Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Two Questions on Salvation

Here are two questions that have been put to me on roughly similar subjects. What lies behind both of them is the idea of salvation which is not very popular nowadays since it implies, a) that we are not what we should be and need to be saved from something, and, b) that we might not be saved. But what we need to be saved from is ego, pride and self-will on the one hand and ignorance on the other, and it can hardly be denied that we all have these to some degree. The reason we tread the spiritual path is precisely to overcome them. There may be those who don't like the idea that there is an element of judgment in this, but in a universe built on truth (which means law) as well as love the demands of justice and mercy must both be met. This is not to say that God's mercy has limits or is conditional, but it cannot override justice indefinitely because that would amount to injustice. Besides, in reality any judgment that takes place is not God's on us but ours on God.

Q. Do you believe that all paths lead to the same goal eventually?

A. Not necessarily. While it is true that there are many valid ways up the mountain, particularly at the beginning of the quest when we may be starting from very different points around the base, it is also the case that there exist numerous spiritual diversions and temptations to deviate from the true path as we ascend. This can be seen both as an opportunity and a test. It is an opportunity to exercise discernment and not succumb to what may be attractive to the ego, and it is a test to expose the unregenerate elements or errors of thought in a disciple that need discarding and which can usually only be so when their consequences are fully experienced. 

The deviations I speak of take various forms, which is only to be expected as they must appeal to each and every type of human consciousness. They will usually contain elements of truth but along with that they will include errors. The truth is the sweetness that attracts and masks the poison of the error but the error might well unbalance the whole so, no, I don’t believe that all spiritual paths lead to the same goal. At least, I don’t believe that all that are called spiritual paths truly are spiritual paths in the proper sense. Many may take you part of the way but then have to be abandoned if you would progress further but there are some that might not even be able to do this much. Having said that, I should add that if a disciple is spiritually mature enough the path he chooses is of less importance than the attitude he brings to bear as he treads it. That's because true spirituality is not dependent on method or technique but on intention and purity of heart. 

Q. In your book you seem to imply that everyone will eventually reach the goal of spiritual liberation and enlightenment but is this really true? It seems to me a nice thought but unlikely when you look at how human beings are. I’m sure we’ve all got goodness in us but there are some people who really do seem past redemption. And if human beings genuinely do have free will, there must be some who never turn to God. I was raised a Christian and I find it hard to shake off the idea that there are people who just refuse to be saved. I don’t believe in hell but are you saying that the idea of salvation is wrong?

A. This is one of those questions to which I can only give you my opinion but, for what it’s worth, here it is. It's based on the implications of free will which is the defining characteristic of a human being. I don’t think every human soul will realise its potential destiny and become an immortal spiritual being. I do think that what is sometimes called, after a passage in the Book of Revelation, the second death is a possibility. Slim, unlikely, remote maybe, but real. This is what happens to a soul that, despite repeated opportunities, persistently rejects God, becoming more and more entrenched in self-will. It means that the individual soul is spiritually disintegrated and its energies returned to the unmanifest source and original purity from whence they arose. It’s not that the soul is sent to eternal punishment. It simply ceases to exist as an individual.

This is not something that would happen to the normal irreligious or even sinful person (and who is not that?), but only to someone who persists in wrongdoing and extreme selfish thinking for life after life,  who constantly defies God and who eventually uses up all their allotted time. Our actions have consequences. If they did not then nothing would matter for all would come right in the end, but in that case the whole process of life in this world would be meaningless. Moreover it would imply that any freedom we might seem to have would be illusionary and we would be little more than puppets. That is not God's plan for us. He wants souls that consciously, voluntarily, joyfully choose the good.

The human soul, our individual self, was created and whatever is born must eventually die. There are two ways this can happen. The first is through the process of liberation when the soul is taken up in full consciousness into pure spirit and transcends itself to win eternal life. But there is also the possibility of the second death when the soul is dissolved into the elements as though it had never been. Obviously our spiritual teachers do everything they can to avoid this second possibility, but it is a possibility and it is so because of, as you correctly say, free will. Even God will not overrule the free will of a created being, but if that being, through pride and lack of love (because that is what is behind all this), consistently rejects the path of truth and righteousness then it will reach a point for which the bill for all its wrong choices must be paid. This reckoning cannot be put off indefinitely. It will then be faced with a stark decision, either to repent and work out its salvation with diligence or else to cease to exist. It is said that even at this stage it is the soul's own choice as to whether it turns around or not so its dissolution will take place only if it refuses to accept the consequence of past behaviour and current attitude.

Either the ego or the soul must eventually die. One is liberation, the other is extinction. The choice is ours.

