The work of the Jesus Seminar has suddenly become even more urgent.
The emergence of Third World Christianity has made it so.
Those of us who heard him will never forget Bishop Robert Holloway's (Episcopal Prelate of Scotland) wonderful addresses to the Spring 2001 seminar, one during a regular session which was in itself a rapturous poetry in the use of poetry, the other a speech made at our banquet session the last night of the conference.
He, with Bishop John Shelby Spong in earlier sessions, expressed their deep disappointment at the condemnation of gay rights at the 1998 Lambeth conference of Episcopal Bishops. Many hearts were broken at this official expression of hatefulness, both men suggested. Holloway at one point that evening drew himself up to his considerable and impressive height and forcefully expressed his disappointment at his bishop colleagues who, he said, many of whom were "as gay as lilies," had voted hypocritically against their own natures. The liberal wing of world Episcopate was thus defeated over this crucial issue.
What Bishop Holloway did not tell us, perhaps because he himself did not fully appreciate it himself at the time, was that that conference at Lambeth was of an entirely different composition than past ones.
I commend to you a recent book. The Next Christendom, by Phillip Jenkins. In it he describes the true dynamic of that decision. Regarding the Lambeth vote, these facts are crucial: of 736 bishops attending, only 316 were from the United States, Canada, and Europe combined, while Africa sent 224 and Asia 95 (pp 202-203). The condemnation of homosexuality was an easy mark for these men. What Jenkins calls the "southern" churches are now in command. On why this is so important will be dealt with later.
Now follow the famous career of the Vancouver totem pole also recently reported in The Atlantic by Jenkins, as well as in his book.
"Also illustrating the cultural gulf that separates Northern and Southern churches is Moses Tay, the Anglican archbishop of Southeast Asia, whose see is based in Singapore. In the early 1990s, Archbishop Tay traveled to the Canadian city of Vancouver. When he visited that city's Stanley Park, he encountered the totem poles that represent an important element of the local tourist trade, and he was deeply troubled. The archbishop concluded that as artifacts of an alien religion, these were idols possessed by evil spirits, and they required handling by prayer and exorcism. This behavior horrified the local Anglican church, which was committed to building good relationships with local native communities, and which regarded exorcism as absurd superstition. Considering his own standards, though, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the archbishop. He was quite correct to see the totems as authentic religious symbols, rather than merely tourist kitsch. Considering the l! ong span of Christian wr itings on exorcism and possession, he could also summon many literary witnesses to support his position, far more than the Canadian Church could produce in favor of tolerant multiculturalism (pp 130-131)."
It is this Moses Tay together with conservative archbishops from Singapore and Rwanda and Emmanuel Kollini and Datuk Ping Chung Yong of Southeast Asia who now occupy American sees. It is the effort of these men to ordain bishops and priests of their persuasion to bring the Episcopal Church back to its conservative roots. An ancillary purpose held in common with the Third Church, is to re-evangelize the North.
So what is the fuss all about?
The picture that Jenkins draws in this book is frightening. He describes in stark terms the rapid growth in the Third World of the Christian faith of every variety, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, main line Protestant, plus new Christian based-fusions with local practices. The resurgence of this fundamentalism goes contrary to the predictions of Jarislov Pelikan, for one, that Christianity is a religion on the decline. This may be true for Northern Europe and North America. But according to Jenkins it is manifestly not so in a world context.
The growth of the Third Church, this new Christianity, has been phenomenal in South and Central America, in Africa in such countries as Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, and in many countries of Asia, Korea and the Philippines for two. Moreover this growth has taken place among the disaffected poor of the Third World who have little patience with the theological liberalism of Northern Europe and North America. They are completely ignorant of the scholarship that has produced this liberalism. They are, in short, 13th century medieval expressions of the faith in Europe before the amelioration of the Reformation, Renaissance and the Enlightenment transformed the Church; they share a world view with fundamentalist Islam which also has not progressed much beyond the thirteenth century. Belief in demons, witchcraft, exorcism, hatred of homosexuality, and the need to keep women subordinate, carry us back not only to the middle ages when hundreds of thousands of women were executed for wi! tchcraft, and heretics were burned at the stake and religious wars were endemic, but back to the practices of the first century when exorcism, according to Robin Lane Fox, was a preliminary to church membership.
It will not be long, if the time has not already come, that the Third Church with these appalling doctrines will outnumber the progressive churches of the North. The effort of a deeply conservative Pope who has created many cardinals from the Third World is but one example of the coming domination of this new conservatism. The Christian Church according to Jenkins by 2050 will consist of a Third Church majority in the world but also in the North as well. And that this church will regard North America and Europe as mission fields ripe for the harvest. The Third Church will attempt to establish its reactionary oppression on our shores. The misfortune of this must be faced squarely.
Moreover the world conflicts of the new century will be religion-based. This will be particularly true in Africa where in Central Africa millions have already died in pogroms of various sorts--not the least religious ones. Fundamental Islam and African Christianity are already at each other's throats. And the situation can only get worse. Particularly as hostile Christian and Islamic forces confront each other.
Samuel P. Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the New World Orderm makes the following assertion about the Third Church's principal adversary: "...Islam's borders are bloody, and so are its innards. ....The Muslim propensity toward violent conflict is also suggested by the degree to which Muslim societies are militarized.....Muslim states also have had a high propensity to resort to violence in international crises....Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny..."(pp 258).
He goes on to say: "A...possible source of Muslim-non-Muslim conflict involves what one statesman, in reference to his own country, termed the "indigestibility" of Muslims. Indigestibility, however, works both ways: Muslim countries have problems with non-Muslim minorities comparable to those which non-Muslim countries have with Muslim minorities. Even more than Christianity, Islam is an absolutist faith. It merges religion and politics and draws a sharp line between those in the Dar al-Islam and those in the Dar al-harb [realm of submission; realm of war]. ....Militarism, indigestibility, and proximity to non-Muslim groups are continuing features of Islam and could explain Muslim conflict propensity throughout history.....(262 ff.).
Tragically, the members of the Third Church are becoming as "indigestible" as Fundamentalist Islam, with potentially horrendous results. In Africa, in Nigeria and other states, the European-style religious wars of the 17th century have already emerged with much bloodshed. And Jenkins assures us much more is to come.
It ought to be clear by now that the world has been divided by a new cold war. What a close reading of the Koran and a study of its secondary materials brings, however, is a sense that the modern West, Europe and America, its educated Christian, Jewish and secularized populations with their progressive ideologies are natural allies against the Islamic and Third Church ideologies. Like our own homegrown faiths, in their fundamentalist phases, Islam is impelled desperately toward final certainty in response to the uncertainties of the modern world. Freedom is dreadful. Submission to the utter certainties of fundamentalist religions is thought, falsely and sadly, to be a safe haven.
Islam has gone through all the religious changes that were characteristic of its Christian counterpart in the Middle Ages. The initial revelation. The establishment of the community. A confrontation with classical culture. The identification of the faith with state power. The growth of pietist and mystical movements. A decline. The one difference is that, unlike Christendom, Islam has never experienced an enduring Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, in spite of the fact that the greatest of its scholastics, Al Ghazali, flirted profoundly with Greek philosophy at one time but then used it to refute all philosophy and create an opening for the mystical wing of Islam, Sufism. However under the influence of Ibn Taymiyya, a Syrian critic of Al Ghazali, there was in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries a refutation of Sufism and Greek logic and an insistence on a very literal reading of the Koran and the faith. Taymiyya is the hero and fountainhead of current Isla! mic Fundamentalism. Taymiyya like our own Back to the Bible and Third Church ideologues wish to get Islam back to basics in order to confront and defeat the incursions of classical thought and modern culture.
Because there has been no enduring reformation-renaissance experience in Islam, there has been created no native intellectual class of skeptics within the tradition, as in the West (though westernized skeptics are slowly emerging, see Ibn Warraq's Why I am Not a Muslim, and his other critical works). Most, if not all, truly secular Muslims live under deeply Western influences. The intellectual class for Islam (not to speak of Christian literalists) is too dangerous to honor or employ. Witness our own conflict of free thought and religion over the last two hundred and fifty years. Our tolerance and plurality is unthinkable to a Muslim or a Third Church Ideologue because they sincerely believe that any belief other than their own is false. And an enemy. And, for Muslims, that the fight must be made until all are Muslim, that there is no other faith than Islam, and that eventually all must submit to Islam. Indeed, to reemphasize this, they hold that everyone on earth! is born a Muslim but until he finds that out he is but a shadow person.
That both fundamentalist Islam and the Third Church claim an absolute and exclusive truth is and will be, in the foreseeable future, the source of their violent confrontations.
So it appears we do in fact have a religious war on our hands. But it simply will not do to say my Jesus or Moses is tougher than your Muhammad. Or that our Yahweh is a better fighter than your Allah over what is really our oil, after all. The real contest ought not to be divided between Christian and Jew on the one hand and Islam on the other. That would make this a purely religious war among the three monotheisms, which it is, but only in part.
The true conflict is between those cultures who with their emphasis on reason, evidence, nature, and westernized values which are secular, progressive, liberal, individualist, and humane, rooted in science and the realities uncovered in modern art, who do not hold to a fanatical attachment to an ideology and can tolerate diversity--: and the fanatics of all religions who cannot do any of these things.
If 911 demonstrated anything it demonstrated convincingly for us the true face of fundamentalist fanaticism, something not restricted only to Islam. Just tune in sometime on short wave radio to the extreme preachings of R. G. Stair, Larry Kane, and other lunatics contaminating the airways and hear their delight in the impending doom of America. Certain well-known commentators from the Christian Right even suggested that America "got what it deserved" in the 911 holocaust. Or investigate even briefly the rantings of Christian Reconstruction, whose gray eminence is the appalling Roufus John Rushdoony, whose vision of America under Old Testament Law is just as appalling as any Islamic state under Sharia. These are, no less than the preaching of the right wing Ulama, just as much incitements to terror. We have experienced that terror, in Oklahoma, in the murder of physicians who perform abortions and bomb clinics. Review even briefly the words and behavior of the right-wing I! sraelites. So much of th e violence between Israel and Palestine may have been influenced by their belief that their right to all the land of the area is given them by God in the Torah.
Attend to the witness of a recent letter I received from a sensitive writer from a Muslim country: "For Islam proper as it is practiced today, I do not even have ... limited sympathy....Islam is at present a cultural, political and intellectual blight on the Middle East, and its tendency to spread further worries me tremendously. Western people of general goodwill should not fool themselves that Bin Laden is not true Islam, that Islam means peace, that if they understood these people everything could be worked out and so on. Maybe in 300 years Islam will be tamed and made compatible with a civilized and rational way of life the way medieval Christianity was tamed, but this is irrelevant for my life span. I would recommend Maxime Rodinson's biography of Mohammad to see that violence as a way of spreading the religion and the treatment of women as second class people are not later perversions of Islam. The Kuran is also very explicit about these things...."
Salman Rushdie, an international writer of the first rank, states it clearly: He believed that the modern contest would be between Terrorism and Security. If we were to be made too anxious under the threat of terrorism we might be asked to surrender too many of our liberties to the "warriors of the secret world."
"The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings," he goes on to say. "Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multiparty political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex....The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
Fighting the Forces of Invisibility, By Salman Rushdie borrowed from New York Times special Features 10.2
The Jesus Seminar began as a fringe movement within Liberal Protestantism, though its scholars are the legitimate inheritors of a distinguished 250 year history of biblical criticism who have taken that work to its logical conclusion. No one can guess how many thoughtful people have been attracted to the work of the seminar since its inception in 1985, though there appear to be a substantial number. Many of us feel that for the heirs of the Enlightenment the normative church is dead. And it is indeed dead for thinking people who have with some difficulty broken the indoctrination of the Church. But we are a minority. Indeed Liberal Protestantism is a minority expression. Roman Catholicism is by far the largest Christian denomination world wide. The Seminar, thus, is a minority within normative Liberal Protestantism, a fringe of a fringe. Those of us who are supporting the work of the seminar through Buddhist eyes (and there are a surprising number of these) are a fringe o! f all those fringes, but an enthusiastic fringe, since the Jesus revealed by the researches of the Seminar seems to be like a gnostic sage, not unlike those found in Buddhism. He is a Levantine Bodhisattva and a truly ecumenical figure.
Though the normative church seeks to marginalize our efforts, the work of the Seminar now takes on an even greater urgency. The battle for values such as reason, evidence, nature, and westernized values listed by Rushdie which are secular, progressive, liberal, individualist, and humane, what free intelligences hold so dear, is even more important in view of the coming inundation of these worldwide fundamentalisms. A tolerant misguided multiculturalism simply will not do. An emphatic declaration of the core values of Enlightenment Europe must be preached. A more aggressive proclamation of the Seminar principals of research, evidence, logic within the context of the great traditions of scientific investigation and untrammeled literary creation must also be made, a new and urgent kerygma, otherwise our reformed, renaissance and enlightenment heritage will be swamped by the darkness and obscurantism and intolerance and, even viciousness, of these fundamentalist movements. Th! e brutal warfare between the Arian and Athanasian churches of the first centuries of Christianity described by Gibbon must be recalled as an object lesson.
It comes down to this. The great Renaissance civilizations of Europe are in danger. The Modernism that has grown so slowly and agonizingly since the fourteenth century to its fragile triumph in our own time is the last best hope of the world: that liberal, individualistic inflection to human life discovered six hundred years ago by the poets and troubadours of Europe, and responsible for the explosively creative advancement in economics, and art and science, and political action of the great power of Europe that we've enjoyed since. This is the great thing we still have to offer.
Modernism, rooted in each one's pursuit of happiness, presupposes that we are all individually sacrosanct. How vigilant we will have to be to preserve it! Because the fundamentalists of the traditions will do all they can to destroy us, grappling to themselves the comforts of ideology, flying from the terrifying burden of the liberated intelligence.
But the worst world may be yet to come. The fastest growing religion in the world today is Islam, with the Third Church close behind. The potentially most fanatic of all the religions of the Book: that horrifying Trinity of One True Faiths. A religion where it is writ that to kill an infidel taken literally is an act of merit. Where there can be no progress that would not offend God. In which the eternal feminine is even more mutilated than it is in Judaism or Christianity. Where a great writer may be murdered for thinking and expressing himself as a free man. Where every place outside the realm of Islam is named the realm of war! How desperately urgent it is to keep those sorts away from atomic power. In some cases, as in Pakistan, it is too late.
Moreover this uncovers an urgent global politics. As Huntington puts it: "In the clash of civilizations, Europe and America will hang together or hang separately. In the greater clash, the global "real clash," between Civilization and barbarism, the world's great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately. In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war (321)."
I would commend both these books to all thinking people as required reading particularly to the Associates of the Seminar. I will assume that the Fellows have already read them. The Seminar cannot avoid considering the political implications of their researches. Lloyd Geering has done this, but the Globalism he envisions may not be the one we get.
That makes me sound like a professor assigning required reading. I am not. A professor. I am, as Shelby Foote once so hilariously put it, barely a Mister. But, drat it, these books and their allied researches should be studied.
BACK TO TOP
Current news reports on Islam, especially by the national outlets, have been utterly disingenuous. A reading of the Koran, something that the typical reporter in all likelihood has not done, gives us a picture that is at dramatic variance with these politically inflected statements. Much needed is a fair reading of the whole text of that scripture and a comprehensive understanding of its world view.
Over and over again, for example, it is held by both American politicians at the highest level and by some Islamicists as well that Islam is a religion of peace. One commentator went so far as to say that the translation of the word Islam is "peace," when in fact the translation of that word is actually "submission". A Muslim is one who submits to Allah. The Koran even describes the faithful as the "slaves" of Allah.
Even the otherwise excellent PBS survey of world religions The Long Search episode on Islam was guilty of this deception when it gave a picture of the sweetness of the charitable work of its devotees, the wonderful ecstatic devotion the faith inspires in its followers, by omitting all the following language of the key description of the fundamentals of faith. Show us the straight path, The path of those whom Thou hast favored; Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray. To omit those words on the anger of Allah is a serious error that will be considered in more detail later. In the name of what must have been thought to be charity, it was an astonishing lapse that traps us into an incomplete understanding of the anger, fear, and suspicion with which most of the Islamic world regards the West.
Most celebrated secondary sources are also this one-sided.
In these days of Muslim participation in the coalition contending Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network, such deception may be thought to be necessary. But there's a much larger issue here--whether or not relations between the West and its allies can in fact achieve a significant and lasting understanding and working relationship with the Islamic world, even those who are allied with us in the present emergency. It will be the thesis of this venture, this essay, to document why such a relationship will be difficult if not, in all likelihood, impossible.
This view will not be popular; some may construe it to be an anti-Islamic Christian polemic. But this writer is a deeply secular Enlightenment reader of the texts in question and an initiated Buddhist, who has no commitment to any side of the religious conflict between the three monotheisms.
To understand why true dialog between the secular West and Islam may be impossible, one must intensely examine the first pillar of Islam. The formula there is no God but God, Allah is his name, and Muhammad is his prophet is the crucial summary of faith which in a more complete form in the Koran reads as follows:
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful.
Owner of the Day of Judgment,
Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored;
Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
(Sura 1. 1-7 , The Meaning of the Glorious Koran, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, Mentor Books, New American Library, New York, Markham, Ontario.)
The faith holds that God intervened decisively for once and all in history, specifically to the Arabs, through an Arab messenger, in the Arabic language in the twenty-two years between 610-632. They are therefore specially chosen, as the Jews once were thought to be, the vehicle of the final Truth. This revelation is the last and purest revelation.
