Theology Thursday: Idealism, Realism, and Christianity by Ozodi Thomas Osuji
Broadly speaking, there are two types of persons: realistic and idealistic. The realistic person sees himself as he is, sees other people as they are and sees the world as it is, all imperfect, and has no illusions about them and accepts them as they are. He accepts himself, other people and the world as they are, not as he wants them to be. He adapts himself to what is, not what he wants to come into being. Because he adapts to reality he tends to be at ease in the world and is psychologically normal (not healthy, but normal; very few human beings ever attain mental health).
On the other end of the human spectrum is the idealistic person. This person, beginning in childhood, certainly by age six, sees himself as he is, sees other people as they are, sees social institutions as they are and sees the empirical world as it is and does not like them. He rejects what is and uses his thinking and imagination to construct ideal alternatives to them and wants his ideals to replace the imperfect world he sees with his own two eyes. The idealistic person struggles to make his ideals come into being. He works very hard to replace reality with his ideal forms of it. Generally, he gravitates to social philosophies that promise to change people, change social institutions and change the world. In our age, he gravitates to socialism.
The social idealist works to transform what he sees as imperfect man and his social institutions into their perfect alternatives. His desire for alternative reality is what drives him, what gives him motivation to work hard. Generally, in his mid thirties, the idealist gradually realizes that his ideals are not going to replace the real world. No matter what he does, human beings will remain imperfect and screw each other. There always will be the poor and the rich, the weak and the powerful and there will always be injustice in this world.
Those social philosophies that began out trying to transform human beings, such as socialism, tend to end up becoming the most oppressive schemes perpetuated by human beings on one another. Just think of the murderous rages of Soviet and Chinese communists. Wherever communism and similar utopias has been tried, the result is almost always the same: oppression of the masses in the name of a better future, a future that never comes into being.
I was an idealist. I wanted to change myself, change other people, change social institutions and change the world. I was a utopian socialist. By my mid thirties, however, I realized that I was living in the world of illusion. I recognized that human beings are not going to be changed into angels. I became a neoconservative.
As a convert to the philosophy of limited government, I went overboard and did not believe that government should be used to improve people. (See John Locke, Second Treaty on Government; Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.) I did not like any kind of social engineering at all. I saw unlimited government that does everything for the people as potentially tyrannical. I wanted each individual to help himself. To the extent that other people should help the individual, I believed that it ought to be done by private persons, not by the government. I believed in volunteerism and philanthropy, provided it is not done by the government. I feared big government more than I feared death. Simply stated, I moved from left wing Democratic Party member to right wing Republican Party member. Milton Freidman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher became my heroes.
My goal here is not to talk about political ideology but to talk about the psychology of idealists and realists.
The realist is generally born with a relatively healthy body. His body, though not perfectly healthy nevertheless enables him to successfully adapt to his physical and social world without much pain and suffering. Given the cooperation of his body, he accepts his body as it is, accepts other people’s bodies as they are and accepts society and social institutions as they are and, ultimately, accepts the world as it is. He is not at war with his body and world and is not motivated to change them. He lives with the world he sees.
The normal realist is competitive and competes at play, school and work. He tends to make a decent living. In our capitalist world, other people have needs and demand supplies that meet those needs. If one supplies them what they need to survive with, they buy it from one. It is a pragmatic world. You must give other people what they need to survive with for them to give you their money. If you have nothing to sell to people they have nothing to buy from you. Thus, you end up poor, suffer and die.
The world is a dog eat dog world, Charles Darwin said and Herbert Spencer said amen. In his Ethics, Spencer argued that we live in a world where the fittest survive and the weakest die. If you have what it takes to survive you survive, if not, you suffer and die. Life on earth is pain and then you die.
The normal person adapts to the exigencies of the tough world we live on and does not cry over spilled milk. He competes and his talents give him what he could get from the world. The best competitors generally wind up getting more than the average. Those who cannot compete generally wind up at the bottom of the social totem pole. Cest la vie, such is life, don’t cry over it; crying will not change anything.
