Sunday, April 8, 2012

Comparative Religion

Despite my great interest and inclination towards eastern religions, especially Zen and Taoism, I find that I'm still greatly influenced by my Catholic upbringing. It's hard to escape such things. I mean, raised in a Catholic family, went to Catholic school from K-8, my whole neighborhood, including my best friend, was all Catholic. Say of Freud what you want, childhood influences at least are for real. It's actually amazing that I escaped as much as I did. But I've heard it said, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And maybe so.

In a way, I feel I'm in a similar position as Alan Watts mentions of himself in his book, The Supreme Identity (which I consider his best, or most in depth at least). He says in the foreword to the new edition, 25 years after the initial publication, that he considers the book that follows a "somewhat torturous" argument coming from someone who was about to leave the Anglican priesthood, but hadn't quite made up his mind to do so. He goes on to say, that after all his years of comparative study of Eastern religions, "things have come to such a point that I could almost function again as a Christian priest," but it's better that he stay outside any and all systems.

I sort of fit the same pattern. I used to think of Christian doctrine closed minded, narrow, exclusive, and restrictive. Too dogmatic, too illogical. Eastern religions opened the door for me, turned spirit or divinity not into some separate, distant entity, but something more immanent, the Ground of Being. I moved beyond theology into metaphysics. It was refreshing and liberating, something that resonated with my mind as much as my heart.

Recently I find myself beginning to come to terms with my Christian background. The key is to abandon literal readings in favor of a mystic's view. For example, if you read the Gospel of John not from the traditional sense but as a Hindu or Chinese philosopher might, it turns into a text every bit as amazing as the Gita or the Tao Te Ching. Just the first few lines are incredible from this perspective. You can think of the "He" "Him" "God" "Light" and all the subjects of this mystical text as Buddha-nature, Brahman, Tao. Even "Christ" can be understood esoterically, rather than literally. As Paul said, "not I, but Christ in me." The deeper spirit that resides within us, Christ Consciousness, the atman, which is our individual share in Brahman.

When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father but by me" did you really think he meant his physical, human self, the person of Jesus? That's ridiculous, how can a flesh and blood being be the only way to Truth? Or was he speaking from the spirit which we all share? He also said "what I have done, you too can do" and "I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you." There are tons of sayings and things in the Gospels that can be understood this way, you just have to look deeper. Think of the "I" that Jesus uses as the atman, and the Father as the Brahman, and it fits perfectly. He did teach in parables, after all.

I have come to think of the God of the Bible as a combination of things. In large part it is the confused term for the Brahman or Tao, of a people who have lost touch with it. They don't have the experience of it anymore, just a term, a concept, and over time such a concept can drift into strange territory. On the other hand, it's not all confusion. It is in places, like the Gospel of John's opening lines, used in an esoteric way by a people limited by a highly textual concept of spirit.

But I mean, this was a culture very text/scripture based; they have to be careful of blasphemy, for one, because they only had these words, not the experience, and so anything that contradicted the text destroyed their only link to Spirit. And therefore they just didn't know how to talk about the mystical experience, they didn't have the language for it as they had in places like India. So they were stuck with convoluted and out of touch terms and explanations; like a Bushman trying to explain quantum mechanics to his Kalahari brethren. He won't have the words, and it's going to get lost in translation.

Also, there are many instances in the Old Testament of God is obviously being used as an excuse of rationale for atrocities, either to whip up military fervor, or later, to explain why these whole cities were exterminated down to the last dog and goat. The priests, a class of people so often in collusion with rulers and therefore corrupt with power, used the concept of God as a weapon. You didn't destroy cities out of lust for power, they told the ignorant people, but because God ordered it.

I'm not about to return to the Catholic church, but I have found, through comparative religion, a real catholicity-- catholic, of course, meaning universal. Think of it this way. You can live your life wearing rose tinted glasses, and never realize there's a tint. But, understanding other religions is a way of changing what glasses you wear. You put on some blue tinted ones, and get a new way to see the world.

Drugs do the same thing, both they and religions initiate new modes of consciousness-- smoking a bowl, eating peyote, drinking ayahuasca, or studying Taoism and Vedanta; all are a way of trying on other realities. Shifting modes leads to great insight; thus I view drug use ideally not as a recreational thing, for kicks, but a serious spiritual tool, to be used with restraint, wisdom and respect. Right up there with fasting, meditation, music and dance (especially the trance inducing kinds), chanting, and so forth. Tools, all.

The important thing, I think, is not to say, well, the blue glasses are truer than the original red ones, or that the red ones I grew up with are the real ones, the blue are illusion or lies from the devil. I mean, it's not like we have only one state of daily consciousness anyways, we'd go crazy if we could stick in rational thinking all the time. But we are capable of switching through all kinds of states: deep sleep, dream sleep, lucid dreaming, hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, day dreaming, the Zone, trance, SMR, and the Pure Consciousness Event.

So the point of trying on these different worldviews isn't to find the right one. The narrow path of wisdom is to realize that the various worldviews, the various tinted glasses, are just different perspectives, and that there is out there a real, untinted world beyond the frames. Don't get hung up on the comparison, but use the comparison to transcend both.

So I'm not about to start going to church or anything. I won't call myself a Catholic, and I still find the Christian spiritual language a confusing, overly complex and convoluted language that makes that narrow path of wisdom even harder to find. It's a rich tradition, and valid, but for the majority the real thread of truth has been lost, forgotten in favor of dogma and external truths with a long history of abuse by power. I can understand Christ in more esoteric terms, but prefer not to use the word because it brings along too much baggage, calls up too certain an idea that inhibits deeper understanding. People get stuck on the "letter of the law" and therefore miss the Spirit.


  1. I hear you!

    You might want to read a bit of Thomas Merton too. Although you probably have.

    I have been having a discussion with someone, a European, doing cross-cultural studies of Taoist and the west, who says one will always view another tradition through the lens of the original. (He says this even of the Chinese, although I think that flys in the face of syncretism and the fact that Chinese are often Taoist/Buddhist/Confucianists, as the "need" presents itself.) You and I share this Catholic/Christian background; it is hard to just turn it off; there is much richness there.

    As we are limited to the visible spectrum, we can never see light energy as it really is, all the "colors" blended into one. But we can guess at it. Though Theresa of Avila said she say the glory of God...and it was blue.

    Nice post.

  2. I was an "out there" Christian (Presbyterian, not Catholic). My view of Jesus was a lot like what you stated in this post -- which put me at odds with most Christian doctrine. The narrow definitions of spirituality is what led me away from the faith toward Taoism.

    I write a lot of polemical stuff on my blog against Christianity, but I try to make clear that it is against the myopic fundamentalist view -- the view that holds the loudest sway right now. If I lived in a place where there were lots of zealot Muslims or Hindus, I would take aim at them!

    In my opinion, ALL belief systems wrestle with the same basic ideas. The difference is in how these ideas are expressed.

  3. Heh, that thing about the glory of God being blue reminds me of a hiker buddy of mine; we were walking along, playing 20 questions to pass the miles on a rather boring stretch of trail, and his first question was, "Is it blue?" Just cracked me up. You can just imagine how the guy's mind works, haha.


    Yeah, always wanted to read Merton, never got around to it yet.

    Trey, I hear what you're saying, and I didn't write this post to argue against your posts, though I've long disliked them. I think it's wrongheaded to go comparing Tao to Yahweh and ending up with the Tao clearly being the better, "right" choice. The comparison stays on the same level you disagree with! I know you have to start on that level when talking with a fundy, but eventually I'd want to move on to more depth, rather than stay on some literalist, this vs that level.