Distilling the search for God

Roughly 20 years of searching for answers I can distill to a simple report:

God/the divine/the transcendent dwells in our innermost being.

But our individual self can choose to focus on it, or not.

It is the summum bonum, the creator, the beginning and the end, self-existent being itself; and it is also love and joy to us.

We focus outwardly on the world, hoping to achieve and procure love and joy – happiness – for ourselves through various actions and ends.

But since the source of all things dwells already in us, looking out to “things” while neglecting the source is why we experience repeated suffering and confusion.

My mistakes

Turning inward and despising the outer world is a mistake. God doesn’t despise the world, so how can you turn towards God while hating his creation?

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

But this doesn’t mean pretending that evil is good.

The plumbing in our home is a bit funny. You can turn on the hot tap and it will run warm, then go cold, before becoming truly hot.

If you turn off the tap because it gets cold, you’ll never allow the really hot water to flow.

In fact you want to open the tap as much as possible, and just let the cold water go, all the sooner to enjoy the heat again.

The key is trusting and knowing that the heat will come, even if it has to first push out a whole lot of cold water sitting in the pipes.

Faith, Hope, and Love

The God who dwells in your innermost being is the creator of all that is. There is nothing higher, greater, more powerful, or more eternal than that.

Yet we experience a multiplicity of things “the world” that seem to exist on their own and obey their own rules.

If God is love, why do we suffer?

We suffer because we turn away from God in our innermost being, and try to share our attention with other ‘gods’ or idols, or simply fears and doubts.

That is why faith, hope, and love are so important, because they are how we translate God in our innermost being into the outer world of our experience.

Faith, hope, and love are what it feels like when there is no resistance in us to the divine flowing out from our innermost being into the world.

While these three have layers of meaning, in a personal spiritual context faith is the knowledge, trust or certainty that God in our innermost being is in complete and perfect control of all that is, and that only our resistance colours the perfect creation God wills for us.

Hope is desire and expectation. It is the belief – despite how the world might appear – that our desires will be fulfilled, that the love, joy and happiness we seek are being met.

Love is considered the greatest of these three because love is the nature of God. Both the nature of the divine, and His disposition toward creation, and hence when we adopt an attitude of love toward creation we are embracing God’s own attitude. We are united with God’s will.

Love is God Himself, while faith and hope are antidotes to the doubts and fears that we have created in our world. Love without faith and hope would be difficult to muster.

For me, faith and hope mean that nothing is impossible, and the fulfillment of Love can expand out into my experience, my reality.

It helps to know also that there are already people for whom this is reality. I may not have met them yet, but I know that they exist.

The path forward

Magnify the divine in my innermost being. Turn towards it continually, and cease focusing on anything that detracts from it, knowing that such detractions exist only in my own divided focus.

There is no other power, no other path, no other goal than the God in my innermost being. There is nothing and no one else to turn to. And everything else I might turn to, I do so only in search of the love and joy that is already there within me.

It is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the kingdom for which all else is given up, and through which all else is gained.

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Retrospective on a spiritual journey

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:

Christian

The Cloud of Unknowing

St John of the Cross

Catherine of Siena

Evelyn Underhill

The Philokalia/Desert Fathers

John Cassian

Dionysus the Areopagite

Meister Eckhart

Albert the Great

Thomas Aquinas

Brother Lawrence

Julian of Norwich

Bede Griffiths

 

Sufi

Jallalludin Rumi (not just the poems)

Hafiz

Hazrat Inayat Khan

 

Sikh

The Guru Granth Sahib

 

Hindu

The Bhagavad Gita

The Upanishads

Advaita Vedanta

Sankara

Ramana Maharshi

Kabir

 

Taoist

Dao De Jing

Zhuangzi

Liezi

Wenzi

Hua Hu Jing

Liu Yi Ming

“The Secret of the Golden Flower”

 

Other Chinese

The Analects

The Book of Changes

The Book of Rites

The Doctrine of the Mean

The Great Learning

Mencius

Wang Bi (Neo-Daoist)

 

Buddhist

Hui Neng (The Platform Sutra and other commentaries)

Dogen

Takeda Sokaku

D.T. Suzuki

Blue Cliff Record

The Diamond Sutra

The Heart Sutra

The Dhammapada

Assorted Pali resources

Naropa

Chogyam Trungpa

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Lama Yeshe

Dzogchen

 

New Thought/New Age

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Don Miguel Ruiz

Eckhart Tolle

U.G. Krishnamurti

Carlos Castaneda

A Course in Miracles

Neale Donald Walsch

Caroline Myss

Esther Hicks

 

Other

Joseph Campbell

Joel Morwood

 

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.