The majority of human beings are realistic. Though one has not done an actual counting, one would say that nine out of ten people, that is, ninety percent of the people, are realistic hence normal human beings. On the other hand, about one out of ten, ten percent of the people are not realistic. These are idealistic persons.
Why are some persons extremely idealistic? I think that it has something to do with their biological make up. Those who are not physically strong, who, for any number of reasons, feel inferior tend to be those who yearn for an ideal world.
I saw myself as very weak and inferior. I was almost always in pain. I inherited two medical disorders, Spondilolysis and Mitral Valve Prolapse. The cumulative effect of these biological disorders is that my body felt pained. The slightest exercise made my heart feel like it was about to fall out of its thoracic cavity. Generally, I avoided physical exercises and much of social activities. I lived in my own world.
I felt inferior and used my imagination to visualize myself superior at the games other children played that I could not participate in. In elementary school, I vividly remember watching Cassius Clay defeat Sony Listen to become the heavy weight champion of the world. Thereafter, I used to daydream that I were like him, even better than him. I imagined myself wining Olympic gold medals in various sports that I did not even participate in. I have been a dreamer all my life, always wishing for things to be better than they are.
In North America, I was thrown into the mix of the peculiar institution, racism and wished for ways to make that society less racist. I dreamed of how to transform the United Nations, give it strong teeth so that it would bring about a different and better world.
Nothing real was satisfactory to me. Only the imaginary ideal beckoned me. In my mid thirties, though essentially an agnostic, I decided to explore spirituality. I gravitated from Hinduism to Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Sufism, Islam, Christian mysticism, and finally African religions. I studied emergent African religious syncretism, such as Aladura in Nigeria. These contemporary religions exist in most parts of black Africa albeit with different names. These religions are variations of Black American Pentecostal Christianity. In it, folks do away with any pretense of reason and immerse themselves in emotionalism; they hope that yelling to their idea of God would give them whatever they asked for. Of course, their God, which is merely their idea of what God is, and not what God in fact is, does not deliver to them what they asked for. Despite their prayers Africans live in poverty.
The real world was not good enough for me and I was yearning for an ideal world. Why so? I think that because my body pained me, I hated and rejected it, and used my imagination to visualize an ideal body, which I wanted to replace it with. In time, I generalized and used my thinking and imagination to seek an ideal self, and, ultimately, to wish that people and the world were different from the way they are.
If I see a person, I immediately appraised his personality. The chances are (9:1) that he is a normal person and is probably average in intelligence (IQ from 85-115). Such persons do not interest me. The average person seems dull; he is, more or less, like an unconscious cow grazing grass in a pasture, satisfied with life. What excited me is gifted humanity.
I once taught Sunday school at a Unity Church, and came into contact with a ten year old boy who knew more physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics than many PhDs in those fields. This boy would lecture me on what Einstein actually wrote in his Special and General Relativity Theory. He explained quantum mechanics and did the most complicated mathematics? (He went to Harvard University.)
In the meantime, I go about wishing that every body was like my gifted prodigy. Alas, I know that most people are simply average, some above average (IQ120-130) and that only a handful of people are gifted (IQ over 132). If only wishes were horses beggars would ride them.
I wish for human beings to be ideal in every form: in their physical forms, in their social behaviors and in their intellectual productions. As it were, I was wishing for Plato’s archetypes of man and being. (See Plato’s Republic and Phoebe.)
Idealists are perpetually disappointed and frustrated because they are never satisfied by reality. One the other hand, realists who accept reality as it is, satisfactorily live with it. In fact, some realists do not even seem to see imperfections in the world. They simply see the world as good and even give thanks to their God for the world that sickens some of us idealists.
A fellow told me that he gives thanks to God for creating him and blessing him with living in this world. I asked him: what world are you grateful for? He said this world. I proceeded to tell him about the evils of this world: the fact that natural forces like earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, virus, bacteria, germs, plagues etc are at this very moment destroying innocent people and asked why a God that created such a world should be praised? To me, such a God seemed like a monster to be damned.