Islam is a religion of absolute and uncompromising monotheism. Westerners must make a serious effort to understand just how inflexible this faith is. The above Sura (chapter) is said to contain the entire Koran in little. Much meaning can be teased out of a detailed examination of its themes considered in detail in the rest of the Koran.
Allah is not only the only God. He is undivided, without "partners," as the Koran has it. The word "partner" in this context is a reference to Christ as a participant in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. (And say: (All) praise is due to Allah, Who has not taken a son and Who has not a partner in the kingdom....to save Him from disgrace; and proclaim His greatness magnifying (Him) [17.111]).
Christianity is a corrupted revelation. God is one. He is not divided. In the face of what Muhammad in the Koran calls the "clear proofs" of the self-evident existence and power of Allah, to hold to this doctrine is willful dishonesty that in the day of judgment will be punished by a fearful doom, language of condemnation that occurs hundreds of times in the text.
Let us focus on this absolute monotheism (to the neglect of much else in this text) and the consequences that can be drawn from it.
If there is but one God and only that one God and then only one perfect revelation, then those who do not believe are wholly other, utter outsiders. The first verses of Sura 6 give teach us that Allah, as does Yahweh in Genesis, creates the heavens and the earth, he makes darkness and light. He has created man from clay and fixed his life span. He rules heaven and earth, he knows in detail every secret, every utterance and even each income(6. 3)! He is Reality. All reality (69 1-2,) and on the day of judgment the earth and the mountains shall be lifted up and crushed with one crash (69. 14, 16) and the heaven will be torn in two....and on that day no secret will be hidden. All will be judged and the unbelievers will be consigned to hell.
In praise of the power and majesty of God, a key sura reads: "And Allah created you of dust, then of the life-germ, then He made you pairs; and no female bears, nor does she bring forth, except with His knowledge; and no one whose life is lengthened has his life lengthened, nor is aught diminished of one's life, but it is all in a book; surely this is easy to Allah.....He causes the night to enter in upon the day, and He causes the day to enter in upon the night, and He has made subservient (to you) the sun and the moon; each one follows its course to an appointed time; this is Allah, your Lord, His is the kingdom; and those whom you call upon besides Him do not control a straw. If you call on them they shall not hear your call, and even if they could hear they shall not answer you; and on the resurrection day they will deny your associating them (with Allah); and none can inform you like the One Who is Aware. O men! you are they who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is! He Who is the Self-suff icient, the Praised One. If He please, He will take you off and bring a new generation. And this is not hard to Allah [35.11--17]."
In other words, here and throughout the scripture, God's rule is absolute and intimate. There is no escaping his knowledge of every aspect of our lives, our virtues and shortcomings. He is closer to the Believer than his own blood. His spirit and knowledge of us permeates everything, our world down to our very cells. And yet we can know Him not. He is all powerful, all knowing, arbitrary, transcendent, and all mysterious. He is absolute mystery. He controls all, and when He wills what He will however arbitrary it may seem to us, He is far beyond the understanding of mere mortals.
His mercy and pity for mankind is expressed only in the one-time all-inclusive, inerrant, and absolute truth in his scripture dictated by an angel to his only true and final messenger, Muhammad. All previous scriptures and prophets including all Old Testament figures and Jesus, in the New are partial, incomplete, corrupted in their transmission. The Koran is the last and the perfect revelation. Every answer on the detail of life's questions is to be found there. The first community, the Sunna, was largely theocratic from the beginning and is thought by the faithful, as conservative Christians similarly regard the primitive church, to be a perfect ideal whose programs are to be followed as strenuously as possible.
This theological absolutism cannot be overemphasized. All devout Muslims hold to it. One cannot understand the Islamic world without understanding this overwhelming presence of an absolute God and their own ecstatic, almost desperate submission to His rule in his perfected community. In the Koran, God, over and over again emphasizes the self-evident nature of the clear proofs of His existence, his arbitrary Will, the mercy and compassion in revelation of his His perfect, inerrant guide for life for all Believers in the Koran. All humans are personally responsible for knowing and obeying God's will. The command to do so is stern. There is no authorization of any human agency to interpret this message, except that Muhammad has been designated as the only excellent pattern and guide (Sura 33). There is no appeal. The text is absolutely authoritative. Indeed, Muslims view Islam as the perfect culmination of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Those who do not agree with this doctrine are unbelievers. In the New Testament the only unforgivable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit. That is when one denies the power of the Holy Spirit when it has directly communicated the truth of the Faith. This is unforgivable. Islam takes this a step further. Since all are born Muslim, since God's revelation is so clear and undeniable, to not believe is catastrophic for the unbeliever. The fearful doom he is to suffer in the day of judgment, repeated hundreds of times during the course of the Koran, is to be his inevitable fate. There will be no appeal from it. The unbeliever is so convicted of this sin that he is to be condemned to the everlasting fires of hell there to suffer unspeakable torments.
What is an outsider to make of this? To us it seems intolerant and verging toward the fanatic, even in its ordinary practice.
And there's the rub.
We are the outsiders.
The Occident and the Levant have been in conflict since the middle ages. The Crusades, the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and what followed were shocks to the faith almost impossible for us to understand. The conflict between our own religious orthodoxies and the enlightenment way of thinking over the last two hundred and fifty years are a conservative Christian equivalent to the danger of the West to Islamic world view.
The outsider is in the Koran given the designation "unbeliever". One translation of the word is "ingrate". The unbeliever is to suffer greatly for his willful turning away from the truth and hindering those who wish to have the truth. "Surely those who disbelieve spend their wealth to hinder (people) from the way of Allah; so they shall spend it, then it shall be to them an intense regret, then they shall be overcome; and those who disbelieve shall be driven together to hell....these it is that are the losers. Say to those who disbelieve, if they desist, that which is past shall be forgiven to them; and if they return, then what happened to the ancients has already passed. And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do. (As for) those who disbelieve.... these are the inmates of the fire; therein they shall abide [8.36 -39]".
Particularly disturbing are the words: ....And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah.... The meaning of this is plain, the fight shall last until the only religion left is Islam! No others will survive. No others ought to survive.
The fate of the unbeliever in life but particularly after the day of the judgment and the resurrection of the faithful is the fire. "And guard yourselves against the fire which has been prepared for the unbelievers [3.131]. We will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, because they set up with Allah that for which He has sent down no authority, and their abode is the fire, and evil is the abode of the unjust [3.151]. .....surely the unbelievers are your open enemy [4.101]....And be not weak hearted in pursuit of the enemy; if you suffer pain, then surely they (too) suffer pain as you suffer pain, and you hope from Allah what they do not hope; and Allah is Knowing, Wise [4.104]. On the day when it shall be heated in the fire of hell, then their foreheads and their sides and their backs shall be branded with it....[9.35]. Do they not know that whoever acts in opposition to Allah and His Apostle, he shall surely have the fire of hell to abide in it? That is t! he grievous abasement [9.63].....those who abide in the fire and who are made to drink boiling water so it rends their bowels asunder [47.15]. Surely We have prepared for the unbelievers chains and shackles and a burning fire [76.4] Surely those who disbelieve from among the followers of the Book and the polytheists shall be in the fire of hell, abiding therein; they are the worst of men [98.6]."
And this is but a small tip of a very large iceberg, a small sampling of hundreds of similar verses.
The pagans and the polytheists as can be seen are particularly delicious targets. Islam is a religion of peace, but only for those within the brotherhood. Let us repeat that: only for those within the brotherhood. There is no peace for the unbeliever.
I have no doubt that Muhammad was a decent human being, a great leader, the founder of a great and rich community which from the 8th to the 15th centuries had a civilization greater than that of Europe, an exceptional general, a genius, and a great poet. Although according to Gibbon, he was something of a sexual athlete. But he was the child of his time--that is the 7th century. (He died in the year 632.) And his, as it is claimed by current Muslims, was a modern religion, which it was but only in the context of its time in the 7th century! It has not changed in its fundamentals since that time.
Those of us modern Europeans (pagans) are outside the pale. So are Jews and Christians. There is no peace for us. There is only judgment and fire. The Jews are particularly hard hit.
And the Jews say: The hand of Allah is tied up! Their hands shall be shackled and they shall be cursed for what they say. Nay, both His hands are spread out, He expends as He pleases; and what has been revealed to you from your Lord will certainly make many of them increase in inordinacy and unbelief; and We have put enmity and hatred among them till the day of resurrection; whenever they kindle a fire for war Allah puts it out, and they strive to make mischief in the land; and Allah does not love the mischief-makers [5.64]."
This is not the only evidence of Islamic anti-semitism. There are many other testimonies to that in the scripture.
The Christians fare no better: "Certainly they disbelieve who say: Surely Allah, He is the Messiah, son of Marium; and the Messiah said: O Children of Israel! serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord. Surely whoever associates (others) with Allah, then Allah has forbidden to him the garden, and his abode is the fire; and there shall be no helpers for the unjust. These it is whose doings are null, and in the fire shall they abide [5.72]."
And the Polytheists, Jews and Christians together (that natural alliance which has been forged in our own time): "O you who believe! most surely many of the doctors of law and the monks eat away the property of men falsely, and turn (them) from Allah's way; and (as for) those who hoard up gold and silver and do not spend it in Allah's way, announce to them a painful chastisement. On the day when it shall be heated in the fire of hell, then their foreheads and their sides and their backs shall be branded with it; this is what you hoarded up for yourselves, therefore taste what you hoarded .....and fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil) [9.34-36]".
But not only is their judgment fierce on the last day by Allah but it appears that violence against the unbelievers in time, here and now, is advocated: "And it does not beseem the believers that they should go forth all together.... that they may apply themselves to obtain understanding in religion, and that they may warn their people... O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil) [9.122 -123].And when We wish to destroy a town, We send Our commandment to the people of it who lead easy lives, but they transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it, so We destroy it with utter destruction. And how many of the generations did We destroy.... and your Lord is sufficient as Knowing and Seeing with regard to His servants' faults [17.16-17]".
How much plainer can these words be? O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil).
And no wonder great contemporary writers like Salman Rushdie and Naguib Mahfouz are under sentence of death: "Whoever desires this present life, We hasten to him therein what We please for whomsoever We desire, then We assign to him the hell; he shall enter it despised, driven away. in arrogance talking nonsense about the Quran, (read, the Satanic Verses) and left him like one telling fables by night [17.18]. Is it then that they do not ponder over what is said, or is it that there has come to them that which did not come to their fathers of old? Or is it that they have not recognized their Apostle, so that they deny him? Or do they say: There is madness in him? Nay! he has brought them the truth, and most of them are averse from the truth. And should the truth follow their low desires, surely the heavens and the earth and all those who are therein would have perished. Nay! We have brought to them their reminder, but from their reminder they turn aside [23. 68-71]."
The 28th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy is justly infamous for its atrocious catalog of punishments that will be inflicted by Yahweh on the unbeliever. That, however, is confined to the one chapter, although the criticism of the wicked in the prophetic literature of the Old and New Testament is sharp enough. The Koran, however, is more telling. The passages above have been quoted at length to establish the tenor of this repellent document. They are not confined to merely one Sura. In fact passages like these picturing the dreadful doom of the unbeliever are repeated in nearly every sura of this book. And they are repeated and reemphasized many times often within each individual chapter. Therefore the tone of the entire book is viciously judgmental against all outsiders, Pagans, Christians and Jews alike. The fact that the truth of the Koran is supposed to be so self-evident, those who are disbelievers are disbelievers willfully so. They have heard the clear proofs an! d deliberately, wickedly , turn away. The fate of these is particularly frightful.
It ought to be clear by now that the world has been divided by a new cold war. That is not to say that terrorists should not be rooted out. Indeed they should, by all means including assistance from the Islamic states themselves. What a close reading of the Koran and a study of its secondary materials brings, however, is a sense that the modern West, Europe and America, its Christian and Jewish populations with their secular ideologies are natural allies against the Islamic ideologies. Oddly enough, Marxist nations like China, who are secular and whose philosophy is Western after all (and we are led to believe covertly Taoist and Buddhist), together with Russia, India, Japan, Australia, the the Buddhist Far East over the very long haul will probably need to create a coalition to contend with this newest reactionary movement. For reactionary Islam is. Like our own home-grown faiths, in their fundamentalist phases, Islam is impelled desperately toward final certainty in re! sponse to the uncertaint ies of the modern world. Freedom is dreadful. Submission to the utter certainties of fundamentalist religions is thought falsely and sadly to be a safe haven.
Islam has gone through all the religious changes that were characteristic of its Christian counterpart in the Middle Ages. The initial revelation. The establishment of the community. A confrontation with classical culture. The identification of the faith with state power. The growth of pietist and mystical movements. A decline. The one difference is that, unlike Christendom, Islam has never experienced an enduring Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, in spite of the fact that the greatest of its scholastics, Al Ghazali, flirted profoundly with Greek philosophy at one time but then used it to refute all philosophy and create an opening for the mystical wing of Islam, Sufism. However under the influence of Ibn Taymiyya, a Syrian critic of Al Ghazali, there was in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries a refutation of Sufism and Greek logic and an insistence on a very literal reading of the Koran and the faith. Taymiyya is the hero and fountainhead of current Isl! amic Fundamentalism. Taymiyya like our own Back to the Bible ideologues wish to get Islam back to basics in order to confront and defeat the incursions of classical thought and modern culture.
In fact all current so-called reform movements within Islam, Traditional, Liberal, Neo-Traditional are in one form or another fundamentalist in fact. As such they are no more reasonable to deal with than our own home-grown varieties. Because there has been no enduring reformation-renaissance experience in Islam, there has been created no native intellectual class of skeptics within the tradition, as in the West. Most if not all truly secular Muslims live under deeply Western influences. Our intellectual class for Islam (not to speak of Christian literalists) is too dangerous to honor or employ. Witness our own conflict of free thought and religion over the last two hundred and fifty years. Our tolerance and plurality is unthinkable to a Muslim because the Muslim sincerely believes that any belief other than Islam is false. And an enemy. And that the fight must be made until all are Muslim, that there is no other faith than Islam, and that eventually all must submit to I! slam. Indeed, to reempha size this, they hold that everyone on earth is born a Muslim but until he finds that out he is but a shadow person.
To be sure there have been secular movements within the Middle East. The Ba'ath parties are secular, but instead of creating a class of intellectuals they have created in Iraq and Lebanon a class of thugs. And Turkey, that most Western of all Islamic states, like others ruled by the military class (Egypt under Nasser and Algeria among others) is busily repressing its fundamentalist movements within. And the alliance of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with the West is fragile for the same reason. Even Iran with its own reform synthesis between a democratic way of life and religious practice has left the Ulama, a kind of Islamic Supreme Court, as the final arbiter of law with the power to cancel legislation.
The real Islamic reform movement was Bahai. And this has largely failed. Many Bahai in Iran were slaughtered with the encouragement of of the clerics. Bahai is successful mainly in the West.
So it appears we do in fact have a religious war on our hands. But it simply will not do to say my Jesus or Moses is meaner than your Muhammad. Or that our Yahweh is a better fighter than your Allah over what is really our oil, after all. The real contest ought not to be divided between Christian and Jew on the one hand and Islam on the other. That would make this a purely religious war between the three monotheisms, which it is, but only in part.
The true conflict is between those cultures who with their emphasis on reason, evidence, nature, and westernized values which are secular, progressive, liberal, individualist, and humane, rooted in science and the realities uncovered in modern art, who who do not hold to a fanatical attachment to an ideology and can tolerate diversity--: and the fanatics of all religions who cannot do any of these things.
If 911 demonstrated anything it demonstrated convincingly for us the true face of fundamentalist fanaticism, something not restricted only to Islam. Just tune in sometime to the extreme preachings of R. G. Stair, Larry Kane, and other lunatics inhabiting the air-ways and hear their delight in the impending doom of America. Or investigate even briefly the rantings of Christian Reconstruction whose vision of America under Old Testament Law is just as appalling as any Islamic state. These are, no less than the preaching of the right wing Ulama, just as much incitements to terror. We have experienced that terror, in Oklahoma, in the murder of physicians who perform abortions and bomb clinics. Review even briefly the words and behavior of the right-wing Israelites. So much of the violence between Israel and Palestine may have been influenced by their belief that their right to all the land of the area is given them by God in the Torah.
Salman Rushdie an international writer of the first rank states it clearly: He believed that the modern contest would be between Terrorism and Security. If we were to be made too anxious under the threat of terrorism we might be asked to surrender too many of our liberties to the "warriors of the secret world".
"The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings," he goes on to say. "Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex....The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
...borrowed from New York Times Special Features 10.2 Fighting the Forces of Invisibility By Salman Rushdie
Imagine, if you will, an impoverished Believer stuck somewhere out in the desert or in a little isolated town or in a poverty-stricken city. Put yourself into his intensely moral frame of mind. Forbidden foods and drink and entertainments. Covered women. Subordinated and confined females. He watches our television. Reads our magazines. He sees without comprehension what Rushdie has described above. How appalled he must be! Watch a couple of hours of out TV through his eyes to see what shocks him.
And then on top of that, he holds the promise in his heart, learned from the Koran that obedient belief in God and conformity to the laws of Islam, that he should prosper. Riches and power should be his. He should enjoy that paradise under which rivers flow. And he sees what to him is a corrupt West who is the power and wealth of the world! What confusion, despair and anger must be his! Is it any wonder that fanatical belief and terrorism springs from this dusty and desperate soil? For it is true that in real terms the West is not really threatened by Islam (unless it becomes a majority faith in Western countries) but that Islam is in absolute terms threatened by the West!
