Sunday 16 February 2014

Did Jesus Use a Racist Trope?

Older readers may recall my Was Jesus Judgemental? post from a few years back. A discussion on a similar theme is taking place in the Ship of Fools Forums, Jesus had to transcend his culture too? I thought it would be appropriate to re-post one of my responses to it here. It also allows me to mention the Beatles for the first time on this blog and thus eliminate a glaring ommision-


In Luke, from the very start, Jesus is proclaimed, by Simeon, in the hearing of Mary and Joseph who marvel at it, that this child will be "a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel"

This is an echo of Isaiah

6 I the Lord have called thee in justice, and taken thee by the hand, and preserved thee. And I have given thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles:

Isaiah 42 

So clearly the people of Israel were expecting their Messiah to have such a role but not in the same way that we as Christians might interpret it. If the Messiah was one who restored the glories of the Davidic kingdom and was endowed with the wisdom of a Solomon then he could be thought of as a light to the Gentiles in the sense of demonstrating that the God of Israel was the one true God and that the children of Israel had a unique covenant relationship with Him. So the Gentiles would be enrolled as worshippers of the Lord but in a subsidiary and supplicant position Vis-à-vis the Israelites.

The point at which Jesus grew in wisdom to grasp beyond that expectation and see that His mission involved incorporating the Gentiles into a New Israel is a matter of speculation. He did say that Salvation is of the Jews (Jn 4:22) and that certainly would have been the expectation not only of His disciples but also of pretty much all the Jews to whom He preached. Had He begun His mission by proposing for belief all that we who know the end of it understand His project to have been He would have got no following at all. His mission had to unfold its purposes in a progressive manner in order for Him to build up a devoted following who could carry that mission on after the Easter events.

In some ways it is rather like the trajectory of Beatles albums. Fans who followed the band all the way from the first pop albums through to Abbey Road went on a remarkable musical journey who's end was very different from the beginning and could not be foreseen but which was rooted in the complex personalities of the creative songwriters of the band. Of course the Beatles had no idea at the beginning what the end would be and to some extent Jesus, who is definitely still bigger than the Beatles, did.
I incline to the believe that, like the Cana episode, our Lord had clearly decided to follow a particular path, in the one case the public performance of miracles and in the other the extending of His mission to the Gentiles. What He was undecided about was when to do so. He needed to encounter an event that would precipitate the change of direction, to act as a catalyst. In one instance it was His inability to refuse a request from His mother and in another it was His inability to resist an appeal to His compassion. Something similar happened when He took His disciples for a quiet retreat and ended up healing, teaching and feeding thousands of others instead. It might be useful to bear that episode in mind when considering this one of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Mark 6:31-44 

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Thursday 13 February 2014

Enlightenment Too? Who Needs #Buddha 3?

Part of the quest that points people Eastward as the desire to achieve enlightenment. This is understood as a moment in time when suddenly one "gets it". Everything which before was seen as in a glass darkly suddenly becomes limpidly clear and understood not only as an idea in the mind but as an entering into the ultimate truth such that from that moment one inhabits and is inhabited by that truth, that reality behind the reality. A model for this is provided by the Buddha. After experiencing this moment he reputedly said-

153. Through many a birth in samsara have I wandered in vain, seeking in the builder of this house (of life). Repeated birth is indeed suffering! 
154. O house-builder, you are seen! You will not build this house again. For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered. My mind has reached the Unconditioned; I have attained the destruction of craving

Dhammapada 11 

Leaving aside the belief in reincarnation, which is something many Westerners who attach themselves to Eastern spiritualities are more than happy to do, the questions that interest me are-

  • Does this moment of satori, as it is referred to in Zen, consist of a genuine and genuinely valuable insight of life changing significance?
  • Is there anything analogous and arguably superior to it within the Christian tradition?

Only those who have actually experienced such a Bodhi Tree moment can really answer the first question of course and I can make no such claim. Basing myself, however, on the description of the effects of such moments and the subsequent life paths of some who have claimed to have them I can draw some tentative conclusions.

