One simple way to think about reality is that it is that which we can’t do anything to change. The fact that I will age is reality. It is a fact that I can’t do anything about. I might like it, I might not, but in the end it is the way it is anyway.
At any given time and place cultures hold shared ideas about reality – and most importantly shared ideas about ‘ultimate’ reality. These ideas define what a given society believes absolutely cannot be altered and therefore what ultimately governs the way things are.
In Europe during the Middle Ages God and the word of God as contained in the Bible and as interpreted by the church defined ultimate reality. The word of God was the ultimate and final arbiter of what was real and how human beings should be.
In the reality of the Middle Ages the Earth was the center of the universe because that was how the Bible told us God created it. There was no free will because an all-knowing God would already know everything about the future and therefore all of our actions had to be already known. Droughts, floods, plagues and famines were punishments sent by God to punish us for transgressions. The right of Kings was divine because God bestowed it.
The European Enlightenment brought with it a new arbiter of absolute reality –natural law. The emerging methods of science and experimentation lead to the discovery of natural laws that governed the universe. The human mind was perfectly capable of understanding these laws and therefore ultimate reality. The only need for God was as the initiator of natural law. God was the clockmaker who built the universal clock and started it, but once it was going the clock ran by its own laws and there was no more need for God’s active intervention.
The Enlightenment thinkers discovered that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe, all of the movement of objects in space was governed by the same simple laws of motion, a force called gravity held everything to the surface of the earth, the static electricity we feel after walking across a carpeted floor is made of the same ‘stuff’ as a bolt of lightning. Irrefutable and immutable natural laws governed everything.
And the enlightenment thinkers didn’t stop with the physical sciences. There were laws that must govern society as well. The King was no longer the ultimate arbiter of truth, the law was.
But cracks started to show in the armor of natural law. First the French Revolution which was suppose to be a triumph of science and rationality over the despotism and tyranny of the King became a blood bath ruled by the mentality of a mob. Later Darwin showed how human beings had not been created independently by God, but had evolved through a process of evolution that connected all of life in one continuous stream of becoming. And still later it was discovered that the immutable laws of motion and light of Sir Isaac Newton were not universal. They held for things of about our size. But as we looked at the world of atomic and subatomic particles we needed Quantum theory to explain things. And Einstein’s theory of relativity showed that space, time and gravity were all relative and inter-dependent.
A ‘new reality’ was born. This reality is not a place governed by God, or natural law. It is a process of inter-related processes. It is an ever-changing reality that grows at all levels, throughout all time. It is a reality that exists in constant relationship. In fact, the image of a universe of things existing in empty space connected by relationships probably needs to be abandoned. What we need to adopt is an image of a universe that is a field of ever shifting and evolving relatedness, in which the experience of relatedness is what creates a sense of separateness between things that does not actually exist.
In this new conception of reality the new arbiter of Truth is not God, or natural law; it is relatedness. Relationship is ultimately real and what ultimately governs the way things are.