Wondering whether things make sense
I am going to recommend a book in this piece—recommend strongly that you read it—and perhaps the best way to begin is by noting two things the author, Ellis Potter, no relation to Harry, believes. He believes that asking questions is good. In fact he believes it is very good, a sign of a vibrant mind and lively imagination, a necessary component to true spirituality, an expression of the natural curiosity that children display spontaneously and that adults must carefully nurture if they want to flourish as human beings. And second, Ellis Potter believes that one of the questions every child asks (and every adult should ask) is why is there everything?
Actually, I can tell you a third thing Ellis believes. (I am referring to him as Ellis and not Potter, as I usually refer to authors, not because you might confuse him with Harry, but because Ellis is a friend.) He believes that there are really only three possible explanations for reality—for everything that exists, and that the three explanations can be explained simply and clearly. It may not seem that way. It is true there is a plethora of religious traditions, scientific theories, and philosophical truth claims on offer in our pluralistic world, each claiming to explain everything that is but it turns out they are just variations of the three basic theories. Peel back the details, Ellis says, and you find three possible explanations for reality, or as he puts it in the book I strongly recommend you read, 3 Theories of Everything.
I hope I am not being unfair if I suspect at this point that some readers may be wondering if they can skip this article. You are busy, you have precious little time to read, you do not like reading books that are philosophical, and the last time you woke up in a cold sweat about whether there is a theory of everything is precisely never. Trust me on this one. You should read 3 Theories of Everything.
It is accessible. Yes, it involves philosophy, but this is philosophy for everyone. Ellis Potter is a master teacher, able to explain things simply without ever becoming simplistic. This book isn’t written primarily for people with a philosophical turn of mind; it is written for everyone who has the natural wonder of a child. Ellis is asking whether it is possible to look out at life, at reality—at everything in other words—and have some way to make sense of it. You may have forgotten that you are curious about this, but in fact you are—and Ellis not only helps us see why we are naturally curious about it, but how wonderfully satisfying it is to consider the three possible solutions.
3 Theories of Everything is not merely accessible, it is conversational. Ellis has a lovely way of drawing us in so that we feel we are talking with him over a cup of tea rather than being talked to. And the last third of the book is a series of 45 questions that people have asked after Ellis has talked on this topic, along with his answers. Let me give you a taste of what I mean.
Why did you originally become a Buddhist?
I grew up in a Christian atmosphere and I kept asking absolute questions. But the Christians I knew were not interested in my questions. They said, “Don’t ask questions, just believe. Become like a little child and have faith without asking questions.” That didn’t make sense to me. It was only later when I came to realize that, in telling us to become like little children, Jesus really did want us to ask and inquire and explore. As a result of my early dissatisfaction with Christianity, I began shopping around and tried out different philosophies and religions. I was in the Rosicrucian Society, the Bahai, the Self-Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda, and other groups. I settled on Zen Buddhism because it’s very unreligious. Zen Buddhists are always interested in absolutes, and I was interested in absolutes. I also appreciated the fact that they were the only religious group I knew that did not sell jewelry.
The book is also brief, so brief I found myself wishing it were longer. It is based on a lecture Ellis has given to diverse audiences in innumerable settings around the world. He has honed it in discussions in universities and churches, coffee houses and pubs with Christians and skeptics. I first heard Ellis talk about this years ago, and as I read felt I had the delicately distilled core in my hands. It takes no longer to read than to listen to a talk followed by Q&A.
Actually, if I could, I’d give a copy of 3 Theories of Everything to every friend I have—Christian and non-Christian. Yes, I know I recommend a lot of books, but I am discriminating about which book to give to which person. This one is that good.
In 3 Theories of Everything Ellis models how to speak of and to those who disagree with us about the things that matter most. I get so very weary of the shrill rhetoric, the sarcasm, the straw men that are set up and then ridiculed, the way Christians are dismissive of thinkers and ideas and policies they deem untrue or unwise. Ellis not only treats non-Christians with respect and care, he treats their beliefs, values, and convictions with respect—as Christians should. In an early part of the book, for example, Ellis outlines one of the three possible views of reality, the view that is exemplified by Buddhism. Then he concludes this way:
I have given you a short Buddhist sermon. I don’t know if any of you will be converted. I hope that you can understand the power and hope that underlies this worldview and why healthy, intelligent people would devote themselves to it. They are not crazy. There are many lovely people who are committed to this idea of reality.
Christians should love truth so fervently that whenever we describe any non-Christian belief we should do it so objectively that someone that holds that position will say we have treated their worldview accurately, with care. Ellis demonstrates how that can be accomplished without for a moment diminishing his commitment to the gospel.
