Thursday 12 March 2020

Roads to Rome

Throughout the 20th century the common belief among many of those who studied spirituality was that all roads lead to Rome. That is to say, all religions teach more or less the same thing especially in their mystical forms. For some time, I believed this myself.  The idea was that mystics caught a glimpse of spiritual reality and expressed this in their own terms which were dictated by individual temperament and cultural conditioning. The form varied according to the vagaries of time and place but the underlying truth was one, expressed in different ways because essentially inexpressible.

I don't think this anymore. To take an obvious example, the teachings of Christ and the Buddha are not truly reconcilable. Heaven, where souls live in a relationship of love, united in Christ, cannot be equated to the state of Nirvana in which the whole idea of an individual soul is discarded. Some might claim that Nirvana is the higher state, a move into the absolute while heaven remains part of the relative world of duality in which the I still exists. I would say the opposite. Nirvana is basically a return to the uncreated state in which creation and its fruits are discarded. Heaven in contrast has added something to this state.  It has added the individual, a new God. It has multiplied reality, multiplied God, and it has added love. Don't mistake Buddhist compassion for love. They are not the same. One is purely passive but the other is active and creative. The Buddha rejects matter for spirit whereas Christ incorporates matter into spirit.  He is more. In him creation is brought to fruition, its purpose realised.  This doesn't mean the Buddhist way is false but if is a lesser thing because it assumes that the end state is a return to the beginning state with nothing added by the journey. And it thinks that reality is just the absolute state of non-expressed naked existence whereas it really comprises existence and expression, being and becoming together.  Two is more than one and together they produce a third.

Then there is Islam. This has been a problem from the beginning. Not just because it was spread by the sword which it was. That's a fact of history. And not just because its founder was clearly not a spiritual man. Certainly not in comparison with other religious teachers. His actions indicate that. He may have been the right man for the job in that time and place but his spiritual insights were not profound. No, the real problem is that Islam is a religion based on force. The God it worships is an authority figure whose will is law and to whom unquestioning obedience is owed or else.

Although it has its form of mysticism in Sufism, it is obvious that the source of the mystical elements there are Hindu advaita and Christian devotionalism. Sufism has certainly made something of its own from the ingredients and it does ground itself in the Koran, but can anyone really think that it is the Koran as it stands that inspires the spiritual depths that are assuredly present in Sufism? There is not this problem with the Gospels or the Bhagavad Gita which are profound scriptures, brimming with mystical insight. The Koran is simply not in that league as a spiritual document.

I would say Islam is based on a New Age type channelling which co-opts Christianity and Judaism to make its own quite different religion. Allah is not God as God is conceived in  Christianity. You can't have a relationship with him. He's like an overlord to whom you must submit. A Christian would also say that you must submit to God but you do so out of love not because of an unbendable authority.

Despite what I have written, I do think that devout and sincere aspiration to goodness, love and truth will always bring a person closer to God, whatever his religion. And the fact is that the religions do not stand isolated one from another as there has been cross-cultural influence. So, in that respect, all religions do offer paths to God. But they do not, in themselves, all teach the same thing and we should recognise this while also admitting that they are not as irreconcilable as used to be thought.

What about the idea that mystics of all religions describe similar states of consciousness? No doubt they do but mystical experience is not the point of the spiritual path. Mystics may well have similar experiences but that is because they have touched higher levels of reality. However, if this was the proper goal of religion we would have no reason to be born in this world. But we are born in the world and we are born here to learn and to experience and through that experience to forge for ourselves a soul that is worthy to stand in the presence of God. A soul purified of egotism and able to express itself in the fullness of love and creativity, centred in God. Not all religions understand this to the same degree, and it seems to me that only Christianity really understands it, placing it at the heart of its doctrines. True religion is not a search for higher consciousness, though that is a by-product. It is a means of soul transformation through self-sacrifice in love.

Clearly all religions are attempts to understand the world beyond this one and to put ourselves right with it. But they do this in different ways, not all equally correct. All roads may lead to Italy but they don't all lead to Rome.


edwin faust said...

The way in which worldly as well as spiritual experience is understood appears to be the crux of the difference between East and West. Sometimes, however, its seems to me that the differences may not be all that real and irreconcilable. Christianity has from its inception viewed the world as a place where the flesh lusts against the spirit. We come here because we want something from the world, and that something divides us from God, from our Divine origin. It is in realizing that nothing in this world can satisfy us or replace the love of God that salvation is accomplished. Is this a transformation or a recognition of an always existing truth of our nature? What do we gain from experience other than a knowledge of its insufficiency and illusory promises? It may be that we had to incarnate here to learn the lesson that to prefer anything to God is sin and death. But God means many things to many people. What does it mean to want God above all else? What is it, precisely, that we want? Something we don't already have? Or is it to want what we already are and that the lust of the flesh has blinded us to? Christ says repeatedly in John's Gospel that we are to be one in Him and He is one in the Father. What of self remains when this one-ness is realized? What makes us individual other than our body and our desires? What is the dividing line between Christ and me? Whence resides the ultimate individuality and what is it?

William Wildblood said...

Goodness edwin, that's a lot of questions! Presumably most of them are rhetorical though. You say that Christianity has viewed the world as a place where the flesh lusts against the spirit. I would say, up to a point. Christ wasn't really like that. He makes the point that people criticised his disciples for not fasting and such like. His miracles involved food and wine. Also, there is the basic truth that God looked at the world and saw it was good.

