by Tory Dillard
“He drew a circle that shut me out.
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.”
This poem by Edwin Markham has been the backbone to my personal theology. The idea here is one of radical and overwhelming compassion, love, and understanding toward my neighbor, even to those that try to shut me out. Markham’s poem “Outwitted” is, to me, a 19thcentury adaptation of the words of Jesus when he summarized the entirety of the laws of Moses to two key commandments: “Love of God, Love of neighbor.” Yes, this is probably not what Markham intended when he wrote this piece, but yet the sentiment is still the same. Even when I am hated and being shown hatred, there is always an opportunity to overcome with love. But what does that look like? How is one able to create an atmosphere of a love so strong that even hatred cannot penetrate it? Those are some of the questions that I still ask to this day. Somedays it feels absolutely impossible and other days I doubt if love even exists. However, even in the darkest of days, I feel that love surrounds me.
Conflict resolution has in some subtle way always been a part of my life. I remember that many times in my life I often found myself always trying to be the mediator between conflict; even when it was between my own family during the time of my parent’s divorce. Mediation has always been an unknown talent that I have had. I never really ever saw myself as someone who could make a situation better, but yet as I look back on my life I guess it must be true. I seemed to always find the reason to create a circle. By circles, I mean, areas where people can be their full selves while also being able to see the full self of others. But a circle can also be very exclusive. Circles can be used to put people in categories. Literal circles have been drawn on maps to show where certain cities or towns will be or have been destroyed in order to move in “bigger” and “better,” but most importantly “richer” communities for the sake of “improvement”. Circles have the ability to destroy, but yet they also have the capacity to improve, to grow, and to nurture. Circles almost always come in the shape of two arms wrapping you in a warm embraceable hug. Circles are used as symbols of rejuvenation. What was born will grow old and die and yet that is the circle of life. Circles can be a symbol of pain and isolation, but yet also have the capacity to create inclusion and radical understanding.
I guess you could say that a large part of my theology stems from the philosophical idealism of solipsism. Solipsism is largely the idea that only one’s own mind exists. That is, I can only truly understand myself because my mind is the reality that I understand. My mind is the truly tangible thing in which to believe in. In short and to use Descartes’ quote loosely, “I think therefore I am”, I know that I exist and that my reality exists because I have the overwhelming capacity to think. This means, in a sense, that anything outside the mind or outside of one’s own reality is unclear. However, solipsism has been metaphysically defined as believing that no other mind exists outside of one’s own. I, however, do not take this approach. If I have the capacity to think and that ability to think makes me exist, then it only makes sense that the individuals I see also think and that must mean that they must also exist. All exist but yet all have very different realities (or different ways of thinking). So, in a sense, Gorgias (483-375 BCE), Descartes, and George Berkeley are right, it is impossible to understand true reality because we all carry a different reality than the other. Of course, Berkeley and Descartes disagreed with each other on issues of material and immaterial existences of self and of God, and an argument could be made that they seem to agree in this one way of thinking.
Even though I am unable to truly understand the world around me that does not mean that I am permitted to ignore it. The strength of the mind is that it is always in a continual state of growth. That is why we are always learning. But not only learning as in reading, writing, and arithmetic but in experience with the other. Experience has radical ways of developing and changing our minds and process of thought. This means that through experience we gain a larger reality that we still may not fully understand but yet it forces us to change. It forces us to deal with the situation that is facing our reality. Yes, it is possible to see an issue and ignore it but that still does not negate the fact that you are changed by the issue in some small way. Just because you participate in willful ignorance that does not mean that your reality has not been expanded. Solipsism requires us to self-evaluate every interaction. It requires us to step back and think. To think about why things are the way they are.
This way of thinking actively affects the way I think about faith. I believe in a personable God. A God that shares a piece of Godself with us. In a sense, we are all divine, like Jesus, because the same part of God that was in Jesus is also within us. George Berkley talked about God having a collective reality in which we are all included. We are all one giant collective mind of God. This means that even though I can only understand my human reality, it is the reality of God that resides in us that forces us to change, to grow, and to love.
My philosophy along with my belief system helps me understand the Wesleyan concept of grace and Christian perfection. John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience where he “felt his heart strangely warmed,” that eventually became the theological claim of “Prevenient Grace” or “the time God called him to change” is the same reality of God that was within him. This same piece of God that forced him to expand his reality the moment he met the Moravians on his ship towards the American colonies. Our reality and God’s reality are united to this broader world of reality. Even though I may not understand the reality of my neighbor that doesn’t mean God doesn’t. Because how can God not understand Godself? It is God’s reality that takes our reality and expands our minds, our hearts, and our understanding. At the end of the day, God’s purpose is to eventually bring the individual pieces of God’s reality that reside in us to one big cosmic reality where the idea of separation from God and from the neighbor does not exist. This is the end and solipsism can be a process that helps us achieve this understanding. Even though I like what Descartes said I will have to disagree with him a little. “Cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am? Nonsense. “Amo ergo sum” – I love therefore I am. That is the real response. The overwhelming understanding that even though I am disconnected with my neighbor through our human realities, we are connected through the singular reality of God.
This is what makes us neighbors. This is what makes peace. We live in a world where people don’t think of the separate realities as a chance to improve our self-awareness. No, we live in a world where if my reality does not line up with yours then we must fight. A quick example is the true original sin between Cain and Abel. Two realities that contradicted and resulted in a murder. One piece of Godself murdering another piece of Godself because the separate realities’ hate and ignorance were in that moment more powerful than the singular reality of love and enlightenment. God’s reality is continually calling upon us to become one singular reality again. That’s why circles of love and inclusion trump circles of exclusion. I have come to understand that radical love is radical understanding. I am connected to my neighbor because we share God’s singular reality. However, this does not mean that I don’t stop to question the motives of my fellow neighbor in order for them to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own reality. In times of struggle, one must always take a side because neutrality is a privilege that I no longer feel comfortable possessing. As we think and self-evaluate ourselves we must also recognize that God’s reality is actively working within us in order to bring us closer together and eventually into one cosmic reality of enlightenment and love.
Tory Dillard is a second-year MDiv student and community life coordinator at STH. He is in the process of becoming an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church. In his spare time, he finds great joy in theater and singing on stage. His favorite flower is the sunflower because, for him, it shows the beauty of God’s love in its most simple form.