There is no reason to be concerned by this, on the face of it, rather alarming teaching. The fundamental law of the universe is love and only a soul that absolutely rejects God’s love will be brought to this pass. And that soul will take the step in full knowledge of what it is doing, in defiance and self-will. I am sure we are given chance after chance to redeem ourselves but, at the same time, we must accept that the opportunities cannot be endless or that would make a mockery of free will. The freedom to choose death rather than life is a necessary part of the gift of freedom. 

I realise that this answer might seem controversial but it simply means that we have responsibility for ourselves.


David Balfour said...

I am really struggling to imagine how individual identity is conserved at the higher spiritual levels. I suppose this is understandable given the severely limited capacity I must have in comparison to what I am trying to understand, like a tiny ant attempting to understand the immense forest in finds itself within.

In my mind, and perhaps this is because I was essentially a Buddhist for a few years before re-evaluating Christianity with fresh eyes, the self IS the ego, the false identity or whatever you wish to call it, and so I could imagine pursuing a transcendence of the ego and even experienced beginners glimpses of a pure, impersonal white light and infinite space when I began meditating with some earnestness. This was, as you say in your book, like showing a bee some colourful flowers and I wanted more or imagined I might just be able to 'check out' of hotel Samsara with a bit of work. This ides was reinforced by my forays into Zen and the notions of Satori, piercing insightful Koan's or similar things perhaps pointing the way out of a world of suffering. But then this would mean that all of the beauty of creation is just a snare and something which should be renounced as 'attachment' and this never made sense to me. Not really. Buddha implored his followers to focus on removing the poison arrow without asking who fired it or where it came from. So the idea of deity and of souls and individuality makes sense to me. BUT some Buddhist traditions do clearly acknowledge that there are different heavens and hell and also it can be possible to be a God even. But even the God's are born, live and die in the highest heavens and their karma will carry them on. The difficulty of living in heaven though is that opportunities to learn more deeply are less common because of the higher baseline nature of love, beauty and peace. Far better, according to this view, to live in a place like Earth where real suffering and loss is the furnace for spiritual growth and a catalyst for the renunciation of ego and self-hood. This seems to me consistent with your idea that Jesus renounced his self - hood on the cross as the penultimate act of the path. Is this not the same thing as what an altruistic Boddhisatva might not be argued to do when he allows himself to be eaten by a lion to feed it and it's cubs or similar selfless act? Importantly, I imagine Buddhists from this school of thought would see your view as a clever intellectual trap to move the focus from enlightenment and onto a subtle retention of ego in the form of an individual identity. In this view they would argue aspiring to be a God in heaven may work but it is still another way of perpetuating dharma instead of distinguishing it. Put another way if you see the Buddha on the road, you should slay him!

If I try and imagine Jesus living 'eternal life' as you describe I can see something like a ball of light living in orbit around God but I struggle to see how an entity without ego at all can remain an individual. I can only see oneness with the divine or Nirvana.

Just a few thoughts that I would be interested to hear your perspective on. Thanks :-)

David Balfour said...

Importantly when I became a Christian I realised that the individual identity seems too beautiful to discard and I came to realise I actually believe I have an immortal soul (At least according the the versions of Christianity I have been exposed to in my searchings) and that getting rid of my identity was missing the point. This lead me eventually, to make a long story short, to embracing many of the ideas and beliefs of Mormonism, which makes a great deal of sense to me. In such a vision I imagined I would ideally be resurrected in a perfected body, having accepted Christ and that I would live in a perfected Earth, in which Earthly suffering has been transcended permanently and I would live with my loved ones, family and ancestors in harmony with creation and with God. Stopping there seems good enough to me and I am not tempted to strive for anymore than this. I even quite preferred this idea to exultation which is the highest path in Mormon theology. Long walks holding hands with my partner watching the sun rise, playing and creating and exploring with friends, this all sounds better than Nirvana to me. I think perhaps the visions of William Arkle of the Gift are my absolute favourite vision of what is possible in my imagination. Nirvana or oneness sounds quite dull and static in comparison. So if it is a *choice* I would chose that over Buddhism. But then they would say I am deluded and Mara has tricked me once again to fall for thus vision!

William Wildblood said...

I have thought like this too, David, and found it hard to understand how to reconcile the sense of the individual with idea of being fully one with universal being which I think is what you are saying. But now I see that the Buddhist point of view might be right on its own terms but leaves something important out. For Buddhism sees the self only as the fallen self or separate self or ego. It doesn't see that the self is actually good. It's only when it becomes corrupt that it's bad. But it's always corrupt now!

