Archive for October, 2007

Everyday experience

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Maybe efforts to pierce through the limitations of experience are futile. That is what I feel in the mornings after meditation, after half an hour, or forty minutes, spent battling with thoughts and distractions and trying simply to be aware. My mind is full of what I saw on TV the night before, of what I have been reading, of what is going on in the family, of wishful daydreams, of regrets and nostalgia. And it seems that this is all I am, ephemeral tosh, and that, perhaps, all my efforts – which seem so puny and ineffectual – are a waste of time.

It is all very well thinking about reality, about life/death, about the distinction between nihility and nothingness, but the reality of experience is nothing so grand. It is banal. How could it be otherwise? And so I am caught between the reality of everyday experience and memories of moments of transcendence when the fabric of the world became translucent.

Thinking further about two-dimensional beings – if the surface of their world was textured they could not know it. In passing over ridges and troughs they would not be aware of the changing spatial relationship of one part of their bodies to another, one part higher, another lower. A crack in the surface would be something analogous to a black hole in our cosmos – an event horizon beyond which two-dimensional reality could no longer exist as such. So too with us. In our dull and everyday ordinariness we search for glimpses of the transcendent, for the footprints of the ox.

Thinking too about Nishitani’s emphasis on the cold indifference of nature. Indifferent – yes, cold, I am not so sure. I feel neither cold nor indifferent towards nature. It is part of my being. I respond to it, resonate to its beauty. Is it the case that it is indifferent to me and cares not whether I live or die? This is an anthropomorphic way of putting things. Nature is neither different or indifferent. It is not personal and yet it is of me and I am of it. This was Richard Jefferies problem. In his intense experience of union with nature he desperately wanted it to be personal and was tortured by its seeming indifference. It is so difficult to see otherwise than from the perspective of self.


Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

Another idea that emerges from Nishitani is that life and death are two sides of the same coin. Somehow, warm, living, feeling, human life emerged from cold, dead matter – matter which works according to laws which are indifferent to our human feelings. The laws give life and take it away, impersonally, indifferently. Scientists and technologists spend their efforts in learning to manipulate these laws to the advantage of life and human feelings.

Our human bodies are life/death. We are a life/death process. We can only live because our cells are constantly dying. We are as insubstantial as the vortex of a whirlpool, or the eye of a storm. We are not our bodies. Life is something that emerges when matter becomes sufficiently complex. Matter has emerged from nothing. We have emerged from matter. How? Why? We do not know.

Of course it may simply be a matter of perspective. Two-dimensional beings living on the surface of a sphere exist in three dimensions. They are not, and cannot be, aware of the third dimension. Only by ceasing to be two-dimensional and becoming three-dimensional can they be aware of the fullness of their reality. We exist in, at least, four dimensions, the three of space and the fourth of time. We cannot be aware of a fifth dimension even though it may be as much part of the fabric of our reality as the third dimension was for the 2D’s. Only by ceasing to be what we are now (dying?) and becoming what we are not yet (resurrection?) can we become aware of the fullness of reality.


Monday, October 29th, 2007

Reading Nishitani. I cannot remember ever before reading someone who aroused in me a sense of awe at his insight and at the startling freshness of his way of seeing things. Perhaps I should not be surprised having been brought up on the Greco-Roman tradition and this is the first time I have tried to come to grips with an Eastern philosophy. What I have read on Hinduism and Buddhism did not prepare me although they make it easier for me to understand Nishitani’s background and where he is coming from.

He spends some time discussing the concept of creation out of nothing; an idea long familiar to us Westerners but always seen, at least by me, as referring, and applying, more to God’s power than to what he created. Nishitani emphasises that if the cosmos is created out of nothing then nothing is at the heart of being. It is just a simple shift of the gaze away from God and onto what he created, but the implications are enormous. Suddenly, reality, formerly so solid and substantial, is seen to be hollow, froth, a chimera without substance drifting in a void.