(I was, of course, pulling the fellow’s leg. As Arthur Schopenhauer reminds us, the world and God may be our ideas. Whatever we think that God is, or is not, is our conception. If God is good or bad, that is our conception. Thus, when Nietzsche said that God is dead, what he was really saying is that God, as invented by his Christian Europe, is dead. It is not the real God that is dead. For one thing, we have not established that God exists or not. If you are interested in such philosophical discourse, see the writings of Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Berkeley, Hume, Pascal, Voltaire, Rousseau and others.)
The chap insisted on telling me how beautiful life is. I asked how? He talked about his loving wife. The chap did not seem to realize that the things of flesh that normal folks consider interesting are often nauseating to idealists. He probably finds sex pleasurable whereas the idealist finds it animalistic, ridiculous and repulsive. Idealists reject the physical world and use their imaginations to invent an alternative to it, one that is not physical, and want to live in it. Alas, the mental cannot replace the physical world we live in.
God is a social construct. This does not mean that God does not exist; it means that whatever we say about him is our idea of him, and since information available to us is limited, our idea of God may not be correct.
My idea of God is that he is the whole and that we are his parts. I conceptualize God as a joined, non-physical being.
Man, I think, separated from God (which is non-material, aka spirit) and identified with a false self, the ego.
Our real self is unified spirit. We are still in unified spirit but seem to sleep and dream that we are separated from it. In our dream, this world, we see ourselves as separated selves living in bodies. We see boundaries between us and other people. We live in the world of space, time and matter.
To adapt to the world of space, time and matter, each of us constructs a separated, self concept/personality for himself. The separated self is the ego self. (In reality, ego is Latin for self, the I.)
On earth, each of us has an ego, an I, a separated self. That is what it means to be a human being.
Our real self, on the other hand, is not separated from God (the whole). The real self is not in form (body) and is not in space and time. The real self is timeless, immortal and changeless.
Nobody on earth is conscious of his real self. If one were conscious of the unified spirit self one would not be on earth.
It takes identification with the separated ego to be in an ego place, our world. If you are on earth you are an ego. The ego is a false self, a dream self, a dream figure used to seem to exist in a dream world.
While on earth, one has the option of forming a realistic ego or an idealistic ego. Both realistic and idealistic egos are false selves; both are dream selves, Maya, illusion. However, the realistic ego is an ego that shares the paradigm of reality provided by the individual’s culture. The normal person shares his people’s illusions. (The term normal is derived from norm, common practice; it means that the normal person lives as most people in his world live and that he embraces the rules of his society.)
The realistic person, who is the normal person, has a shared world view. He has a shared ego. He shares the dreams of his people; he participates in his people’s shared world view.
When a dream is shared by many persons, it seems real and permanent. The day dreams of this world, our world, seem to last billions of years hence seem permanent. It seems permanent because all of us share it. The world is our collective dream; it is our mutual participation in the world’s dream that make it seem permanent and real to us.
When a dream is not shared with other people its transitory nature becomes apparent. When the individual goes to sleep at night and dreams, his dream is not shared with other people. It is a solo dream. Because it is not shared, it is impermanent and ephemeral.
An unshared dream does not seem real and is quickly forgotten by the dreamer. When one wakes up in the morning, one recognizes that the dream world one had seen during ones sleep, a world that had seemed real, was not real and one lets it go.
We do not let go our day life, which is equally a dream, because all of us share it and that makes it seem permanent and real.
Those who recognize the illusoriness of the day world, and let it go, reawaken to their true self, the unified spirit self.
Idealism is the individual’s wishes for an ideal world. It is his dreams of how the world ought to be. It is an individual dream, and like the dream at night, is an unshared dream. Because idealism is an unshared dream, it is transitory and ephemeral. More importantly, it is not going to come into being, for a dream must be shared by many people for it to seem real.
If you have a goal, dream, and can get many people to be enthusiastic in realizing it, you can work together with them and realize it. But if your goal is not shared by other people, you are not going to realize it. An unshared goal is never realized.
In effect, idealism, or unshared dream, is a fantasy, an illusion, a fiction and is never going to be realized.
When a dream is shared it becomes realistic and is probably going to be realized in the context of society. Nevertheless, the shared dream, realism, is still a dream, not reality. It is only because it is shared that it seems real.
The realistic ego and its shared goals, our world, seem real but in the end is an illusion.