We don't understand this as much as we should.
Islam is submission, "slavery" to the power of Allah. Unquestioning obedience to its law.
The Western ideal is individual liberty.
The ideal of the Buddhist East is Freedom from all ideologies, even religious ones.
The underlying assumptions of our belief can be stated quite simply.
Islam is NOT the one true faith. Neither is Christianity nor Judaism.
And if one is to be a conservative, or a fundamentalist on the text of the Koran much Islamic behavior is suddenly explicable. Including its terrorism.
In fact all expressions of faith of the three monotheisms run counter to humanistic freedom. A plague on all three houses!
The threat to free art and literature, to unaffiliated mysticism, to all free thought is plain. The ignorance of the three monotheisms, Islam in particular, must be confronted.
But so far the dialog between these worlds has been a dialog of the deaf.
Islam must be contained for the foreseeable future by the rest of the four-fifths of the world until traditions of liberty grow there. A religion which includes the belief that not to be tolerated are those on ....(the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
This is the faith of an angry intolerant God.
This is not an idle danger. It must be taken seriously. We are probably right to use military power to deal with its terrorist version.
We are free. We are not slaves. Until then it is our duty, over and above the use of force, on our part of the dialog to hear, understand.
Real concord between us will be risky, difficult, and may be even impossible. Unless the national media state the truth beyond alliance propaganda, most of us will condemned to remain forever deaf.
BACK TO TOP
God is dead; now the secular is radiant.
All mythologies live, but they are hidden in the secular. The sacred is identified with and camouflaged in the profane. Samsara is Nirvana. The life of the spirit is the bouquet of fleshly life. The Kingdom of Heaven is disclosed in the waste land. The profane now is radiant.
Meditations on Joseph Campbell, The Atlas
If one no longer fears either pain or death then the universe is glorious and safe. Trust grows from this.
Dr Robert Funk
Santa Rosa California
Re: The Jesus Seminar and the Buddha or How soon will we all be Buddhists?
In this essay I mean to carefully examine the question posed.
As you know I have been a loyal participant of the work of the Seminar for the last seven years. In the few conversations I have had with you (I did have the dubious honor of carrying your suitcase once) in one I mentioned that you 'had liberated my aesthetic,' but more importantly, the work of the Seminar has allowed me to reconnect with the Christian nurture from which I had been rather bitterly sundered as a result of two year's experience in the Seminary: Luther Theological Seminary, to be exact, a very good one in St. Paul Minnesota affiliated with what is now The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I left that school in 1961 disappointed, frustrated, and quite angry with what I took then to be a betrayal. A really good seminary ill do that to you.
But of course it was not a betrayal.
It was the natural outcome of having been trained in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin--Madison with its powerful analytical and positivist bias-- and setting myself on a collision course with the sectarian studies at Luther.
I come from a long line of Lutheran pastors on my Swedish side and a shorter on the Norwegian side. I had a father, uncles, cousins, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, greatgreat-grandfathers who were Lutheran pastors back it seemed to the crack of doom. Two of them were somewhat celebrated, Professor Arthur Carl Piepkorn Missouri Synod Scholar was an uncle; Professor Carl Johannes Sodergren Augustana Synod scholar and poet was my grandfather. What I thought to be faith was an unexamined loyalty to my family. When I had decisive and challenging questions posed to me at seminary from deeply committed and brilliant Christian scholars about my alleged call to the devout and holy life (I am deeply grateful for this!), I faced the issues squarely and found I had no faith. Just inertia. For once in my life I was honest with myself, admitted this, and took myself, my wife, and baby daughter out of St. Paul and into a career as a journalist, and teacher, politician, poet, and nov! elist, who, beginning twenty-seven years ago, still hungering, as Kierkegaard would have put it, after eternal blessedness, found myself after four separate initiations (two by the Dalai Lama) a devotee of the Buddhist Dharma. I follow that path yet. But because of your leadership and scholarship, I became reintroduced (to meet Jesus again for the first time) to the historical Jesus disclosed by the work of the seminar.
You can come home again, I discovered. But the house I grew up is pretty much gone. The old one has been partially demolished, added to, rebuilt, and remodeled.
I live in that one.
Over the meetings of the last several years, either by accident or synchronicity, attending spring or fall meetings, I have come in contact with several Associates who like me are Buddhists. That was a happy turn of events. We would discuss the work of the conference enthusiastically. Our conversations invariably took the same turn: "This is fascinating stuff. And it seems the seminar group is headed toward a convergence with Buddhism. It's only a matter of time."
Now that kind of confidence, though in the main I agree to it, requires a serious qualification. Many of the both Fellows and Associates have a deeper commitment to their Christian past than we who have found Buddhism do. It will be difficult for those who are still active in the churches, to let go. (Jack Spong, who I love dearly, is a wonderful case in point; after, for all practical purposes, destroying Christianity as we know it, he will invariably conclude with, "yet I still love the Church....a statement like that giving the fits to a Buddhist schooled in the fatal dangers of attachment!). So the movement to the Buddha Dharma out of the Church Alumni Association is some distance away. And I would guess that your Comparative Religions Seminar, if you are planning one, is also at some distance in the future. (In seventeen years you have accomplished scholarly miracles, forever altering, I think, the landscape of Biblical scholarship; but I am mindful and get hints of! it from you of the immense amount of work yet to be done!)
However there are a number of interesting recent intersections that have piqued my desire to address this essay to you. They are:
- Your statement last year that you were finding yourself more and more in agreement with Don Cupitt's thinking.
- The most recent Forum on Christology.
- Don Cupitt's Emptiness and Brightness.
- Bernard Brandon's Scott's book on the parables, Reimagining the World.
- Walter McClure's article New Physics in Vol 15, No 3 of the Fourth R
- My own recent rereading of my novel The Thomas Jesus, which engages the gnostic tradition in early Christianity.
- When you made this statement in your address last spring I had not bought Cupitt's most recent book. I had heard his address the year before. With my training in science and analytic philosophy I was a little impatient with his approach to language. I thought it circular, tautological, and too deconstructionist. I recall one rather awkward moment when he seemed unable to adequately respond to a questioner from the floor. I wondered how he would treat the language of science which by its very nature reaches out beyond language to phenomena in repeatable experiments and falsifiable conclusions. (When on a trip to Great Britain last year I happened to turn on BBC at six in the morning and there he was, speaking a little homily that seemed rather traditional and somewhat at variance with his more philosophical stances. I mentioned this to him and we did laugh about it. Unfortunately I was not yet competent enough in his work to engage him in dialog.) I mentioned his name to a friend in England and was told in no uncertain terms that he (a labor party liberal and anti-state-church Methodist who thinks the royal family ought to be abolished!) 'didn't like him.' With only this as background your support of him puzzled me.
- The most recent Forum was fascinating. For two reasons, one institutional and one personal, the following reflection obtains: There is nothing more irrelevant to our thinking to concern ourselves, or to even have to think of, such an arcane concept as Christology. If the work of the Seminar is to have any weight at all it is in its conclusion that there was nothing divinely special about the historical Jesus, except for the fact that he was a genius, a very human genius. He was not anointed, a Christ, a Messiah. None of those things. He was human like us. I think that is final. Indeed the formula of Chalcedon may be revisited here, as The Atlas puts it,10.142 NICEA AND CHALCEDON REVISITED: OMOI OR OMOUOUSION?The Council of Nicea asserted that Christ was of the same substance with the Father. Arius asserted that He was of similar substance with the Father. The Atlas asserts that Man is of the same substance with the cosmos. It assumes that the two natures of Christ agreed to at Chalcedon in 451 ("...inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, unseparably: the distinction of natures...being preserved, and concurring in...one Subsistence" [Mircea Eliade's HORI III, pp 55]), that classical Christology could be applied into a New World anthropology. Each human on earth shares the two natures of Christ and that Christ was not a unique event in sacred history. And that the cosmos is our mother and father both. At our own archetypal heart-center lie the figures of the Buddha-Christ--that is, we possess for ourselves the instrument of our own awakening.
though of course even this language has little to do with elucidating the full humanity of Jesus understood from the point of view of a modern sensibility. Without a Christ there is no need for a Christology.
It does, however, say much in contrast to the Buddhist way of thinking. On the one hand, Jesus Christ was the only Son of God. On the other, everyone, everywhere, everywhen, is the Buddha. On the one hand one must hear the Word preached to be saved, a fatal particularity. On the other, all illumination takes is awakening to one's true nature, wherever in the world, whenever in time, one might be. The Dharma is everything. Siddartha Gotama, though most are sure he existed, that historical figure is irrelevant to one's awakening. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" The Dharma is first and only. There was far less confusion of the message and messenger in this tradition. Moreover, it is the same awakening to the light within that Elaine Pagels addressed in the controversy between the John and Thomas communities last spring.
Do not misunderstand me. All the articles in Forum, Fall 2000, are absolutely necessary. The Fellows continue to do their researches in the way that I admire so: patiently, one step at a time, grounded in careful scholarship. Given our sectarian adversaries it cannot be otherwise. I am the one leaping ahead, perhaps even irresponsibly. But I am the novelist and poet you rather constantly allude to. I am obliged to leap. So I leap. But even with this publication, in almost all the articles, but especially those by Smith, Patterson, yourself, and Dewey, I sense a strong movement to modern language, new redaction, exegesis, hermeneutic, toward a stance increasingly and radically heterodox to normative Christianity but normative to gnosis, the creative mind, and Buddhism especially. Art Dewey, who I think to be one of your more artistic scholars, is a special case in point. He concludes his article, "What happens when we allow ourselves to see the myths which structure our! world and our narrative s for what they are? Can we set them within an imaginative space that will let us see those power images for what they are? Can we even place those christological fiction we have discerned or constructed. Are we not moving from Christology to christopoetics? (Forum 318-319)."
The capitalization is Dewey's. The variation in the last sentence is instructive. The word christopoetics is the key to his article, indeed to the whole of christological scholarship. One minor qualification: Dewey's language is acceptable to radical secular thinking as long as that last phrase can be translated '...Christology to the arts of those humans especially endowed with human genius....'
Indeed Ninian Smart in his Long Search section on the Mahayana had Ron Eyre declare in a small thought experiment that one way to look at Jesus was as a great Bodhisattva. Point taken, if by that he means what the last sentence in the paragraph above says.
Institutionally, it will happen as the seminar scholarship advances, that the word 'Christ' be eliminated altogether except when under consideration historically. When that happens, the Fellows and Associates come closer to gnosis, to Buddhism. Even the word Buddha with its occasional though rare exclusive taint needs strong qualification. A question I often pose to my own teachers (who more or less insist on the need for transmission, inka, from teacher to student reaching back to the patriarchs through the Bodhidharma to the Buddha himself in order to keep the teaching truly authentic--a kind of Eastern apostolic succession--is as follows. Who transmitted the Dharma to the first Buddha?
My own personal Koan.
- Don Cupitt's Emptiness and Brightness.
This is a fascinating and important essay. After having studied it I have a better understanding of the statement you made about him. Cupitt comes closer than anyone among the fellows to an explicit statement in philosophical support of the Dharma and of the way of modern science, especially physics. The world of life is beginningless, endless, outsideless, and in ceaseless change. It is all there is. (p 118).
In addition Cupitt comes hard up against one of the the key notions in Buddhism (about which we will have much to say later), that is Sunyata Davada, the notion of Emptiness, or the Void. This, with the natural impulse of Karuna, compassion (its Western cognates are Caritas and Agape), supplies the soteriological context of the faith. To realize Emptiness and then out of human compassion to reach out and help others out of their conceptual traps, to realize emptiness for themselves (Paul Tillich was absolutely wrong to assume there could be no ethical acts from Nirvana) is the way of the Mahayana, the way of the Bodhisattva--that hero of the faith who wishes to save all sentient beings before he claims Nirvana for himself--to live, in other words, selflessly for others. In the words of one Western Buddhist convert "one dances toward the center and justice at the same time."
For Cupitt the world of life has three aspects or modes: Being, Language, and Brightness. "By Be-ing we mean the dance of possibility in the Void, the ceaseless gentle forthcomingness of finite existence in time. It is necessary to make a friend of the Void (p 70), ....God is an abyss, a shoreless sea, a desert....God is a featureless Void....there is no reason to fear the Void (p 71). These are only a few correspondences Cupitt makes between his analysis and the way of the Buddha. Indeed for one who sees things through Buddhist eyes, Cupitt's book seems almost a translation of some of the sutras, especially the great Prajna Paramita, The Heart of Perfect Wisdom, recited all over the lands of Buddhism, the nearest thing to a universal creed we have.
It is only in his treatment of Language that Cupitt departs the Mahayana. The departure is not a severe one; indeed in this book Cupitt acknowledges that Buddhist philosophy is even though very old and traditional still a living tradition. Of our religions, only Buddhism offers a serious and disinterested attempt to understand human unhappiness, diagnose its causes, and propose a therapy that, if persevered in for long enough, actually has some chance in working (p 49) ...from the religious point of view Buddhism is the most intellectually formidable and challenging of the faiths and the one above all which we must reckon with (p 91).
His notion of Language is both I think a reflection of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Transactions and the Tractatus, as well as being deeply dyed by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, not to speak of the limitations on language enjoined by science. By Language we mean the endless to and fro of human symbolic exchange. It is within the flux of our human communication that Be-ing is formed into beings, and the common human life world is produced and held steady (p 118). So far so good.
But then occurs a surprising turn. Brightness in his view emerges out of language. As we think in language, so we always see the world in terms of our language: hence we can always tell what we see. Within the flux of our communication everything else is produced, too, as any library will show you: linguistic meaning, knowledge, values, art, religion - and because language is so reflexive, general and allusive, its motion also produces Brightness, by which I mean the world's vividness and beauty in our (and only our) conscious awareness of it. Everything might have been dark, unknowing and quite unaware, but the world in fact becomes bright and beautiful in our awareness of it. We complete the world. It's ours (p 118).
By itself this makes sense. But one cannot help but feel that this claim is too extravagant. Granted our awareness of it elicits Brightness. But to think that the source of brightness occurs only in language comes perilously close to the assumption that science does not deal with a reality separate from our consciousness of it. To assert we always see the world in terms of our language, suspicious as I am of any absolute (the words 'always' and 'only'), does not take into consideration that prephilosophical prelinguistic perception of phenomena. When I first saw a giant scissor-tail flycatcher in the South on a trip through Louisiana, I had no idea what it was. But I saw it. I only learned about it in a language way with my Peterson Guide. And then I was able to appropriate it. Discovering surds and not knowing what they are in nature is the beginning of scientific inquiry. Coming to "What is it?" is the beginning of scientific knowledge. Cupitt does seem to qualify thi! s rather radical statement, however, when he states, Brightness is the consciousness of conscious perception, seeing and being aware of ones' seeing and the brightness is the beauty of the world....Brightness is the world's "seeness out there", its objective intelligibility' (p 86). There is a certain unresolved tension in this book. One is tempted, with the good Dr. Johnson, to go about kicking rocks.
A good friend of mine once talked about the transcendence of phenomena in the following way: "Remember, nature does not speak English." That little sentence, though it clearly establishes the power of language, also removes it from the circularity one might be tempted by, though on pragmatic grounds Cupitt rather grudgingly allows that the operations of science may in fact have something to do with external reality. Pragmatically (but no more than that), the world of scientific theory that we have gradually developed in order to rectify the various little faults and anomalies in the life world does work--and to that extent it...appears to have a certain degree of truth and reality (p 99).
By the same token Brightness itself may be like phenomena rooted in objective nature. Cupitt declares the end of mystery. But not so. There an old Buddhist saying "that before enlightenment the sky is the sky, the tree the tree, the mountain the mountain. During enlightenment the sky is not the sky, the tree is not the tree, the mountain is not the mountain. It is radiant. It is bright! And then after enlightenment the sky is again the sky, the tree again the tree, the mountain again the mountain. And after enlightenment the brightness though hidden is still there! A study of mystical experiences (see Aghenanda Bharati's Light at the Center, the Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism) ratifies this point of view.
To continue with Cupitt's excellent analysis, We called this world view 'Empty radical humanism' because we recognize that we ourselves are just as much mere transient products of the motion of language as everything else is; but we are the only speakers, the only batters-back-and-forth of language, and in us alone it all comes together, makes sense, adds up to a whole, and becomes worthwhile. Thus our existence is justified (p 118). Well and good, but a Buddhist epistemologist, as did Kierkegaard with reason, may dethrone language without abolishing it.
And Cupitt concludes with remarkable spiritual health and sanity: With this world view we associate a religion of life that is ardently committed to life in its very transience, loves the world's Brightness as other humans once loved the divine Glory, and is committed to the fellow human simply as such. In our social ethics, we are concerned only with attempting to free our fellow humans from need or relative deprivation. We prefer to leave the work of governing human beings to the law, and to the processes of liberal democratic politics....Such, in briefest sketch, is the emergent world-view, religion and ethics of a Second Axial Age.
More evidence in Cupitt's work illuminating his affinity with Buddhist thinking is in his distaste for and abolition of our Western Dualisms--which have their source in both Biblical and Greek mythology, coming to a head, as it were, in the philosophy of Descartes. To the contrary he quotes that admirable Quaker pamphlet: There is Another World but it is This One (p 115). He also makes a irrefutable case for a kind of Buddhist-Heraclitan dynamism, which asserts there are no safe havens anywhere and makes it clear that we have advanced beyond the divisions of the First Axial Period in which ...there was a certain analogy between the believer's attitude to his own body and the scientists attitude toward Nature. It was a dualistic period....We must now leave behind us a world in which the mind found rest in contemplating eternal reality and embrace instead a world of endless exchange and change. We need to learn to live transience, because it's all that is, and we are a par! t of it (p 120).
