Heresies

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Religion

This morning I heard a Buddhist teacher give a talk that referred to a teisho (something like a sermon) on the Beatitudes given by Taizan Maezumi Roshi. So when I got home I looked for the teisho on the Web; here it is. You probably know (because you are smarter than three-fourths of the nation’s population) that the Beatitudes are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Maezumi was an old-school Japanese Zen master. So it’s interesting (to me, anyway) to see what Maezumi did with the Beatitudes. He treated them very respectfully, and (while acknowleding that Christians might understand them differently) compared them to nearly identical Buddhist teachings. They’d make good koans, the roshi said.

As a human being, what is the difference between you and me, or between Buddhist and Christian? Even among Buddhists and among Christians there are different ways of approaching it. But what we appreciate should not be different — however, we say it — being one with God, or saved by God, or liberated by God, or even condemned by God. If we can really selfless feel the existence of that, I am sure we will know the savior.

By “savior” Maezumi did not mean Jesus, although he also did not not mean Jesus. And there’s another koan for you.

In today’s Seattle Times, Janet I. Tu writes about an Episcopal priest who recently converted to Islam, although she is also still an Episcopal priest. This is causing a certain amount of consternation among some righties. Scott Johnson of Power Tools sniffs that the priest couldn’t have been “a believing Christian” before the conversion, even though she has been a priest for 20 years and the conversion happened just 15 months ago.

I used to be what Mr. Johnson calls “a believing Christian,” and now I’m not. It’s not an unusual phenomenon. Sometimes as people grow and mature they find they need to move on to other things. And yet I don’t say that Christians are wrong. We religious people are all thrashing around trying to comprehend the incomprehensible in our own imperfect way. Religion itself is just an interface.

The Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, the Muslim-Episcopalian priest, says,

Redding doesn’t feel she has to resolve all the contradictions. People within one religion can’t even agree on all the details, she said. “So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam?

“At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That’s all I need.”

She says she felt an inexplicable call to become Muslim, and to surrender to God — the meaning of the word “Islam.”

“It wasn’t about intellect,” she said. “All I know is the calling of my heart to Islam was very much something about my identity and who I am supposed to be.

“I could not not be a Muslim.”

Zen generally takes a dim view of religion-as-identity and any sentence that includes the phrase “who I am supposed to be,” but even so I can relate to what she says. I’ve known people in a conversion process to keep a toe in both pools for a time. It’s common to meet people in formal Zen training who still considered themselves to be Christians or Jews and who practice a kind of fusion religion. Eventually some might experience an epiphany-kensho and choose to take just one seat or the other. Some might not. In any event, all such people I have known have been incredibly sincere, and they thought and worked deeply at their religious practices.

They didn’t just believe what they were supposed to believe out of tribal loyalty, in other words.

Yesterday I found a fascinating article at the Guardian Comment Is Free site. Chris Duggan writes,

In a world dominated by Middle East conflicts, it is more urgent than ever that words and creeds emerge from the trenches and dare to divest themselves of the armour that is designed to shore up a reassuring sense of identity, under the guise of religious faith. This process has always been a central concern of the mystical tradition of all the world religions: those who penetrate to the heart of their faith invite their coreligionists to go beyond words and concepts to a level of experience that escapes definition.

Exactly. And I recommend reading all of Chris Duggan’s article.

The Rev. Ms. Redding’s bishop is wise enough to give her space to follow her bliss and let whatever process she is going through play itself out. It’s true that there are some essential doctrinal conflicts between Christianity and Islam, and eventually she may choose one or the other. That’s something she needs to work out for herself. That kind of work is the essence of what religion actually is. Adopting a belief system dictated to you by a religious institution is something that passes for religion, but IMO that’s a tepid and watered-down imitation of the real thing.

I read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Saint Anselm of Canterbury. Saint Anselm was “the outstanding Christian philosopher and theologian of the eleventh century,” it says.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.”

