Glory to God in the Lowest

Because of the things I’ve read, I take for granted now that there are two levels of reality.

There’s the world we’re used to, and there’s a deeper reality that is comprised of a different kind of being described universally as divine.

The mystics in every religion claim to have formed a relationship with this divine reality that somehow puts right the deficiencies and apparent failings of the world.

In other words, though this divine reality is hidden from view, in truth it overshadows the world.

Christmas celebrates the time when this divine reality entered into the world, and theologians have grappled for an appropriate depiction of how this transcendent, perfect, being can possibly have participated in a mundane, imperfect reality.

The incarnation itself tells us something about the nature of God. In case we struggled to work it out, that message was reiterated in the story of his birth – the lowliness of his condition, the humility of his circumstances.

In case we missed it, this message was repeated again in the works he performed, the people he travelled with and taught, or treated as friends.

If the message still didn’t get through, he said it himself as clearly as possible: the first shall be last and the last shall be first; he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

In his betrayal and death, both the fact that he did die and the humiliating manner of his execution, the message was repeated, corresponding to the words of the prophet before him.

The whole journey from beginning to end expands like a fractal, repeating itself on every scale to reveal the nature of the divine being.

It’s a theme, a motif picked up and presaged by prophets, sages, wise men and holy men and women of all nations: that the truth is not found in the empty greatness and glory that the world offers, that the path to God is opposed to our own self-aggrandisement, whether it be in the outright arrogance of wanting to look down on others, or the more subtle craving for autonomy, self-control, the illusion of our own dominion.

Gloria in Profundis

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendour is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all-
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate-
Where thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.


So Dominican…

From the introduction to G.K. Chesterton’s Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

Now go read the principle in its contemporary application at the ABC Religion and Ethics site, with Same-Sex ‘Marriage’: Evolution or Deconstruction of Marriage and the Family? by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P.

The safeguard of virtue

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks briefly at the Germanwings disaster, and the problem of negative morality without any corresponding moral or spiritual ideal:

The British writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton identified this morbidity within modern ethics as far back as the 19th Century:

“A great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment, has in our time fallen on our Northern civilization.  All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man. A definite part of the modern world has come beyond question to the conclusion that there is no answer to these questions, that the most that we can do is to set up a few notice-boards at places of obvious danger, to warn men, for instance, against drinking themselves to death, or ignoring the mere existence of their neighbours.”

The pride of life

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In the Christian tradition pride is accorded special place as the root of all sin. The 5th Century monk John Cassian’s Institutes has an illuminating passage that details the nature and role of pride in the fall of Lucifer, and is worth quoting in full:

How by reason of pride Lucifer was turned from an archangel into a devil.

And that we may understand the power of its awful tyranny we see that that angel who, for the greatness of his splendour and beauty was termed Lucifer, was cast out of heaven for no other sin but this, and, pierced with the dart of pride, was hurled down from his grand and exalted position as an angel into hell. If then pride of heart alone was enough to cast down from heaven to earth a power that was so great and adorned with the attributes of such might, the very greatness of his fall shows us with what care we who are surrounded by the weakness of the flesh ought to be on our guard. But we can learn how to avoid the most deadly poison of this evil if we trace out the origin and causes of his fall…. For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall. On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift. And because he “loved the words of ruin,” with which he had said, “I will ascend into heaven,” and the “deceitful tongue,” with which he had said of himself, “I will be like the Most High,” and of Adam and Eve, “Ye shall be as gods,” therefore “shall God destroy him forever and pluck him out and remove him from his dwelling place and his root out of the land of the living.” Then “the just,” when they see his ruin, “shall fear, and shall laugh at him and say” (what may also be most justly aimed at those who trust that they can obtain the highest good without the protection and assistance of God): “Behold the man that made not God his helper, but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and prevailed in his vanity.”

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that we all suffer from pride: the worst if we think ourselves free of it. In his view the humble man is the one who recognises that he is proud, that the inclination to pride as a desire to be better than others is a constant temptation in our own hearts.