I have never before considered the meaning of nothing. When I began to realise that the volume of solid matter in us was minuscule compared to the volume of empty space, I thought that at least the matter was real and it was solid. Then when I discovered that protons and neutrons were composed of quarks and that quarks were bundles of energy rather than solid stuff, and that these bundles were constantly popping into and out of existence, that was only cause for wonder. At least the quantum vacuum, from which everything seems to emerge, was another dimension seething with energy, and that, at least, was something. The cosmos had a foundation, something substantial, even if it was in another dimension. However, the idea that at the root of our being there is nothing, that sends shivers down the spine. Pascal looked up into the vastness of the starry sky and said, ‘Ces espaces infinie m’effrai.’ I feel a similar emotion, a terrifying sense of vertigo. I feel that I am in a dream, that this is all that reality is, a dream, and that there is nothing to wake up to. Time, like a relentless gale, blows the ragged shreds of our existence away from us. We try to hang on to them but in seizing one we let go of another. The wind is too fast and too strong and our life is blown away in tatters.

Dark night?

Friday, October 26th, 2007

These last few days have been strange in that I have felt unable to write, to think, or even to read much. It is as though my intellectual faculties and all my sensations have been dulled. There is no excitement, nothing that fills me with enthusiasm or that I really want to do. Reading novels, always a fallback when feeling listless and bored, is no longer an escape. They seem superficial and inconsequential, with cardboard characters in unlikely situations dealing with exaggerated emotions. And so I dither about, unable to engage fully and wholeheartedly in anything, listless and dissatisfied with myself. It occurred to me that these symptoms are not dissimilar to those described by John of the Cross talking about the Dark Night of the Senses. He, however, makes the DNS seem a situation of all-pervading gloom, a nightmare from which there is no escape. If this is what I am experiencing then it is nothing so dramatic. It is really very ordinary and not some spectacular spiritual achievement.

All it means is that I have caught a glimpse of something, in comparison to which ordinary life with its day-to-day pleasures and excitements has become trivial and dull, of secondary importance compared to the existential depths that lie within. The irony is that I have had no ecstatic experiences, no supernatural revelations, no transports of delight. There is nothing that I can put my finger on except a feeling – no more than that – that I have caught a glimpse of a beyond. I have seen the footprints of the ox, though ‘seeing’ is the wrong metaphor. Felt, experienced, would be better.

I am also much more critical of what I read on meditation. There seem to be three types, or categories of writing. There are those who, I suspect, have no experience and are doing no more than regurgitate what they have read, or worse, made up. They do not seem to be aware of the difficulties, or of the fact that there will be differences of experience even among those following the same methodology. They make vague generalisations of what will happen. In the second category are those, like some Vipassana meditators, who are concerned almost solely with techniques and whose goal is a raw awareness. Finally there are those, Zen especially, who acknowledge the transcendent. I do not want to achieve mindfulness just for the sake of mindfulness. It is not the goal. It is the path.


Monday, October 22nd, 2007

I want to understand, to get to grips with the fundamental reality of what it means to be human. I thought reading and meditation would get me there. I am beginning to realise that they will not be enough. Much of the reading, especially the Japanese philosophers is very difficult, and requires more than a nodding acquaintance with Zen in order to be understood. I thought meditation would deal with that side of things and for a while meditation seemed to be going really well and I seemed to be making progress. But lately it feels as though I am wading through the dense and clinging mud of the stagnant swamp that is my mind. There is no clarity, no stillness of pure observation, no peaceful contemplation. Neither is there an urgent cry of anguish from the depths pleading to be rescued from the slough of despond.

I know that devoting some short time during the day to meditation is not enough and I think I wrote about this not too long ago. Then meditation was going well and it provided an impetus that persisted through the day. Walking, working, or reading I seemed to be in a state of detached mindfulness. No longer. After what seems like a futile struggle with wayward thoughts and feelings the end of meditation comes with a sense of relief. At last that’s over. I don’t seem to have got anywhere but I hope that, unknown to me, something has been achieved. And I turn to other things. Not that there is anything wrong with the other things. What is wrong is the attitude, the state of mind in which they are done. Living inauthentically, acting from impulse, with laziness, allowing oneself to be carried along by external events – all these lead to apathy and a feeling of general helplessness. Hence the depression and the feeling of getting nowhere. So I need a structure. Not a structure like a timetable dictating when to do this or that but a mindset injecting self-conscious awareness into everything I do.