He also, in his inimitable way, asserts the first noble truth of Buddhism, That Life is Pain, ...the knowledge of our mortality and universal transience adds a touch of Angostura bitters, a touch of anguish, to our lives; but on reflection the angostura is a tonic, an enhancer and we wouldn't be without it (p 104). Tonic, enhancer, yes. Certain cocktails are enriched and deepened by bitters. Food is intensified with vinegar. This is close to the Vajryana position in Buddhism, which embraces the world of phenomena's pain and poison radically and might explain why the Tibetans, in spite of the disasters that have overtaken them, smile and laugh so much. The current Dalai Lama, I can tell you from personal experience, is a very funny man.
So there you have it. Emptiness and Brightness, key elements among so many other ideas in Cupitt in Buddhism. Joseph Campbell once remarked that his favorite of all the traditional religions was the Mahayana. His statement: All mythologies live, but they are hidden in the secular. The sacred is identified with and camouflaged in the profane. Samsara is Nirvana. The life of the spirit is the bouquet of fleshly life. The Kingdom of Heaven is disclosed in the waste land. The profane is radiant (various sources), reflects that. The immense weight of scientific artistic religious thinking presses us toward conclusions of this sort. Artists and scientists may be seen as playing leading parts in clarifying and enriching the way we see all things (p 60).
- Bernard Brandon's Scott's book on the parables, Reimagining the World.
I have to admit that my motives were mixed in buying this book. At first I got it for my wife. She has attended the last two conferences with me; in addition to being captivated by the work of the Fellows, was enthusiastic about Scott's various presentations. I too admired his wit and scholarship. As it happened I read his book before she did because I was anxious to test out his scholarship on the parables against my use of them in my novel, The Thomas Jesus. That book was published in April of 2000 and had been enthusiastically reviewed by the Madison Magazine, responded to very positively by Darren Middleton, one of the Fellows of the Seminar (who said he might use it in his course Jesus in fiction), issued a note of warning about the purchase of it by the Library Journal, panned by the reviewer of the Wisconsin State Journal, who is an ordained Christian Minister, letters from many grateful readers, and with very positive reviews on the Borders and Amazon home pages.! One of these days, Robert, I'm going to get you to read that book!
So my little novel antedated Scott's latest work. Much to my relief my own treatment of the parables wasn't too far from the mark (forgive the pun). More gratifying was Scott's analysis of the parable in Thomas, Loggia 13 of the Empty Jar from the Thomas Gospel. This the first time I had seen anyone in print concentrate on that parable. That, with other citations, becomes important in Scott's formulations of the central importance of the Void: God is present in absence, not apocalyptic resolution, in his words. The correspondences of this with Cupitt's notion of the void, and the Buddhist Shunya is more than instructive. It was upon reading that passage in Scott that much of the synthesis of this essay occurred.
I will include a key passage of my novel to illustrate my point. Here Thomas is speaking of the rather normal boneheaded behavior of the disciples. Yashu is his nickname for his childhood playmate. The passage that follows is a riff on the Thomas Gospel (Loggia 97):
"But as usual they didn't get it. Some of them grew rather nervous. Agitated. It was hard for them to conceive that their man wouldn't be with them some day. They hadn't begun to see the danger Yashu was in. So they said things like "Tell us who you are so that we may believe in you. We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader then?" which really annoyed him. I think he was angry that they were only concerned with where they fit in the order of things, and not with the Kingdom. He glanced at me. Our messages were wordless but we understood each other. So he turned to them and said with some asperity:
You examine the face of heaven and earth, but you have not come to know the one who is in your presence, and you don't know how to look at this moment. All right then. Let's see what you know. Compare me to something and tell me what I am like."
They sat thinking about this for a moment. One of the thunder brothers was the first to speak. "You are like a prophet," John said.
"You are like a wise philosopher", Andrew said.
"Yes", Peter said excitedly, his love for his teacher evident in the extreme. "But you are more. You are a wise philosopher and a prophet but you are also the anointed one. The Messiah. You are the son of God."
Brother James became aggravated with Peter. He said, "My brother, is a bad son, a rotten farmer, an irresponsible family man, a trouble maker, a glutton and a drunk, and like a philosopher and prophet. But a Messiah? No! Peter. That's stupid."
Peter was abashed. Yashu's brother was becoming a leader for some of them by that time. Peter recognized the man's growing authority. But was not convinced. Everyone could see that. "No. He's good, the good teacher," he muttered. Yashu heard that. By his expression you could tell that he was about to argue with the fisherman. But instead, he turned to me.
"All right, Thomas. It's your turn."
I had my answer ready. "Teacher," I said, picking up Peter's word but putting a mildly sarcastic inflection on it. "My mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like!"
Yashu laughed. So did some of the others. "I am not your teacher," he corrected Peter by correcting me. "And I'm not particularly good. But because you have drunk with me, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended. Come aside. You and I need to talk."
I got up and we wandered away from the others for some dozen or so paces. "Come. Sit," he said. We were under a tree that gave us meager shade. "I think you understand me in a different way than they do. You will need to tell my story."
"You can do that," I protested.
"Now look," he said, his deep voice rising in pitch. "Ever since John was imprisoned I knew my story would change. You see I don't believe the way he did. I don't believe that a savior will come through the clouds to save the Israel from the Romans, from anybody. I don't know how many times I have to say that the Kingdom is already here!"
"I get that," I said.
"And I know I am in danger. I will have to go to Jerusalem some day. I've got to make those people face the truth. But I'm not going to let you come there with me. You must plan for that even now. You have to keep safe. You must remain at Meshekh's house. You have part of my story. You'll know what to say later."
I have a question," I said.
"In my readings at the museum...."
"Ah yes," he laughed. "Your learning place."
"Yes. I was reading some texts from India. There's a prophet from there hundreds of years ago that talked in some very strange ways about, I don't know what, they called it emptiness. Some such thing...."(We had been chatting in Aramaic but I used the Greek word kenoma here.)
He didn't let me finish. "Do you remember my story about the little old lady and the broken jar?"
"Yes. The meal had leaked out all over the ground. That's supposed to what the Kingdom is like."
"Don't think like Peter," he scolded. "Don't be so narrow. Look at the whole story. The jar was empty. That's the Kingdom too."
That stopped me. I would have to think about that.
"Look," he said. "I will tell you this. In the Kingdom there is no male or female. There is no death. But listen. There is no temple; I say the temple is completely torn down. But there's more. There are no twelve tribes of Israel. No synagogue. No fall. No rescue. And there is no sin. No judgment!"
Those last words were terrible. "What's left?" I asked thinking furiously.
"The Father's complete acceptance of us," he said calmly. "Of all of us, no matter who we are or what we have done. And then our perfect freedom."
Well, my mind was reeling after that. I wandered back to the rest after pacing around a bit just like Peter. They asked me: "What did Yashu say to you?"
I looked at them. How could they understand? So all I could say was "If I tell you one of the things he told me, you will pick up rocks and kill me, and fire will come from the rocks and eat you up...."The Thomas Jesus, mss pp 182-184, published text pp 202-206.
So there it is. Emptiness all around us. The Void. But the Void is not nothing. It is not a philosophy of nihilism. That is very difficult for Westerners to understand. In Buddhism the Void is many positive things, it is a mythology of what transcends human thought, the uselessness of language to express it, the wordless awe one stands in in facing the ultimate and unspeakable realities of the universe (reality is one and knowable but not entirely speakable), the disclosure of all that is in phenomena and phenomena only (Nirvana is Samsara), and the complete freedom the individual seeker experiences when realizing these and other things about the Void not enumerated here.
Scott goes on to say (Living in a Reimagined World, p 141) A substantial bar to making the parables applicable today is the great distance between them and us. Jesus was a first century, Jewish, Galilean peasant and his concerns, speech, and idioms belong to that culture. We belong to a very different world. The transition is difficult, like the transition from Homer to us, or even from Shakespeare to us. Yet the parables do invoke universal themes. I propose the following question: Can you base your life on the re-imagined world of the parables? My answer to this question is a resounding, Yes...."
As I read this I became mindful of an earlier reading of Thoreau's Walden. If one is trapped in what Mircea Eliade calls the Terror of History then one must realize that a suburbanite like myself with four children and six grandchildren and all the responsibilities thereto obtaining will not be able to just pick up and leave for Walden Pond. However with Walden Pond a constant presence in one's consciousness one will be able to constantly modify one's behavior in the real world of dates in its direction. One would garden. Conserve. Catch and release when fly-fishing. Recycle. Vote for environmentally responsible candidates. And the like. Likewise with the Kingdom as a constant presence in one's consciousness one would of necessity modify one's behavior in the world's terror of history in the direction of the alternative reality discerned in the authentic sayings that Jesus was so enchanted with. It might mean, if one is stuck in a church, personally modifying normative t! eaching with his alternate vision. It would surely mean espousing a liberal progressive politics whose focus is on the injustice meted out on all by the criminal plutocracy unregulated markets have created. It might even force one into action in a whole range of progressive options. The ethics of compassion is the same for both inflections, normative and kingdom faith, but the domain of the parables is more generous and far less intolerant than the normative Western faiths.
The worst thing the Seminar could do is to become a church. Or to create churches. To institutionalize the anarchic dynamism of Jesus's wisdom teaching. At the Stock Pavilion in Fargo, North Dakota in 1941 Duke Ellington's band gave a legendary concert. There exists a rare tape of that concert. It's influence was immense. His music became the ground of the development of the jazz tradition ever since. Hundreds of little combos informally gathered and performed under that influence. Bands would band and disband, but the music went on. Since 1985 has met a now legendary group of scholars who created a scholarly music that like Ellington has lived on in small subversive groups, individual auditors taking exception to the musak of the normal world. The music was so powerful that it will live forever. It does not need a church to preserve it. It needs caring scholars and associates wherever and whenever they are to transmit it. Musak is constantly embarrassed by the quality o! f this music.
The world of dates (Salman Rushdie's phrase), the Terror of History is a given. Here the fully realized human intelligence acts as a leaven in that world.
Scott goes on to say: ....recall the three coordinates around which in the last chapter I developed a comprehensive view of Jesus' parables, sayings, and deeds.
- God is unclean.
A brief word about this. The word 'unclean' comes from the orthodox world view of Jesus's time. It is the point of view of the scribes, the pharisees, the sadducees. The Temple functionaries. I sense that Jesus was mocking with this word. The things others thought unclean, from his point of view, were not unclean at all. It is Cupitt's delight in the world as it is, in spite of it's initial sense of anguish: but on reflection the angostura is a tonic, an enhancer and we wouldn't be without it (p 104). It is the utter identity of Nirvana and Samsara, Transcendence and Phenomena. It is delight. What the Temple bureaucrats would call unclean in fact are the only mostly clean things there are.
- God is present in absence, not apocalyptic resolution.
And here once again is the Void which, as William Barrett once remarked in his book, The Illusion of Technique, not as Nothing but a glory "engendering its ancient miracles." And the Void as disclosed in so much of the scholarship covered here. And the lumbering eternal patience of the Earth and the Universe it is in must be beguiled by the current frequent hysterical proclamations of the End of the Time.
- Cooperation, not contest, is the basis for the Empire of God.
And here Empty Radical Humanism. Progressive politics. A call to action. The heart of compassion. Shunya irrefrageably linked to Karuna. Emptiness and Compassion in one motion.
These three coordinates for me summarize the re-imagined world of the parables, or to put it another way, they triangulate the empire of God
Not only are there coordinates emerging from Scott's close reading of the parables, but, it appears, from the larger trends of creative and critical scholarship developing since Remarius; and the accumulation of cognate metaphors in the literature of the world, most concretely since the Enlightenment. One could easily survey the monist, devout, progressive background mythology in Western literature mostly after Shakespeare. That would be a massive undertaking. But Blake, the Romantics, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and Melville come immediately to mind. Also the incredible depths and richness and world-affirmation of the novels and poetry of our own time. (As a novelist I am of course enchanted by Cupitt's assertion that the Novel may be the best vehicle to transmit this new mythology.)
- My last venture will be Walter McClure's article New Physics in Vol 15, No 3 of the Fourth R.
McClure is a physicist. He makes his point in summary at the end of his article. ....we cannot be arrogant that our latest theories no matter how successful are the last word; ne evidence could radically overturn them at any time. It reminds us that current theories are not the truth, but only our best approximation to the truth at this time. Only in this spirit should we approach the Great Mystery....I grant that the new physics does not much enlighten us on the ultimate Mystery. But it shows....about how we must begin to think about ourselves, the universe, and the Mystery....If there is no personal deity...then there is nobody but ourselves to take the responsibility--scary but challenging, and eminently worthwhile (Fourth 4 pp 19).
The text preceding this in the article is a robust summary of some of the features of the new physics. The mystery he alludes to is contained in the ancient question, Why is there something rather than nothing? The provisional nature of scientific knowledge is also emphasized. The genius of the article is that he refuses to answer the question. The mystery must be left to stand as mystery. We are to stand in awe and gratitude before it. It is the mystery that is the source of Brightness! It is beyond language. Beyond all categories of thought. Beyond even the idea of beyond. It would be bright even if there were no consciousness to perceive it. An unheard tree crashing in the woods still noises. A slight advance beyond Cupitt into Buddhadharma.
What follows is a step by step over-generalized, aesthetic rendering of the relevant history:
- We begin with an unemployed scaffold-maker who long ago and far away began to say some rather unusual things. Got into a lot of trouble. Made everyone mad. Was killed.
- Out of the people's misunderstanding of his message grew the imperial church. Constantine did the spirit no favors. The message was subsumed to the messenger and a hero was created, perversions both. Fourteen hundred years of mischief was created.
- In the Reformation some began to rebel against that imperial church, and took the first steps to democratize it; to make thought dependent on the individual believer.
- From this grew the critical studies (Erasmus was a great help here) we all know and love. Renaissance the other side of Reformation's coin. In the Enlightenment later things really got out of control.
- Sir William Jones and his study of the world's grammars, the publication of a translation of the Shakuntala and an essay of the Institutes of Hindu Law taught us Sanskrit, created the study of the Indo-European family of languages, all of which led to the study of comparative religions and the history of religious ideas.
- Occurred, largely after WWII traceable back to Emerson's Brahma and Transcendentalism, the increasing influence on the West of Eastern ways of thinking.
- The Jesus Seminar beginning in 1985 reintroduced the study of the historical Jesus by taking the scholarly conclusions of Remarius et al to their logical conclusion.
- And sponsored of necessity the public recovery of the historical Jesus through the parables and aphorisms, which is deliciously at odds with the official monotheisms. All three of them. Made them angry.
- With Nag Hammadi, Elaine Pagels, came the rediscovery of Christian gnosis and the Hesychast, our own Christian mystical order lost since the ninth century. Karen Armstrong as well as so many others, yourself included, in her address to the conference used more and more to the language of the Buddhadharma.
- I wrote my little story The Thomas Jesus based on the researches of the Seminar. And was gratified by its reception. Am still proud of that book.
- In which many connectings with Buddhism came into view.
And therefore the question, which is the theme of this venture, as a result of so many intersections of the above--the standard model in physics, the weight of critical scholarship, the disenchantment of thinking people with old institutional forms, the disclosures of the study of comparative mythology and the history of religious ideas, the immense weight of the analysis of maya by visionary artists and poets--and in other places as well (it is, as they say, in the air), for the Fellows, for Contemporary Religious Studies, for the outcomes of the Jesus Seminar, for the heart impulse in the gnosis of many seekers:
How soon will we all be Buddhists?
There it is. A little venture for your amusement. I dare not say instruction.BACK TO TOP
The Uses of Compassion
Foundations of Governance
The Western Bodhisattva
In the Buddhist tradition are two heroes. In Southern Buddhism, the Way of the Elders (Hinyana--the Lesser Vehicle), the ideal is the Arahat. That figure, as Campbell described him, "the seated Buddha, Eyes Closed," the forest hermit, is an adept who seeks enlightenment and when having achieved it retreats to his hermitage away from the affairs of society to consolidate that experience through devoted meditation. Therefore his relation to society is exemplary and indirect. The forest hermit is an object of veneration inimitable to ordinary people but cherished vicariously.
The Northern Buddhist (Mahayana--the Greater Vehicle) hero is the Bodhisattva. Unlike the Arahat, the Bodhisattva does not avoid society, but seeks involvement in it. Campbell describes him as the Wandering Sage, Eyes Open. The Bodhisattva refuses to enter Nirvana until he has attempted to save all sentient beings. The Sage enters the city with bliss-bestowing hands. He is the Stranger-Pilgrim, who refuses to enjoy the rapture of Nirvana, of total release, until he has returned to the City to save all sentient beings.
Like Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith, the Bodhisattva doesn't seem like a religious person. Of all of the Avatars of the Archaic Religions, he is the closest both to the modern thinker, and modern individuality. His identification with his auditors is total. He his free of passion, of thought; he is Benevolence without purpose; he is Merit, put to the service of all beings. He is capable of the highest illumination, is able to enter Nirvana -- but refuses to do so until he has saved everyone. He paradoxically follows the endless Buddha way of tradition, and goes his own way without following the way of the ancient sages. He passes through the Cities of Man creating Buddhas at every hand. From his fingers flow rivers of ambrosia which cool the hells and free the hungry ghosts. In the palm of each hand is an eye (not an open wound!)--regarding the world and with sympathy participant in its pain, Campbell goes on to say: He is called the "God of the present," he who "br! eaks the world," and bea rs in his infinite person the sorrows of the world. He is a noble, a princely being wearing the richly jeweled tiara, symbolic of: world-regarding compassionate aspect of illuminated consciousness. (From Creative Mythology, p 413, emphasis added).
