Archive for July, 2007


Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

I have been reading Needleman‘s The New Religions*. It has been on my bookshelf for a long time but I have only just got around to looking at it seriously. He says in his introduction that by eliminating the cosmos from man’s relationship with God the European has come to emphasise more the ethical, and even the legal, aspects of religion. Religious life became a matter of belief, or performance.

There is a lot in this. Faith (religion) was a dialogue with God. The world was simply the stage on which this action took place. It had no intrinsic relationship with either of the actors, the believer, or the deity. The action was the important thing. It was a cerebral drama. The protagonists have no history, no context. They leap fully clothed onto the stage, act out their roles and depart at the end. The milieu in which this takes place is a backdrop, scenery, nothing more. Any backdrop will do. The play can be in period, or modern dress. The externalities are just that, accidentals. They are not intrinsic to the context, or the meaning. “It is an intellectualism rooted in European acosmism and its accompanying sense of the human mind as autonomous and outside nature.”

Talking about suffering he says that in the West we treat it with palliatives. We treat the symptoms. We do not look for and try to eliminate the causes. Our mind and the power of thought itself is inept without exposure to a spiritual discipline. Logic is a whore serving anyone who can pay the price. We are concerned with preserving the quality of the life we lead rather than transforming it. Religious services are time spent reading and listening to clinical descriptions of our illness and its cure as though the mere reading would somehow effect a cure – or we read and then pray for a cure as though the simple saying of words in a prayer would somehow effect the cure. Why?

Why do we not carry out the prescriptions we read? The short and simple answer must be because we do not believe or accept either the diagnosis or the prescription. Why is this? One answer is that most of our unhappiness and suffering is due to material causes. We do not have enough money. The situation at work is oppressive. We feel exploited. We are beset by anxieties. Because we have little power or control over our lives, over where we live, the work we do, the actions of others in the family, the looming threats of redundancy and financial disaster – all these are swords hanging by thin threads over our heads. We feel that if only we had sufficient money we could deal with these problems. They would then no longer be problems and we would be happy.

However, it does not take much thought to realise that, while money can make life more pleasant and give us greater control, it cannot, in itself, bring happiness. Material things affect us, but far more important are immaterial things – especially relationships. What use is wealth if one is not loved, or if the person one loves is suffering? And even if one is wealthy and if all one’s relationships are successful, there is always the impending threat of disaster, illness, suffering and death. We do not really believe that God is in control, or has any power to affect our lives. Chance and luck rule, not divine destiny. If we are lucky we will have a few brief moments of pleasure and happiness before feeling the cold fingers of the brute facts of existence. Besides, those who preach the Gospel, there are some honourable exceptions, do not inspire us with confidence that they have discovered the Kingdom.

But what is the Kingdom?

But what is the Kingdom? Is it there to be found? Or is it only there for those outstanding spiritual athletes like Jesus, Buddha and the saints? Traditionally there have been two routes. There has been a fast track for those who want to dedicate their whole lives to the search for enlightenment, or sainthood. Traditionally these have been the monks, nuns and hermits; those who leave behind home and family in the single-minded pursuit of God, and those who have dedicated their lives without reservation to others, such as Gandhi, and Oscar Romero. And there has been a slower track for those, the majority, who have not felt the imperative desire, or whose lives are quite comfortable. For them the excitement and challenges of day to day life are meaningful enough. They do not see the need of sacrificing everything, as they see it, for an uncertain possibility. For them religion is an insurance policy. Not all are as cynical as Pascal, but there is comfort in the rituals and prayers. They remove the terror of the prospect of death, they provide reassurance that the wicked will eventually get their comeuppance, while the meek, gentle and exploited will receive their reward. And then there are those for whom the word God is no more than a vague concept, who do not believe there is anything other than the existence of immediate experience.

As far as I can see this has always been the case. The determined search for enlightenment has never been the preoccupation of more than a small minority. Most people fall into category two and for them religion has been what some sociologists have called a sacred canopy. It has given a sacred dimension to the values, morals and customs of society. It has provided myths which helped to give meaning to life, it has marked the rites of passage for individuals and helped them to find a sense of identity, worth and meaning in an often cruel and indifferent world. Not surprisingly, as society becomes more and more secularised religion becomes more and more an anachronism. And yet, as society becomes more and more secularised, comes the nagging suspicion that there is something missing, something lacking; that the conventional answers are not really addressing the questions that matter, or that we are not asking the right questions and, instead, finding answers to the wrong ones.

