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The Four Ultimate Concerns

A Metahistorical View of the Trinity

All religions of the world have trinities — Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, or Father-Son-Holy Ghost, for example — and so does metahistory. But there is a difference, because the established trinities express the primary beliefs, or mythical and theological propositions, of their respective religions, but the metahistorical trinity is a tool for analysis of belief systems, rather than a statement of beliefs. It uses a trinitarian format to present a heuristic framework for understanding all possible variations of belief that we encounter in religion, science, and culture at large.

heuristic adj 1 allowing people to learn for themselves 2 denoting problem-solving techniques that proceed by trial and error (The Penguin Concise English Dictionary, 2001)

See also A Concise Inventory of Beliefs, taken from Pierre Maranda.

Consider this entry in the Metahistory Lexicon:

concerns Ultimate considerations based on the four relations that pertain between the God, Nature and Humanity.

Whatever may be said of our beliefs, they are expressions of concern. If I hold beliefs about a divine creator, this is because the question of a divine creator concerns me. Without the concern, the belief would not arise, and would have no utility in existential terms. This being so, it is possible to look at all beliefs in terms of concerns. All religious ideas and doctrines, all metaphysical and theological concepts, all beliefs in the category of spirituality and ethics, are variations of four ultimate concerns. Why four? Because four concerns arise among three factors: God, Humanity, Nature. Why ultimate? Because any concern you can imagine is but a subset of the four universal concerns that pertain between these three factors. These four concerns generate and inform others:

1, Concern for how Humanity relates to Nature.
2, Concern for how God relates to Nature.
3, Concern for how Humanity relates to God.
4, Concern for how Humanity relates to itself.


Consistent with the metahistory logo, here is a tree to illustrate the trinitarian format. The crown of the tree is God, the trunk is Nature. All that we as human beings know of nature is not the totality of nature, so nature must be shown in two ways, included in the tree-trinity, and providing the base or root of it. The relations are between the three points within the triangle of the tree. The concerns are stated in terms of relationships, 1, 2, 3, 4, as listed above.

One point to clarify: the relation to humanity to itself (4) is a special concern, formally distinct from the others. The three relations, God-Humanity, God-Nature, and Humanity-Nature, can be found by drawing lines between the three points of the tree, but the relation of humanity to itself is a special case. The relation of God to itself, and Nature to itself, are unknowable, but the way that humanity relates to itself is crucial and central to our worldview.

Bad Answers

These four relations invoke ultimate concern because they frame and determine all lesser issues that pose perennial issues crucial to human existence. Whenever we say “I am concerned,” it generally means there is something important at stake. With the ultimate concerns, ultimate matters are at stake. We must consider these four relations as if life itself depended upon them. In the case of 1, Humanity - Nature, it does. If we do not give close and careful attention to defining and nurturing these concerns, human experience will fall apart at the seams. On the other hand, todefine these concerns carelessly or in an erroneous manner may put us on course for serious disoriention, or even destruction.

Survival in the natural world depends inarguably on concern 1, but the meaning of life for the human species seems largely to depend on concerns 2, 3 and 4. Without responses to these concerns, the human species does not seem to be able to function. Inevitably, the responses that develop solidify into "answers" for coping with the countless questions arising from these concerns. If the answers are true or untrue, does not matter as long as they provide a means to cope with the issues. There is a long-standing tendency in human nature to assume that bad answers are better than no answers at all.

Most answers regarding the four concerns are merely expedient. They do not arise from careful weighing of the concerns, but from blunt, ill-considered reactions. For instance, regarding the God - Humanity relation (concern 3), people all through time have wondered if God (conceived as the omniscient creator of the world) cares about what we do. One answer is, Yes, he is pleased by certain actions but will punish us for others. Here are the rule he has laid down. Many people accept this answer without ever taking a moment to look into the God - Humanity concern, or frame their questions about it in a clear, rational, verifiable manner.

Throughout history, the four concerns have been acknowledged, and responses to them formulated, in some kind of myth, story, or narrative. Until about three hundred years ago, religion provided the stories that stated and answered these concerns. Since the Enlightenment, science has edged into the field previously dominated by religion. But science, by it systematic insistence on excluding the factor of human subjectivity from its world-picture, largely disqualifies itself from the responsibility of answering these concerns. For instance, science formulates the Human - Nature relation in terms of Darwinian evolution, in such a way that the human role in nature is not one of co-evolving with the environment and other species, but of competing in the environment nature provides. Coevolution implies a deep, subjectively grounded relation to nature, which science denies by its assertion that consciousness does not play a role in evolution.

The two mainstream religions that have most decisively shaped historical events over the last 2000 years are Judaism and Christianity, with Islam assuming a comparable role after 600 CE. Currently the world population of believers is divided between some billions of Christians and some billions of Muslims, with religious Jews situated as a kind of hinge group between them. Christianity and Islam are violently at odds for various reasons, so there is talk of a "conflict of civilizations"— more correctly, it is a conflict of ideologies. These ideologies share the same origin, hence the designation "Abrahamic" for all three mainstream belief-systems, but they do not arise from the same concerns. The metahistorical trinity can be extremely helpful in sorting out the problems not facing the world due to the clash of religious ideologies.