Reading Michael Barnes: God East and West, and my own musings earlier has made me realise that what I was groping towards earlier has already been clearly laid out in the Eightfold Path. Morality is at the heart of being a person. Not just morality in the sense of not harming others, not sinning – that goes without saying, but morality in the sense that thinking and behaviour are self-conscious; that one is living authentically, engaged in projecting oneself forward as Sartre would put it, and not just drifting and taking the path of least resistance.


Saturday, October 20th, 2007

I think I am as far away from understanding what it means to be human as I have ever been even though I have read and thought so much lately. My primary instinct – that I would come to understand, not through reading but through experience, is being borne out. I am reading the chapter in Nishitani on ‘the personal and the impersonal’. In true Zen fashion much of it just does not make sense, apparent paradoxical nonsense, like so much of Buddhist thought. Most of what he had written previously I understood because of what I experience in meditation. But anatman is another matter. I understand the concept and the logic, but it is not my experience of what it means to be a person. When it becomes my experience, if it ever does, only then will I really understand.

So, what does it mean to be a person? I have asked this often enough but all my attempts at an answer have been conceptual and speculative. Being a person is primarily being me. There is a sense of identity which extends back as far as memory. In my very early memories there is a sense of gift and a sense of recognition. ‘Gift’ in the sense that I did not make myself me, no more than I made my body. ‘Recognition’ in the sense that this gift of this ‘body/me’ was entirely mine. My uniqueness, quirks, talents, efforts and achievements were sometimes praised and appreciated; sometimes criticised and not appreciated; but always as coming from me, always mine and not derived from, or owned by another. There were no limitations on me being me, though the limitations on my behaviour were another matter. I was not allowed to be me with other people in a way that hurt or upset them. I became, gradually as I grew up, two persons. One, the private, inner, incommunicable me. Incommunicable because this ‘me’ was not one that I could communicate, or that I felt others were always willing to accept. This ‘me’ was constantly exploring experience, experimenting, testing the limits of what was acceptable and desirable, both on a personal and on a social level. They wanted a polite and dutiful boy and this boy became the other, public persona.

This split between public and private personae has never really healed. In every situation I felt a gap, sometimes a chasm, between the ‘me’ I was inwardly and the ‘me’ that was publicly acceptable. Hence a feeling of alienation that goes very deep. This experience is not unique. It is probably universal. It gave rise to much of the speculation in existentialist philosophy. Certainly it gives rise to serious doubt. Who is the real me? This is not a question of choosing between the social and the private me, between the I and the me, as Mead would put it. The doubt arises from the fact that such a gap should ever exist. It exists because the depths, Buddhists would say ‘nothingness’, from which the ‘I’ emerges are unplumbed. I do not know the roots of my being. Therefore I do not know what being me is. I am not aware even that there are roots. I emerged from nothing into self-consciousness. I will eventually dissolve into nothing. I hope that somehow my self-consciousness will survive this dissolution, but I do not know that this will happen and I cannot imagine, given the unity of body, mind, feelings and emotions, how it might. Hence the feeling of alienation, this sense of being separated from the roots of my being. It seems inconceivable that I should not have roots; that I sprang fully fledged from nothingness into being. This nothingness is very mysterious.

One is thrown into a situation where one is alienated, split, separated. There is a drive to heal that split, to be unified, to fill the emptiness within and bridge the chasm without. One is a separate consciousness drifting in a vast ocean – no idea of from when; no idea of to where. One has emerged and will submerge again. What is this vast ocean? Am I part of it, or simply on it?