I admit that the word epistemic gives me a headache, but it has to do with the validity of knowledge and belief. So Anselm’s approach to faith is not about trying to get his belief system validated. Beliefs by themselves have no purpose. Faith is not an end in itself. Rather, Anselm says, faith is a means for seeking a deeper knowledge of God (or the Dharmakaya, or the Great Absolute Whatever). A religion that isn’t looking past the dogmas to a deeper truth is a dead religion. And I say people with dead religions shouldn’t throw stones.

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11 Comments

  1. moonbat  •  Jun 17, 2007 @5:35 pm

    The major spiritual figures, people of a highly evolved consciousness, always have followers of a lesser consciousness who “bring down from the mountain” the teachings of the spiritual figure. These get repeated and hardened over time into dogmas for the rest of us, by clergy even less evolved, and who are caught up in the political dramas of the day.

    In essence, dogma is second or third-hand thought. Working initially within the realm of a particular dogma is probably necessary for most of us, in much the way that we’re not automatically born knowing the multiplication tables. We have to learn the basics and then, for some of us, there’s the need, the pain in fact, of outgrowing them and moving on.

    Dogma is part of exoteric (or “retail”) religion. Each religion has a particular set of holy books from which dogmas derive, particular rituals and costumes, particular architecture, historical figures and history – these comprise exoteric religion. Exoteric religion is the official wrapper around the historical spiritual figure at the core of it. It is the attachment to this visible wrapper, and confusing it with how the spiritual figure at the center of the religion actually lived and taught, that causes so much strife in the world. By their very nature, exoteric religions and their dogmas are a source of competition and strife. They are why many hate religion.

    By contrast, esoteric spirituality, which is the invisible essence of what each spiritual figure taught, is more of what is experienced and less what can be distilled and codified into dogma. At their esoteric core, all religions are teaching the same things, although each may emphasize different portions of this central, common truth. The various spiritual figures come into the world at different times and places and emphasize different portions of this common truth, as a correction to the prevailing thought and practices of the time they find themselves in. Even so, there is far more in common among them than there are differences.

    We live in a unique time, when technology has abolished both space and time. This has meant that formerly isolated religions now butt up against each other and the friction can cause a lot of sparks. It has also meant that formerly difficult to find teachings of religion x are now very available either on the internet or in your local bookstore.

    Further, in places that enjoy immense cultural diversity and openness to this intermingling of religions, there is an immense amount of creativity going on in exploring, and mixing and matching aspects of various religions. I personally love the way this sometimes freaks out my east coast guests when they visit me in California. This sort of thing has always happened at world crossroads, but it is becoming more common than ever before.

    The challenge for individual humans has always been to get past the baby tribal stages of religion, to get past the dogmas of your particular favorite teaching, and to cut to the core of the experience the spiritual leader was trying to get across, which is largely in common with the core experiences of all spiritual teachers.

    This need for this, for more people to “get it”, so we can get along without destroying each other, is obviously more important now than ever before. The opposite social attractor has also intensified: the desire to retreat more deeply into dogmatism and tribal fundamentalism, out of a need for security. It’s an open question which way the world will go: a retreat into tribalism and war, or a commonly held, more enlightened understanding of what religion and spirituality are all about.

    I am hopeful for this latter quantum leap forward in spiritual understanding – the seeds for this are here now – but unfortunately I believe it will fully emerge only after fundmentalist dogma has failed. It is through the failure of fundamentalist dogma, and through the probable large scale destruction it will bring about, that humans will evolve forward. Unfortunately we’re still collectively at a point where it takes pain to make us grow, and that’s what I fear is ahead for us as a race.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Jun 17, 2007 @6:46 pm

    Maha and Moonbat,
    I can never get beyond the “baby trial stages of religion.”
    I don’t have faith – whatever that is. I can’t get beyond me – us… And I know is that that’s what it’s all about.
    My take, as I’ve posted about before, is that religion like an argument about cars.
    We scream and kill each other over the owner’s manuals (The Bible, Koran, etc.)
    Who cares what car you buy? You buy what you buy…. We all drive cars in this country.
    ALL of us were born into some religion, except for the children of atheist’s.
    So why does birth and the indoctrination of our youth make so much difference?
    If I believe in anything, it’s in Emerson’s “Oversoul:.”
    http://www.seasidechurch.org/Rev__Dr__Christian/Books_Online/Emerson/body_emerson.html