Firstly, making having such an experience a primary goal of life leads to practices of self discipline, self control, benign (if detached) compassion and an emphasis on the non-material non-passionate aspects of life which are on the whole beneficial spiritually and emotionally. For the reason that they are also rather challenging more people, perhaps, desire enlightenment than pursue such paths seeking to shortcut the process with the aid of drugs, ritualism or the gadfly practice of flitting from teacher to teacher or book to book. This creates something of a spiritual version of the dieting industry which relies upon repeated failures leading to new attempts to avoid doing the obvious thing of eating less and exercising more or its Buddhist/Taoist/Vedanta equivalents.

Secondly, satori certainly sounds like a final snapping of the threads. A reaching of the point where one is definitively, so far as it is ever possible for frail humans to do anything which they don't subsequently undo, detached from the desire for things or for sensual pleasures as an end in themselves. That being so it simply must be a life changing experience and a valuable one too since it is a heart-recognition of the simple truth that we can all profess with our lips that the ownership of things and an enslavement to desires and whims is no route to happiness. The caveat to that is, once you are detached what then? Is it an end to growth and if not then into what do you grow? If you have realised the truth then repeating the same realisation again and again achieves nothing but if your understanding can grow then what you recognised in the first place was but a fragment of truth.

It seems to me that Christianity can offer two analogues to this own well known and one less so. The first is that which is pretty much accessible to all and is the initial conversion experience, like that of St Paul on the road to Damascus. Most Christian traditions afford examples of this and it is variously referred to as conversion, being born again,  personal assurance of salvation and so on. The experience of St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is interesting in this context-

It was while here that the ideas for what are now known as the Spiritual Exercises began to take shape. It was also on the banks of this river that he had a vision which is regarded as the most significant in his life. The vision was more of enlightenment, about which he later said that he learned more on that one occasion that he did in the rest of his life. Ignatius never revealed exactly what the vision was, but it seems to have been an encounter with God as He really is so that all creation was seen in a new light and acquired a new meaning and relevance, and experience that enabled Ignatius to find God in all things.

A Brief Biography of St Ignatius 

These Christian experiences sometimes come like a bolt from the blue, as in St Paul, and sometimes after a time of searching and prayer, as in St Ignatius and also St Augustine. What is common to both is that they are experienced as a gift. They come by an act of the grace of God, they are the work of the Holy Spirit. They are certainly life changing and definitive but they are not the pure product of self directed effort they are rather a turning point in a relationship, a moment where love deepens. They are also, therefore, the foundation for growth since it is a relationship which never ends and a love which can never be exhausted.This is because, in Catholic understanding at least, conversion is not an event it is a process albeit one which can incorporate more or less dramatic event within itself.

Unlike Christian mysticism this kind of conversion experience is not a hard to find secret buried deep in the Church's repository of ways to know God. Most Westerners with a Christian background will be at least vaguely aware of the type of thing which I have described. Yet they eschew it in favour of the spiritual athleticism of the Eastern spiritualities, or its faddish diet-like equivalents. I would hazard that this is because it is a dependent process, it is a violation of the individualistic autonomy which is the prize possession of the modern Westerner. We must accept that we are wholly reliant on the initiative of God to make real progress. The Little Way of St Therese, where we make ourselves very small so that Jesus can easily pick us up and carry us up the stairs is an anathema to this mindset. Humility is one of the least popular of the virtues in our times. I think, incidentally, that this is peculiar to the Western approach to these traditions and that Asian understandings of their own faiths are much more open to being humble.

The second analogue to satori is Union with God. This is the high point of Christian mysticism and represents the peak of the notion of divinisation, God became Man that Man might, by grace, become God. St Catherine of Genoa, quoted by Underhill, said  “My me is God, nor do I know my self-hood save in Him,” or as she said elsewhere.My being is God, not through participation, but through true transformation and through annihilation of my own being...So in God is my me, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this 'I' that I often call so - I do it because I cannot speak otherwise, but in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or good, or bliss. The point being that the mystic is caught up into the mystery of God and the boundaries between self and God cease to exist. She has realised the oneness of creature with Creator, realisation meaning not an intellectual understanding but a whole person submerging in what is beyond all finite understanding. She may return to earth as it were but never after loses that consciousness which she has gained, provided only she remains humble and accepts as gift and not earned reward all that she has experienced.

