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Stepping in the same river twice?

Stepping in the same river twice? April 5, 2021

Here’s another guest piece from contributor Dana Horton. Don’t forget that you can submit potential guest posts to me – click on the contact link above. I am always running a series of deconversion stories and am particularly interested in your accounts of leaving religion. Thanks Dana!

Can You Step Into the Same River Twice?

(3 minute 30 second read)

Let’s go back to the college dorm room. It’s late on a Friday night and everyone is gathered in one room to contemplate the following from our Philosophy 101 class with Professor Eldon:  Can you step in the same river twice?

Depending on the number of alcoholic beverages (or hallucinogens) ingested, we probably quickly deduced that it would be impossible to step into the same river twice. Because even if we stepped back in very quickly, the water has moved, a fish has jumped, or somebody upstream has … well, you know.

And we’re pretty sure that after debating for another hour, we judged this as a great analogy applicable to life … and the next pledge party. Then we went to bed.

35 years later, this same conversation resurfaced in New Thought ministerial school. The course was titled Early Greek Thought on Consciousness. It was a requirement.

Enter Heraclitus and the River. Heraclitus was one of these early Greek philosophers, positing on all things about consciousness around 500 BCE. He is best known for his quote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The same quote we discussed in the Moore Hall dorm room in 1977! It’s actually not a bad quote, and could provide hours of entertainment for our next in-person gathering (it probably won’t work as well on Zoom). The obvious interpretation (easily discovered back in 1977) is that all things in life are constantly changing. But the other, equally interesting interpretation, is that all these changes combine to actually constitute life itself. That’s also not bad. But a long term view of life was not something we thought about at 21 years old in 1977.

This quote about the river is probably the height of clarity from Heraclitus. Let’s look at another one that we had to decipher in ministerial school: The way up and the way down are one and the same.

What the hell?  Let’s see if we can decipher this seeming paradox (which is the term universally applied to all religious topics that are inexplicable). Heraclitus looked at opposites (e.g. good/bad, light/darkness, Yoda/Darth Vader) as being on a continuum. For example, darkness is merely the absence of light; it is not a separate entity from light.

Moving on. Even when things are on opposite ends of the spectrum, they are necessary to each other in order to work together. For example, how do we know that Yoda is a force for good without comparing to the evil Darth Vader?

And if you tell your Significant Other that you really loved their new art project, is that only partially evil because you did not want to hurt their feelings?

Let’s apply this to something simple, like God. During the 5th century BCE, Heraclitus was trying to get his mind around a new concept of an all-encompassing God. He called it the Logos. That was actually a big deal then, because 500 BCE was the height of the multiple Greek God belief system. So putting together a different concept of God was both mentally challenging and physically dangerous. According to Heraclitus, the Logos was not a description of yet another Greek anthropomorphic God in the sky. It was more about a spiritual concept that included the entire universe. Hence, the way up and the way down are one and the same — there is no ‘up in heaven’ or wherever the Greek Gods resided.

Visual representation of up-and-down as equivalents. Maybe it’s akin to these stairs.

How did we do on our mid-term? The professor was not impressed by the Chief Editor’s bantering style. We’ll leave it at that (and looking back at the paper, he was probably right).

 Where does this quote fall on the pretension scale? It’s pretty bad. Can you imagine trying to hold a conversation about this at the same party mentioned above? You might get away with the river analogy. But my gawwwd, even if there is some funny-smelling haze in the room, this requires a significant amount of mind-bending. You probably won’t get invited back next week. But our professor did not appear to be worried about being invited to parties.

Side-note. Interestingly, while scrolling through the internet searching for meanings to this quote, we kept getting directed to a number of Christian websites implying we were going to hell (the way down) if we get too ambitious on the way up. We chose to ignore those interpretations.

Dana Horton is from Ohio, United States and has recently retired as Director of Energy Markets a large utility company. In August 2019, he earned his ministerial license through a New Thought religious organization called Centers for Spiritual Living based in Denver, Colorado. He acted as interim minister at the Columbus Center for Spiritual Living for several months afterward, where he learned a lot more about religious and spiritual organizations. At this time has no interest in returning to any formal religious structure. But he enjoys investigating spiritual principles, how they originated, and how they might be applicable to everyday living.


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