Friday, October 19th, 2007

There seem to be two contradictory tendencies today. One sees Religion as an archaic hangover from a pre-scientific age, interesting in a historical way as a cultural artefact but not to be taken seriously by those with any knowledge of the laws of cause and effect. The other, more reactionary approach, sees the rejection of Religion as the cause of most of the world’s ills. It opposes all forms of permissive liberalism and would like to impose the rules and values of Scripture – whichever scripture, this applies equally to many Christians and Muslims. As I have said previously, this imposition of rules and values tends to be selective with a very hard line towards sexual permissiveness and property rights and a very soft line towards justice and individual rights.

Religion for the reactionary tendency tends to be something external. It is heteronomous in that rules are imposed from without. St. Augustine’s dictum, ‘Love, and do what you will,’ would be alien to them and dangerously permissive. Their gaze is turned outward. God is up in Heaven. So are the Saints. They look for miracles, apparitions and revelations. They will cross continents to see a grotto, or a wall, or to see someone with the stigmata. Religion is ritual and right conduct. Graces and benefits come from above. Prayer is contrition, petition and adoration – usually in that order. When I was young the Nine First Fridays was a very popular devotion. This involved going to Mass and communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months. Doing this guaranteed that you would not die without a priest to administer the Last Rites. These ensured that you would not go to Hell, although you might have to spend some considerable time in Purgatory. There were also various novenas, prayers said for nine days, or weeks, or months – hence the name – which infallibly (so it was believed) caused God, or the saint, to answer the petitioner’s request. Such a religion is myopic, unable to see beyond the individual, or the immediate family, or community. You are the chosen person, or people. God is your God. He rules your world, which you see from your perspective.

There is, however, another religious worldview and why it is not more widespread is unclear. It lacks the dogmatism and the certitude of both the scientific and the reactionary worldviews. This view proceeds from doubt. Not the doubt of Descartes, which was only a device with which to construct another set of dogmas; nor the Great Doubt of Zen which is the threshold of the Transcendent; but the doubt of ‘What?’, and ‘Why?’, and ‘Who am I?’, which initiates the search for understanding. It is said that theology is fides quearens intellectum, but religion is doubt seeking understanding. It is the search for meaning.

The old dogmatism provided all the answers, which were to be accepted on faith. Understanding was not required. Only theologians were encouraged to question and then only within the strict parameters of Scripture and tradition. Religion was a rigid construct of dogma and practice that had to be accepted on faith. Such a religion cannot grow from within. It cannot, like a snake, slough off its old and outworn skin because now it is only a skin, the living flesh beneath having suffocated.

In the search for meaning readymade answers are inappropriate. They are always another person’s answers, or they are made-up answers to stifle questioning. In the search for meaning it is not the answer which is the most important thing but the search. The answers may not come until the end of a long life, if even then. What is important is the search, because a search implies a journey and a journey implies leaving where you are now.

This is why it is so important to doubt because doubt provides that itch of discomfort, that dissatisfaction with the present situation, that uncertainty which deprives us of peace. But what has all this got to do with religion? At first – nothing. Only if the search is unsuccessful is it successful. If the search is unsuccessful; if answers are not easily available; if science cannot provide them; if other people, religious and non-religious, cannot provide them; if, having searched and questioned and still not found we are still in a state of doubt and uncertainty and have not given up the quest, then we begin to have an idea of what we are not looking for. And to know what it is we are not looking for is already to have some idea of what we seek.

To have searched and not found means that we know that money, power and pleasure do not have the answer. Nor do the gentler pursuits of art, music and literature, nor the contentment of family life, nor sport, nor the cultivation of gardens. None of these have the answer. But still we know there is an answer because doubt exists, the questions exist. Who am I? Does my life have meaning? The answers ‘Nothing’ and ‘No’ are not valid answers. To accept them is to despair. It is to go against our deepest instincts. Therefore, since the answers are not to be found where we have looked they must lie beyond where we have looked. And the search for the beyond, for the far side, for the Transcendent, is religion.

