W Our roots determine to some extent who we are and what we can be. I for instance am a middle class, white, European descended, Christian protestant. I am not and cannot be anything else. I can admire and even emulate other peoples and appropriate their values into my own life but I cannot become them. This limitation seems anti-democratic and even unfair and unacceptable to us but it is true and accepting it can be liberating. The wise always know their limitations as well as what they can do. And please note that I am not advocating a blind, thoughtless acceptance of what is -- rather the opposite. Much learning and thought has to go into knowing your roots and connections. Questioning precedes acceptance and doubt faith.
W For example, I know enough about Buddhism to know that it presupposes a specific world view -- an endless cycle that involves life, death and rebirth. The salvation it offers is release from this cycle. Think for a minute how different this is from our western idea of life and death. And remember that for centuries life in southern Asia where Buddhism arose and is most popular has been and still is vastly different from our own. Disease, hunger and suffering are not just abstract concepts in this culture where people can be owned or outcast and remain in these states their entire lives without hope of change because of their birth. It is no wonder that Buddhism found hold in such circumstances and thrived.
W This is not to say that many of the principles of Buddhism cannot be translated into our world of super affluence and comfort. But only to suggest that an American middle-class Buddhist is no more a Buddhist than I am a duck because I say I am. No less a spiritual leader than the Dalai Lama advises us not to become Buddhists, but to seek to understand our own faith and then become a friends to Buddhists (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, 1998, p.84). I think similar advice would apply to all exotic spirituality. Sometimes we are attracted to these because they are new (to us) or exotic not because they are spiritual. For those who truly seek it there is no lack of spirituality within Christianity that would cause them to flee to other beliefs. If they do so it just might be for other reasons than the spirit.
W Christianity is fundamentally an incarnational religion. We understand that God became incarnate to reach out to us because we could not reach across the gap that separates us ourselves. God still continues to do this in the Communion of Saints (sometimes called the Church and also the Body of Christ) – the humble churches to which we all go each Sunday are in fact the ongoing incarnation for us and we as their members are also that incarnation. If we become concerned about exclusiveness or insularity – that our faith does not encompass the wider scope of humankind -- we should probably remember this: God becomes incarnate to us at different times and in specific forms, people and places. We can’t know God outside of a specific incarnation and in some ways the form of that incarnation is fixed by the accidents of our birth and life – our heritage and history. We serve God best when we live out our own cultural heritage and its embedded faith first.
W This does not mean that we are beyond all hope of knowing the insights contained in other faiths and cultures. It is possible and desirable for each person to expand their personal faith and understanding to the broadest reaches they can. But it is also important to accept and not worry about the limitations of our own incarnations. And it is also important to accept the limitations of others and love them the same. And it is always most important to be some place – to have a personal faith from which we look out on the world. There is an inside and an outside always. It is not possible to be all things to all people or even one’s self.
W The so-called New Age has never been of more than passing interest to me. Though some of what is offered up by these new gurus sounds interesting (and sometimes is since it is often a rehash of other peoples’ and systems’ ideas) the idea that the truth became known just yesterday has always seemed not to ring true. (I wonder what I would have thought of Jesus had I lived when he did!) In any case there is always the impossible to answer question: Why believe this one and not that one? Why believe A Course In Miracles (ACIM) and not some other channeled book (there are lots of them from the same period). Yes we are always encouraged to listen for God in the here and now and also told that those who are not against us are for us (or who heal in Jesus’ name are not to be discouraged). But though we are encouraged to keep an open mind in this way it is better as they say not to keep it so open that your brains fall out.
W Philosophy also teaches us to be circumspect about accepting new ideas. That which appears new may not be. It may only be a repackaging of something that has already been said in the 3,000 odd years of human thinking. It seems improbable that the one true revelation occurred in the 60's. This may be hard to accept because we place such cultural importance on this historical period (probably only because it was a formative period for so many of us). We all want to believe that our history is the most important. We all want to be part of the action. If the action happened 2,000 years ago as standard Christianity believes then how do we relate that to our lives in the here and now? It is important to understand that modern spiritualism and new age religion are appealing because they address this directly – they say that the revelation is here and now or at worst just yesterday. The problem is this is an easy answer which casts aside not just tradition but 2,000 years of community and incarnation. However we also have the option of seeing ourselves as members of the community of saints continuous throughout those 2,000 years and that each life therein including our own is an incarnation of faith and God.
