Monday, 3 October 2016

Christ, Spirituality and the West

After nearly 40 years of interest in spiritual matters it's increasingly clear to me that any genuine revival of spirituality in the West must be linked to Christ. The huge range of spiritual approaches that opened up in the 20th century, particularly since the 1960s, has led many to believe that all paths to God are more or less equally valid and it's just a matter of choosing the one that suits you best, whether that be a form of Eastern philosophy, Western esotericism, paganism, occultism, New Age mysticism or whatever it might be. All roads lead to Rome, so to speak. And it's true that most of these systems can help lift a person out of the materialistic morass humanity has fallen into over the last few hundred years, and give him or her a grounding in spiritual understanding and practice. But in all of them something important, even fundamental, is missing, and that is Christ. For the fact is that Christ really is the light of the world. He is the spiritual truth that transcends all others, and any form of spirituality without him will always risk falling short. I speak for the West here. I don't say Christ is irrelevant for the East but it has built up its own way and tradition, and the form of Christianity, as it currently stands, is a Western one. Eastern approaches to God are certainly valid on their own terms even if, as I believe, they do not contain the fullness of truth that those centred on Christ do.

You might ask why a real spiritual renewal should be linked to Christ. Why can one not follow one of the many spiritual paths that do not involve a recognition of Christ as Son of God, and still find a way to the goal? First of all, I would say that depends on what the goal might be. Enlightenment, liberation? These are imported concepts and not part of the Western spiritual tradition which is focused on the sanctification of the soul in union with God, the transcending by the soul of itself in humility and love. But then I would ask a question in return. Why are you failing to recognise the primacy of Christ? What is it in you that rejects this? For a heart that is really open to truth would recognise that Christ is the greatest spiritual light that has yet appeared on this Earth. In his person he brought together and went beyond all other forms of truth. This was symbolised by the attendance of the three Magi at his birth. (Let us remember they were not Jews, demonstrating the universal nature of Christ). If you don't see this you should look again, perhaps with a prejudice caused by the failings of earthly forms of Christianity wiped from your eyes. If Christ is in your heart then you will recognise him. If he is not then he needs to be because he is the door through which we all must pass on our way to God. Admittedly not necessarily in his outer revealed form but through his inner reality, yes.

But to answer the question posed in the previous paragraph more directly. Any spiritual renewal in the West must be focused on Christ because only Christ safeguards us from the excesses of pride and illusion, those twin perils of the spiritual path. By humbly submitting oneself to him, and walking in his light, one is protected from all the falseness that surrounds spirituality, and there is a lot as any experienced spiritual director will tell you. But there is another reason, implied earlier, and wonderfully simple. It is that Christianity in its essence is true. Since Christ arrived in the world all other spiritual approaches are subordinate to him. However effective they might have been in earlier times they are now secondary, having been superseded by him, and the reality is that if you ignore or reject this then you are rejecting something fundamental to spiritual truth. A higher form of it has been presented. If you don't respond to that then you are failing to recognise a basic spiritual fact which means that your powers of intuition are either undeveloped or your ego is suppressing them for reasons of its own. Consequently your spiritual progress will be held back from reaching its full potential.

One of the important aspects of a Christ centred approach to spirituality is that it recognises the personhood of God. In this day and age an impersonal divine life is very attractive to many, chiefly I would say because it does not challenge the ego as much as the recognition that we have a Creator, a Father, to whom we owe not just our being but also our loyalty and love. To some this is a wonderfully liberating idea but to others it is experienced (by the ego, of course) as oppressive and they might be keen to reject it for the impersonal option. That is their right, but if they do this they are choosing the lower path which, in many cases, will lead to delusion because it lacks the sense of there being something greater than ourselves before which we need to bow our head and acknowledge our weaknesses and failings. Human nature is such that we can only really confess our sins (and hence be forgiven and find redemption) to a personal being. Without full repentance and acknowledgement of all our erring ways it is almost impossible for the self to transcend itself. The renunciation of ego, which is what I am talking about here, can only truly be done in love not knowledge. Love means a personal God.