Neurotics and psychotics have idealistic, unshared dreams, fantasies of how they want the world to become.
Normal persons have shared dreams, hence are realistic and their dreams will come into being.
Normal persons have normal egos. Their normal egos share normal reality. They engage in society and politics and dance their ego dances. Politics is the abode of normal egos operating within the paradigm of reality the group accepts as real. Reality is a social construct. Several persons in a group mutually agree that something is real and it seems real to them. It is their consensus that that thing is real that makes it seem real to them. But what they agree is real is not necessarily real. Americans, for example, agree that it is proper to discriminate against black persons, and do so. They design their laws to marginalize black persons. That is their reality. But their truth is untruth to black persons.
The idealistic person, the neurotic, somehow does not want to engage in his group’s constructed reality. He deconstructs his group’s constructions of reality and constructs an alternative reality for himself. His constructions are not shared by other people. Nobody dreams his dream with him hence he is alone in his imaginary world. He, therefore, is tempted to return to his group’s socially constructed reality.
Thus, those of us who embraced socialism gave it up and returned to the self centered but socially accepted reality that we should not care for other persons. In doing so, we seem normal. But in becoming normal, we merely become like cows and quietly graze grass in the awful pasture that is called planet earth. The death of our youthful idealism makes something in us die.
(There must be an alternative to heartless neo-conservatism; if it is not changed, America is finished; give or take, a few decades and the spirit of America is dead and America becomes a dead empire and joins the rest of normal humanity: cows grazing grass while the people suffer. This alternative is Christ centered, social service oriented living. This is not socialism, but capitalism with a compassionate face. We are really our brothers’ keepers.)
Psychology Versus Politics
Psychology studies the individual’s ego and observes how it dances with other egos. Where the individual’s ego is weak, hopefully, psychotherapy (applied psychology) strengthens and enables it to dance well with other egos. But once the individual enters the arena of politics, he is now in the egos world. He is dancing with other people, within the context of shared reality. He is not going to change other egos. His idealism, his unshared dreams, is not going to change other people’s dreams.
In politics, one juxtaposes ones ego, dream, with other egos, dreams, and competes with all people. Generally, the most powerful egos get more rewards than weaker egos. (See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan and Machiavelli, The Prince.)
Politics is the arena of power struggles; struggles to determine which egos get more than other egos. We live in a world of scarce resources: some get more and others less. (See Harold Laswell.)
Politics is of the ego and by the ego and cannot be any thing different from ego dances. If you cannot take ego dances, then get out of politics and go become a hermit, live in a cave and contemplate your navel.
B If you transcended your ego, you would escape from the world of separation and return to the world of union. There is no politics in the world of union, heaven, for there is only one person in it, God. God is simultaneously himself and his infinite children. In heaven only God’s will prevail, for there are no separated persons to disagree with his will. In heaven, there are no disagreements and conflicts requiring politics to resolve them. Politics exist where there are differences and inequality hence conflicts requiring politics to resolve them. On earth where people seem different and have different interests there will be politics to resolve their inevitable conflicts. There is no politics in heaven. (So do satisfy your desire for politics while you are on earth, the arena of separation, differences and inequality. When you reawaken to heaven, the arena of sameness, equality and mutual interests, you would obey the will of God, which is your will, for you and God are one self. There is no ego in heaven hence no conflicts to be resolved by political activities.)
From the perspective of real politics, idealism is childishness. The idealistic person is like a child who dreams of how the world ought to be and wants to impose his infantile dreams on normal persons. He is not going to succeed.
However, every once in a while, a realistic idealist comes along and accepts the use of force and uses it in an unsentimental manner to impose his wishes on society. He usually lasts for a while before he is thrown out by more normal egos. Adolf Hitler, an idealistic neurotic, was exposed to war during the First World War. He saw death and dying and understood that the human body is no better than the bodies of animals and trees. Man is just a variety of biological life. Put a bullet into a fellow’s head and his proud ego and body rots and smells just like dead animals do. Human beings are shit waiting to happen.
