We often have slightly different takes on things, and our notion of “self” may be one of them.
You know that I spent ten years studying and practicing Zen Buddhism, and I admit that my understanding of “self” is colored by my experience in that setting. The “self” in the Buddhist context is a transient manifestation of equally transient conditions. It is often trapped in ignorance—literally ignoring the greater Reality of which it is a part, and insisting that it is separate and eternal in its own right. Maintaining the delusion of separation and permanence leads the “self” to live a life fueled by anger, greed, arrogance, and fear.
This idea of an eternal and separate self is essential to mainstream Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Without it, there is no soul and no eternal reward and punishment. My experience with meditation and other contemplative practices, as well as my reading of the world’s great mystics leads to me deny the existence of individual selves and souls as well as eternal reward and punishment.
I like the analogy of the ocean and the wave. The “self” is like the foam on the peak of the wave. It is a natural phenomenon, part of what it is to be a wave, but it insists that it is other than the wave and even more other than the ocean. The foam is the ego so desperately clinging to the illusion of its own separateness that it lives a life of alienation and needless suffering.
The wave is the truer self, or soul if you like. It too can be deceived into imagining it is other than the ocean, and when it does it feeds and is fed by the delusional fear of the foaming false self.
The ocean is Reality itself, God in my use of the term. It is not other than the wave or the foam, but it is infinitely greater than them.
The gift of enlightenment or salvation or awakening is the realization that foam, wave, and ocean are one. It isn’t that we live without a self or ego, but that we live without the false notion that we are separate from the wave and the ocean. We don’t merge with God; we realize that we are never other than God.
Regarding “your Father who is in secret,” I was afraid that the Greek original might not support my take on the English translation, but your mentioning of the Protestant Reformation raises another question for me.
Part of Martin Luther’s revolution rested on universal literacy and the technology of Guttenberg that allowed the average person to own her or his own Bible. I wonder if the miracle of literacy and the capacity to read what the Bible actually says rather than having to accept the interpretations offered by the Church led Protestants to focus on the literal meaning of the text. Being able to read what the Bible actually says was so important, so new, and so revolutionary that they couldn’t imagine needing anything else. Literacy and literalism may have gone hand in hand, and, at least in the beginning, necessarily so.
As for mystics and their maps—absolutely. All words are signs. The question is whether or not they point to something other them selves. We all agree that the word “unicorn” points to a white horse with a spiral horn in the center of its forehead, but we might well disagree as to whether such a being actually exists or ever exited. For the mystic, all words are self-referential, referring only to themselves. Only silence—deep, transformative silence—takes us beyond the map of words to encounter the territory of the real as it is in and of itself.
Merry Christmas, Mike.