An important thing to realize is that 3 Theories of Everything addresses one of the premier issues of our postmodern world. Though it is true that the basic questions of life do not change, the shape they take differs from generation to generation. Ignoring or forgetting this is one reason why arguments for faith can be compelling for one generation but unimpressive for another. It’s not that the reasons themselves are necessarily weak. It’s just that they do not address the questions that are keeping people from faith, so as a result the faith is made to appear weak or implausible. Listening carefully to what is being asked is the essential first step in commending the gospel of Christ—and Ellis Potter is a careful listener.
One question very much in the air today is whether it is possible for any single religion or worldview to actually provide an explanation for everything. Isn’t it presumptuous to even suggest such a thing? Besides, with more than one option out there, who is in a position to determine which is the final or absolute explanation? It can seem discouraging, so some people simply stop being curious about it. The only time it comes up is when someone claims to have the final truth, and that, they are told, is intolerant and intolerable. “But some people keep asking,” Ellis notes. “They want to know what life is really about. What does it all mean? They want the truth. They don’t want to just ‘fit in’ with their culture or believe what their parents taught them. They want to know what is real and actual and they don’t care what it turns out to be like.” 3 Theories of Everything is written for them—for those who have not lost their natural childlike curiosity, and for those who have lost it but want it back.
Ellis shows that the three possible theories are Monism, Dualism, and Trinitarianism. One thing they hold in common is the conviction that something is broken. “They each understand,” Ellis says, “that there was a perfect beginning and then something went wrong, so that we now live in a situation that is not the way it was intended to be.” Each view of reality then attempts to explain what is wrong and the way back to the perfection that has been lost, a way back home.
“Monism,” he says, “is the belief in one One, a total unity that is the ground of everything.” In other words, regardless of how everything appears, behind everything and defining everything is a single unity of all that is—perhaps it is a spiritual One, as Buddhism and Hinduism believes, or a material one, as Naturalism believes. But for Monism the point is that everything in reality and life boils down to that reality and so being enlightened to that Oneness can overcome what is wrong.
Dualism says there are two opposites behind everything: light and dark, good and evil, male and female, yin and yang. Reality is actually made up of these two great opposing forces and so the need is to find some way to harmonize them, to keep them in balance. This is the sort of thinking that motivates Taoism and Confucianism.
And finally, Trinitarianism is the view of reality that is presented in the Bible. Monism has taken the unity we experience in life and made it absolute and Dualism has done the same thing with the diversity we experience. Trinitarianism celebrates both unity and diversity by revealing them in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We see a clear description of this reality in the Bible. God is perfectly unified as one God, and yet God is perfectly diversified in the three persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is unity and diversity in absolute reality. There is not one God who chooses to reveal Himself in three ways in order to create the appearance of diversity, and there are not three persons who choose to unite and cooperate in order to create the appearance of being unified. The original reality is 100% unified and 100% diversified. It’s a 200% reality that cannot be comprehended by simple logic.
Here is a proverb I made up to capture the essence of this reality: God alone is God, and God is not alone. You cannot make this statement about any other God or original perfection. You can say Buddha alone is Buddha, but that is all. The rest is silence. You can say Krishna alone is Krishna and Allah alone is Allah, but the rest again is silence. If the God of the third circle wants to talk to somebody, He talks among Himself, because He is three persons. A God who wasn’t diversified could not talk among Himself. He would have to create something else to talk with. He would require a creation in order to be personal, whereas the God of the third circle is intrinsically personal, independent of His creation. His creation does not complete Him but rather expresses Him.
If the original perfection is both unified and diversified, it means that when we experience unity in reality it shouldn’t be a problem, and when we experience diversity in reality it shouldn’t be a problem. In other words, unlike Monism, the third circle does not regard diversity as the cause of suffering, and does not see the solution to suffering as involving a detachment from diversity. Also, unlike Dualism, the third circle does not attempt to resolve suffering by balancing opposites. Instead, the third circle sees variation and contrast as a part of the original perfection, and therefore, as a normal part of reality itself.
Trinitarianism has a unique, and uniquely powerful solution to what has gone wrong so that a way back home is opened to us. And Ellis explains how when you understand the basic ideas behind this dynamic view of reality all sorts of things begin to make sense: objective and subjective truth, relationship and identity, form and freedom, needs, spirituality, and personality. In fact, everything begins to make more sense. Which is why we recommend 3 Theories of Everything to you. Strongly.
Source3 Theories of Everything p. 2, 9, 26, 38-39, 103-104.
Book recommended: 3 Theories of Everything by Ellis Potter (Destinée Media; 2012) 111 pages.