How do you relate to a metaperson?
As a stranger? As an enemy? As a servant? As a lover?
As Moderns, we think of society as consisting of millions of persons. Among the billions of beings on the planet, most of us consider all humans to be persons. We think of all non-humans (except for our pet dog) to be things to be potentially objectified. As we discussed in Re-Assembling Reality #18, it wasn’t very long ago that not all humans were considered to be persons. Depending on which social group you belonged to, only members of your own nationality, race, religious affiliation, ethnicity or (male) sex would be treated as persons, while other humans were often treated as objects. Even today, in certain contexts — such as in various forms of industrial production — humans are treated as objects, even if they have the legal rights of persons.
Within this large pool of human persons, you don’t start relationships with all of them. In fact you probably have close relationships with only a small handful of persons, including your family members and friends. You might have a deep commitment and bond with one specific person, your “significant other”. You might have functional relationships with a number of other people, such as your dentist, the security guard in your building, your colleagues at work, and your group mates in a class project.
There are others whom you actively try to avoid relationships with if you can, but who may erupt into your life from time to time: the pervert who stalks you in the street, the police officer who issues you a speeding ticket, the manipulative “friend” who is always trying to draw you into her shady business schemes… In your life, you try to spend more time at places where you can be with your dear ones, and avoid those places where you might have unpleasant encounters.
You don’t build relationships with people simply because they exist. As for the vast majority of the humans on earth, you don’t have a relationship with them. Indeed, you don’t know and don’t care about the existence of most of them.
If you tell me that “Pappu Gok exists,” it doesn’t mean anything to me. Maybe he exists and maybe he doesn’t, but to be honest I don’t care. Now if you show me proof that he exists, with a photograph, his address and ID number, I’ll probably accept your proof, and believe that he exists, as factual knowledge (see Re-Assembling Reality #14). So what? Simply because he exists doesn’t mean I need to care that he exists, or want to start a relationship with him. If you keep trying to prove to me that he exists, I’ll get tired of you.
On the other hand, if you tell me lots of great things about Pappu Gok, and tell me he’s your good friend, and invite me to visit him, I might go, because I believe you, since you’re my good friend. When I meet Pappu, and I talk with him, and we get to know each other, because I believe in you, I’ll be more inclined to believe in him. And as I get to know him better as a person, and I start to like him, and we have a relationship, I’ll believe in him even more, and this will confirm in my mind that I was right to believe you.
But it might not turn out that way. Maybe I’ll be put off at the first meeting with Pappu, and say goodbye, and never see him again. Or maybe I’ll start a relationship with him, but after a while our relationship falls off — because I got busy with meeting other friends or, after I got to know him better, I didn’t really like what I saw. After all, like you, I’m selective in the relationships I build.
Similarly, the world is potentially populated with an infinite number of metapersons. Now for some people, the key question about metapersons is, do they exist? Bob might be keen to prove that Apollo exists, and Ann might be equally keen to prove that Apollo doesn’t exist. We’ll get to that question in the next essay. But here we’ll discuss another question: what is your relationship with Apollo?
“I don’t have a relationship with Apollo” is one possible answer to that question. But there are many other possible answers: if you have a relationship with him, what kind of relationship? There are countless possible answers to this question. And you may give different answers for different metapersons. The ways you relate to Apollo, Jesus, ghosts, and you recently deceased grandmother are almost certainly different.
Here, let’s present a few possibilities, which are based on the attitudes I’ve come across in my anthropological research on religion.
1.Only humans can be persons and I will only develop relationships with humans. Metapersons don’t exist. If you want to have relationships with non-existing metapersons in your imagination, you’re free to believe in whatever you want. I hope your illusions make you feel good.
2. Some of my friends have told me about their encounters and relationships with this metaperson, but I don’t want to have anything to do with it. It’s too much trouble. I’ll stick to my human friends and family, thanks.
3. What you’ve told me about metapersons is interesting. But I haven’t met any of them. I’ll let you if know any cross my path.
4. I don’t know about most of those metapersons you mention, but my family does have relationships with a few metapersons. I go with my family when we go to worship. It’s more of a family obligation and I don’t really know much about the metaperson, but I go through the motions anyway, because it’s part of my family relations and it wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t do it.
5. I don’t think metapersons actually exist, but these ones symbolise good virtues and morals, and when people worship them it creates a sense of the sacred that creates solidarity in the community. So I like taking part in ceremonies to honour them, because I want to preserve this traditional culture that’s important for our community.
6. Those metapersons have their own world and we humans have ours. We shouldn’t mix the two up. Let humans deal with improving our human life, and not get obsessed with those metapersons or try to communicate with them.
7. That type of metapersons don’t exist, they are dangerous illusions. Belief in them is a harmful superstition. You should avoid anything to do with them.
8. That type of metapersons exist, but they are dangerous. They are harmful. I will avoid anything to do with them.
9. There are specific ways to deal with metapersons, and I don’t know enough about them. It would be inappropriate for me to approach them directly. So, just like I hire a lawyer to help me deal with legal procedures and contracts, I hire a priest whenever I need to deal with metapersons: to keep bad ones away, and to get help from good ones.