    “Koan” you understand what I’m saying?
    I really don’t.
    Maybe someday I will…

  3. erinyes  •  Jun 17, 2007 @7:39 pm
  4. r4d20  •  Jun 17, 2007 @8:06 pm

    I recommend “The Jesus Mysteries” by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy. It’s certainly not flawless but it has a LOT of information and tons of detailed footnotes that will allow you to consult the original sources if you want to.

  5. JJ  •  Jun 18, 2007 @2:18 pm

    Religion itself is just an interface.

    Hmm. I think Thomas Merton is a good example of someone from one tradition taking up the practice of another and making it credible (see his Asian Journals).

    However, I find it hard to blame people in organized religions for being afraid of creating schisms or confusion within their ranks, even if the person in question feels genuinely “called” to their alternative worship.

    Then there’s the whole question of “Spiritual Materialism” (as Chogyam Trungpa termed it), how do you know you’re not just shopping for the next shiny piece of spiritual practice, the way you’d add a new piece of stereo equipment? This seems like a vice that the new age people are particularly prone to… What’s the Quaker saying? It’s a gift to be simple? This seems to me like an important caveat with this sort of thing….

  6. maha  •  Jun 18, 2007 @4:38 pm

    JJ — Thomas Merton is an excellent example, yes. As for the Rev. Ms. Redding’s sincerity, that’s what she has to work out for herself. I understand she’s been relieved of ecclesiastic duties, but the Episcopalians haven’t excommunicated her, and I think that’s to their credit.

  7. Lynne  •  Jun 18, 2007 @6:14 pm

    I can’t see the Episcopalians excommunicating Ms. Redding. There is really no reason for them to do so; her spiritual growth is her own to deal with. But of course, she could not really continue as an Episcopalian minister. She is now something else or something about to be.

  8. Swami  •  Jun 18, 2007 @9:48 pm

    I just scored some good homegrown.. and I’m back in communion with God. Jesus said( well, the character Jesus)..”I will give you life more abundantly”..And the only way I can figure out a more abundant life is through apprieciation. And when I get high my appreciation for the beauty of nature, and the wonderment of my existence becomes more abundant.. so I can safely conclude by my reward of abundance that I’m firmly in God ‘s will just as Anselm suggested I should be. A practical application of faith. Praise Jesus.. he’s my kinda guy!

  9. JJ  •  Jun 19, 2007 @9:35 am

    I just scored some good homegrown…

    I was wondering how long it would take the Rational Response Squad to get here. It’s the identity politics early 90’s again… Don’t forget to bring your police whistle to the lecture. I hear there are some non-atheists around…

  10. maha  •  Jun 19, 2007 @12:26 pm

    JJ — be advised I have absolutely no idea what you’re trying to say.

  11. JJ  •  Jun 19, 2007 @4:59 pm

    Sorry. You’re right, that was too elliptical.

    What I was trying to say is there seems to be a certain group pushing atheism as a political cause. I think it’s a reaction to the radical right (an understandable reaction). A lot of them want atheist political candidates. They seem to make a fetish out of not compromising, and taking every opportunity to ridicule religion, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about.

    If you look at that Rational Response Squad site, it has a certain early 90’s flavor to it–the PC days when people brought police whistles to blow at speakers during campus lectures. Just cross Bertrand Russell with the PC 90’s and you get the Rational Response Squad. (Maybe I’m overstating things. They probably don’t use police whistles.)

    This kind of thing seems to me to be identity politics. It’s people stridently identifying themselves with a marginalized group instead of finding common ground. Arthur Schlesinger had something to say about this…

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s good for the left. What was your term for it? Fundamentalist Atheism? You see them a lot in the blogosphere. I occasionally call them on it… (Hmmm. I interpreted Swami’s comment as snark… I could be misinterpreting… It can be hard to figure things out sometimes over the Internets…)

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