A conversation with my brother prompted me to reflect on my spiritual beliefs and perspective. It’s not something I’ve shared with anyone at depth, partly because no one has been interested, but also because I’ve been in “observer” mode for so long, collecting data and perspectives and not wanting to make grand declarations of ultimate truths.
So it’s a bit of a surprise (but obvious in hindsight) to realise that people don’t know what my perspective is, let alone whether they agree with it or not.
This is probably a good indicator (if one were necessary) that I’m not an INTP, because an INTP ought to be pretty clear about their own perspective as a conceptual framework.
Where my search has taken me
Beginning at about age 15 I read a copy of Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness” which introduced me to the concept of mysticism or personal spiritual development as the inner core of Christianity, and of religion generally.
On the most basic level, De Mello (an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist) was pointing out that outward religious observance is empty without interior spiritual development.
From that starting point I set out to find out more about mysticism. These are the key figures and texts I explored over the following decade:
The Cloud of Unknowing
St John of the Cross
Catherine of Siena
The Philokalia/Desert Fathers
Dionysus the Areopagite
Albert the Great
Julian of Norwich
Jallalludin Rumi (not just the poems)
Hazrat Inayat Khan
The Guru Granth Sahib
The Bhagavad Gita
Dao De Jing
Hua Hu Jing
Liu Yi Ming
“The Secret of the Golden Flower”
The Book of Changes
The Book of Rites
The Doctrine of the Mean
The Great Learning
Wang Bi (Neo-Daoist)
Hui Neng (The Platform Sutra and other commentaries)
Blue Cliff Record
The Diamond Sutra
The Heart Sutra
Assorted Pali resources
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
New Thought/New Age
Don Miguel Ruiz
A Course in Miracles
Neale Donald Walsch
In no particular order, and I’ve forgotten some, as well as omitting secondary sources that would have included other less well-known figures and texts.
In addition to this eclectic mix of texts (some I hated, some I loved), I undertook tertiary studies in philosophy as part of the same search, though I eventually realised that philosophy was the wrong place to look for answers.
Initially I had no interest in theology, because I’d accepted the “via negativa” notion that we can’t really say anything substantial about the divine, but also because my earliest exposure to theology was a book by Teilhard de Chardin, which is a bit like having your first exposure to music be a free jazz performance.
Eventually through my work in ethics I discovered the natural law tradition, and from that the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach to metaphysics and theology, and from there got a bit of an understanding of the neo-Platonist tradition too.
(My unfinished PhD study was in the intellectualist versus voluntarist traditions in the West, and the possible application of those themes to the neo-Daoist philosopher Wang Bi.)
Along the way I avoided stuff that was too esoteric (Tibetan Buddhism leans that way, “A Course in Miracles”), too boring (the Vedas), too focused on outward observance (sorry Islam), or just too peripheral to the core subject of union with the divine (Carlos Castaneda….someone recommended him, but it was a poor recommendation).
So you can view this search as a massive, long-term effort in sifting and sorting through everything and anything that I felt or somehow knew intuitively was getting right to the heart of the mystery.
It’s not that hard…it’s obvious that John’s Gospel is the most mystical of the four, right?
Starting from scratch in my search for answers, I ended up facing a lot of questions that others have also faced along the way.
For example, the basic one of “does God exist?”
Honestly that was a pretty easy one, and I answered it pragmatically: if there’s no divine thing out there, then nothing matters and there’s no deeper truth or answers to be had, so I might as well just die. The desire for answers doesn’t logically necessitate the existence of answers, but it does practically guarantee the search. Next question!
“Is God a person?”
This was much trickier.
Many people who are interested in comparative religion conclude that a personal God is an anthropomorphic concession to the simple-minded who can’t handle abstract concepts.
But it depends what you mean by “personal”. When the Christian tradition itself tells you that anthropomorphic characteristics are just an analogy, and goes on to define “person” as “an individual being of a rational nature”, all the “simple-minded” objections evaporate.
Like Hieromonk Damoscene, author of Christ, the Eternal Tao, I concluded that to be a person (by this definition) is greater, not lesser, than an impersonal divine being.
“Is Jesus divine, or another ‘great teacher’ like Buddha?”
This is another amusing one, because comparative religion types tend to argue a la John Hick that the divinity of Christ is a metaphor, that Christ was really just a “great teacher” like the Buddha. You almost want to add “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”
But I had to conclude in the end that the depiction of Christ in the Gospels bears little to no resemblance to Buddha as a teacher. If he was just a teacher, Christ really didn’t do enough teaching.
If he was a teacher, he failed miserably. But the coherence of his comments regarding his unique relationship with God the Father only make sense if Christ is unique. And his significance makes sense only if you look at the events of his life, death and resurrection.
Compare the Gospels to the Dhammapada and you have to conclude that either Jesus was not a very good teacher, or it wasn’t about his teachings per se.
Besides, it’s not as though the unique nature of Christ is the only stumbling block in comparative religion. The complexity of the trinity and Christ as logos is an excellent complement to the seemingly unnecessary complications of the Laozi on metaphysics.
Christian metaphysics offers a potential lingua franca for understanding the Buddhist focus on “emptiness” (the contingency of creation and negative theology), as well as the peculiar insights of the Taoists on “the way” (the logos) Yang and Yin (substantial form + prime matter?), and glimmers of Isiah’s prophecies in abstruse passages like:
“Only he who has accepted the dirt of the country can be lord of its soil shrines; only he who takes upon himself the evils of the country can become a king among those what dwell under heaven.”
An individual path
It’s hard to discuss this stuff with other people because they’re not coming from the same starting point of a personal search, nor have they necessarily covered the same ground along the way.
So I’ve come to accept that mine is necessarily an individual path, and that’s great. It ties in with my greater understanding of temperament (Melancholic-Phlegmatic), my intellectual formation, and even my family history.
I’m probably a little defensive when discussing religion with others, because I’m agreeable (Big 5 trait) and prefer to avoid conflict, plus I guess I intuitively expect that others won’t understand where I’m coming from, doubleplus I haven’t practiced communicating it to others so where would I begin?
Ultimately I think it’s perfect for a melancholic to find his own way. I think everyone is finding their own way, even if “their own way” includes choosing to follow others. I’ve tried following others as well, but it turned out that we were never really on the same page to begin with!
I’m very open to ideas (Big 5 trait) so I tend by default to try to understand where other people are coming from, and if necessary then describing where our paths diverge. All this time in philosophy and theology and comparative religion have made it second-nature for me to ask “what do they mean by this?”
I mean, you don’t have to go far to find radically divergent perspectives on what ought to be fairly simple questions. When Muslims worship Allah, are they, from a Christian perspective, worshiping the same God from a different (less complete) perspective, or are they pointlessly worshiping a non-existent being because their theology isn’t right?
When Buddhists say there is no God, are they denying the Christian God? Are there really any Buddhists well-versed enough in Christian theology to definitively answer this question (and vice-versa)?
But ultimately I’ve returned to the realisation that I’m not really in this for the analysis. My melancholic temperament has led me to search through an intellectual lens, but I’m not fulfilled by intellectual play. It’s always been a means to an end, or rather, a search for the ideal.
I accept that the truth I’ve searched for is much more than a set of intellectual propositions. Some of those propositions fill me with the deepest joy when I contemplate them, but it’s the joy, not the propositions I’m after.