What I have said here does not mean that any renewal has to be centred on the Christian churches or one of the current outer Christian structures. This is actually something of a problem at the present time because what the world needs now is not so much Christians as followers of Christ, and we should distinguish between the two. Most modern Christians are heavily infected by the things of this world, and their Christianity adapts itself to worldliness. In any case Christianity, in its earthly manifestation, could well be said to be past its best before date, due to processes of inner decay and outer change. To put it bluntly, modern Christianity is a very imperfect representation of spiritual truth. Despite its many qualities, it has some pronounced areas of weakness, particularly when it comes to an understanding of consciousness and its transformation. Consequently many of the more spiritually sensitive souls will nowadays choose to be spiritual freelancers. This has its corresponding difficulties in that personal experience might become the focus of their spiritual approach and that can lead to problems unless checked and balanced by a higher understanding. So we need to tread with care and this is why it is so important for anyone on the path, whether as a member of a spiritual community or as what I have called a spiritual freelancer, to have the image of Christ stamped on their heart. That image will act as a light to keep you safely on the spiritual straight and narrow. Without it you are more than likely to stray and, while there are certainly other images, there are none so deeply effective and true.

The principal point I am making here is that even if a modern spiritual seeker cannot accept Christianity as it exists in any of its contemporary forms, and I understand that being in the same position myself, this is no reason to reject Christ or to reduce him to simply an enlightened soul like any other. He remains the Way, the Truth and the Life, and any spiritual revival must take that into account if it is to be properly effective. It may, and probably should, encompass other things but that must be central. Christianity in its ancient and modern forms may be never again be what it was but Christ is eternal. An image that comes to mind here is that of a decaying fruit that contains the seed of its own regrowth. Thus the Christian religion, as it has been, perhaps cannot be revived to its past glory and spiritual creativity but the renewal of Christianity will come from the seeds left by the fruit of its past.

One of the ways modern Christianity has fallen short is that it has shown an insufficient appreciation of spirituality. A strange thing to say you might think, but what I mean is this. Christianity has neglected the immanence of creation. It has lost touch with the reality of a divine presence in nature and in man, and any revival must be far more in tune with the essential mystery, poetry and magic of life than recent Christianity has been. Thus it must be consistent with the understanding that the spirit of God is present in creation, and that he is not just the transcendent Creator but also immanent being. But again he is not just immanent being but our wholly personal Father too, and both these things must be taken into account with neither left out or you will have a limited and incomplete spiritual approach that leaves you outside the full reality of God.

It may be that those who predict that the next age will be dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth within us all, are right. This was the idea of Joachim de Fiore i the Middle Ages who theorised that the ages of the Father and the Son would be followed by one of a more universal spirituality. But each age has to be built on the last, and if it rejects the past it has no foundation and will fall. So whether the next age is that of the Holy Spirit or not the fact remains that this inner spirit can never be known without full acknowledgement of the Father and the Son. The idea of the Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son is an illusion and a snare for the unwise. This is another reason for the necessity of any future spiritual revival to be grounded in Christ.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Well said. It is striking that so many serious spiritual seekers have converged upon the coentrality and indispensability of Christ (Steiner, Arkle, Jung - i his final years).

And you description of the problems of many churches is correct.

But given that the one or another church was i the past the first port of call for someone wanting to learn more of Christ, what should be the modern seeker do instead? What source of teaching, information, knowledge might he turn to?

What unlocked Christ for you, personally?

William Wildblood said...

To answer your question, Bruce. First and foremost, it would be the Gospels. Then it might be reading about the lives of the saints, particularly some of the early saints. Then it would be the whole history of Christianity including its theology,its art,the cathedrals and paintings of Christ, many of which really do seem to capture something of his person. Speaking for myself, when I was in India between 1980 and 1985 I would sometimes go to church. There was a little 19th century Anglican church near the village where I lived and I used to go there on Sundays quite a lot, firstly because it seemed to be expected of me, being English, but then because I found that the service, which was plain old fashioned C of E mostly deriving from the Book of Common Prayer, had so much spiritual truth in it. I would also sometimes go to Catholic services with my friend Michael as he was Catholic though that was more as an observer than a participant.

But also from my perspective maybe the strongest thing, at the risk of sounding horribly pretentious, is the image of Christ I perceive in my heart though that probably, in fact definitely, has had a good deal of input from the external factors I've just mentioned.

I've been a bit of a spiritual magpie and looked at many different traditions and paths though never been actively involved in any, mainly because of my own personal experiences. So I do know about most forms of spirituality, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern. Always though the image of Christ stands above all else. Some paths might emphasise aspects of spirituality that Christ does not put forward so much but still he is like the spiritual north star and anything else is true to the degree that it approximates to that. Or such is my belief.

Bryan_Cranstin said...

William, when you say in modern times people tend to adapt their Christianity to their worldliness, leading to false spirirual approaches, would you consider Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner to fall into this category.