Mircea Eliade, in his History of Religious Ideas, adds: "The Arahat developed wisdom but not enough compassion....The Bodhisattvas do not wish to attain their own private nirvana....they have surveyed the highly painful world of being, and yet, desirous of winning supreme enlightenment, they do not tremble at birth-and-death. They have set out for the benefit of the world, for the ease of the world, out of pity for the world. They have resolved: 'We will become a shelter for the world, a refuge for the world, the world's place of rest, the final relief of the world, islands of the world, lights of the world, the guides of the world's means of salvation (HORI II, p 219).'" The Hindu equivalent is the Jivan Mukta. "Dissatisfaction with the presently limited stage of man's existence can also lead to stress on experiencing the Beyond and the Now simultaneously, embodying the ultimate opposites within his own self. He becomes, for example, the jivan mukta of India, the ! man liberated toward time and eternity while living in (but not constrained by) the every day world. It is...the divine that is expressed in such symbols as the Chinese yin and yang...representing a religious sensitivity of the utmost sophistication." (From Myths, Rites and Symbols, p 432). Further: "It is often said that the Indian spirit disengages itself from history, and that is true; but not in the Bhagavad Gita" (Ordeal by Labyrinth, p. 169).
Much time has been spent here describing these archetypes of the Mahayana and Hinduism because so many in the West think of Eastern religions as self-regarding passive faiths, that the Bodhisattva or the Jivan Mukta is an active figure. We do not ordinarily understand this. The stereotype of the Buddhist as a noninvolved contemplative, who delights in staring only at his own navel may be true in part for the Southern Arahat but is not for the Wandering Sage. His ethic is outward-regarding. He exists to help others achieve awakening. He cannot rest until all are helped. Western Religions tend to be largely otherworldly (I'm but a stranger here, heaven is my home). Buddhism has a focus on this life, the world of "dates". The Sage has acquired a mature understanding that he lives in and cannot avoid the Terror of History. Despair does not occur to him. He is joyous in spite of all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. He has transcended the Tragic Sense of Life. As l! ong as there are beings to awaken, he goes happily about his work.
The Hero of the West is "that individual". The mythologies of the morally responsible and historically effective individual, according to Campbell, are the greatest single contribution of the West to the history of thought. It is the wellspring and fountainhead of our immense creativity--and our predicament.
Occidentals spring from a northern warrior culture. The archaic warrior life depended upon heroism and heroes. The growth of certain forms of heroism (a Cuchullain, an Achilles, who single-handedly turn back whole armies) gives rise to the emergence of the historically crucial individual.
In our spiritual life we differ profoundly from the Guru-dependent teaching of the East. The success of the Guru in the Orient depends upon the poorly defined individuality of his unquestioning, obedient, pupil. The strong ego strength of the Westerner, regarded as an end in itself, prevents his submission to the authority demanded by the Guru. Westerners, except those who for one reason or another have a poor self-concept, do not submit very willingly to the authority of any teacher (speaking from delighted experience here!), let alone the authority of the Oriental. Our model must as always be Socrates, who earns his authority by merit alone. A good teacher is like a midwife, in that he removes the obstacles to learning in his pupil. This presumes that one teaches oneself best. The obstacles that hinder the birth of an open mind and heart for the Western student are those hindrances such as prejudice, ideology, partisanship, patriotism, illness, stupidity, ignorance, d! isturbance, convenience. In the West the ego must assist the Self in its own birth.
This can and has led to a narcissistic self-absorption. But the problem with modern self-absorption isn't that the self isn't a worthy subject for mythology. Indeed, it has been said that the mythology of the individual as it developed in the Occidental West, is the newest and grandest of the mythologies of the world and offers us the hope for liberation and realization on a scale undreamed of in the past. What Westerners will need to learn, however, is the discovery, that, rich and deep, complex and dangerous, noble and transcendent, hateful and holy as the individual human psyche is, that the self points to the Self, the ego bubble that around eternity, and is but the starting point for an higher bliss and wisdom.
The hallmark of education, therefore, in the New World is that education which teaches that the individual must not be used to serve as a means to some other end. He is an end in himself. Her integrity is sacrosanct. All the psycho-educational techniques of individuation fit into the context of this myth. If the humanities reflect the New World synthesis of individuality and interconnectedness, as they cannot help but do, (advanced literature, that art which has advanced beyond the Wasteland, is full of such insights), then, based on the sciences, the humanities educate for values. Among these values are self-awareness, sensitivity to others, moral responsibility, effectiveness of action, duty to the whole human community, and then to the larger organic and inorganic communities with which all are interconnected, aesthetic openness, a sacred responsibility to the angels of art and science, with a good solid dose of that kind of skepticism that is rooted in the unce! rtainty principle (what Keats called Negative Capability), and to the sacred within each of us--and through them the possibilities for spiritual liberation and political freedom for each. The responsibility for self-government (therefore political liberty), could not exist without the mythologies of the individual. A sense of the community of individuals must arise from the mythologies of interconnectedness. And moreover, the classics must be taught, for the New World began five centuries before Christ in Greece, some say even earlier, with Gilgamesh.
"In our modern European West, on the other hand, largely as a result of the forthright intransigency of a sufficient number of actually great, courageous individuals, the principle of individuality and an appreciation of the worth of individuality have won through--at least for the present. "I will not serve that in which I no longer believe," declared Joyce's hero, Stephen Daedalus ....And so there is a new problem to be faced here....This problem of the radical dissociation and collision of individual and group values has emerged as the critical challenge of a maturing humanistic civilization. But the difficulties are great....The values of both of the opposed hemispheres, the individual and the social, are positives; hence by all the laws both of physics and of biology, mutually repellent....the partisans of each...view the values of the other side merely as negative...and...succeed only in giving battle to their own shadows on the walls of their own closed minds--! which presents as fine circus of clowns for the laughter of the gods, but for mankind, with increasing danger, a turba philosophorum that is being reflected not in a sealed retort, but in the carnage of exploded cities" (from Campbell's Creative Mythology, pp 314-15). Our experience since 911 has made these words prophetic.
Traditional societies do not create Individuals. The fanatic has no sense of his uniquely important self. He is a follower. He dies for a cause. In the West we know him as the Stuffed Shirt who is the direct opposite of the individual. The Stuffed Shirt is one who instead of following his own path, follows the paths laid down by others. He occupies a social role rather than attending to his own spirit. He rebukes his own genius to cultivate Position. When he speaks he does not use words forged out the agony and joy of his own experience. He is the Mealy Mouth, which is the mouth that says all those empty things that politicians, generals, popes, commissars, mullahs, industrialists, coaches, school superintendents, fanatics of every stripe, and preachers say that pretend to mean everything profoundly but which means nothing at all. The Mealy Mouth is the voice of the Wasteland. It is the mouth of the Stuffed Shirt. For him a platitude is a triumph of creative thought.!
In this mixture out of the Enlightenment came the Romantic movement, and Existentialism (which is a kind of Romanticism in philosophy), democracy, capitalism. These represent a formal revolt against the building of temples and kingdoms of language of conventional wisdom in favor of the smaller cottage of the common individual; a revolt from the placing of epiphany in any thought system; an healthy contentment in living the cynic's life in the dog house, as over against impossibly attempting to dwell in airy castles of thought; a joy in proclaiming that the philosopher-kings are not wearing the purple robes of their own proclaiming, but in fact are naked just like the rest of us; and that we can all be delighted to have the elements of nature gently bathe that nakedness....
The soaring, passionate intelligence of the history determining, morally responsible individual is where the modern locus of the divine presence is. Here resides the defiance of any mere arbitrary action, by this kind of individual, through the altruism of scientific investigation, artistic production, or social action.
Most, at some point in their lives (for me it was when I was in my middle forties), become strangers to themselves. You begin to notice as you do this or that, think this or that--now: "Did I do that, is that really the movement of my body, the crook of my arm; are those my words?" How odd it seems! Even if you verge toward madness, don't be afraid of that. Detach yourself. Enjoy your witness. Though it sometime seems this stranger is freakish, a bit tawdry, shabby, dyed thoroughly with time, very individual and awkward, utterly idiosyncratic, to see yourself so can bring humor, compassion, joy--forgiveness--for all the matter and spirit of self and universe. Kneel in the grass of a night, and when you comprehend and love the stars and the moon be thankful that it is not an abstraction, an empty shell, who loves so, but this crooked, individual, unique, smiling, utterly idiosyncratic stranger within you who does....
The Western Bodhisattva is an Individual. But he or she is an individual caught up, seized by stumbling upon something greater than self, than ego. Whatever that seizure, he behaves selflessly. A mother emptied of all but concern for her children, a father who sacrifices himself for the well-being of his family. A politician obsessed with the common good in spite of certain personal ethical lapses. A business man invoking skillful means for the creation of work and value and not the aggrandizement of wealth. A teacher who lives for his students. An athlete who plays only the Game without out seeking her own glory. A soldier who dies protecting his village. The diplomat using skillful means employing the techniques of Machiavelli's Realpolitik for the eventual human good. These are some examples of the Bodhisattva hero of our own culture.
At bottom is a profound selflessness in the researches of a great scientist and a great artist, however quirky and even sometimes mean some of their personal behavior is. (Einstein: "I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research....the only deeply religious people of our largely materialistic age are the earnest men of research.") Beethoven was sometimes a nasty piece of work; but who cares when hearing the 9th symphony? This selflessness demands the scientist to follow the facts wherever they lead, irrespective of personal preference; and constrains the artist to penetrate through mere self-expression to inhabit and animate great myth. In this way both behave like saints, are indeed our true saints even if, like a Beethoven or a Wagner, or a Newton, or an Oppenheimer, to the masses or to the narrowly moral, they behave like great sinners. So a Beethoven is as much a Bodhisattva in musical crea! tion as Mother Theresa who does heroic good in the ethical sphere, provided both do their work without regard to the aggrandizement of the ego. Motive is everything. In the three hundred years it will take for Buddhism to be firmly established in the West, with an established Bodhisattva ideal clearly before them, perhaps then our artists will not need to behave quite so idiosyncratically.
The Greeks knew tragedy was character. Our tragic heroes, our great men, our Bodhisattvas are supreme egotists. They are hopelessly idiosyncratic. Through their concrete history they reach toward altruism. They may live for others. But they remain individuals. Archaic Heroes do not have feet of clay. They cannot because they have no individuality.
Our heroes could not be our heroes without feet of clay.
Compassion and Policy.
The stable society is a good. The truly realized individual is also a good. The relation of the two is a relation of two positives. Positives repel. The relation is therefore tense and dynamic. The laws of democracy which specifically balance and diffuse power can create this healthy tension.
New World politics is conservative in that it insists upon individual liberty, and, mindful of the dangers of mass politics (ie. single issue campaigns, the promiscuous giving into the fashions of the moment), it might wish to proceed with the safeguards of indirect representation through representative democracy; it is liberal in that it insists upon the interconnection of that individual will to all the communities it is born out of, and insists on his responsible participation in them. Given the extreme atomization in the West of the individual, politics must insist on a liberal corrective for the foreseeable future.
Civil disobedience must be a part of the stance of the new world individual for two reasons: it is essential that in the conflict between the old world and new that he dispute the Old as a matter of principle; and that he be a part of that tension between the state and the individual in the New. But in either case, in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, he must accept all the consequences of he does.
As there is a rudimentary humanism in Christianity, there can be found a humanism but more sophisticated in its expression in classical Buddhism, taught most radically by the great iconoclastic Zen teacher, Lin Chi (d 867 CE). The reasoning, in modern language, might go as follows: exceptionally adept persons may enjoy the highest mystical experience available with it's concomitant deliverance; but it is a truism that every person on earth potentially and actually is capable of achieving such experiences. There, without exception, humans are equal, even to the Shakyamuni himself.
Every ordinary person, moreover, in this freedom is stripped of his or her individual differences and of all social status. Each is therefore a "True Human Without Rank" as Lin Chi's (Rinzai, in Japanese) phrase would have it. This great teacher insisted to his students that without question they were equal to the "Patriarch Buddha." It was he who demanded that his students "kill the Buddha" for the sake of their emancipation and the achievement of their full humanity. Although this approach differs somewhat from the individualistic humanism developed in Renaissance Europe, the notion of the True Human Without Rank in Buddhism in fact surpasses the more rudimentary humanism found in the Christian tradition ("We are all the children of God"), because it insists that one is also emancipated from all religious authority such as a church, a bible, a pope, even a god. It avoids as Christian Humanism does not, all dependent relationships. An effective humanism, with Lin Chi's! partnered with Europe's Renaissance individuality tolerable to Western men and women, may easily grow from this (see Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, on Lin Chi, pp 189-197).
The Wisdom traditions generally, but decisively in Buddhism, have many traditions that have political inflections. Five, among many, are Pattica Samutpada, Shunya, Karma, Ahimsa, and Karuna. Our concentration will be on the last, but in order is a brief comment on the others.
Karma, which can be translated in our terms as the matrix of cause and consequence, is a sign of the responsibility for the actions humans take. What action we take have consequences. All consequence must therefore be intended.
Pattica Samutpada, dependent origination, interconnection, insists on in an almost modern scientific way that all the elements of life no matter how separate and atomic they might appear to the senses are at a fundamental level connected with each other. This is the ecology of the East, containing all the policy there that environmental policy does in here. Lumber men, miners, and farmers would have to be cautious with this one.
Ahimsa means non-injury. Do no damage to others. Your multinational corporation ruining lives and environments would have a tough time with this one.
Shunya means emptiness. Among many other things by this notion is meant that all language is conventional and ultimately empty. Words are signs that point sometimes to unutterable realities. The word is not the thing. Emptiness conducts an ultimate and deadly warfare against all ideology. If emptiness rules, all ideologies, political, economic, market and bottom-line ideologues, social, religious, are void. That makes life a trifle difficult for fanatics for most fanatics are fanatics of the word, of doctrine. There is a hidden despair here that upon emerging causes for the devotee the evaporation of the world heretofore one intended to die for.
However, the heart of the argument of this essay can be found in the nature of compassion. Karuna. Compassion in the Wisdom traditions in general but decisively in Buddhism means something unique, particularly as compared to the compassion found in the West.
For the West, compassion at it best is the Agape of St. Paul in the Corinthian letter, the disinterested concern for others. At its worst, compassion seems to be a kind of fuzzy sentimentality, or a chumminess with God. For the Bodhisattva politician as for St Paul compassion is spiritual. This cannot be emphasized too much. Remember that the Bodhisattva is the hero that refuses to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings are awakened. The focus is in the awakening of others. That means that all policy forged by the politician in this scheme of things is directed at awakening, to create in his subject the conditions wherein he or she may become a world-regarding compassionate illuminated consciousness equal to him in classical terms, to become another awakened one, another Buddha.
That is a tall order.
But watch how policy changes as a consequence.
What are the policies that lead to total self-knowledge?
Rather than to enumerate specific programs it is important to establish some general principles. For example, if a teacher in a public school wishes more or less subversively to awaken his students, say with a class of 9th grade boys he begins with the basics: to awaken them to the nature and use of a prepositional phrase in the act of composition and then work up over the years to an examination of the highest literature. Even in the standard traditional program, with the great literatures of England, America, and the World available exist in the hands of an expert Bodhisattva teacher many opportunities for awakening. A teacher who cannot open the depths of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth; or Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and the moderns of both traditions isn't, I'm afraid, much of a teacher. The only thing the public school in America lacks are the employment of autogenic disciplines. Except for the yogas of music and athletics there is little chance to! teach proper meditation in the public schools.
A statement like Carl Sagan's "We are the universe trying to understand itself," embodies both science, art, and spirit admirably. So does Campbell's, "We are the mind of space and light. Our mythology is to be of infinite space and light...without as well as within. It is addressed to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves, not simply as egos...but equally as centers of Mind at Large, each in his own way at one with all."
Not advocated here is big government on the city, county, state, and national levels merely for the sake of big government. What certainly is not advocated is the current practice under the influence of lobby and money to give some an unfair advantage over others. What is advocated is policy and program that leads to awakening at the highest levels. That is a tall order.
Our only hope for survival on this planet as a species is to assemble all those mystical traditions, including their modern artistic and scientific inflections which speak to the unity of our Being, the interconnections of beings. We must do this first in our own bodies. And then from this starting point, work out all the reconciliations on the earth under heaven and in the world that this primal experience implies.
The new Middle Earth, as the Archaic World before it, must emerge from our science and our art--that is, from our most disciplined and spiritual thinking. It must embody an understanding of the Cosmos as it emerges through scientific investigation; it must give heed to the manifestly ecological nature of all organic, and therefore of all human existence; it must take into account both the biological and historical uniqueness of each human individual, and build its democratic institutions on that basis; it must balance the needs of the community against the development of individual destinies; it must shelter that freedom of inquiry which can arise only in the discourse of free individuals; it must recognize that indissoluble bond of beings in Being--a point of view not only supported by the sentiments of desperately alienated individuals now suddenly stumbling upon the facts of union, but in biology, chemistry and physics, is supported that is by the hardest sciences ! we have; it must abandon the will to power, the will to revolution in favor of the will to health and the creation of caring communities; it must remain open to the extent that it will be able to change as the universe gives us new hints as to its principles and structure; it must finally foster those opportunities for those adoring spirits among us to respond to and express their awe and gratitude to the mystery of all Being, to sing their raptures in the midst of that truest kind of pilgrimage of all: to continue the search for eternal blessedness outside the context of compelled belief, without the expectation of any final outcome--that is content to keep all mystery as mystery.
