Wednesday, February 20, 2008

God Without, God Within

In an earlier post to this blog (February 14th) I was exploring some of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and concluded with a statement about the importance to me of a Supreme Being.

The problem with that concept, however, comes when we begin to insist on it as something wholly outside ourselves. In preparation for an upcoming workshop I've been reading The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystical text that is intended to serve as a guide to spiritual experience. And this morning I read the following:

"When this method is correctly conceived it becomes nothing else than a true knowledge and feeling of yourself as you are, a wretch and a filthy thing far worse than nothing. This knowledge and feeling is meekness. And this meekness results in God Himself coming down with great stregth to avenge you on your enemies."

Now I will add that, though this is the quote exactly as written, it is taken slightly out of context. But to me it encapsulates much of what I find absolutely distasteful about a religion whose emphasis is on some anthropomorphic Father God completely exterior to the self.

As far as I can see, though this book has much to offer, the root contention of it is that the purpose and drive of a meditative practice should be solely upward, a constant projection of love darts tossed repeatedly through "the cloud of unknowing" that separates us from God.

And I think that if we follow this admonition and continue to perceive God as totally Other, it is inevitable that we fall into the "wretch and filthy" trap, forgetting that we were made in God's image; that there is Godness within us as well as outside of us.

Yes, it is true that we are weak and imperfect. But I think it is far too easy for Christians to wallow in that mud, and, more importantly, to use it as an excuse for bad behavior and/or inaction. At the same time, I read this, felt my distaste for it, and immediately began to wonder if this was just my own reluctance to walk into the shadow.

At which point I returned to the Thomas Merton text where I left off yesterday to find him stating that when "the good" is defined as something outside oneself, the more it becomes "something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes...receding further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability. The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to be used to attain it. And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one's effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten."

"This is," Merton concludes, "nothing but organized despair: "The good" that is preached and exacted by the moralist thus finally becomes evil, and all the more so since the hopeless pursuit of it distracts one from the real good which one already possesses and which one now despises or ignores."

This, I believe, is exactly the heart of the problem: the more God/Good is projected as something outside ourselves, the more we become obsessed with the rules governing what it would take to reach out to that separate good (and our own, or others' failure to honor those rules), and the less attention we pay to lifting up that good already planted within and around us.

Certainly at this point an easy case could be made for stating (as my husband once did) that "religion is the source of all wars." It isn't faith that it is the source, but the projection of an external good, and the elaborate and often indefinsible proclamations and rules that emerge as each ruling class attempts to define (in ways often fraught with hidden agendas) how to attain that which is -- by that definition -- unattainable.

And then Merton says, "Does the constantly greater emphasis on theology as an objective science open the way to the One we seek? Or is it true, as Chuang Tzu said, that we have become blind to the One we already possess?

In the end he concludes, "If we're always thinking about contemplation...union with God... that's fine... But if we constantly over-emphasize those things to which access is inevitably something quite rare, we overlook the ordinary authentic real experiences of everyday life as real things to enjoy, things to be happy about, things to praise God for."

Reading this, I am reminded of my high school study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Where, one asks, does the Good lie? In the relentless moralizing of organized religion, or in the simple pleasures of a picnic on a sunny afternoon, the dappled shadows in the forest, the burbling of a quiet stream?

Surely there is a way to find a balance between the two.

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