*Doubleday, 1982

Meaning of life

Monday, July 30th, 2007

Great scandals in the Church – children, young people, people exploited – emotionally, financially and sexually. Some cynics might say – so what’s new? Someone has just published a book about the meaning of life. Apparently he wrote to dozens of well-known people and asked them their opinion. Most of the answers apparently are trite. The more philosophically inclined questioned the validity of the question. One religious person said we are created with a God shaped hole and the meaning, or purpose of life is to fill it. It is interesting that there is no consensus – not just on what meaning life might have, but as to whether there needs to be meaning. I came across a quotation from Gabriel Garcia Marquez today –

Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers gave birth to them… Life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.*

I think we have to find, or to make our own meaning. I do not think there is a ready-made meaning, a template into which all can fit. We are so diverse, so wonderfully and bewilderingly different that there cannot be any simple answer to the question. God is part of the meaning, I am sure, but how we perceive God is different for everyone. One of the problems with the established churches is that they are too keen to supply a simplistic template into which we must all fit. I know it is difficult for an organisation, especially a hierarchical and bureaucratic one, to cope with diversity but such is the nature of the human beast.

*Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, trans. Edith Grossman (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 165.


Saturday, July 28th, 2007

One of the things that has gone is the search for God. We are not sure what we believe about him any more. Albert Nolan, in his book, Jesus before Christianity*, says that asking whether Jesus was God is to ask the wrong question. It imposes our preconceived ideas about God on Jesus. What must be asked is – what can we learn about God by looking at the Gospels, at what Jesus said and did? The God he reveals, if we disregard the various theologies that have appeared since his time, including Paul’s, is an indwelling God, a God of love who wants to serve rather than be served, a healing God who understands and forgives, a God of life and love; above all, a God who is to be found in people but especially in the poor and the suffering.

The idea of the immanent God is strong in Christianity, always has been, but it is overlaid by the idea of the transcendent God. Once Paul, and I suppose John with his high Christology, began the process of trying to interpret God with the help of the prevailing philosophies, it was inevitable that the transcendent would overshadow the immanent. Why? This is an interesting question and it is tied in with our culture because the opposite obtained in the East. Putting aside the influence of Greek philosophy at the time, which was considerable, I suppose it is easier to believe in a God who is transcendent – by definition he is out of reach, beyond comprehension and therefore we can be excused for not being able to understand, for not having any clear ideas or concepts of him. It also transfers the focus of our worship to out there rather than to within – much easier to do. I can see why beliefs in an immanent God and ahimsa have to go together, and why the emphasis on transcendence has been a factor in Christianity being so involved in violence. But if God is within, not only within me but also, shockingly, within the poor, the wretched, the dregs of society – then that is a major hurdle. That runs counter to our natural (or cultural?) instinct to equate God with the good, the beautiful, the nice, the comfortable, the correct (politically and otherwise), the reassuring. The God of Jesus is an uncomfortable God who challenges us to search within ourselves and within others for a reality we cannot begin to imagine.
*Albert Nolan, Jesus before Christianity, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1992

The child within

Friday, July 27th, 2007

The great thing about meditating is that it faces you with yourself. It faces you with your attitude towards yourself, towards God, towards how you see your relationship with God. There is no escape. I am struck by the passive attitude of much present day spirituality.

“Mon Père, je m’abandonne a vous. Faites de moi ce que vous plaira. Quoi que vous fassiez de moi je vous remercie. etc.”*

It is as though there is a longing to be a passive little child in the arms of God. I wondered why. Maybe that is the image we carry around of ourselves – a helpless, innocent child; untainted, unsullied; innocent, open, loving and loved. This was the real me before I began to exert my independence and to wear the masks that we all wear, even with ourselves; before I did all the things I regret, before the hurts, the wounds, the blows. Now I no longer know which is the real me. My masks deceive even me. I am driven by vague longings which are never satisfied because they are never fully realised and what realisation there is turns to ashes as soon as it is tasted. And so the longing that one day, perhaps, the little child within will emerge and all the dross, all the false masks, the scars and the calluses will fall away. The child will be cradled on the breast of Christ and dandled with love.

This is what is wrong with much Christian spirituality. It is a search for passive, innocent, blissful childhood. But there is no child within.