Man is a speaking animal. Language speaks. Poetry is never merely a higher mode of every day language; every day language is a forgotten and used up poem, as Heidegger says. Poems supersede and envelop all language including the language of science--if literature is defined as anything that is written, science is one of the genres of literature, one of the fingers that points to the moon. Language is the house of Being. Song is existence. World follows song. The New World has its music, the notes of which are both very old, very present, and developing. These new songs create world. Vital poems shape man. Poets sing the healing whole in the midst of the unholy.
"Man is a portal through which one enters from the outer world of the gods, demons and souls, into the inner world, from the greater world into the smaller world. Small and insignificant is man; one leaves him soon behind, and thus one enters once more into infinite space, into the microcosm, into the inner eternity (C.J Jung, Septum Sermones ad Mortuo, the Seventh sermon)."
When we speak, and when we act, we are the wonderfully clay-footed individualistic Bodhisattva policy-makers. With our clay feet we will take false steps, but that is no excuse not to speak.
And then, finally: "What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence" (Wittgenstein, Tractatus 7).
Modesty and a natural tendency to err in spite of our best intentions to selflessness demands that.
Steven FortneyBACK TO TOP
The Market and Barbarism
Some years ago in my high school, a conservative economically informed principal decided, because our student customers were limited in their purchase of courses, that requirements were not good. That is the use of force. He felt that we should create a market of electives for students to choose from. He directed his teachers to break up our traditional courses into semester electives and to include a few recreational reading courses such as Science Fiction and Mystery Novels. All courses would be elective. The only requirement was the number of them to be taken.
We did as we were ordered.
The first few years the new system worked. But students are canny. Before we knew it, the sections of Science Fiction and Mystery Novels multiplied. In five years, our staff was teaching section after section of these courses (seven sections of Mystery Novels alone!) where a high grade point average could be more easily maintained, while the more demanding courses went begging. Eight sections of senior college prep English died. Shakespeare and English Literature vanished within two years.
After that principal left, it took us several years to repair the damage. An unapologetically elitist staff with the advice of university consultants decided that students ought to be required to take composition and American and English Literature and others, not because they wanted to, but because we felt it was necessary for their better education. We did this without apology. We destroyed the Market and introduced an hierarchy of excellence. We reduced choices. As this is written, our high school requires courses at every level in all departments and now successfully staffs many Advanced Placement courses in all academic areas, three sections in the English department alone.
In the book One Market Under God by Thomas Frank, ideas that have captured the imagination of the elite of America and which has permeated the entire culture is described in painful and hilarious detail. The main premise of the argument is that the market is sacrosanct. It is determined by the behavior of the people, and is not to be interfered with in any way. Even what, from the point of view of certain individuals, might be taken to be disastrous (such as massive downsizing that eliminates the jobs of thousands even in companies showing record profits) is truly to be taken as a benefit. Whatever the market does, is right. Those who have lost their jobs are now free: free to become participants in a sacred behavior to thus achieve a power which richly shares in the forces that ruined them.
This Frank calls market populism.
What the people want, that they get.
And it is good.
The enemies of that market are Unions, Government, Ecologists. Greed is not only good for the elite, but for everyone. As long as that greed is individual. Collective action, such as unions take to protect their constituents, governments take to improve the lives of the poor and helpless, ecologists take to protect the depredations of exploitation by a profit-driven market, are all bad, to be eliminated ruthlessly. The union-free market unmeddled with by government or eco-agitation is thought to be nearly divine in nature. Unions thus are sins against a beneficent economic god.
On reading this work it is apparent that a kind of Darwinian model is presupposed. That is to say, in its Social Darwinian phase, throughout the history of the development of capitalism, evolutionary forces have been at work that in our own time have resulted in the magnificent organism that we in America presently enjoy. The development has been inevitable. And wonderful. And our culture, so enriched by these forces, is now in a position to export the wisdom and magic of it world-wide. Let the billions of the world desire our Brands of goods, and all will be well. They will be lifted to wealth and comfort and security. All will prosper. There is no limit to it.
Let's take that evolutionary model seriously.
A good history of science describes what has happened. A naive history of evolution, however, assumes that what has happened is right. Since humans seem, at least to themselves, to be the crown of that process no further development is possible. Evolutionary movements are inevitable. They result in the good. We are here. We are good. We are the cosmos thinking and seeing, as Carl Sagan once put it. We have shared all in the bounty of nature. We are the best that nature can do.
This is an arrogance that nature probably does not share.
Market mavens, however, consistently ignore the dark side. A true evolutionary science does not describe evolutionary process in ethical terms. It simply shows us what has happened. Among those things that have happened are evolutionary wrong turns, the massive disappearance of millions of species, the establishment of alien species through one error or another, the making of mutant monsters that, thankfully, do not survive; but most importantly the disaster inflicted on the environment by evolution's most successful story, that is the overpopulation of humankind in settings that cannot tolerate the pressures inflicted on them. That is to say, nature, from the point of view of the successful adaptation of humans, can make serious and cataclysmic mistakes.
And it is these mistakes that man must contend with and correct.
This thinking that Frank describes is foreign to Market mystics.
To take the point to something of an extreme, from their point of view it would be a sin against nature for a human being to build a house. (Or in market terms to form a union.) That would seem on the face of it to be an utterly preposterous statement. But still the sin is there.
Why is that so?
Because this represents an unwarranted interference with natural processes.
Nature is nature. We should live in caves. Around campfires. We should eat only what is offered freely to us. We should not kill off all the megafauna even if we are hungry, or cut down a bush to make a spear, or denude the hills of the cedars of Lebanon and create eroded deserts where grass once grew. And if flood or a famine or a meteor wishes to kill us, or a saber tooth or lion or a multi-national wishes to eat us, well and good. That is nature. And natural processes are good.
The story of the development of man, on the other hand, has been rather different. The Promethean intelligence steals the fire of nature and creates a luminous culture. This happens whether it is deemed interference or not.
Natural processes are immense. The cause and effect matrix in the natural world is tough and merciless in its punishment for those who have gone too far. But Promethean humans have free intelligences. They interfere with nature to create comfort and security in which they can flower brilliantly. We use our science and our art to interrupt and modify Nature's processes to our benefit. As a result, since the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago, great civilizations were created and have flowered to this day. The population of humans has exploded. For some of us, particularly those of us from the West, this has made us rich and powerful. All this as a result of our interference.
As Joseph Campbell once put it, the greatest achievement of the West has been the discovery of the morally powerful, responsible, historically effective Individual that began to flower in the 12th century. From this discovery has developed the Renaissance and Enlightenment (the power of individual judgment on the evidence in matters of scholarship), Democracy (individual choice in political matters that have proved revolutionary since the eighteenth century), Capitalism (individual choice in matters of economics), Science (a pursuit of the truth about nature irrespective of the social consensus at any time of troublesome discovery), Existential philosophy (Kierkegaard's pitting of what he called "that individual" against the lofty and inhuman metaphysical castles of Hegel and later Marx), Romanticism in art (the power of the individual to express a radical aesthetic and claim authorship for its work).
Democracy and Capitalism, therefore, spring from the same source.
Frank's Marketers claim that they are exactly equivalent to each other. Hence their term "market populism". However, upon a moment's reflection, this is seen to be false.
True, Capitalism and Democracy both come from individual choice. But their aims are radically different. Capitalism is in the game for profit. Democracy's genius is to seek justice. Justice and Profit are not equivalent. For the two to spring from one source is not to make them equal to each other any more than fraternal twins are identical. That ought to be self-evident. It certainly is to the downsized and exploited worker and ruined environments. The pretense that profit and justice are equal is a doctrine espoused and propagandized by a power-seeking, hypocritical and ignorant elite who wish, above all to consolidate, their privilege, and preserve the enormous inequities the unregulated market allows to their benefit--: to the benefit of that happy, and nearly criminal few. In this sense, property, indeed, is theft.
Our evolutionary model permits free humans to build their houses, to modify the natural processes in science, technology, politics, art, to make life more secure than that we couldn't enjoy when closer to a state of nature. While interference is a good adaptive mechanism to ameliorate the shocks of the immensity of nature, it is equally evident that there are limits. This ought to be apparent in our own time. We cannot go too far. Our spoiled oceans, our polluted water and air, our vanishing rain forests, our eroded farmland are eloquent testimony. The environmental catastrophes we may suffer as a consequence of too great an interference with natural processes may not allow us to survive.
Ask a simple question. We have been a force on this planet for perhaps two hundred and fifty thousand years. If we persist in our behavior, can we assume we will survive for another equivalent time? For ten thousand years? For a thousand? For five hundred? If we persist in ignoring our limits, the answer is certainly No.
The realistic evolutionary model holds in economics as well. True, the free market needs to be free. Equally true is that it is necessary for us to interfere to a certain extent to ameliorate the shocks of that impersonal, imperial market on the weak, the disadvantaged, the powerless. That means the creation of welfare mechanisms. That means the unionization of workers. That means medical assistance and universal retirement benefits for the aged. That means the intervention of science to protect the environment. In the name of justice these things need to be done to soften the savagery of the bottom-line. That one can go too far is also evident in the collapse of Marxist State Capitalism in the former Soviet Union, and the repressiveness of various extreme socialisms, Islamic or otherwise.
To pretend that profit and justice are equivalent, that the so-called populist market is the rule of divine order is to mediocritize and to make decadent all life. To pretend that certain elites don't know that reading Shakespeare is better than reading Spider Man comic books, or Agatha Christie novels, that a slavish devotion to Brand names is better for all concerned than true economic independence, that hierarchies of good exist in spite of the immense market forces that level and make all equal in quality and virtue, is to create conditions that can only result, ultimately, in barbarism.
For it is the market itself at fault. Here has been created a powerful self-contained and self-perpetuated artificial world. A World on top of Earth (to use Heidegger's distinction) that is discontinuous with the earth and nature it seeks to exploit, that pretends it can ignore the limits to its behavior. From the very beginning, plutocratic elites have fought any regulation such as anti-trust laws, clean air and water legislation and the like. And why not? There are no limits in their minds. To explore for oil is to have oil magically appear.
It is the market that has created the conditions for the making of these laws in the first place. And in this post 911 age, as we write, corporations are lobbying to abolish its minimum tax, a tax created by the Reagan administration which discovered that many of the richest corporations paid no taxes at all! We are to spend more to keep America safe for business, but business in the name of market forces does not want to pay its share. That is its bitter irony. It has concentrated its wealth. It has created a dangerous disparity between the wealthy elite and the worker. Far too few are in control of far too much of the wealth of the world; and far too many are pushed further and further toward poverty.
Unless our plutocracies, our prophets of profit, are willing to accept fair regulation, and the certainty of the limits of growth, the situation can only get worse. We won't even survive another one hundred years. Unregulated markets, markets free of all restraint, and pure laissez faire capitalism with a ruined environment and pandemic poverty, with the concentration of immense wealth in the hands of the few, will then be shown to be the miserable failure it is.BACK TO TOP
Acts of Creation
How to write poetry, stories, novels, and sacred texts
Why God talks to some people and not others.
With four books published, three novels and a book of poetry, I guess I can call myself as the people of West Texas generally, and Lubbock specifically, called Molly Ivins after she published her first book, an arthur. As an arthur, it is my business to attend carefully to those processes I use to make my poems and stories. I have cheated the American Literary tradition by not being precocious, that is, to have a spurt of high creativity when very young and then fade forever from the book-lists thereafter: American Literature, it is said, has no second acts. European Literature, World Art, however, is full of five-act lives. I firmly believe that I was spared precocity because probably I didn't have the strength of character to handle it well in any case. Therefore it has been my delightful lot to have developed what talent I have carefully and slowly, so that at the age of 64 I feel close to the height of my powers and feel quite confident, health and vigor permitting, ! that I can finish the ha lf a dozen or so unfinished and barely-begun books stored in my computer and the unwrittten poems in my soul well into my seventh and eighth and even ninth decade. Perhaps I could capture the astonishing vigor of a Jaques Barzun who at his age ought to be superannuated but writes with the vigor of one is the bloom of his thirties. I would rather provocatively label my life so far: Act II.
Just what is the process I use?
I will call it Rereading and Dreams.
I need to make an additional biographical fact plain. On the evening the 15th of November 1975, I began a path that substantially altered what had been theretofore a neurotic, possibly nearly psychotic, life-style. The details of this are confessional (confessional details though the current rage I find tiresome) and unnecessary to go into. So I will not. Suffice it to say that on that date for reasons and motivations I do not completely understand to this day found myself in a Hindu meditation group in Madison, Wisconsin, and thereby undertook a pilgrimage in several meditative traditions. These included Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism. I eventually found myself attending initiation ceremonies in the Tibetan tradition, two of which the Dalai Lama himself supervised (one of his American stopping places is at Deer Park, in Oregon Wisconsin a Tibetan settlement not six miles from my home); and in a Zen Temple in Miharu, Japan was given an attenuated and very informal naming cer! emony in that tradition by Priest Sokyu Hashimoto of Fukujuji Temple. I hope he took this as seriously as I did.
I did all this because I found that the supernatural doctrines of the Lutheran Christianity of my nurture with their emphasis on the belief in miracles colliding with my training in science and positivist philosophy at the university could no longer meet my skeptical needs. I did give Luther Theological Seminary in Minneapolis then the center of the ELCA a go in 1960, but as Robin Lane Fox once observed, reading the Bible and listening to sermons is a sure bet in making one an atheist. My skepticism was sealed. A good seminary (and Luther was at the time one of the best) will do that for you.
To the creative process. The act of creation depends on a vigorous faith in the complexities, depth, and power of the human mind. One begins by positing that daylight consciousness is but a sliver of the total consciousness available, in the same way that phenomenal existence as it stands within the framework with 30 factors of ten inwardly (from one's body to the depths of the subatomic) and 30 factors of ten externally (from one's body to the edges of the known universe) is but a thin slice of the reality of the Being we live in. That is not theology. That is a science that Renaissance and Enlightenment people the world over with their devotion to free individuality in plural communities accept. It is undebatable.
What is posited then is a consciousness beneath daylight awareness. That nether consciousness affects us in peculiar ways including deep intentionality and mythpoeic dreams. These realities, wherever they come from (I have scant idea how this works, only that it does), can be employed in the creative process itself to great benefit. By deep intentionality I mean that when one faces choices particularly in crisis there is something in the depths of the soul that guide you to a way better for yourself. Joseph Campbell called this "following your bliss". By this he did not mean as so many have accused him, that one should take your life where whim leads you. Bliss, in his vocabulary, was mythical in force. Attendant on the highest maha-samadhi, the highest insight experience, as described by what the Hindus have done best in the history of religions, the psychology of religion, are the attributes of Wisdom, Knowledge, and Bliss. Bliss here points to the deepest rapture avai! lable to the mind of faith mythically attuned. It is to whim as a picture of a fingernail is to the description of reality in quantum mechanics and astrophysics.
Dreams are allied to this reality. But dreams happen in the sleeping state. That is to say that the inhibitions of conscious control over the processes of deep mind have been removed. Most dreams serve the function of the valve on a pressure cooker. One lives a daylight life of more or less constant conflict and tension. Dreams very often in most experience deal with these conflicts in sleep with the effect that the pressure of conflict and tension is in various ways relieved. Perhaps 95% of our dreams are commonly of this sort. These are the dreams that are immediately forgotten on awaking but allow one to leave sleep rested.
However, as anyone who attends to one's dream life knows, there are unusually powerful dreams that seem of a different order entirely. Stories and mythologies, it is often thought, come from these dream experiences. Problems, from the shape of the benzine molecule to the proper word for a poem to the shape of a story or novel are solved in dreams like this. They can properly be called mythpoeic dreams. Some positivist psychologists deny such things exists, but that for who has these regularly this is like asserting that the figure I see in my bathroom mirror is not me.
Now to Rereading.
When I am in a story, the most difficult to do, as any writer will tell you, is getting started. Faulkner once said of his Sound and Fury that he began that book with a picture in mind of a little girl climbing in a peach tree showing her muddy drawers to those below her looking into a window where someone was dying. He said he had to write up to that vision and had to do it in that book four times before he got it right. A masterpiece resulted. Very often I know what the end of any novel I write is and face the same problem: how do I get there? The beginning is difficult. So I start anywhere. As I work I begin the process of Rereading. That is I read the text I have written over and over again until it is firmly fixed at all levels of my mind. And then I reread some more to achieve surfeit. When I get stuck I do one of two things. Simply wait until the deeper intentionalities of my nether consciousness indicate the next step. The second is more formal. I will sit at my ! puja table, which is also my working desk (it is meet right and salutary that no distinction between work and worship be made) and do my freelance Buddhist ritual there and sit until I hear the next voice, see the next action of the characters and narrative I am working with. Sometimes this happens almost instantaneously. Sometimes it takes days or weeks. I literally hear voices. I see actual visions. It's all mental, and internal. Given my positivist bias the process is wholly natural but is so powerful that it feels like magic. The trick is to never lose faith that it will happen and the writing will proceed. So far this process has never failed.
