Over forty years ago now, I acquired a little paperback by one Joseph Gaer which was titled How the Great Religions Began. The original copyright for the book was dated 1929 but had been renewed again in 1956. I found it quite engrossing. The author had tried, without bias, to lay out the history of all the major religions and the central tenets of their faith. It struck me how easy it would have been to become an adherent to one of these various beliefs if I had been born and raised in the communities where they were propagated. But having come from a rather irreligious background I had the opportunity, like the author, of weighing each up on its merits. It is now apparent to me how few people come to their beliefs that way.
In recent essays I have decried the fundamentalists of various faiths who seem so insecure as to avoid (often by coercion and threats of violence) any questioning of their beliefs. It is true, of course, that at the base of any system of belief there is finally an act of faith. It seems to me to be sensible however, to have examined a range of beliefs before choosing that which resonates with us. The final act of faith should at least be well-informed!
Strangely the problem was first brought home to me by the Economist and Essayist, John Kenneth Galbraith. I became interested in the writings of Galbraith when I was studying economics and was delighted to find an economist with breadth and wit (there are not many of those I can assure you!). In one of his books Galbraith wrote about Christianity. He pointed out that the Old Testament was an arcane, obtuse book riddled with contradictions. The difficulty of understanding it was such, that those who went to the trouble of coming to grips with its difficulties had a vested interest in believing it!
The problem isn’t just confined to spirituality, of course: it arises also in science. Even Albert Einstein, arguably one of the greatest thinkers in human history, could not bring himself to accept the findings of the quantum physicists. In a letter to Max Born he stated that “God does not play dice with the universe.” This was to refute the notion that at the level of the quanta there were no definite outcomes only probabilities. Yet with respect to spirituality, Einstein was far more ecumenical.
In his book The Mystery Experience, Tim Freke quotes Einstein.
“Let us not forget that human knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind. What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living.”
Let me share with you the stories of a few thinkers that have influenced me and whose open minds enabled them to be informed by an understanding that bridged spiritual traditions.
The first of these is the Indian Jesuit, Anthony De Mello. Whilst a Jesuit, De Mello’s work shows a good understanding of the traditional Indian belief systems of the country of his birth – Buddhism, Hinduism and its predecessor Vedanta. As well as that, De Mello was an inveterate storyteller. He published extensive collections of folk stories and parables. Whilst always professing to be Christian, De Mello’s breadth of spiritual understanding led him away from the rigid dogmas of the church. After his untimely death at the age of 56, his work was renounced by the Catholic Church. The Notification, concerning the writings of Father Anthony De Mello, SJ was written by none other than the recently retired pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. In part the Cardinal’s critique reads:
“Consistent with what has been presented, one can understand how, according to the author, any belief or profession of faith in God or in Christ cannot but impede one’s personal access to truth. The Church, making the word of God in Holy Scripture into an idol, has ended up banishing God from the temple. She has consequently lost the authority to teach in the name of Christ.
With the present Notification, in order to protect the good of the Christian faithful, this congregation declares the above-mentioned positions as incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.”
Despite this authoritarian banning of De Mello’s work, it still continues to be popular (even with many Catholics) because of its warmth and wisdom.
Thomas Merton has been called the most influential Catholic author of the 20th century. He was a prolific writer, authoring over 60 books as well as numerous poems and articles. His early life was unsettled. His father was a New Zealand born painter and moved frequently to pursue his art. His mother died when he was only sixteen and he alternated between living with his father and grandparents. He studied at CambridgeUniversity and ColumbiaUniversity. In his early years he was an agnostic but had been stirred by the grandeur and the atmosphere of the churches in Rome when he visited there at age eighteen. He finally converted to Catholicism at age 23 and was accepted at the abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani and took the orders of a Trappist monk.
It is said the Merton became interested in Eastern religions when he read Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means. For the rest of his life Merton studied Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism in addition to his academic and monastic studies. He was greatly interested in the work of D T Suzuki who had been instrumental in bringing the concepts of Zen Buddhism to the West.
It is interesting that Merton believed that there were many similarities between Buddhist Masters and Christian Mystics. He asked Suzuki to write an introduction to a book he had written on the subject The Wisdom of the Desert but the church initially forbade the publication of a book on Christian Mystics that contained material from a well-known Buddhist!
It seems that Merton’s maturing understanding of self was developed in his dialogue with Zen. Merton observes it is important that we “become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences or as candidates for realisation, attainment or fulfillment.”
Towards the end of his life Merton travelled to Asia to converse with various spiritual masters. Shortly before his untimely death he had several meetings with the Dalai Lama. A biographer records:
“(He) received a thoughtful response from his Holiness. Overall the meetings were warm and cordial. Merton left with a feeling of great respect, even fondness for the Dalai Lama and with the conviction there was a ‘real spiritual bond’ between them.
The Dalai Lama was equally impressed. In his recollections some fifteen years later, he recalls that even though he knew very little about Merton prior to their meeting, a mutual understanding quickly developed between them.”
Merton, early in his career was a social activist. He was staunchly opposed to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and was active in the anti-war movement. At this time he came in contact with another Buddhist – viz Thich Nhat Hanh.
Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk. During the Vietnamese War, he came to the United States to urge a cessation from the hostilities that were killing and maiming so many of his fellow countrymen. In the USA he engaged with the anti-war activists to lend his voice to those seeking to end the war. He had only a brief meeting with Merton but afterwards Merton proclaimed “Thich Nhat Hahn is my brother!” In his personal tribute to his Buddhist brother, Merton observed that both he and Nhat Hanh deplored war “for the same reasons: human reasons, reasons of sanity, justice and love.” He did not feel it necessary to appeal to the teachings of either religion in order to justify ending the war or relieving human suffering. It was enough that Buddhists and Christians shared a common humanity.
Thich Nhat Hanh is probably the most revered living Buddhist outside the Dalai Lama. After going to the USA to petition for peace he found he was no longer welcome in either his home country (Vietnam) or in the country of its protagonist (USA). In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the delegate for the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris Peace talks. When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Thich Nhat Hanh was denied permission to return to Vietnam and he went into exile in France. Nhat Hanh established a centre for the teaching of Buddhism at PlumVillage in France and has lived there principally ever since.
Nhat Hanh has published almost as extensively as Thomas Merton. His gentle, loving teachings are accessible to all. He is inclusive of other religions to the extent that it has been reported that on his private altar there is not only an icon of the Buddha but also a cross. (That will probably raise the ire of fundamentalist Christians!)
Both Merton and Nhat Hahn believed in the contemplative tradition. This is what Merton said, and I am sure Nhat Hanh would agree with him:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself fully awake, fully active, and fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life’s awareness and for being. It is a vivid realisation of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.”
And reflecting on those words I am sure the great Tony De Mello would also concur.
Another of my ecumenical spiritual heroes is Alan Watts. Watts was a gifted writer and his books are full of exquisite prose exploring wonderful ideas about spirituality. Watts served as an Episcopal priest for six years. He was then profoundly influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and Vedanta. After leaving the church he subsequently became Dean of the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco and began to give regular talks on radio. Some of his books are compilations of these talks. Like those mentioned above he was also a prolific writer. His books are not only full of wisdom but are a delight to read.
Whilst there are many others I could nominate, I must give special mention to Ken Wilber. Over thirty years ago now, I acquired a book which in retrospect has influenced me more than anything I have ever read. That book was Wilber’s The Spectrum of Consciousness. This is not an easy book but for those brave enough to seriously partake of its content it is a magnificent synthesis of religion, philosophy, physics and psychology. The amazing thing is that was completed by Wilber in 1973 at the ripe old age of 24. He approached more than twenty publishers before it was finally taken up by Quest Books in 1977. The breadth of Wilber’s scholarship even at this young age is astounding. He draws on broad understanding, often with deep insights of all the major religions and many of the branches of psychology. He shows how at a deep level all these systems of belief and knowledge are inter-related and consistent. Wilber of course has published many books since then, all thoughtful and provocative but none to my mind with same impact and scholarship as The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wilber helped found the Integral Institute and is probably the most respected philosopher working in the area of spirituality in the USA.
So whilst I decry the fact that many come to spirituality with closed minds, there are many also who are brave enough to consider the ideas of other belief systems. The conflict of ideas in this space is often based on an illusion. Let’s get some guidance from a scientist or two.
The British Astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, had this to say:
“Some would put the question in the form ‘Is the unseen world revealed by the mystical outlook a reality?’ Reality is one of those indeterminate words which might lead to infinite philosophical discussions and irrelevancies. There is less danger of misunderstanding if we put the question in the form ‘Are we in pursuing the mystical outlook, facing the hard facts of experience?’ Surely we are. I think that those who would wish to take cognisance of nothing but measurements of the scientific world made by our sense organs are shirking one of the most immediate facts of experience, namely that consciousness is not wholly, nor even primarily a device for receiving sense-impressions.”
In his book The God Theory former Catholic seminarian and longtime astrophysicist, Bernard Haisch responds:
“If we are to investigate the spiritual perspective, however should we proceed? Don’t the views of Hindus contradict those of Christians, or Buddhists, or Jews? Is Nirvana not as different from heaven as night and day? There is no denying that the doctrines of the world’s major religions contradict each other. It is not in the overt, public beliefs and dogmas of these religions however, that we will find the answer.”
As others (for example Freke and Gandy and Karen Armstrong) have maintained, Haisch explains that the conflict comes from whether we view the beliefs from the exoteric or esoteric level. Exoteric is something that is generally available for public view. When it comes to belief systems, it is the overt (and often most trivial) manifestation of the belief that is generally disseminated. The esoteric level is only available to those who have deeper understanding. Probably the most dramatic example of this differentiation is in the belief of the Gnostics.
Haisch rightly proclaims that whilst it seems evident that there are vast differences and disagreements at the exoteric level there is often agreement at the esoteric level where the deeper spiritual truths are engaged.
As Haisch proposes when contrasting the dogmas of the various religions there are three possibilities:
- One is right and all the others are wrong,
- All of them are nonsense, or
- The contradictions are only on the exoteric level.
He concludes that “on the esoteric level, there must be a perennial wisdom that all religions share.”
And thus it seems to me. Those who close their mind to other belief systems are only aware at the exoteric level. As a result their beliefs are shallow and parochial. Those who have opened their minds are able to deal with belief systems at the esoteric level and are able to engage with a more profound sense of spirituality.