Among the differences that divide Christians and Muslims perhaps the most controversial one is the issue of Israel. This is passing strange (here I ironise) because Judaism is the common root of Islam and Christianity. All three religions share the same ideology but in each it is doctrinally inflected in different ways. Although the numbers of believers in Judaism is not great, Hebrew religion remains the central issue in the world-encompassing drama we call history. Since 9/11 Muslims and Christians are sharply divided over how to view the political and ideological claims of Jewish religion as reflected in the status of the State of Israel.

Humanity - God Versus God - Nature

Christianity focalizes concern about the relation of Humanity to God. The central figure in Christian religion is Jesus Christ, who is regarded as the single and supreme intermediary between God and Humanity. Being both human and divine, the Savior embodies and preserves the relation of the human species to the Creator. Everything in Christian belief centers on this ultimate concern, case 3. The question, How does God reach us? is answered: Through sending his Son. "Christ is the answer." This belief satisfies millions on the concern about how God related to Humanity.

Judaism also addressed this concern, but in a different way. It expects a messiah to come, but the messiah has not yet come. It could be said that Jewish religion fails to fulfill the God - Humanity relationship, or relies on a posponed solution. Meanwhile, it focalizes concern on the relation of God to Nature, to the natural world, but in an odd way: in Judaism, the Deity’s transcendence of the natural world is what defined God. In other words, it replies to the the God - Nature concern with the answer, "God transcends nature." This answer says nothing directly about the God - Humanity concern. Jews are of course concerned with this issue, but only as it is a subset of the God - Nature issue.

The definition of God as the world-transcending creator, or, to say the same thing the other way around, of Nature as the handiwork of a supernatural Deity, originates in Judaism and remains its hallmark. Case 2 represents the ancient Hebraic concern primarily for the relation of God to Nature, and secondarily for the relation of Humanity to the God so defined. In Judaic beliefs, case 3 is subsequent and consequent to case 2.

The great paradox of Hebrew religion is that it confers supreme importance on concern for the relation of God to Nature and simultaneously ruptures that relation. Or redefines it, if you prefer. The concept of a Creator God consistent with Judaism is only possible to a people who have denied the immanence of God in Nature. It makes sense, then, that the sacred history of the Jews portrays them in constant conflict with Pagan religion, for Paganism highlights case 1, concern for the relation to Humanity to Nature. Pagan beliefs arise from the experience of immanent Divinity, Gods animating nature, and the experience comes through empathy with nature, intimate participation. Through its relation to Nature the human species finds its way to Deity, Divinity. In Paganism, case 3 is subsequent and consequent to case 1. (It could be argued that case 2, concern for the relation of God to Nature, did not exist in Paganism, for God and Nature were regarded as the same.)

Islam is little understood, and perhaps badly understood as well, outside the Muslim world, but it would perhaps help the situation to recognize that Islam highlights concern for the relation of Humanity to itself, case 4. Judaism and Christianity are revealed religions that portray the human condition in supernatural terms, but Islam is a revealed humanism, strange as this may sound. The primary anxiety of Islam is repeatedly expressed in the Koran, not so much in particular passages as in the overall tonality: humanity has become so corrupted that humans no longer how to be human. The Koran states the problem in terms of case 4, and then proposes the solution: obediance to the dictates of Allah will restore the benighted human species to behaviour consistent with its essential dignity.

Islam means submission, pure and simple. Since 9/11 a good many Westerners have taken this point on board, but something is missing from this basic and literal definition. To what do Muslims submit? To the will and wisdom of Allah, conveyed to them through the Koran. Obviously this is the case, but this still does not explain WHY they must submit as they do. Consistent with concern about humanity’s relation to itself, believers in Islam must submit to superhuman wisdom as the consequence of seeing how corrupted humanity is, how incapable we humans are of treating each other like human beings. They submit to Allah because their overwhelming concern for inhumanity compels them to do so. Muslims feel a huge surge of superiority in "submission" because they understand that their beliefs address the concern of case 4 in ways the other two mainstream religions do not. This explains why Muslims believe that Islam is the great and insuperable force for social change on earth. The strength of their belief is proportionate to the acuity of their perception of the problem for which Islam uniquely provides the answer. That is revealed humanism. Ironically, it is humanism based on the perception of a corrupted humanity.

Finally, it could be argued that in the doctrine of the Fall Christianity also addresses the problem of a corrupted humanity. Yes, it does, but it puts emphasis on case 3 not case 4. In Christian religion humanity is corrupt because its relation to God has been broken off or betrayed (due to the sin of the first parents, so the story goes). In Islam humanity is regarded as corrupt due to our relations to each other. For Muslims the interactions that determine the social rapport of the species are rotten, degenerate, and dysfunctional. Looking at the condition of the "global community" post-2000 CE, it is difficult to deny the truth in this observation.



Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.