W Another problem with the oracular revelations of new religions (such as the Book of Mormon, OAHSPE, the Urantia book and ACIM) is that they speak with one voice. Their revelations are all channeled through one person and time and they are all represented as true revelations -- the way it really is. The authority of the Bible and of Christianity on the other hand is nothing like this. Its is a revelation of many voices. So too the history of Christianity is still more voices all trying to make sense of this faith. If you dig into that history you find that struggle and conflict go right back to the very beginning. Struggle is the hallmark of faith. In as much as we individually struggle the authority of Christianity is that it shares in this struggle with us. And this contrasts both with what came before -- the pre-Christian Jewish faith with its laws and answers for everything -- and what comes after in the new age -- the pat answers and explanations of post-rationalist certitude. No book that offers a faith without struggle can speak with authority to those who know the struggle of faith.
W For some liberals as well as New Agers intention is viewed as a touchstone which magically converts our actions into Good. But in fact much mischief is also done in the name of Good (or “do-gooder” wouldn't be a derisive term) and it is also wise to keep in mind that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. A related idea is that people are innately good. As a Christian it is not hard to accept that we all embody the image of God and therefore have the capacity to embody God's goodness as well. The opposite to this is found in the orthodox doctrines of original sin and total depravity of man (I thought about putting “people” here, but this is Calvin's word and if you women want to change it go ahead!). As in many things it seems that we get screwed up when we try to force reality into any doctrine (and “original grace” is as much a doctrine as its opposite). It is also wise to keep in mind the difference between possibility and actuality – it is indeed possible to do good because we are but we might also not. And things do go wrong, even when we intend the best. Even though the Children of God get it right sometimes they get it wrong others too. We should not ignore the latter any more than we should beat ourselves up because of it.
W Part of the modern spirituality movement seeks to place us in contact with the spirit world and sometimes with our "true" spirit selves. Sometimes in this context it is conceived that there is a sort of non-physical parallel universe where the non-living (both the dead and the not yet born) reside. It is said that within us we have a spirit that belongs to that world and not this (physical) one. Much is made of the separation from our true selves, our true world and our dead loved ones and the longing to reverse this separation. I want to make it clear that when I speak of our spiritual natures I am not speaking of any of this. To me this contemporary spiritualism is just a rehash of Platonic dualism. Rationalism re-presented the same idea to western thought in mind-body dualism and sometimes (as in ACIM) the spirit and mind become synonymous. The real separation we need concern ourselves with is not from our "true spiritual selves" but from God!
W But modern neuro-pathological and cognitive research seems to point us to the identity of the mind and body. It is worth recalling that ancient Hebrew ideas of the mind and body do not separate these two as distinctly as we commonly do today. The resurrection described by Ezekial in the valley of dry bones is in fact a real frankenstien-ish reanimation of the dead. And Christianity has been confessing for centuries to belief in the “resurrection of the body”. Sometimes the oldest wisdom is the best and just as while seeking medicine for the body we need to go into rain forests and look for medicinal plants known to generations of aboriginals before our society saw light, so too do we need to excavate our spiritual traditions to find the truth about who and what we are. We are not ghosts in machines but machines with essential spirits. May be our pets are too since it is not clear on what grounds one would exclude our best friends on this planet from this new/old-found understanding of spirituality.
How this works is of course a mystery. I have participated as no
doubt have many other Christians in the discussion of which body we
have when we are resurrected – the body we are born with, the one we
with, one from in between or some idealized body. Saying that
our bodies are not who or what we really are, that we are instead
or minds does not solve this problem! Unless you believe that
our minds or spirits change over our life times. Most of us would
forced to admit after brief thought that they do or at least we believe
that they can. If such change is not possible then neither is
or salvation. There is no question that there is more to us than
material existence. But to reduce ourselves to something wholly
is the same mistake in reverse. The antidote to that is the
is more to us than spiritual existence. We are incarnate too.