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Solipsism: Our Private World of Self

Mark Hicks

Eric Butterworth Unity Podcast
The Human Side of Unity

Hi Friends -

Here is a partial recording of a Sunday message given by Eric Butterworth some ago (date unknown).

This recording is important because it reveals some important things about a state of consciousness known as Solipsism. Solipsism can be a very troublesome philosophical condition, especially in Unity circles. We need to be aware of what solipsism is and how it can be misused. As a side note, this recording also reveals the likely source of Eric Butterworth’s well-known statement that there is an “Allness in every Illness.”

We all know that our world is hyper-connected. What that means is that digital media has provided unimagined new ways for us to become absorbed in our own private world of facts and experience without having to work very hard at doing so. We can change news by clicking a button on the channel changer. We can friend and unfriend those people we wish to engage with a simple click of the mouse. Hitting closer to home, we can now easily enter and exit a Sunday church service by pressing the Leave Meeting button. Poof, we’re here. Poof, we’re gone.

Becoming absorbed in our own private world of self is known as solipsism, defined as when “the self is the only existing reality and that all other realities, including the external world and other persons, are representations of that self, and have no independent existence.”

We may disagree about solipsism but the point I wish to make here and wish to explore more fully below is that there is only a small difference between living in our own private world of self and living in our own private reality of consciousness.

Consciousness is the “One-Word” that Eric Butterworth is referring to when he speaks of “A One-Word Religion.” Eric’s main point in A One-Word Religion is that religion is not about creeds and rituals but rather about consciousness. Listen to this clip from the Eric’s Sunday lesson:

When Eric Butterworth so emphatically says “reality is not out there” he is expressing a foundational Unity teaching. Most everyone that I know in Unity teaches that what is Real (capital R) is an internal experience that is shaped by the activity of our thinking. In other words, we create our own Reality, according to Unity.

All this is well and good. Well and good at least until we turn on the network news and watch video coming out of Minneapolis. And news coming out of Louisville. And more video coming out of Georgia. That is when we sense that the Reality we see IS out there; that is when we know that our consciousness has been blinded in some important way; and that is when we know that we have fallen to some extent into our own private world of self.

I’m not writing to criticize Eric Butterworth. I don’t believe he was solipsistic and I don’t believe his teachings are solipsistic. But I do believe that his teachings could be construed as such and I also believe that to the extent that we have become shocked or outraged by watching the network news then we have fallen into some sort of solipsistic thinking.

So I am writing to idealistic people like you and I so that we can become more aware of how easily we can fall into a mindset of our own private world of self. And I hope to offer a solution or two about how we may avoid doing so.

This audio recording of Eric Butterworth’s talk is missing on the back side of the cassette. Fortunately, we have about 25 minutes on the front side and the content found there is extremely valuable.

At the tail end of the transcript Eric mentions Dr. John Dorsey who was a professor of psychiatry at Wayne State University at the same time Eric Butterworth was minister at Detroit Unity Temple. Eric most likely knew him. Here is what Eric has to say: Dr. John Dorsey ... says “In a way, I can only be conscious of myself. I can never be conscious of some other person. Every kind of other is nothing but my own living of it. It is a part of me.” It is fair to say that, in that statement, Eric Butterworth is expressing what could be interpreted as solipsism.

To explore solipsism and its impact further, here is an article that surfaced in an Internet search about Dr. Dorsey. The author of that article summarizes the work of Dr. Dorsey:

Dorsey argued that repression fragmented the mind, with the repressed unconscious becoming the repository of rejected, denied, split off aspects of oneself. Repression detaches the individual from that of oneself which is negative and needing to be disowned. Thus are illness, neurosis, unhappiness, and all other “negative experiences” made a part of the “not self’, the existence of which makes impossible the experience of “allness” or “wholeness”. Illness can be replaced by allness if one lives oneself consciously and with appreciation of all of one’s attributes. Dorsey believed, for example, that there were innumerable instances when a cancer patient was spontaneously “cured”, i.e., the tumor or lesion disappeared, and that this was the product of the patient’s “loving” the cancer out of existence. For Dorsey the so-called “mind-body problem” was easily resolved: Everything is mind!

This tells us that the difference between Illness and Allness is whether we repress negative experiences. Solipsism by itself is not harmful, according to Dr. Dorsey and presumably to Eric Butterworth. For them, “Everything is mind!” But solipsism plus repression is harmful because repression fragments the mind and solipsism closes it off. Together, solipsism and repression make negative aspects of ourselves unavailable to our conscious awareness. This prevents our experience of Allness, leaving us with the experience of Illness.

So it is easy to be critical of repression. But I don't believe that repression is the real problem, at least psychologically. My opinion is that the real problem is solipsism. You and I may differ on the benefits of repression (denying that which we are unable to address), but I don't know any theology, philosophy or psychology that embraces solipsism (living in a private world of self).

We must not allow our inner work of consciousness to close us off from the outer world of God's perfect creation by falling into solipsism. I am grateful when the network news punctures my private bubble of self experience with a healthy dose of Reality, no matter how disturbing it may be. When that happens, I know that God is calling me to repent of my sin of solipsism.

One final note. This talk by Eric Butterworth is entitled A One-Word Religion. It is not entitled A One-Word Spirituality. The difference between spirituality and religion is that spirituality has seekers but religion has disciples. A disciple is not a seeker; a disciple is a finder, one who has found his or her pathway and makes a practice of it, accountable not only to self but also to God and to his or her community.

Solipsism and repression may be trouble, but they are nothing compared to the trouble of Solipsism and Spirituality. Solipsism closes off my mind and Spirituality makes me feel good. Solipsism and Spirituality is an addictive drug, a dangerous recipe, a recipe for indifference to all kinds of injustice.

So I am very concerned about the world we find ourselves in today, a world of “digital discipleship” where, with one click, we can drop in and drop out of Sunday services, repeatedly, until we find the perfect fit for our own private world of self. We need discipline, the discipline of religion, not spirituality, in order to avoid the fall into solipsism. Now, more than ever, we need religion to “bind us together” as a faith community.

Religion, as we know, is a human institution. Religion is messy and filled with difficulty. All who are spiritual but not religious need to rethink how we as a culture got to a place where we are today, proclaiming Oneness but indifferent to Wholeness.

We need to consider how ministers all over the place are trying their best to “bind us together” in a higher state of consciousness each Sunday through religious services. What they need most is commitment—religious commitment. Don’t be a spiritual tire kicker. Don’t click Leave Meeting before it’s over. And be sure to tithe the one institution whose role it is to “bind us together.”

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Mark Hicks
Sunday, June 7, 2020

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