet, at Cedarville and elsewhere we hear such ironclad declarations of the nature of the Divine – that which is, ultimately speaking, ineffable, transcendent, and mysterious. Søren Kierkegaard speaks of this in articulating a Christian existentialism, that the world is fundamentally paradoxical, and no more so than in the unifying work of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. It is the Paschal Mystery after all, now isn’t it? The height of theological hubris is to demand others believe as exclusively and certainly authoritative one particular theory of the nature of God or of Jesus’ work on the cross! Who will have the existentialist courage to shoot back that forcing assent to doctrinal statements is antithetical to the Spirit of God working in our lives?

Not that we can’t posit knowledge of God in creeds and Systematic Theology, but we forget God is still the “I am that I am” (7) to Moses in the Burning Bush, the “still, small voice” (8) to Elijah, and the “Unknown God” (9) to Saint Paul. God’s very existence problematizes and deconstructs every human conception of reality as given. Even a Trinitarian theology proper (the very epitome of the paradox of “The One and the Many”) bespeaks of imperceptibility (10). In the postmodern turn, we realize that the truth of reality has always been queerer than our limited minds could ever process. Theologians long before Kierkegaard were mindful of this too. For instance, the via negativa or the negative theological tradition – resisting conceptualization of God, by speaking in terms of what cannot be said of God – cautions us against theological delusion when even our most sophisticated theologies ultimately fall victim to the finitude of human language, reason, and perception. Apophatic theology, as it is properly known, is actually the earliest Christian theology; existing well before the quasi-scientific systematizing of belief that is copied off of Powerpoint slides in Theology classrooms at Cedarville. From Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Crysostom, and Dionysius the Areopagite (11) to Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, and Greek Orthodox theologians today, Christians have used this negating approach in a dialectical understanding of God and reality. Ironically, it is through this negating method that The Cloud of Unknowing (12) is pierced and something of the infinite is glimpsed.

This brute realism, that we can’t colonize “truth,” is a fiercely courageous stand – one that leaves room for faith and fosters the virtues of honesty and humility, and leads to knowledge of God through prayer and contemplation, mysticism, and other spiritual experiences. So if the intersection of God and reality is not certainly knowable, then why is Theology at Cedarville being taught in a sometimes strident and polemical fashion, as it was for me and I suspect it is for you? How can we hope to “know the face of God” if our wonderment, imagination, and exploration of God is tamped down by “orthodoxy” and other tyrannies of the mind? No, we need the courage of our convictions that we are free to have our own convictions about God.

Where shall we discover this courage? It resides in the ancient Greek quest, encapsulated in the aphorism: “Know thyself.” Authenticity is not, in the rugged individualism of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “To thine own self be true.” It is the self-determining freedom of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Johann Herder that each one has a unique state of being that should be cultivated and expressed (13). Made in the image of God, each person must live life in accordance with the dictates of personal conscience, and with free-will be about the business of self-making. But this must be balanced, of course, by other checks: community, tradition, law, and scientific and other modalities of knowing, not just personal experience. Here we arrive at the profound “Problem of the One and the Many.” To what extent should my identity (The One) be made in the presence of the Others (The Many)? I would suggest that it is a non-starter to continue down a path of theological despotism – a top-down imposition of someone else’s “conscientious perspective" (14). Similarly, one cannot submit oneself wholesale to another and claim to be one’s own or the Savior’s. Through dialog and experience, we can question, doubt, worship, reject; but what we mustn’t do is allow ourselves to be ruled by a totalitarianism of mind that prevents us from knowing and living our authentic selves. “The One” within must be preserved from those who, like Cedarville, would conscript it for a political or religious agenda – denying you your God-given freedom. The tension of “The One and the Many” – who you are within and as a part of the whole – must be worked out dialogically in community, and informed by as many perspectives as possible, which leads to our final topic: pluralism.