These mystic peaks, however, only qualify to be called enlightenment in the sense that the knowledge of the fact that we really know nothing is the fullest enlightenment that we can have. The idea of Union transcends the notion of satori. It is an entering into the Divine life and it's entering into us. As conversion is relationship so Union is consummation. Technique plays a part in helping us reach this point but to be melted in the embrace of the beloved ultimately requires His initiative so humble love and hopeful patience are the greatest techniques we can deploy. And these are seldom highly desirable to the Western seeker.The Christian, however, might argue that with such a goal to aim for these virtues are a small price to pay.

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Sunday 9 February 2014

Storm and Spirit, High Tides and Haiku

The wind howls, herald
Of a fearful, dreadful day.
A crashing of waves

Waves, wind-goaded, whirl
And twist in frenzied fury
Helpless rainclouds weep

A lull between storms.
The cry of birds mourning their
Shattered nests. Dark clouds.

Storm wreckage, strewn in
A casual disorder.
Dull grey morning light

Storm battered coast, an
Unleashed cocktail of furies
Howl and twist with rage.

Distant sound of a
Radio floats on the breeze.
Ripples on a lake

Winter's uncertain
Sunlight, wavering and brief,
Is always welcome

Sound of a raindrop,
Tiny splash, barely noticed
Unheeded moments

The insistent thrust
Of a restless, longing heart
Only love can meet

Shards of narrative
In swift tumbling confusion
Whirl through fevered dreams

Frostbound field, lightly
Touched by the early sunrise
As shadows retreat

The passing of hours
Where nothing at all happens
Tranquil tedium

Happiness, finding joy through
Jesus, Lamb of God

The simplicity
Of suggestions to the mind
Zen calligraphy

Pure Zen garden. Dry
Rock cascades, land-locked islands
Trick the mind with ease.

To be intently
Still is to be journeying.
All movement is Mind

Blood on jagged glass,
Dripping in slow viscous drops
A young life blighted

Peopled loneliness,
Many headed solitude,
A despairing heart.

A sleep resembling
Death, the heart's feeble flutter
Soon, the final rest.

Incense, in lazy
Wisps, drifts through sunlit spaces
Rising to heaven

Winter-born despair
Child of a mind buried deep
In long, cold, darkness

He will lift you up
On eagles wings, you will see
A new day dawning

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Saturday 8 February 2014

Pearls of Wisdom- Who Needs #Buddha 2

The spiritual seeker is often also a great reader. The ancient tradition of seeking out a spiritual teacher or guide and placing oneself under their authority has, in large part, been replaced by an omnivorous consumption of books or a visiting of websites (I don't knock this, it might be the reason why you are reading this blog after all.) The Western seekers frequently find their way to classic texts like the Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. More often though people find pleasure in reading collections of pithy wisdom sayings or wisdom stories. Here Sufi Islam, through writers like Rumi, joins the field along with Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Christianity does not, are at least should not though some fundamentalists might disagree, deny that wisdom and truth can be indeed perceived if only in glimpses and flashes in these texts. What practically all Christian traditions do assert, though, is that the Bible is the spiritual text above all other spiritual texts and that every other spiritual writing is at best an auxiliary to it. St Benedict put it this way-
For what page or what utterance 
of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments 
is not a most unerring rule for human life? 

Rule of Benedict, Chapter 73

And here we have a problem. Many may indeed pick up the Sacred Scriptures seeking insight but will, like I once did, soon put them down again as being way too full of Angry God and not full enough of Hippy Jesus. Not only this but the jumble of formats- Histories, Laws, Prophecies, Poetry, Gospels, Letters and so on is confusing and daunting. The legacy too of the "Reformation" is that many of us start from the assumption that all the equipment we need to understand the text is the ability to read since every man or woman is qualified to be their own Pope. The fallacy in that argument should be apparent as soon as it is stated. Unless we are historians and lawyers and poets and textual critics how could we expect to grasp the complexity of this interwoven fabric composed and compiled over centuries? Catholics at least are urged to read the Scriptures "with the mind of the Church" which is to say that there have been 2000 years of reflection and commentary on these texts and we should be aware of the fruits of that while we read. This is less daunting than it sounds, study Bibles, like the Navarre Bible series or the little Christian Community Bible (Downloadable), contain brief (-ish) notes alongside the text summarising the content of these commentaries.