As far as I can tell, both of these thinkers attempted to reconcile modernity with traditional spirituality. We must retain our modern sense of stark individuality and scientific mondset, but also learn to feel connected to everything else, etc. In other words, we should reduce ego, but not too much. Sort of like a halfway house between traditional spirituality with its reduction of ego and the modern mindset and it's elevation of personal ego.

In other words, they wished to have their cake and eat it too.

Steiner has even said spirituality should not interfere at all with practical and worldly day to day living, which is remarkable since worldly living is necessarily mostly about satisfying the ego (wealth, status), and would seem to need some curtailment at least if one is to reduce ego.

These thinkers also believe in evolution, which is a modern idea that seems to contradict the idea that the kingdom of God is within you at all times.

Myself, I see value in these thinkers for modern times because for most moderns the leap into spirituality and the necessary turn away from modern ways of thinking is too great. They need a bridge across the divide.

What do you think?

Secondly, when you claim that we must follow Christ at least in an inner sense do you mean that we must model our lives after him and his precepts, i.e that we must practice humility, meekness, surrender, loss of ego and self, not judging, turning the othet cheek, and cultivate love, and that any approach that fails to model itself on this basic attitude cannot succeed spirituality?

The "inner Christ" - do you mean by this the "spirit" of Christ ad exemplified by his actions, precepts, and sayings as laid out in the Gospels, and as perhaps exemplified by many of the saints?

William Wildblood said...

Hello Bryan
When I say that people adapt their Christianity to worldliness I am not referring to those for whom spirituality is primary and actually real but those for whom it is largely an external thing so conventional Christians who never really look too deeply within themselves for the true source of religion. These are the people who would go along with the world as it is today adding Christianity to that instead of seeing that the two are irreconcilable.

I don't know all that much about Steiner and Barfield. I have read some Steiner and an impressed by the depth and breadth of his knowledge about the workings of the inner side of creation but I think he lays too much emphasis on spirituality as a system of knowledge. Does he ever mention God very much? But God should be primary for a spiritual person. Also like all clairvoyants, and I think that's what he was, he has a lot of misses as well as hits.

I haven't read any Barfield but from what I understand of him from others there's a lot to be said for his ideas about the evolution of consciousness. I would broadly go along with those.

Which means that the future can never be a return to the past. At the same time it must be built on the past and the grave error of the contemporary world is that it has rejected the past. I suppose what this means it's that our feeling and thinking and sense of individuality are not rejected in spiritual endeavour, as sometimes is the case for one or all of them, but allowed to be permeated or irradiated by intuition or the mind in the heart.

I don't see a contradiction between the idea of spiritual evolution or development and the fact of the kingdom of God within us. It is always within us but our power to receive and know it can change and grow. So these two ideas can bounce off each other and give each other greater meaning and context.

Regarding your last paragraph I would say yes, it is pretty much those things with one important proviso or maybe two. Meekness does not mean lack of strength. Christ was humble but he'd could also be a lion at times when necessary. He wielded the sword of truth and didn't compromise. He was still a King after all!

Then there is not judging. You have to judge or how do you know truth from error or right from wrong? This is part of being wise as serpents. You have to discriminate but you should not let hatred or condemnation enter into your judgement. So it's love the sinner but hate the sin. If you don't hate the sin, as the modem world frequently doesn't, you are not a follower of Christ. But nor are you if you don't love the sinner. Proper love, though, will always love try to stop the sinner sinning. How do you love him if you let him destroy himself?

For me the eventual goal is to become Christ-like ourselves. Not just to follow him but actually to be him though in our own unique way. So as St Paul says it is not I who live but Christ is me and yet it is Christ in me so the me element is also a factor of that. God doesn't want clones of Christ but lots of Christ like individuals. So the inner Christ is precisely that. It is the Christ consciousness within us,within our heart which can be awakened or born through prayer and meditation and following the precepts in the Gospels whole-heartedly , that is not just acting them out but living them fully. It's a life long journey.

Bryan_Cranstin said...

Thank you for responding, William.

Yes, I believe even opponents of Steiner and Barfield agree they have many valuable insights and ideas. For me, Barfield is very good at showing how the modern idea of matter as solid and independent of us is an "idol".

Regarding evolution of consciousness, most spiritual traditions regard Truth as "timeless", and our job is to realize this unchanging truth in each generation. Barfield and Steiner see the desired state of being man must strive for as one that actually changes over time, specifically in the direction of greater self consciousness. In other words, in the past a certain level of reduction of ego would have been appropriate, but now a higher state is reached by retaining a much greater sense of personal selfhood.

