While there are texts all the way from the Vedas through to relatively modern times (Ibn Arabi, Gurdjieff, Swedenborg, Sri Anirvan, etc.) that allude to this, it seems worthwhile to investigate the term in the context of this expression.
Obligation, in the Oxford English dictionary, means the binding together of one thing with another. The word derives from the same root as ligature, that is, a tether that binds. The idea that we are bound to God is embodied in the Catholic and Episcopalian ritual of prayer:
“it is meet, right, and our bounden duty at all times and in all places to give thanks unto the Lord.”
Of course, this is a formalized version of Gurdjieff’s subtle adage to remember oneself “always and everywhere"; —it means much more than it sounds like it means—but more important, it expresses the point of our duty to God, and the fact that we are bound to Him, not at all in the sense of bondage, but in the sense of reciprocity.
It is impossible to be separated from God, even if one denies God and disclaims His existence. Even that action is, paradoxically, of God, because all things are of God. If it sounds confusing to you, consider the fact that you are your own God; yet undoubtedly, you have parts of yourself that are confused and reject the others. This is a normal condition, and every person with a conscience is plagued by it. One can’t sort one’s psychology out without confronting it.
In any event, we are obliged towards God: that is, we are bound to God by the very nature of consciousness itself, which is a manifestation of God’s Being and Presence. Even the relative ignorance and darkness of the human intellect, which is tiny, cannot dispel this condition or entirely cut the tether. We are bound to God through duty; we are God’s representatives, and our conscious nature and Being itself are already microcosmic and fragmentary representations of God’s entire Being.
The part of a human being which is most supposed to be able to sense this organically (rather than think about it) is one’s feeling part; and it does this through the sensation of sorrow and remorse, whereby it relocates its sense of value so that one understands one’s relationship not to oneself — this, of course, is what we are always obsessed with, even though it is unimportant in the end — but to God. And coming around to that point, feeling has a powerful tool that is supposed to help realign our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others and to God.
It is called shame.
It is from a German root, Scham; and worthy of examination from that perspective alone. The Oxford English dictionary describes it as follows:
the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonoring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honor or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.
Now, the Germans have a word which means, roughly, brazen or outrageous: unverschämt. We could also say, unashamed, but that doesn’t quite convey the sense of violation that the German word has built into it.
If one forgets ones obligation to God, if one loses the ability to sense that, this particular faculty of Unverschämtheit—outrageousness— can exercise itself without restraint. And we see a very great deal of that in the world today.
It is, basically, the opposite of humility, which derives from the word humus, for earth. To be humble, in other words, means to know where one is — in a very low place, on earth. Once one forgets that, one has mislocated one’s value and thinks that one is God.
Perhaps we could roughly equate that with egoism; yet egoism is no longer sufficient to describe modern human behavior, because egoism has recently undergone an inflationary event much like the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. It has expanded to proportions that in its own "eyes" release it from obligation — it is no longer, in its own vision, bound by any sense of obligation or duty towards something higher.
It would be putting it mildly to say that this will not end well for humanity.
Yet here we are.
My new book is now available in paperback, and as a PDF. While the book, in its first half, discusses Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson at considerable length, it also looks at the nature of the universe in some depth from a cosmological point of view in the second half, The Information of the Soul.
For the text of the introduction, see the PDF link.
Novel, Myth and Cosmos at Amazon (paperback)
PDF file for digital devices cab be ordered at:
Novel, Myth and Cosmos PDF format
An iTunes bookstore version will be available soon.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.