Reflection

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?

Question time

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.

The knight of faith against the absurd

There’s an amazing analogy in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about what he calls the knight of faith. This is the summary from wikipedia:

Kierkegaard’s Silentio contrasts the knight of faith with the other two, knight of infinite resignation (infinity) and the aesthetic realm’s “slaves.”

Kierkegaard uses the story of a princess and a man who is madly in love with her, but circumstances are that the man will never be able to realize this love in this world. A person who is in the aesthetic stage would abandon this love, crying out for example, “Such a love is foolishness. The rich brewer’s widow is a match fully as good and respectable.”

A person who is in the ethical stage would not give up on this love, but would be resigned to the fact that they will never be together in this world. The knight of infinity may or may not believe that they may be together in another life or in spirit, but what’s important is that the knight of infinity gives up on their being together in this world; in this life.

The knight of faith feels what the knight of infinite resignation feels, but with exception that the knight of faith believes that in this world; in this life, they will be together. The knight of faith would say “I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.” This double movement is paradoxical because on the one hand it is humanly impossible that they would be together, but on the other hand the knight of faith is willing to believe that they will be together through divine possibility.

“But by faith, says that marvellous knight, by faith I shall get her in virtue of the absurd.”

There’s always been this tension in Christianity between faith that can “move mountains” and the ideal of saying to God “thy will be done.”

There’s a tension between Christ saying:

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

And:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’ve never seen this tension resolved in an elegant way until Kierkegaard – or how I’m interpreting him.

The usual interpretation I’ve seen is that we’re like kids asking our parents for something: we can ask and ask nicely, and keep our hopes up, but in the end we have to accept whatever our parents decide.

In other words, it diminishes the “whatever you ask for in prayer” side of things so as not to unduly upset the “thy will be done” aspect.

God’s word is final. Maybe your father wouldn’t let you go to the beach with your friends like you wanted, but he’s still your father and you still have to maintain a relationship with him. So acquiesce. Submit.

Faith and the absurd

I think what makes Kierkegaard’s answer different is that the subject of his desire – his love for the princess – is not something chosen or elected. It’s not as though Kierkegaard’s knight of faith is praying for God to help him win the lottery.

Instead, the knight of faith is in love with the princess. It’s a state he finds himself in by God’s will. He didn’t choose it. He didn’t look around and think “a princess…now that would be pretty sweet.”

The knight’s faith is that he and his love will be together in the finite world despite the apparent impossibility of such an outcome.

“I believe nevertheless that I shall get her, in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that with God all things are possible.”

This faith arises not in tension with “thy will be done” but in complete conformity with it.

Kierkegaard depicts Abraham sacrificing Isaac as the epitome of the knight of faith, because God had promised Abraham his descendants would number like the starts in heaven, He had given Abraham a son despite his wife Sarah being beyond child-bearing years, and then…then He demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son to Him.

Abraham’s faith was complete because it was grounded in God’s promise to him, in God’s own will. God had given him a son, and God then asked him to sacrifice the boy while having promised Abraham descendants numbering like the stars. It was absurd. And the only answer to absurdity was faith.

I think Kierkegaard framed it differently, and to his own tragic suffering (and that of his beloved Regine) he failed to overcome the absurdity of a finite world where self-doubt and persistent melancholy drove him to abandon his princess.

For me the answer is close to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. When we consider what God has given us in life – the love we bear in a finite world full of apparent obstacles and reasons to fear and doubt – we have a choice.

Is the world absurd? Or do we have faith in God’s promises, in the goodness of his will?

In all aspects of life we can doubt and fear and convince ourselves to accept the circumstances of this finite world as definitive. Like Kierkegaard’s knight of infinite resignation, we carry on our hopes and our loves internally, in a spiritual aspect.