Doubt can be debilitating. It can also feed the thirst for knowledge and understanding. This is why it is so wrong to discourage children from asking ‘Why?’

Religion based on doubt is religion based on the search to understand the ‘why?’ of life, what it means to be ‘me’, to be a person. The answers are not to be found in books. I have wasted many years reading, researching, making notes and all I have done is to make it quite clear to myself that there are no written answers. The answer does not exist out there somewhere. It is not something that can be communicated in words. Nor is it something that can be reached by reasoning or logical deduction. I do not know what the answer is but, since I know what it is not, I am confident that when I find it I will recognise it. I have the strangest feeling that I have always known the answer without knowing it.

How can we know by not knowing? There is within us, deep within the depths, the essential part of our being and it is closed and locked. This is the root cause of our doubt and uncertainty, of the dissatisfaction that constantly plagues us. The search is for a key. We do not know what the key is because we have not found it – yet, but we do know what are not the right keys.


Thursday, October 18th, 2007

It is quite strange this feeling that I am getting nowhere in meditation and yet there is also a feeling that there is progress. I am much more conscious now of what I have to do – concentrate, to the exclusion of all else, on the breath as it comes in and as it goes out. Doing it is still very difficult although I am much more aware now of these squalls of thoughts and feelings which emerge from nowhere and carry me away. These are ‘me’, or rather, they are the various ‘me’s’, depending on who, or what, is preoccupying my attention at the time. And I have to let these go. That is difficult. It is like dying and there is a very deep-seated instinct which resists, hanging on to the life of these ‘me’s’ because that is all there is. If they are allowed to go there is nothing.

I now understand why ‘nothing’ holds such a prominent position in Buddhist thought. Meditation very quickly leads to the experience of ‘nothing’; not to no experience at all, not to blank, empty thoughtlessness. The experience of ‘nothing’ is an experience, not the absence of experience. Paradoxically it is not an experience of something or anything. Nishitani talks about it as coming up against an iron wall. That is not how I would describe it although I understand what he is trying to say. ‘Iron’ implies impenetrability – thus far, no further. ‘Wall’ implies closure. It also implies a beyond. Like the horizon, which can only be seen when one can see beyond it, wall implies an other side.

For me the experience of ‘nothingness’ is like being suspended in the void over a bottomless abyss. Wisps of thoughts and feelings emerge from nowhere, coalesce around me, drawing me into them. When they are thick enough I am no longer aware of the void. When I manage to dissipate them panic and vertigo urge me to reach out and cling to these insubstantial strands. I have to hold myself there, suspended, motionless above the abyss of nothingness. I am suspended by faith, by trust. I have yet to learn how to hold myself there. We are created out of nothing. Nothing is of our very essence. To experience nothing is to be on that cusp between nothing and being. But holding oneself there – that is another matter and what lies beyond this experience?


Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

I came across a sentence in Nishitani the other day which stopped me cold. It was something, glaringly obvious, which I should have seen ages ago. And to see it all that was necessary was to turn the question round. Nishitani asked, ‘We need to ask – at what point has Christianity became so problematic for the modern man as to make him advance in the direction of estrangement from it?’ From the Christian point of view it has always been those who rejected it, or those who failed to see that it was the one true religion, who were at fault. No fault, or blame, could possibly lie with the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit. True, there have been in the past, and still are, Christians and churchmen who fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel. But these are personal failings by individuals and they do not touch the essence of the church. Whatever the failings of individuals, however unworthy they be, the Good News of the Gospel is proclaimed daily for those who would hear; forgiveness and saving grace is dispensed through the Sacraments for those with the right dispositions. If people fail to respond the fault does not lie with the Church which proclaims the Gospel and celebrates the Liturgy. The fault lies in the blindness and the hardness of heart of those who refuse to hear.