People have fought their lower nature and taken to all sorts of extremes of asceticism but what I think Jesus really taught was bringing the flesh under the dominance of the spirit which, as it were, makes it holy, and this I believe is where Christianity in its best aspects goes further than Eastern religions. I always come back to the point that the Ascension involved the body. It was the perfecting of matter and the world in spirit not their destruction.

Chris said...

There can be no doubt that reconciliation between religious traditions cannot be found on the level of the outer form of a Tradition, that is, in the exoteric sense. According to the Perennial Philosophy, however, such outwardly divergent teachings, providentially adapted to the spiritual, psychological and cultural needs of different peoples at different stages of history, can be inwardly reconciled by those who are sensitive to their metaphysical and symbolic meanings and prepared to follow the golden thread of the dogmatic letter to its deeper spiritual meaning. Though I am personally remain unconvinced of this "mystical core" of the world's religions, there is certainly a remarkable consensus of mystics and sages from many times and many places all over the world which strongly supports this thesis.

Bruce Charlton said...

I don't think we should be surprised at the shared aspects of religions any more than a biologist is surprised at the similarities between animals.

A religion might share 99% similarity with another - but it will be fundamentally different if its adherents are facing in a different direction.

William Wildblood said...

"A religion might share 99% similarity with another - but it will be fundamentally different if its adherents are facing in a different direction." Rather like humans and chimpanzees and our shared DNA!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Indeed. Highly analogous!

edwin faust said...

William, sorry about the barrage of questions. The nature of the bodily resurrection has always seemed rather vague to me. There was something a bit weird in the Risen Christ that kept those closest to Him from recognizing Him immediately, and the risen body had the ability either to walk through locked doors or to materialize in a desired location, so it was radically different from the body as we know it. And there is for me something elusive about the nature of the individuality that will transcend the mortal body: what will separate us from Christ and one another and determine our individuality? I don't know that anyone can answer these questions and it was rather unfair of me to dump them in your lap. Such are the perils of blogging and inviting comment.

William Wildblood said...

Not unfair at all, edwin. That's the nature of a blog in my opinion especially one that invites comments. Questions are stimulating. However I'm writing this on a phone on a station platform and I have domestic duties tonight so I'll leave looking at these until tomorrow if that's alright.

Chris said...

I have to say, that's a really good analogy .

Unfortunately, it doesn't do the work that we think it does.
The difference between chimps and humans outwardly is vast. However, we do not see that kind of difference in the adherents of the various religious traditions. It seems to me that the spiritual and moral fruits of the worlds religions , although different, are largely on a par.
Moreover, reading some of the literature of the different traditions, both some of their scriptures and philosophies and also some of their novels and poetry portraying ordinary life, has reinforced this impression.

William Wildblood said...

Understood Chris but it wasn't meant as a literal analogy. On the other hand, if religion A, similar in most respects to religion B, has something extra in it that takes everything to a higher dimension as, for instance, Christ did through his incarnation, then it is perhaps apt after all.

I should state my belief that Christ affected all religions that were open to his spiritual influence whether they were aware of him as Christ or not. His incarnation spread his word throughout the mental and spiritual spheres of the planet.

Bruce Charlton said...

"we do not see that kind of difference in the adherents of the various religious traditions"

The relevant comparison is not the adherents, but the exemplars - the best of their kind as judged by the standards of that kind. There we see some large differences.

William Wildblood said...

Regarding the strange nature of Christ's risen body, that's an easy one(!). All the physical elements of the body had been transmuted into light. Obviously that's not a scientific explanation but what I mean by it is that the matter of which it was formed had been spiritualised by the complete integration or 'marriage' of the two natures, spiritual and material. The latter had been made perfect and so able to receive the former. A precursor to this was the Transfiguration. I think this episode in the life of Christ is what will eventually happen to the whole universe. It will be taken up into heaven. Not discarded or rejected but reabsorbed carrying with it its quality as sugar does in tea when it melts. This is why Christ could walk through locked doors etc. I see the process as leaving its mark on the Turin Shroud.

As for our individual nature that transcends the body, it's important to realise that our true individual self exists independently of the body anyway though it will be modified by it. That is why we can have free will. So our true individual self is a much greater thing than we currently realise. This does vary according to people though. I have a theory that not all humans have the same origin though goodness knows how that would be viewed in the current political climate. All come from God but not all by the same path. Be that as it may, individuality in a spiritual sense means we are separate but not separate. We are ourselves but we are one with others. This is the great gift of the whole process of spiritual evolution, to develop a fully expressed self and then to realise that this is not separate from the rest of life. That is the basis of love.

I fully sappreciate that these concepts raise more questions than they answer but it is important to have an intuitive faith with regard to such things. To know that it is and not worry too much about how it is or why it is. Through a glass darkly and all that. One day all secrets will be revealed but probably not here. That's ok. We don't need to know everything now.

Chris said...

Oh no, William, I hope you didn't think my comment was intended to be sarcastic . I'm sorry if you thought it was. I realize , of course, that your chimp-human reference wasn't meant as a literal analogy . But , I presume that the point was that religions can have a whole lot in common, and yet , still be fundamentally different .

I don't dispute that. What I would push back on is the claim that there is a clear cut case for the moral and spiritual superiority of any particular tradition based on its effects in the world .

William Wildblood said...

I didn't think that Chris. I would suggest though that there might be a qualitative difference between religions that on the face of it look similar. I think that with regard to Buddhism and Islam and also with regard to Christianity and anything else. Part of it is to do with the nature of the individuals behind any one religion. I see the Buddha as unaided man reaching his highest point and Christ as something divine come down to this earth.