There is a child within but it is a chimera, a mental construct, a memory, a symbol. I am sure one of the reasons why a happy childhood is such an important and necessary departure point for adulthood is because of the power of this symbol. If it is lacking then something fundamental and necessary is lacking. We have arrived where we are, adults, without the necessary qualifications and experience. We are expected to give to our children what we have never experienced. We feel we are both impostors and the victims of unfair fate which has dealt us a rotten hand. And there is always the longing…if only… For those who have had a happy childhood there are memories of unclouded joy which compare unfavourably with the problems, worries, tensions and anxieties of adulthood. It all becomes so tiring that the wishful dream of regression to innocent bliss can become overwhelming.

It is a powerful symbol, both for those who have had a happy childhood and for those who have not. People are drawn by it, they seek to possess it in reality. And, as in the market place where there is an expressed want the market will supply it, so too in religion. In spite of statements like, ‘Come to me all you who labour and are burdened.’ and ‘Unless you become like little children.’ I do not think that Jesus was offering passive bliss. I think he meant us to be much more proactive. This is very clear in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like’ parables where it is precisely those who sit back, do nothing, who leave it all to fate, who are the people who do not belong. But too many spiritual writers and commentators have interpreted him otherwise. It even colours our attitude to death. ‘Eternal rest give to them, O Lord.’ It conjures up a vision of Heaven as a vast nursery full of babies sleeping blissfully in their cots.

Prayer of Charles de Foucauld. Father I abandon myself to you. Do with me whatever you will. Whatever you do with me I shall thank you.

The question of meaning

Thursday, July 26th, 2007

On the differences between the humanist and the religious conceptions of what it means to be a human person. For humanists the fact that we are rational beings, able to think and stand back from our actions is what marks us out from our animal brothers. For some, like Sartre, it follows that we are free; free to reflect on future possibilities and choose rationally. Others like Freud and Skinner would question the freedom but they would allow a certain amount, at least when the inner springs of behaviour were in the domain of the conscious.

The main problem with humanism, as I see it, is the question of meaning. Life has no meaning other than that which we choose to give it. I can choose whatever I like as my purpose in life, research, medicine, sport, pleasure and, at a practical day to day level, consider whatever I have chosen as my raison d’être. And this is fine until I am faced with the three brute facts of existence – powerlessness, contingency and scarcity.* Suffering robs us all of our pride and tramples on rationalisations. It shrinks our world to the orbit of the body and the only thought which has any meaning is, ‘End it.’

The religious view of what it means to be human provides both an answer to suffering and a meaning for life which transcends the three brute facts. The trouble with the humanist view is that it is in the end reductionist. It reduces the deepest and most complex of all mysteries, me, simply to an intelligent organism, unique among the flora and fauna of earth, yes, but another specimen nonetheless.

We know, how I know not, but the knowledge is there in the depths of our being, that each life is infinitely precious. Why else do we spend so much on ambulances and fire brigades etc. Why otherwise would complete strangers risk, and sometimes give, their lives for another. Why are we fascinated by, and go silly over, babies, over the miracle of another life.

We are never satisfied. Satiety lasts a few moments and is replaced by a new hunger. In the endless search for novelty we are haunted by boredom. The pleasures of living are rewarding but in the end we yearn for something more than mere living can give. Something in us transcends the senses and our limited minds. Our being, in the depths of our being, is plunged into depths unimaginable. The senses cannot pierce them though, sometimes, in moments of silence when we are not particularly paying attention, we catch a glimpse of unutterable beauty.

*cf Thomas F. O Dea, Sociology of Religion (Foundations of Modern Sociology), Prentice-Hall, 1966

Being human

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

The holiday season. Lots of young families with little children. Feelings of nostalgia for those days of innocent children and more energy than I now possess. If only I… Easy to think but would we really do things better if we had another time around. Probably. We can learn from our mistakes. The trouble with being a parent is that the baby does not arrive with an instruction manual. You have to learn on the job, making it up as you go along. Then you arrive at the stage when they have minds of their own and your influence is more wishful thinking than real.

I keep thinking about the need for a theology of what it means to be human. I suppose the nearest thing we have to it is moral theology. But this is a practical guide to the do’s and don’t’s of living. It is not a metaphysics of human existence.

Part of the problem is that we have inherited the idea that a person is an individual entity, an ens, an individuum which inheres in the body, soul, person or whatever; that there is an irreducible substratum which is the real me and which perdures through all the growth, development and decline of the body. However, I don’t think there is an unchanging kernel. I think the Buddhists are more correct with their doctrine of anatta. Whatever ‘I’ am it is not a thing, an ens. First of all I am an agent; I act. Secondly, this agency is drawn into conscious existence in the first two years after birth. It is at first inchoate, blind, dumb and uncomprehending. Then, gradually, it becomes the nexus of a whole series of relationships which help it to refine its gross gropings, expand its perception and teach it to communicate both to itself and to others.