Such has been the traditional attitude of Christians, secure in the knowledge that they are right. The searchlight of blame and accusation has been directed into the darkness of the outer world of unbelief and atheism. Rarely has it been turned within. When it has, when reformers have criticised attitudes, beliefs and practices they have always had a hard time of it. History is littered with reform movements. Some were brutally put down, others were forced to break away and form separate churches. Religious orders, when the original vision of the founder dimmed, found it almost impossible to reform themselves. Reformers had to break away and start again, hence the many varieties of monks, of friars, of nuns. It is as though the mould, once it has been formed, becomes so rigid and inflexible that it cannot change. New moulds have to be created. Even the so-called Counter Reformation was not a reform of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes but more a tightening of discipline.

Part of the problem is the difficulty of applying the original vision, as it is outlined in the New Testament, to the present. Approaches vary between two extremes. On the one hand the New Testament is seen as the literal word of God to be applied now as it was then, or rather, as people believe it was applied then. On the other, it is seen as an inspired and inspiring document to be read, to be contemplated, but which cannot be applied literally because society and culture are now so different. Rarely is it set into the context of this present society as a norm by which both society and our response to God are to be measured. When this does happen, as with Liberation Theology, it is not welcomed by the established Church – always ready to take on adversaries from without but hyper-sensitive to any criticism, implied or real, from within.

Reform is difficult, if not impossible, because the social climate we live in is seen as the norm. How could it be otherwise? We may dream of a different kind of society, one that is fair and just and where people live in harmony, but we do not believe, because we cannot see how, such a society can be brought about. The society we have now, it is felt, is the natural way of things, they cannot be otherwise, and so it is a question of trying to fit the Gospel into such a climate. But the Gospel is not directed towards social issues, towards questions of justice, law and order, or human rights. Injustice, exploitation and oppression were as much part of the social scene then as now. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, addressed them directly. They accepted them as the way things are. So they have always been; so they will always be. So how can we adapt the gospel for our society today?

It cannot be done. Our society and the Gospel are mutually incompatible and any attempt to make them compatible must be a fudge. It was this realisation that drove the first monks out into the desert. They felt that only in solitude could one truly and unambiguously live the Gospel. Unfortunately the hermitages became monasteries, the monasteries acquired land and property and those who started by possessing nothing were soon possessed by their possessions. Economics and politics entered the cloister to contend with the Gospel.

Not that the Gospel was ever intended to be just for those who live in the desert, but applying it to today is as difficult now as it has always been. Even those who profess to live by the literal Gospel do not do so. They are selective, choosing those parts which will fit into today and ignoring those which will not. No Christians today are prepared to tolerate slavery as was Paul. How many, I wonder, believe the government, any government, is an authority instituted by God? How many believe in turning the other cheek, in loving enemies, in not asking back from those who steal from them? How many really are prepared to die to self, or even know what that means? For Paul, as for Jesus before him, the socio-economic order is the way things are. It is not anything to do with religion, although religion may over time profoundly affect it. Religion transcends the mundane. The paradoxes of the gospel are not aimed at social improvement. They are, as the Buddhist phrase puts it, a finger pointing at the moon.

This is why Nishitani’s question is so apt. It turns the searchlight within. It reveals hidden assumptions and opens them to question. How can someone receive the Eucharist everyday and remain selfish and judgmental? Why does preaching so often alienate, or confirm those already alienated in their attitude? Why is sodomy (to give it its biblical term) seen by many as permissible now when previously it was a crime crying to Heaven for vengeance? How has the institution come to be more important than the message it enshrines; the celibacy of the priesthood more important than the availability of the Eucharist to all?

Jesus did not come to establish a Church, an institution. The gospel is as incompatible with the working of institutions as it is with society itself, although, paradoxically, the Gospel requires the continuity and stability they provide if it is to be passed from generation to generation. Jesus came to challenge our hidden assumptions; to point out something about our present existence of which we are unaware – that the Kingdom of heaven, God himself, is among us/within us. The Greek word entos is ambiguous and can mean either. The ambiguity is intentional. The flat plane of our mundane two-dimensional existence is pierced through, from above and below, by the presence of God, but we live, eyes fixed firmly on the importance of our daily activities, unaware of the heights above and the depths beneath. We know about God, and we know about this spiritual dimension, just as we know about utopias and promised lands but each is as unreal as the other when confronted by the unyielding demands of the present.

