A Work in Progress. Meditating on the Transient and Permanent in Religions

A Work in Progress. Meditating on the Transient and Permanent in Religions November 15, 2016

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One of the things I really like about Facebook is that among the various opportunities one may find common hearts in places that without this particular social medium simply would not be possible. A case in point is my friend Fritz Wendt, a Lutheran pastor in New York. His pictures, I notice, usually have him sporting a large cigar. Clearly he is a bit of a trouble maker. Like I said, I like him and glad we have a relationship, even if social media tenuous…

Anyway, he recently posted something by the Catholic friar and author Richard Rohr. “Religion is largely populated by people afraid of hell; spirituality begins to make sense to those who have been through hell, that is, who have drunk deeply of life’s difficulties. Jesus came as the victim of human history because, spiritually speaking, only the victim can reveal both the dark and light sides of that history.”

At this precarious moment in our country, compelling words. At least I found them so.

And I found myself thinking of Father Rohr, who is somewhat controversial within his faith tradition for advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ community and some theological assertions, probably most significantly questioning the doctrine of atonement as it is generally received. What he has held up as an alternative to the normative stance within the Catholic Church has been some aspects of Franciscan spirituality, particularly what is called in some circles “alternative orthodoxy,” and which I know more as orthopaxy – a dedication less to what we think and more to what we do. People who know me might catch a hint of why I might find that interesting.

But, actually there’s another thing about him. My understanding is that behind or under or infusing his Catholicism the good friar is in fact a Perennialist. And that is a subject of continuing interest to me. I shared a partial reflection on this subject a while back. Here, as I think it is terribly important, I want to take a little time to expand on the subject a tad more.

Me, I first stumbled upon the term Perennialism in Aldous Huxley’s lovely book the Perennial Philosophy, published three years before I was born. And, for me in my youth searching for an intellectually honest spirituality, which meant to me not obviously conflicting with the natural world, this book together with Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience outlined the general direction for my quest for meaning and purpose in life.

Now, in practice I have a complicated relationship with Perennialism. On the one hand I think it points in the right direction at least broadly when it suggests there are truths that each religion touch. This insight is a big reason I would eventually find myself a Unitarian Universalist the original magpie spiritual tradition.

On the other hand it seems pretty obvious to me that there is not a single mountain and that all religions are following their separate paths up to the same summit. Actually there are lots of different mountains. Now when I mention this, that there are in fact many mountains, it really bothers some people. These are folk who I believe mostly wish for a oneness that, well, doesn’t exist.

I find it more helpful to look at the various religions as they express themselves rather than as we wish they were. Over the years I have done this with several. And I’ve noticed some things in doing that. First. Yes, there are places religions touch each other, I’d even say places where all religions touch each other and something else beyond their dogmas. But. Let’s be real about this. Some are more useful in pointing to those places than others. For some that beyond their dogmas is really, really hard to find.

Which, honestly, is probably why Zen Buddhism and its disciplines remains the core of my actual interior life. With all its many flaws, and with a forty year and change investment in the tradition, I’ve seen many of those many flaws in action. Nonetheless, so far I’ve found nothing quite so practical in the project of digging into the heart of the matter than with Zen’s two great practices, shikantaza and koan introspection.

But, back to the wishful thinking of all religions are differing paths on a single mountain, which is a critical thesis of Perennialism. For me the best example of the problems with trying to find this secret core is Huston Smith’s Religions of Man, first published in 1958. For many years those of us interested in the World’s Religions found it offered our first glimpses into the richness that are the world spiritualities. For good reason it has continued in print for years, and even today with the more inclusive re-titling the World’s Religions, has all together sold over two million copies.

What the author doesn’t tell folk is that he is a full on Traditionalist, a form of Perennialism that I find enormously attractive, but which at the same time has some serious problems trying to crowbar all the religions into the same basic camp. So, his book, which is admirable in so many ways, when it comes to Buddhism just has a terrible time, where he believes down to the soles of his feet that there is a true religion under all religions and that it is grounded in a mystical theism. And so the chapter on Buddhism is deeply marred by his, to my mind, desperate reach for theistic elements in Buddhism and trying to make them the normative expression of the tradition.

(I’m less bothered by, but also cautioned by how Traditionalism itself with its focus on holding fast to received traditions has been neatly incorporated into some proto-fascistic political philosophies. But, that’s noted for another reflection. At its best in Traditionalism and its larger context Perennialism, we get advocates like Richard Rohr and his way of orthopraxy.)

At this point in my life the deal is this. I believe there are currents of religion that are rooted in our biology, and as something natural, also something that people can find within all religions. And I hope it would therefore be obvious, also available without any religion at all.

There are a number of these currents. Some go toward ethics – what I find as an innate sense of the “fair,” a sense that things should be harmonious, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. It is a kind of proto-morality. Which is confusingly coupled with a deeply held desire to get one up, and with that an inclination to cheat. I believe pretty much all religious ethics arise out of these two things existing within their tension. Our ethical lives exist in all their flaws within these impulses.

Rather more important, maybe, at least for me is what is it at the root of the mystical, and by mystical I mean quite narrowly an apprehension of a root to all our individual consciousnesses. For most of the world’s religions this root is seen as God, and as profoundly personal. But Buddhism shows this does not have to be experienced that way. And, for me, points again to our biology. We seem to have within the structures of our brains an ability to see at the same time that we are different and distinct and acting in our own interests, that there is a common place, we exist within an intimacy so profound it is fair to call it one.

I believe the Buddhist explanation, particularly the Zen Buddhist explanation, and more specifically the “modernist” Zen Buddhist explanation (here I’m thinking of an emerging literature led first by Alan Watt’s various writings, but today more aligned with Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, and to a lesser degree is After Buddhism, Robert Aitken’s Mind of Clover, and John Tarrant’s the Light Inside the Dark, and perhaps summarized within my own If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break. Throw in the various books by James Austin following his Zen and the Brain what you see is naturalistic, often poetic, of necessity poetic, cut through with a concern for ethics, but always, always grounded in that common human encounter with our fundamental reality – which is both one and many.

A work in progress.

No doubt.


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