10. I don’t think about metapersons most of the time, but when I have troubles I pray or go to the temple to give offerings. I don’t know if it’s any good, but there’s no harm in doing it, so why not? If it’s true, my prayers might be answered.
11. I don’t know about most of those metapersons you mentioned, but I do pray regularly to this one metaperson…. My relationship with her is very important in my life. I bare my heart to her, unburden my worries, express my gratitude. She listens to me, and answers my prayers. Sometimes new ideas and inspirations come into my mind, sometimes it’s the answer to the question that’s been perplexing. Sometimes things happen that solve the problem or open a new path for me. She is always there for me, and I feel something missing when I miss my prayers with her. She gives me the strength to keep my heart pure when there are so many temptations to do things that aren’t right.
12. This metaperson is the guiding light of my life. I pray to Him, I read scriptures about Him, I meditate on Him — I want to know Him and to worship Him. His love, His compassion, His wisdom and His justice inspire me and show me the way. I give my life to Him, that He may lead me into His Kingdom. I offer Him thanks for everything I have in this world, and pray that He may make of me a beacon of love, of friendship, of wisdom and of justice to the world, that I may become a refuge to the weak, a balm to the suffering, a fount of knowledge to the seekers of truth… As for those other metapersons, I stay away from them, lest they distract me from my devotion to the One.
13. This metaperson is the centre, the focus, and the goal of my life. I love Him with a passion that you can never understand. When I lose myself in ecstatic prayer, He reaches into my inmost parts and rips me to pieces. He shreds all I thought I knew, and all I thought I was. He covers the pieces of my carcass with the sweetness of honey and the sting of fresh lemon. He fills my bones with molten lead and my mind with fire. The screams of agony and ecstasy as I am drawn into His presence are indistinguishable and simultaneous. I need it to stop and I never want it to end. I am destroyed. I am completed.
Among people who have relationships with metapersons, most have strong relations with only one, or a limited number, among the infinite number of potential metapersons.
Some people claim to have relationships with metapersons, for example, that they “believe in God”, but actually have no relationship with Him at all. Like a “friend” who never shows any sign of life, their abstract belief in God makes no difference in their lives.
Other people are in the opposite situation. They say they “don’t believe in ghosts”, but under no conditions will they move to a home that is said to be haunted. Or, like a few of the examples above, they might go through the motions of a relationship, even if they’re not deeply committed, or unsure about it. They’re like family members who show up at annual gatherings, but whose mind is elsewhere. But still, by showing up, they keep the relationship going.
For some, the relationship is purely transactional: they go to a metaperson when they have a problem, give it an offering, and expect it to solve their problem. When they have no problem, they don’t maintain the relationship.
For others, the relationship is more like a love affair. Maybe they were seeking for the relationship, or maybe they stumbled into it by chance. But now they love every minute of being in the presence of their metaperson, singing songs of praise, and maybe even dancing in ecstasy.
In conventional speech, we may speak of “worshiping gods” to describe some of these relations with metapersons. But not all metapersons are considered to be “gods,” and “worship” is only one of the wide range of forms of relationship. One form is to bow down before the throne of the King, and another form is to love the deity as a child loves his father or mother. But there are other forms of relating too — borrowing, helping, pleading, bargaining, fighting, exorcising. Daoist priests kill demons, and they send written summons to other demons to order them to help them kill evil spirits. They send official forms and memorials and petitions to officials in the heavenly bureaucracy under the Jade Emperor. They also invite bodhisattvas to come and witness ceremonies and bring their blessings.
In the Hindu conception of bhakti devotion to the Lord Krishna, there are five ways of relating to the supreme God:
As an observer, witnessing God and his works through the presence of animals, plants, streams and so on;
As a servant, showing love by serving the Lord — offering him lunch, washing his clothes, and performing other acts of devotion;
As a friend, enjoying good times and sad times together.
As a parent, loving the Lord as a child, as his provider and protector. You cuddle him, prepare meals for him, and see to it that all his needs are attended to.
As a lover, with romantic ecstasy, as if you were his consort, in the intimacy of lover and beloved.
Baha’u’llah, in the Seven Valleys, thus described the relationship with God as a lover’s quest:
And if, by the help of the Creator, he findeth on this journey a trace of the traceless Friend… he shall straightway step into the Valley of Love and be consumed in the fire of love. In this city the heaven of rapture is upraised, and the world-illuming sun of yearning shineth, and the fire of love is set ablaze; and when the fire of love is ablaze, it burneth to ashes the harvest of reason.
A lover feareth nothing and can suffer no harm: Thou seest him chill in the fire and dry in the sea. A lover is he who is chill in hellfire; A knower is he who is dry in the sea…
And if, confirmed by the Creator, the lover escapeth the claws of the eagle of love, he will enter the Realm of Knowledge and come out of doubt into certitude, and turn from the darkness of wayward desire to the guiding light of the fear of God. His inner eye will open and he will privily converse with his Beloved; he will unlock the gates of truth and supplication and shut the doors of idle fancy. …With both inward and outward eyes he witnesseth the mysteries of resurrection in the realms of creation and in the souls of men, and with a spiritual heart apprehendeth the wisdom of God in His endless manifestations. In the sea he findeth a drop, in a drop he beholdeth the secrets of the sea.
This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.