Seekers might wonder why it is necessary to take such trouble when all these pearls of wisdom from the East are so straightforward and readily to hand. But appearances are deceptive. What is presented is pre-digested, broken down into McNugget sized chunks and taken out of its context. Those who do read full Eastern works like the Gita discover that they have their own problems which have the same dimensions as our Angry God issues. Arjuna, for example, being urged by Krishna to kill people rather than abstain from violence. We can skate over this because, as I said in the first part, we view Eastern Religion from a distance and can carry the baggage of their history more lightly than that of our own. Nonetheless the problems are there and they are real. If our spiritual hunger is content to be fed with de-contextualised feelgood quotes then we can mine the Bible for them just as easily as any other text so wherein lies the superiority of the East apart from our ability to ignore its 'hard sayings' and difficult texts?

 As I mentioned in the first part one major draw of the Eastern approach is the practice of meditation. There are two methods of using Scripture which, with the help of God's grace, can bring about the kind of states or spiritual experiences which will confer that limpid peaceful clarity and insight that the seeker is thirsting for. One is the use of the Psalms which is too large a subject for now, I hope to address it in a future blog, the other is Lectio Divina a contemplative reading of Scripture. There is a certain amount of confusion when considering this subject because although the word meditation is used frequently in Catholic discourse in this area it traditionally means a different thing from that ascribed to it by the East. Here it has referred to thinking deeply there it has referred to an emptying of the mind. Lectio is a method which is open to being used in either way or in both. Meditation, meaning thought, can lead to Contemplation which means reflecting in the sense that a mirror or still waters reflect.

Guigo the Carthusian wrote what may be the classic exposition of the technique in his The Ladder of Four Rungs  It contains this handy summary-

Understand now what the four staves of this ladder are, each in turn. Reading, Lesson, is busily looking on Holy Scripture with all one's will and wit. Meditation is a studious insearching with the mind to know what was before concealed through desiring proper skill. Prayer is a devout desiring of the heart to get what is good and avoid what is evil. Contemplation is the lifting up of the heart to God tasting somewhat of the heavenly sweetness and savour. Reading seeks, meditation finds, prayer asks, contemplation feels.

Here, indeed, we might feel the lack of a personal Spiritual Director since some passages are more apt to Lectio than others. People trying the technique for the first time would be well advised to seek advice either from a trusted guide or from a good book or website dealing with the subject. And, too, they should bear in mind the advice to read the Scriptures 'with the mind of the Church.' Having said which some of the less obvious passages can lead into the deepest meditation (in either sense) precisely because their meaning makes less immediate impact on the discursive part of our minds. The gentle little Book of Ruth, for example, might fit into this category.

Again I would make the point that with Christianity we should not allow our familiarity with what we suppose it to be to breed contempt and to counter-pose against it a less contaminated Eastern Wisdom. The East is not so pure and the West not so massively flawed as we might at first assume. And finally I will leave you with the words of Guerric of Igny

Search the Scriptures. For you are not mistaken in thinking that you find life in them.....From these gardens the Bridegroom will lead you, if I be not mistaken, into others where rest is more hidden and enjoyment more blessed and beauty more wonderful. When you are absorbed in his praises with accents of exultation and thanksgiving, he will take you into his wonderful tenting place, into the very house of God, into the unapproachable light in which he dwells, where he feeds, where he lies down at midday. 

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Tuesday 4 February 2014

Who needs #Buddha?

How the Mystic Heart of Christianity has been hiding in plain sight

At one time or another many Westerners, myself included, have rejected Christianity and looked for answers to our spiritual needs in the wisdom of the East. The clear market leader here is Buddhism in many and various forms. The Hindu tradition around the Bhagavad Gita also has its Western niche audience. There is too a thriving trend for mix-and-match a la carte Eastern spirituality where consumers buy into the ideas that stroke their spiritual erogenous zones while ignoring any inconvenient ballast that accompanies them. The then Cardinal Ratzinger once suggested that European Catholics who converted to Buddhism were guilty of a kind of spiritual auto-eroticism a statement which sounds harsh but, like Buddhism itself, has a distinct portion of truth contained within itself.

