Not that and not this

Yesterday, in an interview, Win Butler was asked a question about his songwriting process. Interesting he referred to “Negative Theology” while answering that. The interviewer was hinting at becoming monotonous while writing newer songs and Win thought that being monotonous would be the last thing they would be. According to him, every song is unique in its own way and there is no specific process to get to a good song. Every piece of writing arrives in this world in its own, unique and unpredictable way that is specific to that particular song.

Negative Theology

His reference to Negative Theology was very interesting. Negative Theology is a branch of Christianity that believes that describing or characterizing God can be done only with negative attributes and not with positive attributes. You can say million things about what a God is not but not a single thing about what a God is. The strains of that kind of thinking are found all over the world and one of the most famous of them all is the saying found in Upanishads that says “Neti, neti”, which describes the ultimate reality as “Not that, not this”.

Transcendent and Immanent

This line of thinking brings in the two interesting perspectives about God or the ultimate reality posited in Upanishads called the Brahman. One branch thinks that God is transcendent which means God is above the ordinary manifested reality and exists separately from the same. The other line of thinking may be thought as the philosophy of immanence of God which conveys the existence of God in every manifested thing. God exists in everything and leaves His mark on all that exists. The two lines of thinking are by no means the only ones or even separate. In some philosophical thoughts, God is thought to be both transcendent and immanent, which means He exists in the world and also apart from the world. In some lines of thinking the two are different types of the same underlying reality, somewhat like Brahman and Maya of the Upanishads.

Implications for daily living

The two lines of thinking can have implications for daily lives of serious philosophical individuals who want to live a disciplined life based on principles. A purely transcendental philosophy can lead to an ascetic perspective. Since God does not exist in the real world, everything in the real world is to be shunned, argues the ascetic line of thinking. Similarly the degree of belief you choose in either, would lead you to a specific way of life that truly represents the underlying philosophy. Win’s line of thinking, which seems to indicate that activities like songwriting can be ultimately a means of sensing the ultimate reality through the principle of “Not that, not this” can be called a “Middle way” that does not fall for any of the extremes and allows one to live a passionate life that is disciplined. Interestingly it may be followed without even believing in a philosophical principle. To remain interested in songwriting or any other activity that a human being pursues, one of the key requirement is to discover the novelty of that activity as time passes and not to get bored about the monotony. This philosophy allows one to pursue that and gives an added advantage of not missing on the transcendental path.

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