Sunday, April 04, 2004

More Notes From The Threshold

He alone feels authentic sorrow who realizes not only what he is, but that he is.

This is the author of The Cloud of Unknowing anticipating Sartre and Camus by centuries and articulating our core existential plight. For me there is no other reason than this ontological one for even bothering to investigate religious thought: religions are concerned, among other things, with formulating, responding to, articulating, expressing the ultimate "that we are."

A fully secular humanism addresses matters of ethics perfectly adequately, and in many cases even more equitably than religious codes. Science describes how things came to be, what they are and how they function. Philosophy investigates how language operates.

The "that we are" is a matter of great mystery and anxiety.

And all of these discourses -- and all of our experience of the world -- are shaped by and constrained by our senses and brains. Buddhism's description of this is especially prescient. Our brains seem to have a built in preference for seeking antecedents, causes and effects, for asking how and why. Why -- aside from questions of human motivation -- is often just an overly teleological redaction of how.

One would like to arrive at the answer -- if there is an answer, if there is even an articulable question -- oneself. Rather than accept a body of doctrine as the truth. An answer from "the rag and bone shop of the heart," as Yeats said.

This is the attraction of Buddhism. What is more rag and bone shop that the body/mind on the zafu ? But the Dalai Lama said look to your own tradition and so I looked.

I imagine a Christian would reply that "receiving Jesus as my personal saviour" is fully experiential. But it seems to me to involve acceptance of a pre-formed system, or mechanism, and a complicated one at that, trinitarian, eschatological, hierarchical and patriarchal. And exclusionary: only we, the true believers, the followers of all the Biblical rules, the confirmed and communed, get the ultimate ontological reward. Heaven. Immortality.

Maybe a religion is simply a meta language for discussing being. John calls Christ the Word, the logos. Can this Word be understood as "embodied participation in the Godhead," where Godhead is the undual, intrinsic nature-of-things, source, foundation ?

I suspect that rises to the level of a named heresy.

The threshold is the opposite of the anchorhold. I have yearned, I confess, for an anchorhold. To be immured within a Cathedral wall. Or at least within the warm clasp of a congregation, a sangha. Even to be a cloistered religious. A sister, conjoined to other sisters by spiritual blood. These yearnings are a metalanguage of my particular psychology, the way my brain works. A way of expressing my ambivalent solitude, my ambivalent outsiderhood. Nothing to do with "religion."

I am, however, a liminal creature. I prowl the edges, outskirts, boundaries and thresholds of things. I withhold, draw back, go part way, hesitate, retreat. Hence, I think, my attraction to Simone Weil, who, despite her intense attraction to Catholicism and her undeniable mystical experiences, never accepted baptism. For her, the word "Christ" was a way of speaking about caring for the downtrodden, the marginal, the afflicted of society. The mediator of an infinitely distant God.

I wonder: if she (or Thomas Merton, for that matter) had lived longer, would their need for a mediating Word have fallen away and would they have more fully embraced a more non-dualistic Buddhist view ?

Religion is dangerous. The world is full of people puffed up with righteous conviction, harnessing their God to their geopolitical causes. The language of Crusade is just below the surface of discourse, and sometimes quite overt. It's enough to keep one quite clear of any church or any religious group that sets itself apart with ritual and costume and received tradition.

How apophatic can one get ?

Consider the sublimely ridiculous Church of the Holy Armadillo, sometimes known as the Church of the Darth Vader Helmet. It's the Sacred Heart Church in Waltham, a few blocks from my house. The whole area under the front arch and above the door consists of a huge, lurid, stylized, stained glass rendition of Jesus that, lit up at night, is truly disturbing. Very heavy on the blood red. This church dominates an ugly intersection. At the three other corners are a municipal swimming pool, empty for years because of budget cuts, an abandones and half-gutted gas station and a low, white market labeled "TRUE CONVENIENCE."

This is an edifice that helps one distinguish true religious feeling from any purely aesthetic or transcendental response to architecture. It's one of the many local churches into which I have not gone. I am very ecumenically unchurched.

Never more so than on Sunday Mornings.

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