I've had several experiences with dreams in both stories and poems that have helped to continue or to finish the composition. For example in one poem entitle Pondering one of my final lines gave me trouble. The poem is about a fish, in this case a white koi, which was my metaphor for a mystic. The last lines of the first draft read as follows:I believe inI was not satisfied with this version but didn't know what to do about it. It so happened I was in Northern Wisconsin with my friends at our cabin in the deep woods there, and was distracted for a couple of days with pleasurable hiking, fishing, and canoeing adventures. One night after a wonderfully relaxed night's sleep I lapsed into my usual morning dream state. Then suddenly I dreamed the right word. I made a note in my dream not to forget the word and upon waking wrote out the new version the lines of which went as follows:
the wind because I've
felt it. I know wind
I feel it. I climb slopes
of water before the
What I leap into. God's
language is silence.I believe inThis involved only one word-change but immeasurably improved the poem. 'Twas a small thing but mine own. The point of all this is that the dreaming mind supplied what conscious effort couldn't. I believe anyone with the least sense of appropriate poetic diction would hold, as I do, that those lines were markedly improved by the dream-word. This is only one simple example of the dream process. Be assured that in my total writing life this has happened with varying degrees of complexity--some of it quite grand intricacy--many times. Whole episodes of my fiction have come more or less directly out of dreams. The activities in the Dark Area of The Maitreya are examples. Using autogenic devices, principally, for me, the discipline of meditation, has done wonderful things in carving out the underbrush around the opening of consciousness at all levels to permit the right kind of synthesis in thinking, the wondrous fountains of narrative, character, and image to appear and flow. I see no reason that I can't continue until the day I drop, with the last poem or story (Copernicus and his treatise come to mind here) grasped in my chilling fingers on my death-bed just written for the teaching and delight of my family.
the wind because I've
felt it. I know wind
I feel it. I scale slopes
of water before the
What I leap into. God's
language is silence.
Once the basic work has been composed, rewriting happens. I love rewriting. It is a delightful combination of interweaving intuitive and rational processes, where, with my daylight consciousness, I can see where revision consistent with the original intention of the work can be made. That is pure thinking, but intuitively arrived at. Given the ease of using a computer word-processing program, I even look forward to it. Here one can layer both narrative and poem easily enough to achieve the density and resonance both works of art demand to be worthy of rereading on the part of the auditors of the work.
You are a deeply committed fundamentalist. It does not matter in what tradition, though it is easiest if you are nurtured by one of the Three Monotheisms--to be a person of The Book: Torah, Bible, or Koran. As such you are a devout reader of your text. You probably do not know anything about the tradition of scientific textual criticism that has grown up in the West over the last two hundred years, that brings into question the assumption that somehow your text is exempt from the vicissitudes of historical conditioning. Or if you do you fight to ignore it. Your text is the unalloyed and pure Word of God. You read this text obsessively. You have incorporated its themes and messages into yourself at something metaphorically very close to the cellular level. The sacred Words are a guide for every detail of your life and worship. There is no doubt as to the validity of your Book.
Because you are also a Modern person whether you admit it or not, that is you live in spite of your most earnest desire, in the twenty-first century, inevitably a condition appears that is not covered in the details of your Book. That is not the problem it might at first sight seems. You take this to the Lord in prayer. And God then speaks to you. You are taught. Your problem has been solved. You have a sermon that contains the phrase: "God has told me....." Those of us with a secular bent feel left out. God has spoken, more often than not in a Southern accent. (Although California seems to be inhabited in large numbers by the speakers for God.) We wonder why God doesn't speak to us. God is universal, those from Texas and Mississippi and Alabama assert. He speaks to everyone who listens. Who does not hear is a stiff-necked blasphemer, more than likely. He is to be consigned to an outer darkness. And so there we are.
But then the novelist and poet understands. It seems that the process of literary creativity (all creativity, actually) and hearing God's voice are one in the same. When a writer is thoroughly familiar with the text he or she is working on, the method of Rereading and Dreams is brought into play. One comes upon a new situation. The next step. One opens one's mind in something like a meditative state. The Fundamentalist uses prayer. And suddenly the character speaks. The next episode appears. The writer hears actual voices, sees actual scenes. The Fundamentalist, however, hears the voice of God, sees Jesus. The process is actually the same. The voices and scenes are generated by an intense interior dialog that has nothing to do with external realities, such as the actual existence of an actual God, except as they have been earlier incorporated in reading, research, pious attention to worship. God is not speaking to anyone. The character in a Book is speaking. The Fundamen! talist, the Faithful, is speaking to himself. Only to himself, whether he knows this or not. He attends to his dreams--so much of theological matter has been communicated out of sleep; Muhammad recorded the entire Koran out of a series of trance-like waking dreams. He thinks God speaks. But he doesn't, since He does not exist outside the Book. The birds, the animals, the plants, the mountains, the sky do not have a Book. They do not speak a language. Nature does not speak English. Language spoken for them to them must be absurd. Prophesy and preaching is purely an act of literary creation. The writer proceeds with his story, but the fundamentalist declares himself Anointed and preaches sermons to the gullible and ignorant. Or he straps dynamite or a jetliner around his waist and begins looking for a Jewish pizza parlor or a tall building.
An early tribe of desert wanderers, the aipiru, who became Hebrews, sojourned for a time in Egypt. That country had a suppressed monotheism. Amenhotep the Third believed there was only one god. It was the sun. Ra. This was a creative leap, an early intuition of the unity of Being: that life is held to be whole in spite of what our reason perceiving the separation of phenomena tells us. This idea was in the air. The writers of the Torah seized upon it, added an ethical inflection, and created something new in the history of religious ideas, the notion of Ethical Monotheism. That God is One and God is Good. The brilliant panoply of normative Jewish prophesy, thinking and practice over thousands of years developed from this.
The writers of Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul reflecting on the life and death of a rustic Galilean preacher and incorporating some ambiguous prophetic utterances (such as the Servant Songs in Isiaah, messianic hopes and mishna commentary), came to believe that Jesus was the unique Son of God, working out the schema for God's salvation of all through his sacrifice, resurrection, and ascension. That Jesus believed no such thing seems evident in modern New Testament scholarship. Jesus apparently proclaimed the Kingdom of the Father, the unbrokered relationship with the sacred, unmediated by Tradition, Temple or Text, a banquet all could come to, a radical democracy of the spirit, that is if anything a more universal proclamation than that of the official creeds of Christendom.
Islam follows Christianity. Muhammad's message, such as it is formulated in the Quran, represents "the purest expression of absolute monotheism the world has seen. All is God, the only God; he is perfectly free, omniscient, and all-powerful: he is the Creator of the earth and the heavens, of all that exists," and increases creation as he wills (sura 35:1) He rules "not only the cosmic rhythms but also the works of man. All his acts are free and ultimately arbitrary....Allah is free to to contradict himself; he may annul his own suras...." (Mircea Eliade, History of Religious Ideas, Volume III, pp 78). The Five Pillars of Islam the heart of Muslim belief and practice develop from this utterance, in the principal creedal statement of the Faith known as the shahadah. La ilaha illa'llah. "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet"!
This exclusive claim for Absolute Truth goes beyond anything in Judaism and Christianity, though both have made exclusive claims of their own: the special election of one people through the call to Abraham, the condemnation to hell of sinners who are not Christian (stated in the formula: nulla salus extra ecclesiam est--there is no salvation outside the church). But to assert that all other monotheisms are invalid, that Allah is the God, the only god, and that the Book given to his Messenger is the literal voice of God, word for word, actual and absolute, takes the biblical history of the Levant to its final and dangerously intolerant conclusion.
If true, the brotherhood of the Faith is the only valid community in the world. The peace of Islam--those who submit, the meaning of the word, to the will of Allah--is therefore directed only to those within the faith. The Quran states this over and over again. The infidel's doom because he has concealed the truth that has been revealed to him is perfect and terrible. "Universal history is the uninterrupted manifestation of God; even the infidels" victories fulfill God's will. Total and permanent war is thus indispensable in order to convert the entire world to monotheism...." Eliade, HORI, Vol III pp 79).
The people of the Western democracies, and indeed some of the people of Islam itself--the shi'ia, the Sufi mystics such as Ibn Arabi, and Hallaj, who was killed by the rulers of conventional Islam--not to speak of the Jews, Christians, and the great religions of the Far East, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and, most of all, our own secular tradition, who because these insist on universalizing the freedom of the spiritual life outside the boundaries of an exclusive community of the Faithful are determined to be of Satan. All these become fair game. The Islamist fundamentalists are the worst who believe this, but even a reading of the Islamic Sacred Text hold that so do many non-fanatic Muslims. The rest of the world is fair game.
Dorothy Sayers in her wonderful book, The Mind of the Maker, conducted her Christian apologetic using the act of literary creation as a metaphor for the creativity, the very existence of God. Between herself, C.S Lewis, J. R. R Tolkein, Madeline L'Engle and others, there developed a rich tradition in the thirties and after of intellectual Christian apologetics that were a comfort to those then in the shackles of doubt and a challenge to "cultivated despisers" of the faith.
Our approach is the reversal of hers.
When a lengthy narrative is being composed the writer becomes acutely aware of the nature of its development. One begins with a simple episode. That episode breeds others. Those make an interconnected context. That interconnected context creates an inevitable climax and resolution that can be the only logical and intuitive outcome that was laid out in the first simple episode. The premise of an argument contains its conclusion. The dynamic of beginning contains its denouement. The story when handled properly can end but one way. Lear's first madness regarding his honest daughter leads to her and his eventual tragic death. Beatice and Benedict must marry in the end.
To watch Iknahton's seizure that the sun is the single God, to the development of Israeli Ethical Monotheism, to the Sonship of Jesus, to the Absolute of Islam is a process of rewriting of the first dream. The narrative development is plain to those who can think and see. The current outcome poises us on the brink of religious war. All for a series of purely literary conceits that have nothing to do with the realities of nature our earnest men of science and prophetic poetry and story have disclosed for us. If there is something the mystics call the real, the sacred, the holy, the true, it is accessible to all of us. It is not the possession of those who say God talks to them, has given them a final and absolute truth. The terror of history is legitimated by those seized by this mythology. As Joe Campbell said in a slightly different context, "It's purely a literary problem." We die from a purely literary nightmare gone mad.BACK TO TOP
On the Politics of a Bodhisattva.
An essay written in the spirit of mischief.
In order to fully understand politics, politics must be put in a religious context. Definitions are in order. Religion can be defined as Paul Tillich did as Ultimate Concern. That is to say, whatever words are used must be centered in what one feels is the most important focus of one's life. Joseph Campbell's "Bliss" also falls into this framework. Let's play this game: why not put together David Hume, the humanistic style of the sixteenth century with its emphasis on Nature and Reason, and the religions of the East, particularly Buddhism, to see what comes of it? Buddhism is chosen because it is the most secular of all religions.
If one is to be religious in this Post-Christian Post-Modern period, one has little choice but to reject normative Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. (Mystical Christianity [Hesychasm, Thomas Gospel Gnosticism], Judaism [Cabalism], and Islam [Sufism] are quite another matter: they belong to the Wisdom tradition of the world.) Accepting literal doctrines, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, ascension, nature miracles, the sacred understood as Wholly Other and outside nature (the pantheist contrary: God is in the world, or He is nowhere--Alfred North Whitehead), the notion that the divine author of the entire universe chose only one people from a tiny country on an obscure planet in a minor solar system of a smallish galaxy in a remote corner of the universe and no other to reveal His sacred Truth, or that that same God with a different name chose only one prophet and no other prophet to be given the only true Word--in fact any faith that pretends to hold an exclusive monopoly of the truth--, simply cannot be accepted by the humanist whose approach is through a reasoned (therefore skeptical) consideration of nature. This is certainly true, the resurgence of the scientifically and culturally illiterate world fundamentalisms rooted in the fear of the modern world, or a sentimental desire for tradition, or a fascination for ritual, or the comforts of a community of the like-minded, or nostalgia for family tradition notwithstanding.
Reason is defined as that strenuous and disciplined mental activity of the scientific method with an equal emphasis on poetic intuition (a notion of equal importance but not developed here); Nature is defined as the universe as we know it through all the current models of chemistry, biology, physics--knowing full well that these models can change when new discoveries mandate that change. All of this presupposes a healthy skepticism on the limits of reason. David Hume and his positivist and analytic heirs come into play here. The eventual outcome is Wittgenstein's zest for the limits of language itself.
Two measures of Buddhism are Shunya and Karuna: Emptiness and Compassion. Emptiness is the most difficult for Occidentals to grasp, so it must be explained in Western terms. Emptiness, or Nirvana, an endlessly rich notion, means many things. Among others, it means that all concepts are provisional and approximate. One of my favorite sayings here comes from a gnostic friend of mine, who, when we were discussing writing a book on religion for children, said: We should begin by asserting that Nature does not speak English. Now if one truly thinks of this in depth, all sorts of things fall into place: first and most essentially that human languages cannot exactly replicate what is going on in nature. Language is approximate and a system unto itself. Nature quite happily exists apart from it. All languages attempt to describe nature in their terms, but the Principal of Uncertainty or Approximation must always be invoked. Language is a finger that points to the reality it see! ks to describe. The word is not the thing. The closest thing to a universal language is mathematics, but even this has at its center certain unproven assumptions and can be true analytically, or by definition (unless one is a follower of certain French mathematical Platonists). The language of science together with the diction of poetry, in Hindu and Buddhist terms is one of the fingers that points to that reality.
The Buddhist term Emptiness, therefore, on one level is very close to the language of science. This may explain why so many contemporary intellectuals with a spiritual curiosity have gravitated in such large numbers to Buddhism. But it goes further than this. If one attempts to reason out the proofs for the existence of God, for example, one faces always circular arguments. The proof is presupposed in the major premise (ie. everything that exists has a cause). (In logic process and result are equivalent....It is always possible to construe logic in such a way that every proposition is its own proof. Tractatus, 6.1261, .1265.) All those arguments as a description of any reality are therefore useless. If "questioning is the piety of thinking" and "doubt is the chastity of the mind", as Heidegger insists, the most pious question of all is this perennial one: Why is there something rather than nothing? This is a question beyond the reach of experimentation. Beyond all relig! ion and science. Most religions of the world, however, are not satisfied to leave this question as a question but seek to answer it by invoking certain authorized texts. Those texts pretend to say a great deal about the nature and character and deeds of God. To a skeptic these stories taken literally, no matter how widely believed, are absurd.
The Buddhist approach on the other hand is to avoid all religious ideologies. In fact all ideologies. That is why it has been called the most secular of the great religions. (This from the Prajna Paramita, for example, the nearest thing to a universal creed in Buddhism: There is no Noble Four-fold Truth: ....there is no suffering, no cause or end of it, no Noble Path; no knowing, no attainment, and no non-attainment. There is no knowledge of Nirvana, there is no obtaining of Nirvana, there is no not obtaining of Nirvana. It is here religion vanishes, [and] the Buddha disappears.... ) It would be hard to go further than that. To see, recite the western creeds in the same spirit.
The Buddhist approach, therefore, is not to answer questions but to radically clarify how to ask them and then to let the question be. When one contemplates Nature and reaches the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? one encounters the ultimate mystery, the very mystery of being itself. If one holds to that mystery and refuses to venture beyond the mystery with language or ideology, one has achieved something of an understanding of Emptiness. Emptiness, in part, is to refuse to utter any language about that mystery. Buddhism has no content. It has no doctrine. Buddhism is a disciplined method for encountering that Emptiness. When one realizes Emptiness one has reached one's final liberation, as the Paramita asserts: liberation from all ideologies (if you meet the Buddha or Christ or Moses or the Prophet on the road, kill them all lest they interfere with your spiritual progress!), not the least of which are the ideologies of the individual--that is the b! elief that the human per sonality is an enduring, eternal reality that somehow survives death.
If one realizes the emptiness of the self above all (just where were you before you were born?), those things that imprison the ego, such as sin and judgment, the attachment to a chosen race, church, or prophet, the hope of eternal survival, are seen to be illusory. When one encounters an individual who is imprisoned by these and other ideological traps, a compassion then arises naturally--one knows full well that the person in torment or annoyance or in anguish by those prisons does not realize that he or she is bound only by the emptiness of those prisons, that all prisons are illusions, that there are in fact no prisons, and the bothered are but one small but difficult step from liberation from this illusory imprisonment. The effort of meditation in Buddhism is to "wake up". That is what the very word means. The Buddhist seeks to wake up all those trapped in illusion: to allow them to realize that emptiness in the world that otherwise torments, irritates, annoys, gives the illusion of certainty and security, but in fact does no such thing. Nirvana (or windlessness cf. the Sanskrit root of the word vane as in weather vane, hence a perfect calm equanimity) clears the way for one to encounter the mysteries of the self and being. The underbrush in the psyche is chopped away to reveal the clearing in which, as Heidegger puts it, the god may appear. "The Kingdom of the Father is spread on the earth but men don't see it", asserts the Thomas Gospel in the same vein.
There are other dimensions to the realization (not just the knowledge) of Emptiness that are incredibly rich and mystical. Nothing can be said of this; words about Nirvana are only pointers to this reality, which is beyond all language, beyond even the idea of beyond. One can attain this realization by serious meditation even though to some people in some cases it comes about by accident. One is surprised by joy, and made silent by it. Silence appears to be a major attribute of this experience. So nothing more will be said about it. Nothing more can be said.