In other words, they agree with tradition that yes, the modern radical and extreme individuality must be reduced, but they disagree by how much - they believe the scientific revolution and the extreme individualism it created, was actually a step in the right direction just too far - we SHOULD be more "individualted" than ancient man, just not quite as far as modernity would have it. It is a halfway house.

I would describe their approach as "reduction" of ego rather than "transcending" the ego, and to me it seems like a rather feeble attempt to fuse modernity with spirituality. While I would absolutely agree with you that we cannot return to the past, I would say the task of each generation would be to apply timeless and unchanging truth to current conditions.

Since you write about transcending the ego, William, to what degree do you think this should be done? Below modern extreme individuality but not quite as far as traditional Christianity (which prescribed a level of ego reduction that really isn't compatible with the modern mindset)?

Regarding meekness, Christ also said in weakness he is perfected, which suggests that the lion-like fierceness you seek to find in Christ was something he specifically repudiated when he distinguished his system from those that went before. Again the issue seems to be a matter of "degree", as with ego above - Judaism fused meekness with fierceness and recommends a "mid-level" meekness, so to speak, whereas it seems be Christs distinctive innovation to recommend a radical and counter-intuitive extreme meekness that goes well beyond Judaism or anything that went before.

As for not judging, the context is that we should focus on our own sins and not on those of others. Again it seems to me Christ was introducing an extreme departure from Jewish tradition of judging - the Jews judged, but you you shouldn't. One can easily see that judging invites pride, and can be destructive to the recipient no matter how much you think you are helping him - maybe he is a in a delicate state where even mild judging can push him over the edge into egotistic rebellion.

William, as far as I can judge from your comments, you seem to settle for a mid-level in these matters - be meek, but not too meek, get over the ego, but keep it a little, don't judge harshly, but judge - whereas Christ seems to have been an utter radical who recommended an extreme course of conduct completely incompatible with "normal" day to day living, and necessesitating great sacrifice and total personal transformation. We cannot continue to live comfortably, doing science and ammassing wealth, but must do something rather radical and un-English, rather unreasonable - at least so it seems to me.

What do you think?

William Wildblood said...

What I think is that we probably largely agree but words are getting in the way! I don't think I would advocate a half way house in anything but I do try to balance excesses both in the attitude in the modern world and in traditional ideas of non-duality as I see them.

For me transcending ego means overcoming the sense of a separate self so it's not a question of level. It must be complete. But that doesn't mean, pace Buddhism, that there is no individual left. The individual is good. Jesus was an individual and no individuality means no love. Why would God bother to create us as individuals if that was to be got rid of? Identification with it has to be gone beyond in a greater identification with the whole of life or God Himself but it still remains as our basic quality and what we are.

I completely take your points about meekness and judging. So much depends on context. Christ was speaking in a certain context and to a certain mindset and we are now living with different ones. I just meant that being non-judgemental cannot mean giving truth and falsehood equal rights which modernity often seems happy to do except in the field of science. There must always be discrimination or in Buddhist terms right judgment.

When I made the lion analogy I was only thinking that Jesus was sometimes fierce in his denunciation of falsehood. Or I might even have been thinking of Aslan! But Jesus was humble even when denunciating except perhaps with the money lenders at the temple but who knows. He might have been a lion outside for a certain purpose but a lamb within and it's the within that really matters. But was he meek? I'm not sure that's a good word because it implies timidity and can be used as an excuse for all sorts of things including not standing up for truth. So I wonder what the sense of the original word was. Humility is a pre-requisite on the spiritual path and I think that word encompasses all that is necessary without bringing meekness into it even though I see the point.

I absolutely agree with you about the requirement of great sacrifice and total personal transformations. The can be no half measures. Every last drop of egotism and falseness has to be squeezed out of us and I believe that we all have to go through our own crucifixion if we are to be made worthy of entry into the kingdom of heaven. We have to do what the rich young man couldn't do, give up our riches, both real and metaphorical, and take up the cross. So I think perhaps we are in agreement there.

Bryan_Cranstin said...

Thanks for your clarifcations, William. I think we probably agree more than we disagree.

To me it still seems that the best way to conceptualize this is as a question of degree - ego and individuality strike me as the same thing, and one cannot eliminate ego entirely while retaining individuality.

Love, also, seems to be a reduction of individuality - the ultimate of love is two melding into one. Being enmeshed in relationships means a loss of individuality.

So the main point of contention, it seems to me, is level of ego - mystics, Buddhists, theosophists, Steinerians, etc differ about the precise level of individuality that has to be lost, but everyone agrees individuality must be reduced.