The way to resolve this problem is not to look at it in terms of individuality but of in terms of identification with individuality. The enlightened person still has his individuality but that is not the centre of his being any more. he is one with universal life or pure being and that is his centre. Even the Buddha was still an individual but his consciousness was not centred on himself as an individual. Nevertheless I think the teaching of Christ goes further than that of the Buddha for it reconciles and integrates being and becoming instead of renouncing the latter for the former.In Christ the individual soul is not rejected but sanctified and this has implications for ideas of love, beauty and goodness all of which are given up in Nirvana for just pure truth in the absolute sense. You still have that in Christ but you have something more as well.

And by the way gods in Buddhism are not gods as I understand them. They are more like superhuman beings still tied to identification with themselves as separate personalities. Ditto for the Buddhist heavens which are still planes in the phenomenal universe, by no means heaven in a Christian sense. You can't always equate ideas from one religious framework with another just because the same words are used in translation.

William Wildblood said...

You are not retaining ego in following the path of Christ. Ego is not your individuality as "I'. It is more the sense of me and mine, the I that sees itself as separate from other Is. The Buddhist does not distinguish between the two but they are not the same. God wants you to be an individual. Where is love without that? How can there be any personal flavour in the universe without that? And it is precisely the personal that gives the universe its flavour. The Buddhist is wrong! It is not individuality itself which is an illusion, sin or whatever. It is attachment to individuality that blinds you to the reality of God.

David Balfour said...

I think your explanations and distinctions are beginning to sink in and make more sense to me. It is hard to overcome habitual patterns of thinking and perception. Its a bit like staring at one of the visual illusions of a jar that is also two faces depending on which adpects of the picture one focuses on: being or becoming. The picture flits between the two and the viewer struggles to see the Gestalt. Sometimes one becomes so identified with looking at the jar (Advaita/Buddhism) that they can no longer see the faces of individuality that are equally real (theosis and sanctification but retention of becoming or individuality).

David Balfour said...

Once one has intellectually understood the picture as being and becoming in harmony, the journey does not stop there, it only begins. What I am finding is that whilst i may have intellectual insight my practical spiritual ability to control my lower self lags behind the intellect. For example, I am often ruled by passionate emotions and feelings of a baser more animalistic nature: pride, lust, greed, self-centredness, etc. This is the universal situation for us all, more or less. But how to stop sinning?! Now that is something i cannot do and would seek to achieve. How does one do *that*? Yes, I repent and yes I try again with a contrite spirit when I inevitably fail (and I always do without exception, every day!) but sometimes, despite my best efforts (or are they really my best efforts? Normally with the benefit of hindsight one can identify a zone of potential for ground that could have been gained that had been conceded too easily) I feel disgusted with myself and a perpetual 'breaker of promises to my higher self.' The peril then becomes either despair on the one hand or the overcompensation of being too lenient with oneself on the other as modern self-compassionate practices or pop psychology would likely advocate to an extreme which is also to go too far the other way. Finding a balance is hard! The difference between theory and practice is enormous! I feel like a man who has learned to swim from a book and then easily begins to drown as soon as he is even remotely out of shallow waters.

William Wildblood said...

The gap between theory and practice is something that exists for all of us. But it seems to me that you have taken a big step in recognising that gap exists. Many people are content with intellectual insight alone and think that because they understand, they are. No such luck. As you rightly say understanding is only the beginning of a long path. But that's only to be expected if you set your sights high. The transformation of human nature is the most fundamental and most important thing anyone can ever do. But if you seek help through prayer and use your imagination to visualise your spiritual helpers loving you and guiding you (and they are there, it's not just 'imagination') then you will find support on your journey.
God knows and understands all our weaknesses. All he requires is that we sincerely try to walk in the path of truth and don't give up even when that path gets thorny and no end seems to be in sight. As I was often told we can't see the wood for the trees down here so don't realise we might be making progress when in fact we are.

I know exactly what you mean about breaking promises made to your higher self but it shows you're not making excuses for yourself and that's the main thing. It doesn't matter if you fall as long as you get up again but I'm sure you know all that already. You've very wisely pointed to the emptiness of pop psychology which often seems just to pander to the ego. We have to be hard on ourselves but at the same time be able to accept God's forgiveness when we have made a mistake and then move on.

Anonymous said...

Each and every siddhanta or Theory has to explain the Universe in which we live and experience, whether it be Physics or Metaphysics.
quantum Physics teaches that there is nothing g but Energy in this Universe and matter is only a form of Energy. E is equal to mC2, sums it all. Today in quantum physics, it is accepted the world we live is only our EXPERIENCE achieved by our senses which are very defective tools at best. They do not see or hear or sense anything in their reality. as observation is just an interaction between the observed and the Observer, each observation remains relative and is entangled with the characteristics of the observer. Reality, Or What is THERE, can be sensed or realised only if we transcend our senses. When that happens, we see there is no difference anywhere around us and it is simply Energy or Chaitanya .