These ideas have a practical and political implication. If one is an American solidly inset in American history the options are clear. Any politics that has an ideology at its center, or is ruthless, such as an ideology of the Marketplace or an ideology of Fundamentalist Religion or any stripe of Conservative or Marxist morality or Socialist economics, is not available to one who understands Emptiness, the enemy of all ideologies. The Republican Party, which once had a rather sophisticated liberal wing, in its more bizarre recent manifestations is a combination of Market and Religious Fundamentalism. Libertarians believe, without careful historical analysis, that no or little government is preferable to any Government, or that Government is a Necessary Evil (rather than what the historian Garry Wills calls a Necessary Good). Those are ideologies to be rejected.
The Buddhist approach is pragmatic and compassionate. The party that a Buddhist would join is not the Socialist (which is ideological) but a modern progressive practical party that has an interest in compassion for the disadvantaged and a desire for fairness for them. The natural thing to be, then, would be to be a growth Democrat. One would then be obliged to believe that capitalist economics historically has, by and large, been a benefit to the people because it takes into account human greed, human aggressiveness, human creativity, human growth and, at least in part, the fairer distribution of wealth. Therefore, capitalism in its democratic phase is preferred...but this means that whatever one's economic, political, or social beliefs are, they are to be conditioned by spiritual insight.
Do not, however, confuse capitalism with democracy. Both have their roots in the old fashioned Liberalism of the 18th and 19th century--which has its roots in the growth of the individual consciousness of the late middle ages--which has its roots in the growth of individual consciousness in early Hellenism--which springs from the golden age of Greece and the devotion to integrity demonstrated by Socrates--which from another, Semitic, source springs from the great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, John, Jesus, Muhammad--which has its roots in the Sumerian epics, particularly the reasoned existentialism of Gilgamesh. But capitalism and democracy, though they both depend on the right of the individual to make political and economic choices, in the final analysis, are not perfectly congruent.
According to the historian James McPherson, reflecting on the work of earlier historians, there are two strains of liberal politics that grew out of American history. The first has been traditionally called Classical Liberalism. It espouses the rights of the individual against the King. This is Jefferson's liberalism. Jefferson was an idealist, sometimes an impractical one. He espoused the French Revolution long after it had descended into the Terror. That major revolution in political thinking struck terror in the hearts of aristocratic Europeans. The slogan of this liberalism is Liberty. The modern notion of Liberty comes from the radical politics of the American revolution in the 18th century, which was, as Lincoln put it later, the "last best hope of man on earth" in its resistance to reactionary Europe in the name of a people's right to govern itself. But as can be seen by the above, its roots are deeper than just our history. Its extreme expression in our time is b! oth libertarianism and the extreme wing of the religious Republican right (which blends an unfortunate ideological tyranny of Biblical morality with eccentric notions of market freedom). Anarchy is its radical expression.
The other Liberalism has been called Reform Liberalism. This is the liberalism of John Adams. Adams was a realist. As one of Calvinist background, he believed in the wickedness of man. He certainly had enough experience of it directed at him in his career. It was Adams who insisted on the separation of powers simply because he knew that man's wickedness needed checks and balances. He also believed that the agency of government should be active in promoting the common welfare. Reform Liberalism's slogan is Union. To that end, regulating trade and freeing slaves was a part of the Reform program. The New Deal born of an older progressive movement is its child. Its extreme expression is the tyranny of the left. Political correctness is its unfortunate descendent. The dictatorships of Islamic socialism based on the Koran and the Sharia are its bastard children. The belief that ultimate power goes to the state, as in Fascism where the radical left and right meet, is its most ! inhuman expression.
Our only presidential genius, Abraham Lincoln, reflecting Daniel Webster's deeply held belief of "Liberty and Union, one and inseparable", in his philosophy and political practice combined the two liberalisms. He felt that there could be no liberty without union. That is to say that the freedom of the individual must be guaranteed by Law and the State. (He felt that a people's government should not be allowed to be dissolved because of a difference of opinion a minority takes.) He used this redefinition of the power of the state to go to war to preserve that Union. Eventually he freed the slaves. And created America. The individual is a Good. The requirements of Community are also a Good. These are two positives, and, as Campbell discerned, positives repel. The needs of the individual and the community exist in tension. This dialectic embodies the genius of American democracy, which, in fact, is still the envy of much of the world.
If one examines capitalism and democracy one quickly learns (in spite of the fact that both emerge from the Western discovery of the power of the morally conscious, historically effective individual in the late middle ages), that their aims are different: that capitalism seeks profit and democracy strives for justice. These two do not always meet. They need not be mutually exclusive, though the vast power of capitalism often finds itself at odds with the need for fairness for the powerless. All one has to do is to read the phillipics against the King and Market by the great prophets of the Bible, Jesus, the Buddha, the devout reformers of all major traditions. All one has to do is to watch the CBS evening news for only a week to see the wickedness of the unregulated market and how it abuses the consumer every chance it gets.
John Adams was right. Men and women can be corrupt. This is not an ideology (unless it slips into classical Calvinism). This is an historian's accurate view of history. The evidence is there. The purpose of Law is to protect us against the corrupt. The purpose of the constitutional Balance of Powers is the same. The purpose of law ameliorating the excesses of the Market and the concentration of monopoly (how much do Bill Gates and Microsoft truly need?) inevitable in laissez-faire capitalism serves that same purpose. To be fair, a society must assess the nature of Man accurately and protect itself against human corruption.
But what, then, is fairness? Fairness arises naturally out of a compassionate regard for the disadvantaged. The ideologies that beset us, whether of the Market or of the One True Faith, invariably put most at a disadvantage. The gap between the very wealthy and everyone else in this country grows yearly. The rich recently got yet another tax cut. The division between Middle Eastern ideologues in power and the suicide bombers doing their will, seems something of a disadvantage to the children who strap the explosives around their waists and blow themselves to pieces because they hate those they have been taught to hate. Greater hate has no terrorist than this, that he gives his own life to kill others.
A plague on all ideologies! say those who have realized the emptiness of ideology. And Compassion? Compassion is not an ideology. It is a natural upwelling of feeling for those in suffering, those at a disadvantage, of those who endure the brutal battering of the Terror of History--Mircea Eliade's term--or its Buddhist equivalent, its first Noble Truth, that Life is Suffering. (Much of that Terror and suffering arises from our ideologies.) Compassion, therefore pragmatic Progressivism, seeks to modify where it can the onslaughts of that Terror and suffering. Because it is pragmatic, it will use, among other agencies, the power of government for that modification. The moderate center of both current parties espouses this pragmatic approach. A politics without true (not slogan) compassion at its center is not deserving of loyalty. In addition to Buddhism, the mystical wings of the three Western monotheisms, when indeed the greatest of their praxis is charity, agape, carita! s, would serve nearly as well, though they in the past have had some difficulty avoiding a retreat into doctrine.
Your party in contemporary America belongs to that political organization whose radical wing you can tolerate best. Take the Jesse test. Who would you follow: Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, or Jessie Ventura? Most Buddhists would reject Jesse Helms as an ignorant fundamentalist. A vicious relic. That is to reject normative Republicanism in its current expression. Many would have some reservations about Jesse Ventura for his Market ideology and Libertarian belief in the curtailment of State power (though Ventura is not a pure Libertarian by any means--examine his policies on education, among other things). He is also an honest man, a hater of some ideologies, to wit his veto of any bill including budget bills that curb the woman's choice on abortion in the name of some authorized text. He is also a very colorful character and kind of fun to watch. Most Buddhists can easily tolerate a Jessie Jackson's devotion to a war against racism, and the unfairness of much market activi! ty, while they might thi nk his constant self-promotion a bit too self-absorbed for their tastes.
So therefore most Buddhists would tend to gravitate to the pragmatic middle of the Democratic Party and the humanism it represents: its realistic acceptance of market forces but with an intent to ameliorate the worst excesses of that market; its non-ideological bias; its devotion to fairness arising from compassion; its toleration of differing religious expression; its adherence to the separation of Church and State; its largely ecological approach to policy reflecting the Eastern notion of Pattica Samutpada--that everything in nature is connected with everything else (which is the testimony of all the models of modern science). That is not to say that the Democratic Party is perfect. Far from it. There are corrupt liberals and well as corrupt conservatives. No party is absent its rascals. But its tendencies to emptiness and compassion and a non-ideological pragmatism, feeble though they may be at times, would be the easiest for a Buddhist to become active in.
In the final analysis, however, the Buddhist approach transcends politics, since embodying the bliss of ultimate concern requires it to qualify all partial or contingent concerns. (Any ultimate concern, or bliss that attaches itself to the contingent, such as the Market, or Marxism, Capitalism, or the inerrant truth of an authorized text, anything in Time, is by definition an idolatry.) Party politics, as everything else in Time, is a contingent concern. Buddhism envelops the contingent healthily (knowing that all nature is the mask of the sacred), without attachment and at the same time is much larger than that. Skillful means are invoked to strive for justice within that bliss as an exercise in compassion. One can dance toward one's center (the personal) and toward Justice (the political) at the same time. Indeed one must do both. The hero of Northern Buddhism (the Bodhisattva--the Wandering Sage) because it is his duty to wake others up, will selflessly avoid his own realization of Nirvana until all beings have been awakened. That is his sacrifice and his disadvantage. But it is neither a sacrifice nor disadvantage because he has no ego. He is not there! The Bodhisattva truly understands what selfless action is. He does his politics accordingly.BACK TO TOP
The Christian Right's Redaction of History
The Christian right is trying to rewrite the history of the United States as part of its campaign to force its religion on others. They try to depict the founding fathers as pious Christians who wanted the United States to be a Christian nation, with laws that favored Christians and Christianity. They pretend that these men would be perfectly at home in the Jerry Fallwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church or on Pat Robertson's TV show. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is a distortion. It is, moreover, a dangerous distortion. The early presidents and patriots were generally Deists or Unitarians, believing in some form of impersonal Providence but rejecting the divinity of Jesus and the absurdities of the Old and New testaments.
In the age of the super patriots in our current executive it has suddenly become un-American to dissent. To think for yourself. The current ridiculous flap over the pledge of allegiance testifies to that. Ironically the first to be interdicted by their religious freethinking would be our founding fathers. Here are a few of their ideas. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Do a Google search on your computer for "The Founding Fathers and religious faith". There is an enormous amount of evidence here. Check it out for yourself. If you don't have a computer head down to the library. The staff there will help you.
Quotes from Our Founding Fathers on Religion
- "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature."
- "....Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned....What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."
.........."Notes on Virginia"
- "Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."
in a letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787, 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught
- "On the dogmas of religion...all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind."
..........To Carey, 1816
- "It is not to be understood that I am with him (Jesus Christ) in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it.
..........To W. Short, 1820
- "Creeds have been the bane of the Christian church ... made of Christendom a slaughterhouse."
..........To Benjamin Waterhouse, Jun. 26, 1822
- "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."
--Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition , edited by Lipscomb and Bergh, 1903-04, 16:281
- "....it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia , Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805 , Dumas Malon, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1970, p. 191
- "I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace no forgiveness from them."
--Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition , edited by Lipscomb and Bergh, 10:305
- "No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination."
--Thomas Jefferson, Elementary school Act, 1817, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Edition , edited by Lipscomb and Bergh, 10:305
- "I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded on fables and mythology."
--Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, Six Historic Americans by John E. Remsberg
- "I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved--the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"
--John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson
- "But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales, legends, have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed.
--John Adams in a letter to F.A. Van der Kamp, Dec. 27, 1816, 2000 Years of Disbelief , John A. Haught
- "The divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity."
- "The Bible is not my book and Christianity is not my religion. I could never give assent to the long complicated statements of Christian dogma."
- "My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them."
- The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.
-- Poor Richard's Almanack, 1758
- "Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
--Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard , 1758
- "I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it."
.........."Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion", Nov. 20, 1728
- "I wish it (Christianity) were more productive of good works ... I mean real good works ... not holy-day keeping, sermon-hearing ... or making long prayers, filled with flatteries and compliments despised by wise men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity."
..........Works, Vol. VII, p. 75
- "Religion I found to be without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another."
- "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."
- "What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people....A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not."
.........."A Memorial and Remonstrance", 1785
- "....the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...."
- "Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and all of which facilitates the execution of mischievous projects. Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded project."
--James Madison, 2000 Years of Disbelief by James A. Haught
- "The Civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE."
- "Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize [hu]mankind."
-- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason
- "Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst."
- "I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, not by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own Church."
--Thomas Paine, Excerpts from The Age of Reason: Selected Writings of Thomas Paine , edited by Richard Emery Robers, NY Everybody's Vacation Publishing Co, 1945, p.342
- "Here it is that the religion of Deism is superior to the Christian Religion. It is free from all those invented and torturing articles that shock our reason or injure our humanity, and with which the Christian religion abounds. Its creed is pure, and sublimely simple. It believes in God, and there it rests."
--Thomas Paine, Of The Religion of Deism Compared With the Christian Religion
- "The age of ignorance commenced with the Christian system."
--Thomas Paine, 2000 Years of Disbelief , James A. Haught
- "The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy."
--George Washington, 2000 Years of Disbelief , James A. Haught
So there you have it. I will conclude with this rather telling quote from the Britannica."One of the embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth-century champions of the Christian faith was that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian."
--The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968, p. 420
Remember the great ability of our giant Founders as the current midgets warn us not to think for ourselves and among other things march us slowly to war. Real bodies will be shattered. Real blood shed. Real pain inflicted. Think. Examine. Judge. For yourselves. Don't let John Ashcroft, George Bush, Richard Cheney do your thinking for you.BACK TO TOP
Quarterly Interview with Fendrick and Fortney
Where do you work?
RF: I work in the studio in my house and behind my house which is an old garage I've converted to house my larger mechanicals. I have a potter's wheel, a kiln, a table saw, and all kinds of tools I keep in there. My house studio is a tall desk in one corner of my large living room where I tie flies and do much art work on a smaller scale. I also work in the shack Steven and I and a friend own in northern Wisconsin property, an eighty acre plot within a few miles of good lakes and trout streams. I go up there to dig plants, listen to the birds, see what I see. Through all of the Heg and Thomas Jesus drawings we've done we've developed the relationship like a hawk and and an owl. We can hunt in the same territory and never get in each other's way.
SF: I have a writing studio in a room in one corner of my house where I keep my computer, my scanner, my two printers, many shelves of books that I call my working library, a desk by a window that faces east where I do much hand work, such as editing and the like. I'm old enough that though I can work much of the time on the computer I need hard copy and a pencil in my hand occasionally. I write all my poetry out by hand first and then edit on-screen. I write some of the novels by hand, but do most of that on-screen. Poetry must be done by hand first. That is not so necessary with the novels. I always carry writing materials with me when I travel. I find when the fit is on me I can write just about anywhere. On ships. On planes. In hotels. When visiting relatives. I wrote a substantial part of one of my stories in the old Denver airport, with the company of some good Colorado beer. Not Coors. I won't touch Coors.
What did you do before working on Heg and The Thomas Jesus?
RF: I think of myself as a kind of Renaissance person. I do pottery, painting, jewelry, photography. My house is full of paintings and pottery and much of my own art. I did medical illustrations through the eighties with the University Hospital. I did some cartoons for the Capital Times. I also did some illustrations for the Fly Fisherman Magazine. I've done tons of puppets. I also do some work in music and have just finished a ceramic chess set. I traded a painting for a car and $200, which is how I got to Stoughton from Minnesota. I traded a painting and $300 for the property up north in Oulu Township that we own together.
SF: I spent some time in a Lutheran Theological seminary, and worked as a journalist and adman and printer for four years. Like Richard I taught school in Stoughton for over 30 years. I taught gifted children for the Wisconsin Council for Academically Talented Youth at the UW-Eau Claire and Lawrence University for six summers. I taught one session at the Wisconsin Arts World at Lakeland College. I also worked as a labor negotiator for my union in one capacity or another for 25 years. I served on Stoughton City Council for 21 years, where I was a management negotiator for a time. I helped settle a number of contracts over a six year period on both sides of the table. Because of my schedule I was forced to do much composing in my head. And then I would spend my summers and what time I could steal out of my ordinary winter schedule writing. I have six books in my computer. That is why I took early retirement, so I could finish those. Other than that I fish and hunt and w! atch birds and examine f lowers and garden and travel and enjoy the sunshine of my family. All of which is grist for the writing mill.
How did your collaboration of art and writing get started?
RF & SF: As mentioned earlier, we taught in the same school system, bought houses next to each other in the sixties and have been close by each other ever since. Our children (seven total) grew up with each other. We mixed them up during the day and sorted them out at night. We bought land together. Richard taught Steven to fly-fish. We share many conversations about art, writing, birds, flowers, children, family, fishing, religion, mythology and our reading. Out of this grew naturally the Heg and Thomas Jesus collaboration. Steven would do the writing first, and Richard would examine the text for illustration ideas. Then Richard would do an illustration, which more often than not would cause Steven to modify the text. Richard is a stickler for authenticity. For example the famous Time-Life painting of Heg getting shot at Chickamauga Richard noticed was on the wrong side of the road. His illustration corrected this error and moreover dressed the Oles (Heg's Norwegian ! soldiers) in the proper uniform and kepi. The most important collaboration, however, occurred with the discussion that led up to the cover of The Thomas Jesus. It took some versions and two weeks of dialog at the picnic table between their houses before they hit on the idea of featuring the Wilderness on the cover. Anyone who has read the book will know how terribly important that is as a major aesthetic, conceptual, and theological shift.
RF & SF: We have six books to finish and illustrate. We have a book of poetry as well. Richard is itching to illustrate some of the poems. We're also building a new cabin up north. We'll keep busy.
Badger Books Quarterly, May 2000BACK TO TOP
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