I say ‘I’ and ‘it’ for lack of better words. These terms are misleading if they are taken to imply an ens, a thing. They apply to the subject whose essence is that it is not a thing but a relationship. Here, again, the Buddhist idea of co-dependent origination can help.

One of the advantages of teaching is that sometimes you get asked questions which have been nagging away at the back of the mind without a satisfactory answer. But the asking of it in class and the need to produce a response of some kind sometimes elicits a solution. Lately we were discussing what it means to be human and comparing the Freudian, Sartrian and Christian interpretations, among others. I was trying to get across the idea that we are a process rather than an enduring entity such as a soul; that this process is a complex of constantly changing and interacting relationships; that it is not possible to say that we are, that we exist, in our own right independently, but that we are in the process of becoming what we are and are going to be; that this process cannot be considered apart from all the relationships which constitute it. ‘No man is an island etc.’ I was then asked about reincarnation and I suddenly saw clearly, for the first time, that reincarnation is not possible. I could not have existed in a previous incarnation because the unique set of relationships which make me never existed before. I was then asked – what about babies who die shortly after birth? They are inchoate, not yet fully persons. I saw that there is more to this tiny bud which has not yet opened and experienced the richness of life and relationships. Here too is a complex of relationships, smaller and simpler than the rich intricacy of an adult, but beautiful nonetheless and with a place in the living tapestry we weave with our lives.


Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

What is it that makes me me? Interestingly enough I came across a piece by Michael Barnes in the Month yesterday where he says that identity is not discovered by rational introspection but in relationship.

“Very quickly one moves beyond the futility of the ‘ego’ searching for its own ‘ego’; rather one finds that identity is not discovered through a process of rational reflection but in the fact of that reflection itself. What confers human identity is the experience of looking for it – in and through the relationship formed with another person.”

This is true. Relationship is the key. It is also the essence. Which is why my sitting gazing inward does not get me very far. The only point of solitude is reculer pour mieux sauter into the midst of people and relationships. An interesting paradox. One of the reasons why relationships are so difficult is because no single relationship encompasses the whole me, is exhaustive of all that I am. (One of the reasons why being in love is so exhilarating is because at the time it seems to do just that.) Each relationship draws out particular aspects, plays particular chords, makes demands – some satisfying, some creative, some irritating, but is not exhaustive. And so one longs to escape into solitude to find the elusive me, the me underlying all these relationships but who is never wholly fulfilled in any of them, only to discover that this me is not there to be found. There is only emptiness and the realisation that who I am is the multiplicity of relationships that make me me.

And yet… And yet… In the silence of solitude, in the emptiness, there are intimations that all this is a very shallow way of putting things.

Being involved

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

I had a dream this morning just before waking up – very vivid and clear. I was at some sort of meeting. It was very crowded with very interesting people – very cosmopolitan, with lots of arty types. There were so many that the room was crowded to the doors and there was no room. I decided to go off and do something else. Then someone came up to me and said that I was one of the speakers. I felt very annoyed. No one had told me, or asked me and I did not even know what the subject was. I walked up and down the corridor. It had a highly polished wooden floor and the sun was pouring in from the windows. I began to work out what I was going to talk about. This part was particularly lucid.

Now it is not so clear, though I can remember the main point. I would begin by explaining why I was unprepared and then I would go on to talk about involvement in human affairs. I am not quite sure how I got to this topic though it flowed quite logically in the dream. I think it is partly the result of the thinking I am doing about myself and what I am doing with my life. The only part that is clear now is using the example of Christ who was involved deeply with people and yet not involved with the factions, religious and political, of the times. At the back of my mind is that Buddhist poem

Bending neither to the rain
Nor to the wind
Nor to snow nor to summer heat,
Firm in body, yet
Without greed, without anger,
Always smiling serenely
Eating his four cups of rough rice a day
With bean paste and a few vegetables.
Never taking himself into account
But seeing and hearing everything,
And never forgetting.
In the shade of a pine grove
He lives in a tiny thatched hut:
If there is a sick child in the east
He goes and tends him:
If there is a tired mother in the west
He goes and shoulders her rice sheaves:
If there is a man dying in the south
He goes and soothes his fears:
If there are quarrels and litigation in the north
He tells them, ‘Stop your pettiness.’
In drought he sheds tears.
In cold summer he walks through tears.
Everyone calls him a fool.
Neither praised
Nor taken to heart.