Because of his exposure to the human reality of nothingness, Hitler no longer hesitated in killing people to get his wishes met. Thus, he used guile and force to rise to political power. People’s death meant nothing to him. This is the ultimate in political realism. Hitler used force to impose his ideology on the people. He lasted twelve years before normal egos banded together and used his own means, force, to destroy him. With his demise, they returned to living in normal ego realism, shared power, not power given to a single egotist.
Soviet communism lasted seventy years before normal egos knocked it out. Americans, the quintessential “normalist” egos, worked with the other “normal nations” to destroy Soviet socialist idealists.
(America is currently indulging in infantile idealism, the idea that she is superior to other nations. These other people tolerate her fantasy for a while but will sooner or later band together to destroy narcissistic America. China is probably going to become the next economic, political and military superpower. It seems like the game is over for Europe and North America. It seems Asia’s time to shine. Africa sleeps, of course.)
Alternative To Realism And Idealism: Christ Living
Normal realism and neurotic idealism are both dreams and will not last. What will last is egoless realism. Here, people recognize that they are not their egos and that they are not normal, neurotic or psychotic egos. They are the children of God. They are Christ. They are unified; they are the same and equal.
In Christ living, people love and forgive one another their wrongs. They work towards a world of sameness, equality and shared wealth. This is not socialism but Christ realism. People are still different, have different talents and are rewarded according to their abilities but use their abilities to voluntarily serve other people. Go ahead and make billions of dollars, but use that money to improve the human condition. However, it must be emphasized that Christian living does not mean that our world is going to be heaven, approximate heaven, yes, be heaven, no.
Heaven is unified spirit. In Heaven there is only one will, the will of God, which God and his Son, us, share. God’s will is the will of his son, for his son is him, literally. God’s son is an extension of him and the extender and the extended are the same. There is no you and I, no subject and object, no seer and seen, all are literally one self and one mind. The earth cannot be heaven.
On earth, we live in the world of separation, space time and matter. We must, ip so facto, be different from one another. There is inherent inequality on earth. Some are tall and others short, some intelligent others morons. That is the nature of the world. The world is the opposite of heaven.
Here on earth we have to have politics. We have to build roads and must award contracts to some persons to construct the roads. In deciding who gets the contracts to build the road there is potential for corruption. Therefore, we must have laws to punish criminals. The point is that politics is inevitable in our world.
Any one who wants to avoid politics, the art and science of deciding that gets what, when and why (Harold Laswell) is not living on planet earth. He has negated the world and escaped into a never-never land.
I am not interested in a negating and escapist metaphysics. I am seeking ways to adapt to this world as realistically as is possible, not to negate it. I am an ego, as every human being is, and am fully in the world of ego politics. I say bring it on, politics and economics, that is.
Psychology studies the human mind. Its proper name is the science of mind. However, since mind is the name for the act of thinking, Psychology is best called the science of thinking.
Psychologists are preoccupied with understanding how people think and behave. In that sense, they believe that thinking, mind, is crucial in what people do. If this line of thinking is taken to its logical conclusion, psychology degenerates into Psychological idealism. Here, one thinks that only thinking determines the individual’s life.
Psychological idealism resembles spiritual idealism. Spiritual idealism reduces human beings to their spiritual thinking and believes that spirit produces matter, space and time. In fact, some spiritual idealists believe that matter does not exist. The extreme of this religious idealism is represented by Helen Schucman’s A Course in miracles. To her, thinking, which she deified and called mind, determines reality. Every thing is an idea in our minds. The external world we see is a picture projected out by our minds. We think in images and project those images out and see them as our day world, pretty much as we seem to do at night when we sleep and dream. The world is in our thinking/mind. This is solipsism.
Schucman denies empiricism. Her students deny the external world and concentrate on trying to improve their thinking, hoping that their improved thinking would bring about a change in their life’s circumstances. Many of these folks, in fact, ignore politics and economics; some go as far as to not even read the daily newspapers and or watch the news on television. As it were, they tuned out the external world and concentrate on the internal world.