My purpose here is not to criticise these major world faiths. The Catholic Church, in the document Nostra Aetate , recognises that these ways of seeking God are not without glimpses and flashes of Him who cannot be hid. No, my business here is to suggest that we are often too eager to discard a Christian faith which contains within itself precisely those elements which we most like about the Eastern faiths and moreover does so in a far more incarnated ie fully human sense. In part also this easy abandonment of our own historic faith is assisted by Christianity itself hiding its mystical light under a bushel. An added attraction about the Eastern faiths is that by looking at them from a distance we are not bothered by the vulgarisation of them in actual Eastern societies or by the abundant failings of their practitioners and these perhaps are the very things that distance us from Christianity. We in the West get the refined essence of Buddhism and the dirty washing of Christianity.

One of the biggest selling points of the Eastern traditions is the habit of meditation. The clearing of the mind from cluttering thoughts, feelings and distractions so that an inner light, a tranquil crystal clear lake, a pure lotus blossom or whatever other metaphor of choice springs to mind can manifest itself and we can enter into a personal zone of peace. In this state we can encounter the Reality which underlies the bewildering, deceiving surface aspects of our lives and our selves and so become Real in all that we are and do. This is a worthy project but few who embark upon it consider for even a nano-second that by far and away the most popular form of meditation in the West is the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is, perhaps, in this meditative format that we come up most clearly against the incarnate and disincarnate contrast between the two modes of spirituality. In the Rosary the mind is indeed emptied of clutter. This is done to focus upon Jesus and Mary and the God who intervenes directly in human history thereby strengthening our relationship with Him. Other historic Christian meditative approaches have a similar sort of focus. The Orthodox Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart, popularised in the wonderful little book The Way of a Pilgrim, the single word focussed upon in the Cloud of Unknowing, the dry, barren desert St John of the Cross writes about in The Dark Night of the Soul. Each of these, all of these, in some way or another encourages us to leave behind the distractions and delusions of the everyday world to centre ourselves on that which, or rather whom, is the very centre and cause of our own being and all being.

The aim of Eastern meditation, be it self, Self, Overself, Atman, Nirvana, is ultimately impersonal or even a simple nothingness. That of the Christian is profoundly personal, it is all about relationship. For the Western seeker after inner peace who picks up a smattering of Buddhism or Vedanta this is all hypothetical. What they want is what works, what offers the sand for the white dove to sleep in. Often they turn to the East because it offers a series of techniques which promise to deliver the goods and which they have never found to be on offer in Christianity. Yet when it comes to the simple mechanics of it all the techniques that the West uses are in many respects more or less identical to those of the East. But the West holds them as a well kept secret and the East proclaims them from the housetops. In part this is a necessary consequence of the fundamentally different approach between a faith which is missionary and active and sees its raison d'etre precisely to be incarnated in the hurly burly of daily life and ones which see withdrawal and a passive fatalism as more suited to their genius. In this sense Christian meditation is viewed as a process by which one recharges ones batteries before returning to the fray rather than as an end in itself. Which is more or less exactly what Westerners who turn East want it for too and did they but know that it was there they might turn to it instead.

Its not all about technique though. Whilst both Eastern and Western approaches promise an inner calm, a rest for the restless heart, a way of renewal, a discovery of meaning the Christians does so not on on the basis of an ever increasing spiritual athleticism leading to the winning of a spiritual gold medal. Rather the basis for success is a surrendering, a clearing the way to enable the Grace of God, the still small voice, to speak clearly to us. It is not a technique which transforms us it is a gift. The Christian way claims to be superior, I personally believe that it is so having experienced something of both, but the proof is purely experimental. My only suggestion are these, the Church should make more widely available the treasures of mystic spirituality she possesses and people from a Christian background should not be quite so eager to throw out the baptised baby with the admittedly grubby bathwater.

End of Part One

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