That man
Is what I wish to be.

Also at the back of my mind is the problem of being a Christian and being involved. There are always factions and to be in favour of one is to be opposed to others. The problem for the Christian is to be for others, to be with them in their hopes and aspirations for all that is good but to avoid being caught up in what divides people. There are some things, however, which cannot be avoided, some causes which are so important that whatever the opposition one cannot but be involved.

Drinking from our own wells

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

Gustavo Gutierrez, quoting St. Bernard, says we must drink from our own wells. The fount of living water is within us. The problem is the Church. It does not encourage us to be anything other than consumers of the Sacraments. I do not want to downplay the importance of the Sacraments but if they are what they are claimed to be, and if they work ex opere operato, then how come that priests and religious can receive the Eucharist day after day, every day of their lives without being transformed. The Church encourages people to remain at the synthetic conventional stage of faith; to accept what ‘they’ say; to be religious consumers of comforting and undemanding platitudes; to be cultivators of the inner gardens of their souls. It does not lead them out into the desert; show them how to be strangers in a strange land, how to find the inner well of living water which will nourish their journey both into and out from the centre of their being.

The Church has externalised the journey we all have to make. It has placed the goal outside us and beyond even this life. Only in Heaven, it tells us, do we come to the end of all our searching, discover who we really are in the discovery of the transcendent God. Until then we must make do with words and symbols, we must live and act in the blindness of faith. Knowledge is the knowledge of stories handed down for generations. It is second-hand abstract concepts passed on by people who are often more concerned with the niceties of logic and the problems of hermeneutics than with living reality. You cannot know. You will never know until you die. That is why you have to accept what we say. Such pride and arrogance! What a distance we have come from the New Testament.

Only if we can find the Spirit within will we be able to face up to the problem of alienation which all who really search for God must feel in this society of ours. Only when we can hear the inner song will we be able to dance to a different tune and it is only when we are dancing, caught up in the music, that we can draw others after us.

Pointing beyond

Friday, July 20th, 2007

I was thinking this morning that I would like to start a new religion. I would like to be able to give people the secret of happiness. I would like to be able to provide a map for life, a set of guide-lines that would cut through the hypocrisy and the ideological pseudo-truths that people are so happy to subscribe to and which do nothing to make them happier, better persons, or to change the world. Unfortunately I do not know the secret of happiness and have no maps to give. I am not even sure I influence my own children for the better. The two greatest teachers of religion, Guatama and Jesus had both found that secret before they began to speak about it. I know how to go about finding it, I think, but, perhaps, deep down I am inhibited by doubt.

People want certainty; they want categorical and definite truths to believe in. They want to be assured and the last thing they want is doubt. Unfortunately – no that is undoubtedly the wrong word – fortunately, it is not possible to talk about God or about ultimate reality in that way. Fortunately, because if God could be described in concrete terms He would not be God. The one thing we can all agree on as humans is that we are not content with our lot. We long to transcend our limitations, to break down the barriers which enclose, and divide, and restrict. In a world of jaded palates we long for ecstasy.

God is in the depths of our being. We do not believe this. We give it lip-service, but we do not really believe it. We do not believe it because it places the onus on us. If God is in the depths of my being and I have not found him whose fault is that? Mine? The communities of which I am a part and who have shaped and moulded me? God’s fault? This reminds me of the story of the fish who heard about the ocean and went looking for it but could find it nowhere. Language is inadequate. God is not an object, nor is he objective reality existing somewhere to be found. This is why Buddha was so wise not to talk in this way; to refuse to speculate. Jesus did not hesitate to use the religious language of his time, but he used parables and paradoxes to point beyond the accepted conventions. That is all one can do – point beyond. That, however, is not enough for most people, or rather, it is too much. We do not want to let go of what we have until we can see where we are going. All the great teachers say that we must let go and journey in the dark, in the cloud of unknowing. We do not want to do this by ourselves, we cannot. We need a guide. Sadly, there are few guides.

The Church holds itself up as a guide. The priests recite the Mass and say the words of the sacraments. They tell us that inner transformations are occurring. They assure us that when we die we shall see God. But they do nothing that will help me to transcend this enclosing now. They do not even tell me it is possible. In fact they say it is impossible, in spite of the long mystical tradition in the Church. The Church is afraid of mystical experience. It does not know how to deal with it. The professional mystics are confined to the enclosed orders in monasteries and convents. People are hungry for God and they are given platitudes.