Yet in our society pride is not typically recognised as a vice unless it becomes a hindrance to oneself or an annoyance to others. We loathe arrogant, overbearing people, but we hate them in part because we ourselves are proud. Pride makes us all competitors for our self-approval, an approval we ourselves make contingent on our position relative to others. We find it harder to approve of ourselves when others become the centre of attention, or when their skills and abilities make us question our own worth. Conversely, the admiration and praise of others gives us the confidence to rest in self-approval.

In this sense, much of what is described as ‘low self-esteem’ is still a symptom of pride. Those who hate themselves or wallow in misery can be motivated by failure according to their own sense of pride. They want to be better than they are; they are not good enough to merit their own approval.

So convoluted is pride that people can even seem humble and modest yet be riven with a sense of self-satisfaction at their apparent virtue. We can take pride in the strangest things; what matters is not so much the object of pride as the fact that we measure ourselves relative to that object, and consider ourselves responsible and praiseworthy for achieving it.

The paradox of pride is that he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. In other words, seeking our own greatness and glory makes life heavy, ponderous, dull, and laborious. Only in humility can we enjoy the lightness and freedom of not seeking to make ourselves the centre of everything. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

One way of overcoming pride at least temporarily is to consider how the object of your pride is in fact beyond your own responsibility or credit. Whatever it is you are good at or excel at, consider that you did not give yourself the talents, the gifts, or the natural skill to excel. Not only that, you didn’t give yourself the interest, the passion, or the motivation to pursue it. Even if it is something for which you worked hard, can you really say that you are responsible for having the will to work hard, the determination to persevere, the lack of interest in other goals or distractions?

All of these things may exist in you: talents, passion, determination; but you did not put them there. You cannot take credit because you did not create yourself.

The good news is that we can take pleasure and joy and satisfaction in all these things; we just can’t take credit for them. When someone praises you for doing well, you can share in the pleasure of the thing well done, but to turn that pleasure into self-satisfaction is the beginning of delusion.

To be deluded about one’s origins, the source of one’s power, and the true subject of glory and praise is not only a terrible error, it is a denial of our own true nature and the path of our greatest happiness. This is why the proud are ultimately consigned through their own self-glorification to the misery of being like gods when they truly are not; a thin and demeaning substitute for real happiness and true glory; a pretence and hollow promise that can only end in disappointment.

Comparative mysticism at Christmas

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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.

“In springtime the dragon is useless”

A good friend recently gave me a copy of a book called ‘The Hall of Uselessness‘ by Simon Leys, the pen name of the late Pierre Ryckmans, the renowned Belgian-Australian sinologist, literary critic, and writer.

The ‘uselessness’ theme is not incidental.  In his foreword the author quotes Zhuangzi:

“Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful, but few know the usefulness of what is useless.”

In case there was any doubt, the first chapter ‘The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote’ demonstrates Ryckmans’ deep appreciation of useless:

“In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust “the hugeness of his desire” to the “smallness of reality,” he was doomed to perpetual failure. Only a culture based upon “a religion of losers” could produce such a hero.

What we should remember, however, is this (if I may thus paraphrase Bernard Shaw): the successful man adapts himself to the world.  The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

I’m already into the second chapter, which includes an amusing private exchange between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Hitchens’ irreverent attack on Mother Theresa.

I’m especially looking forward to his chapter on G.K. Chesterton, amidst a wealth of other literary commentary; but I suspect the most intriguing section will prove to be the significant minority of the book dedicated to Ryckmans’ work as a sinologist, exploring Chinese political and literary culture from the misunderstood Confucius to contemporary political dissidents.

I’ll leave you with a poem from Tao Yuanming, quoted in Ryckmans’ essay on Chinese aesthetics:

I built my hut among people
And yet their noise does not disturb me
How is this possible, I ask you?
Solitude can be created by the mind, it is not a matter of distance.
Plucking Chrysanthemums at the foot of the hedge,
I gaze toward the faraway mountains.
At dusk the mountain air is beautiful,
When birds are returning.
Truth is at the heart of all this:
I wish to express it, yet find no words.

Thank you greatly for the gift Mark, I know I will enjoy it!