Comparative mysticism at Christmas

When I was young I read a lot of books about religion. Around the same time I stopped going to church as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it.

My approach to religion was quite ambitious in its scope: I believed that religions were a mix of essential and non-essential beliefs and practices, that all religions would converge on the essential, and that by comparing them all I could work out what they had in common and hence what lay at the heart of true religion.

The answer was mysticism: the search for and experiential knowledge of ‘ultimate reality’.

All religions had mysticism in common, and so I concluded that mysticism is the heart of religion and therefore the only thing worth pursuing. Everything else: the rituals, the prayers, the meditation, the complex beliefs; these were at best only a means of inducting people into mysticism and at worst they were misguided accretions derived from culture or lower aspects of human psychology.

I spent most of my time at university reading the works of different mystics and the mystical branches of different religions. I even wrote my Honours thesis on the subject, attempting to show how a set of mystical traditions contained the same basic approach to reality: a recognition that human experience is ‘not right’, identification of a transcendent reality or being that is right, and a method of approaching this transcendent reality that requires a shift in attention away from external, worldly affairs and interests, a ‘quieting’ of the mind, and an openness to this fundamentally different kind of being.

My actual thesis was not a good piece of scholarly work by any means. At that stage in my education I was so focused on this personal search for knowledge that I failed to heed or really comprehend the requirements of philosophy as a scholarly discipline. What I wrote may have been interesting to a small group of people, but all it really showed was that I had a particular belief about religion, and I could find selective evidence to support my belief.

Having seen religion in such a light, it is very hard to ‘unsee’ it. It is difficult for me to pretend that the different religions really are strikingly different where it matters. Yet I’m also conscious that my perspective may be tautological: “religious similarities are similar”; or as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism. This is generally believed, and I believed it myself until I read a book giving the reasons for it. The reasons were of two kinds: resemblances that meant nothing because they were common to all humanity, and resemblances which were not resemblances at all. The author solemnly explained that the two creeds were alike in things in which all creeds are alike, or else he described them as alike in some point in which they are quite obviously different.

Thus, as a case of the first class, he said that both Christ and Buddha were called by the divine voice coming out of the sky, as if you would expect the divine voice to come out of the coal-cellar. Or, again, it was gravely urged that these two Eastern teachers, by a singular coincidence, both had to do with the washing of feet. You might as well say that it was a remarkable coincidence that they both had feet to wash. And the other class of similarities were those which simply were not similar. Thus this reconciler of the two religions draws earnest attention to the fact that at certain religious feasts the robe of the Lama is rent in pieces out of respect, and the remnants highly valued. But this is the reverse of a resemblance, for the garments of Christ were not rent in pieces out of respect, but out of derision; and the remnants were not highly valued except for what they would fetch in the rag shops. It is rather like alluding to the obvious connection between the two ceremonies of the sword: when it taps a man’s shoulder, and when it cuts off his head. It is not at all similar for the man.

These scraps of puerile pedantry would indeed matter little if it were not also true that the alleged philosophical resemblances are also of these two kinds, either proving too much or not proving anything. That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

Identifying mysticism as the common core of religion might be similarly problematic. It may be true that the mystics within various religions invoke strikingly similar themes in their disciplines, but this does not mean that mysticism is necessarily central to religious truth. Mysticism might be just an addendum to the truth of a religion. It might be an interesting yet ultimately non-essential aspect of religious practice. After all, if we assume from the outset that mystical experience is the true heart of religion, then of course we will place less emphasis on the cosmological and teleological content of religious beliefs. For the student of comparative mysticism it doesn’t really matter whether we call our goal the realisation of buddha-nature and nirvana, or the beatific vision and the enjoyment of eternal life in heaven; we already accept the mystics’ claim that the experience of ‘ultimate reality’ is beyond words.

How different are Buddhism and Christianity really? More to the point, how are we to determine what are and aren’t meaningful differences? If the ultimate reality transcends language, then we must accept that the contradictions may only be skin deep. Chesterton’s knowledge of Buddhism was admittedly superficial and mediated apparently by the idiosyncratic interpretations of his contemporaries – Buddhism under the influence of Theosophy and Orientalist popularisers; but one needn’t be well-acquainted with Buddhism to realise that there is a danger in upholding the common ground between two faiths as the only ground worth inhabiting. To interpret everything through the lens of similarity begs the question, diminishes differences before we even get to them.

Nonetheless, the reality of mysticism is compelling, and the ubiquity and consistency of it throughout human religious experience is hard to deny. Conversely, adopting the perspective of comparative mysticism distances us inevitably from the formal, exclusive, and particularist aspects of any one religious system. It doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of different religions – and even come to recognise truly unique and revelatory elements within a religion; but it will always be somewhat distant, the observations and understanding of an outsider looking in.

To have this perspective and not promote it as necessarily superior, objectively true, and appropriate for others puts me in an unusual position. There’s not much I can say about it, and since most of my friends and acquaintances are either strongly religious or not religious at all, I tend not to discuss it with anyone. But it is nonetheless a view I have formed, examined, and considered over and again for more than half my life, and to which I keep returning, or should I say: it keeps returning to me. As indistinct as it may be in my own daily life, I have to acknowledge it as a profound influence on all aspects of my view of the world.

As Christmas approaches I can’t help but see it through this lens: the incarnation of that ‘ultimate reality’ within the utterly humble and unspectacular domain of ordinary human existence. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity, not in as something that denies or refutes the past, but as fulfillment and reaffirmation of what has gone before. Not only God incarnate in its own terms, but a kind of ‘metaphor incarnate’ if we can set aside the misleading implications of such a phrase. To me this is the greatest sense I can make of it; a sense that grounds the metaphysical and ontological mysteries in the lived experience of the individual. An incarnation that mirrors the presence of the ultimate reality in the microcosm of the individual human being.

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