Like the insipid notion that the dead live forever “in our hearts”, or that Christ’s resurrection is a metaphor for how his spirit was “kept alive” by his disciples…

If you have faith in the power that creates and sustains this finite world, then infinite resignation really is absurd.

Either our hope and our love are the will of an all-powerful and loving God, or this world is absurd.

Faith or absurdity. It’s an easy choice, but most of us get lost in objections, complications, doubts and fears, without realising that entertaining these distractions is itself a choice.

I can’t imagine how life will work out. But in faith I know that it shall work out, and work out joyously, because otherwise the entire thing is absurd. And I already know it’s not absurd.

Kierkegaard didn’t make it. I wonder if he got stuck in infinite resignation, putting too much stock in the restrictions and constraints of the finite world, putting too many conditions of his own on God’s will.

But if we’re promised that faith can move mountains, then infinite resignation must cease. We can’t stay resigned to the apparent impossibility of God’s will being fulfilled. Nothing is impossible for God.

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

I’ve never been a faithful person. But circumstances have brought it out of me. I’ve never had anything that forced me to challenge the apparent absurdity of life, but God’s will gave me something at last.

“Nothing will be impossible for you” is not about being powerful or some promise of spiritually-charged landscaping. It’s about knowing the will of God and the rule of love, unfolding and expanding through this finite reality.

On Trump’s video leak

My latest piece at Mercatornet examines the Trump video leak and his reluctant Christian supporters:

Having made the difficult decision to support a tarnished and disreputable candidate, the only consolation was that they were doing so with their eyes wide open. But even if you “hold your nose and vote”, Trump’s notorious video from 2005 has just demonstrated that your wide-open eyes might start to sting in his noxious atmosphere.

Nonetheless, many of Trump’s reluctant supporters argue that nothing has changed. They knew voting for Trump was going to be a bad deal, but like an urgent sale when you’re desperate for cash, they’ll take the best offer they can get.

http://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/democracy-and-providence-does-political-participation-trump-religious-faith

The paradox of “you create your own reality”

Years ago I spent some time reading “law of attraction” material.

I ended up quite skeptical about it for two reasons: firstly because I tried it and it didn’t work (more on this in a moment); secondly because the primary advocates of the law of attraction were making money by selling the law of attraction, and using their success in this enterprise as evidence in favour of the law of attraction. This implied not so much that the law of attraction can bring you success, but that selling people on the law of attraction can bring you success.

At the same time it’s impossible to really argue that the law of attraction “didn’t work”, because according to the theory (depending on which version you come across) the law of attraction is always working.  Your beliefs are always and continuously shaping your reality, and it’s a moot point whether you take that to mean literally altering the external world or merely filtering your perception of life’s possibilities and horizons.

Either way, what really struck me about the law of attraction is the paradox of investigating and attempting to exploit a law that is theoretically already operative in every single aspect of your internal and external world – including your attempts to exploit this law.

Which means we have to view “law of attraction”-related behaviours (buying and reading books on the topic, thinking about the law of attraction a lot, trying to “manifest” good things into your life) not as evidence of people really understanding and using the law of attraction for their own benefit, but of people wanting to feel that they are understanding and using it, while being ultimately disappointed.

It’s like the lottery. You could say that people who play the lottery want to be winners. But to be more precise we should say that such people want the experience of a faint glimmer of excitement every week, followed by routine disappointment. They want the remote possibility of being winners, without much risk of actually winning and upsetting their whole lives.

If the law of attraction is true, then many of us are somehow deeply satisfied by the experience of repeatedly failing to win the lottery.

The continued popularity of the law of attraction can therefore be understood as an expression of the same wish to flirt with success without actually experiencing it.  Trying to “manifest” a new car by really really wanting it is no different from ticking off your “lucky numbers” each week in hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Trying to use the law of attraction to improve your life reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian where the crowd obediently chants in unison: “Yes, we are all individuals!” It’s a kind of self-refuting idea like “this statement is false” because seeking to utilise the law of attraction to improve your life implies that you really do wish to improve your life. But if you really did wish to improve your life, then according to the law of attraction your life would already be improved.