Unfortunately many people confuse church-going and church activity with religion. But is this really religion? To paraphrase Nisitani –

Religion is the real self-awareness of God, i.e. becoming aware of God and, at the same time, God realising himself in our awareness. Our ability to perceive God means that God realises (actualises) himself in us; that this in turn is the only way that we can realise (appropriate through understanding) the fact that God is so realising himself in us; and that in so doing the self-realisation of God takes himself place.

Prayer, worship, the liturgy, the Sacraments are all means to an end. They are not themselves the end. The Church is too often guilty of false-realisation. It gives the impression that once a person has been baptised, receives the sacraments with the proper dispositions and keeps the commandments, formal sanctity has been realised, nothing more needs to be done for salvation. That person is now a member of the Body of Christ, united with Christ in Holy Communion, filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The person is not usually aware of being any different. He has not noticed any great change within and, apart from occasional moments of fervour, his religion is a formal and external framework and not a transforming inner reality. This is the norm and it is accepted as such because it is propagated by clerics for whom it is the norm.

There are some few for whom this is not enough and who hunger for the reality of God. In the early days of the Church it drove people out into the desert. These days, more often than not, they become contemplative religious, considered an extraordinary vocation and lived apart from the normal hierarchical structures of the Church. However, more and more lay people, partly influenced by the writings and example of people like Thomas Merton and John Main and partly as a reaction to the dry formalism of the liturgy, are turning to meditation. They are searching for a way of being contemplatives in the day to day world. They are searching for a way of realising God in their lives.

Trinity and relationship

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

There was a report recently about a symposium on the Trinity in New York. Judging from the report most of the presentations seemed to be going over old ground. One idea that did strike me though is that in God there are no separate centres of consciousness and decision making. When I first started thinking that the key to understanding what it meant to be human was ‘relationship’ – to be human is not to be a distinct and separate entity but to be a nexus of relationships – I had the thought that this must also be the key to understanding the Trinity. As far as I can see most of the approaches to thinking about the Trinity come from a scriptural, or a philosophical perspective. But, if we are ‘made in the image and likeness of God’, why should we not be able to start from the human perspective. At one time it was thought that we humans were like monads, metaphysical units that have a self-contained life, independent and separate. This gave rise, among other considerations, to possessive individualists who still think like this. Much of our culture is based on the idea of individual freedom and independence. In such a climate the theology of the Trinity must seem incomprehensible. Yet, more and more, we are coming to realise that it is not separate individuality but interconnectedness which is at the root of things. This is not new and Donne saw it a long time ago when he said, ‘No man is an Island, entire of itself.’ Atoms are no longer the minuscule billiard balls we once imagined them to be but particular relationships of particles which are themselves something like packets of energy. There is no solid and substantial stuff out of which everything is constituted. There are only relationships of relationships of relationships. Nor is a person a monad-like spiritual soul which will exist eternally. I too am a relationship of relationships of relationships. Why then do we find it easier to imagine God as a single undivided unity and very difficult to imagine God as relationship? Part of the answer must be that when we look at ourselves we are so focused on the ‘me’ pole of the relationship that we see all the other poles as ‘thous’ or ‘its’. Sometimes, when two people are deeply in love, they can see themselves as a ‘we’; each is so much part of the other that each would be incomplete without the other. Sometimes this extends to a family. Rarely, I suspect, does it extend beyond this. It is not easy to grasp the idea that each of us is one aspect of a multi-polar unity. Or, maybe we can grasp the idea, but to so experience ourselves is another matter. That is the stuff of mysticism. One of the problems with this way of thinking, not only as far as Christians are concerned, but also as a result of the Christian influence on our culture and thinking for most of us in the West, has been the Church’s concern to preserve the absolute otherness of God at the expense of his immanence. We need to be more aware of the lesson of the the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:40). God is within.