Alas, a hurricane occurs at the Golf Coast of America and wipes out New Orleans. Obviously no one should ignore the external world. As long as we are on earth, the human body is real. If you eat a certain type of food, say drink coffee, the acid in it would corrode your gums and you lose your teeth. Your thinking alone cannot prevent this biological reality. The nature and state of the car one is driving affects how fast one can drive it.
The individual’s body affects his thinking, mind. Denying the temporary reality of matter, space and time is psychotic idealism.
I end by transmuting the famous view by AA groups, that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, to our present area of interest, idealism. If the individual continues on being idealistic: dreaming, wishing and working for unrealistic and impossible goals, he will continue to receive poor results; in fact, he will get nowhere in this world. Poverty is the lot of sentimental idealists.
The idealist posits idealistic goals, places them outside him and pursues them. He is always working to becoming something that he is not, ideal, to attaining ideal pictures that are outside him. Such persons cannot win the goals they set for themselves for those goals are outside them and are impossible of attainment. Only inside goals are attainable.
The only inside goal there is is that one must accept is ones real self, the unified spirit that we are all parts of.
One needs do nothing to be one's real self. One only does something to be who one is not, ideal. One resolves to be ones real self and one is it for it is always who one is, whether acknowledged or not. The real self is not in form and is unified. This is called the philosophy of being. Most Oriental religions teach it.
To obtain positive results, ones goals must be realistic, that is, they must be shared by other persons in ones group. However, whereas social realism is better than idealism, it is not the best that human beings can be. Human beings are at their best when they embrace their true self, the unified spirit self, the Christ self. In that mode, they work for the common good of all mankind; they practice love and forgiveness. These people, though still a handful in the extant world, receive the best results from life, for they are in alignment with the forces of truth in the universe.
Who is This Essay For?
Many persons out there do not have interest in psychological and metaphysical matters. Normal folks are like cow and just want to peacefully graze grass unbothered by the macabre world they live in. Ours is a world where animals, man included, must kill other animals to survive. One supposes that there are a few persons out there who find such a world repulsive enough to be interested in real serious thinking? If so, one hopes that they find my essays helpful. But in the end, I write for me.
When I was a child, people around me called me Agu, tiger. That moniker symbolized their perception of my stubbornness and willfulness. I insisted on the truth and only the truth. No social pressure ever made me give my ground. I am still a tiger fighting for the truth. But I have learned that Odumodu (lion) kills tigers.
There is a force that knows more than our ego mentation understands. That force is nameless though it may be named God. All of us must surrender our ego wishes to God’s will.
God wills that our nature is eternally unified, holy, same and equal. God requires us to love and forgive one another. If we obey God’s will: accept our oneness, love and forgive one another and work for common interests, we experience peace, happiness and material abundance.
Those who obey the will of God, a higher power than their paltry ego power, are peaceful and smile all the time. They have accepted and live in reality. They have crucified their egos, given up their false selves and voluntarily permitted their real selves, Christ, to resurrect in them. They now live as their creator created them, unified self, not as they had made of themselves, separated ego selves.
Bartholomew (Nwa Adeem), I now understand why you were always smiling while I was tensely and humorlessly preoccupied with asking why questions. You knew the truth and laughed at those of us who took fantasy as truth. You knew that to pursue egoism is to pursue chimera and live in futility. You knew that those who accepted the will of God, love, as their will, and live it are blessed and know joy and peace, the gifts of God. Sleep tight in God, my cousin and friend.
With this material I end my self chosen task of giving folks psychological insights into themselves. I return to political and economic analysis of issues relating to Africa. I live in the real world; in that world, politics and economics are necessary for adaptation to it. Psychology merely improves people’s egos, their self structures, self concepts and personalities. With improved egos/personalities they then, hopefully, participate more effectively and productively in politics. I am not an escapist and do not encourage any one to escape from our imperfect world into contemplating their egos forever and ever. Psychological idealism is a disease. I teach Management of the real world. From time to time, I will share knowledge of leadership and management with my African brothers.
The author, Ozodi Thomas Osuji, is a Professor of Business, Management & Administration with The Africa Institute of Seattle. He may be reached via email at Ozodi@africainstituteseattle.org. This article appears on The Nigerian Village Square - A Market Place of Ideas.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji
Thursday, September 29, 2005