This paradox is covered by some of the law of attraction materials, where they claim that people often fail to distinguish between a wish or desire and an affirmation of scarcity or lack. That is to say: a person might think “I want to be rich”, but the law of attraction hears “I hate being poor”, and it’s the latter “vibration” that has creative power.

People read such commentary and conclude that they should therefore not only focus intently on the things they desire so that the universe can dutifully “manifest” them into existence, but that to do so successfully they must control how they feel about these desired objects. I want more money, but whenever I think about it I feel desperate and scared of not having enough. So instead I must try to think about it in a positive way, feeling hopeful and joyful and optimistic about wealth.

Trying to force a change in your feelings implies a kind of violence against yourself, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But more importantly, here again is the paradox of control.  You think you can control what you want and how you feel, with the implication that you want to want something other than what you currently want. It’s a “free will” complication, and more profound than people realise.

Let’s reiterate: if the law of attraction is true, then you already have what you want, and this includes your apparent desire to want differently, your dissatisfaction with what you currently have.

It would make more sense to use the law of attraction as a kind of diagnostic tool for examining your own deeply held beliefs and desires, examining the struggles and major themes of your life. If you struggle with money, then the law of attraction implies that you want to experience struggle; the proof is in how your life unfolds.

This paradox is not confined to the law of attraction movement:

“Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

This famous line from the Gospel is the nexus point of New Thought positive thinking, its quasi-Christian prosperity-Gospel equivalent, and the lived tradition of the Christian church.

It raises the same ambiguity: are we supposed to try harder to believe that we have received the things we pray for? Or is our belief or non-belief supposed to indicate whether the thing we pray for will come to pass? This conundrum leaves us with the horrible spectacle of sick people wondering whether God wants them to be ill despite their prayers, or if they are supposed to somehow make themselves believe, have more of the necessary faith to effect a miraculous healing.

In the orthodox Christian tradition, faith – belief – is viewed as a gift. Your belief in the tenets of Christianity is something caused in you by God. But even this claim goes to the heart of an intellectualist-voluntarist debate within Christianity and Western Philosophy more broadly, a debate I only learned about through the early stages of my now defunct PhD project.

At the heart of the debate is the question of which is prior: the intellect or the will? From my reading of the problem, it seems that intellectualists are inclined to see human beings as something close to an intelligent automaton, like a robot from science fiction, that follows its programming with great sensitivity and complexity yet is programmed nonetheless. We act according to reasons. There is no point at which we simply will without the guidance of reasons provided by our understanding, our beliefs.

Voluntarists object to the view of will as dependent on the movement of the intellect, arguing that it diminishes the freedom of the will and amounts to a form of determinism. Voluntarists maintain that we can will independently of the advice provided by our intellect, going against our own better judgment, or acting without consideration at all.

So even in the supposedly “new age” movement, this old debate remains relevant. If the law of attraction follows our thoughts and desires, what do our thoughts and desires follow? Can I simply will to have different thoughts and desires? Or must a change in my thinking and willing come about through a change in my understanding?

Without even attempting to settle the old debate here, I wonder if the problems presented by the law of attraction theory would make more sense when viewed from an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist view?

What we have is a situation where reality allegedly responds to one’s thoughts and desires, yet where our thoughts and desires are not necessarily transparent or trustworthy to us.

Not only are they not transparent or trustworthy, but they prove much harder to alter and influence than many law of attraction believers have hoped.

From an intellectualist perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. You have not arrived at your present thoughts and desires by accident. It has taken years of experience and compelling reasons to form your deepest beliefs and desires. Nor can you simply change those experiences or those reasons simply by having a superficial desire for change.

More to the point, as implied in an earlier paragraph, it is entirely appropriate and reasonable that certain people would be drawn to the law of attraction theory, and reiterate superficial desires for a better life. There are reasons why some people find the theory believable, and others do not.

There is perhaps more to be gained by people interested in the law of attraction theory if they were to reflect on why they are interested in it in the first place. Why are you receptive to it? Even on its own terms, the law of attraction theory promises that the answer to this question will be quite revealing.

Beyond that, the desire to change your beliefs and desires is nonetheless still a desire. And the belief that you can change your beliefs is still a belief. What if the crux of the problem is not how successfully you can change them, but what to make of the inner conflict they imply?