We have nothing to fear from diversity, “The Many.” Yet it is fear that drives us to our baser human impulses of tribalism, nativism, xenophobia, conformity and passivity, or reactionism. We defend some semblance of theological homogeneity – The One – out of fear that “The Truth” won’t be able to hold up under the scrutiny of “The Many.” Once we set our foot in Heraclitus’ rushing river of multiculturalism and diversity, we might be tempted to think our identity, beliefs, and traditions will get washed away. This insecurity, which I detected while at Cedarville and hear about from afar today, is mutually exclusive from faith as described in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.“ Faith doesn’t shy away from difference; it courts it. Perhaps it is the lack of faith that drives us to make everyone else believe, think, act and feel exactly as we do? Whatsoever the reason, it is untenable that this variety of ideological rigidity can hold fast in this modern age. Catalyzed by globalization, our nation is increasingly religiously and culturally plural. We might hope that the “Cedarville Bubble” carries us like Noah’s ark through the wicked world, but the “Cedarville Bubble” is an academic gas chamber with the noxious fumes of our own voices echoing back to us. This can hardly be a suitable learning environment committed to free and open inquiry – just the opposite. Pluralism (note: not relativism like the Sophists) is our hope for finding some way out of the Presocrates’ riddle. A faith hero of mine, Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, encourages us to embrace religious and other pluralism. In his book, Acts of Faith, Patel believes that the 21st century will be challenged by the “Faith Line” – given increased diversity in close proximity, either we will capitulate to hostilities brought about by all stripes of religious totalitarianism, or will we learn to engage “the other” with respect for all differences for “common action for the common good" (15). Pluralism ideally directs us to a more robust knowing and living of one’s own tradition; as my former professor Diana Eck has said: “Pluralism is not relativism, but the engagement of commitments.” This steers us, then, to a much more fertile discussion of reality, or “The Truth,” because different people are coming together from different backgrounds with different perspectives thinking and discussing in a constructive fashion. As we grow in a knowledge of “The One (within)” in a plurality of perspectives and influences, we come to know “The One” throughout, and vice-versa. Only abandoning a “Cedarville Bubble” or its ecclesiastical proxy will allow you and your faith to grow.

Like you, I am a Christian and I have always had a strong desire to know reality as it really is. Though we might be duped by the Siren song of certainty – either in a Scripture passage, or a favored theologian or a religious denomination – we know in the depths of our soul that this is merely an illusion, wrapped in wish fulfillment, hidden in a box of insecurity. That is why Christ called us to have faith, for we cannot have any other – no matter how determined we will it to be so. What I have discerned in the decade that I have been out of Cedarville is that we will always live in the “Problem of the One and the Many.” However, that shouldn’t lead us to existential despair. Rather, we are anchored in a hope that in courageous dialog first with “The One (within)” and second in the company of “The Many,” with our faith in the person and work of our Lord and Savior the Christ, we will know better our Creator God – THE ONE – who gave life to “The Many.”

(1) E.g. Thales: water; Anaximenes: Air

(2) E.g. Pythagoras’ mathematical relations

(3) E.g. Zeno

(4) E.g. Xenophanes and Protagoras, a Sophist

(5) E.g. Empedocles

(6) Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would produce some of the world’s keenest insights into the nature of reality and the Divine.

(7) Exodus 3:14

(8) 1 Kings 19:11-13

(9) Acts 17:23

(10) To use the language of Romans 11:33 with reference to divinity: “unsearchable and inscrutable.”

(11) His oft-quoted explanation of God deserves to be noted here: “The inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process, nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name,” Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works: Paulist Press, 1987.

(12) The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous Christian text dating from the 14th century urging the faithful to have the courage to abandon their souls to “unknowingness” in order to know God.

(13) On this point I am indebted to the thinking of the eminent Roman Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, in his book The Ethics of Authenticity: Harvard University Press, 1991.

(14) This is a concept coined by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

(15) Eboo Patel, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation: Beacon Press: 2010.