On Duelling and Dualism

Why do we love to see things in terms of either-or rather than both-and? It seems that we have a bias towards oppositional understandings and I struggle to know to what extent this is coloured by cultural norms and to what extent psychological ones, as if it were possible to separate these things out! In any case, Western thinking, including Western religious thinking, often seems to opt for a binary model of reality. There are winners and losers and no one wins unless and until another loses. This kind of zero-sum-game is played out in so many different contexts that it’s hard to choose only one as an example. Our British political culture, of course, sets out this binary model in graphic terms with an ‘opposition’ whose job, over-against that of the government, is to contradict those sitting on the other side. The symbolism of our House of Commons is unmistakable. This is a kind of ‘social darwinism’ of the worst sort.

In religious terms, to pick up a theme from a previous post, we resist pluralism on the grounds of a perceived ‘incompatibility’ between faiths and imagine that it is only in exclusive claims of univocal truth that we thrive over against those of other faiths. I cannot be ‘right’ unless there is someone else out there whom I know to be ‘wrong’.

Of course, this kind of thinking almost inevitably leads to conflict or even to violence. So is there another way? Beginning at that most extreme end of the spectrum, where there is division that has led to a high level of conflict, Jesus introduced his most revolutionary religious idea: love of enemy. There can be no peace that is not also good for my enemy, no solution that does not include my enemy. And our love for enemy is founded on a fundamental challenge to the notion of our complete separation from our enemy. Our ‘enemy’ is our neighbour, whom we are to love ‘as one who is like ourselves’ (a better translation, I think, of the Hebrew, k’mocha). I am not separate from my enemy because I, too, am an ‘enemy’. Put more positively, I am not separate from my enemy because I share their fears, their hopes, their very nature. We are of the same stuff as those we hate.

Buddhism is, I think, correct in diagnosing our problems as being rooted in a wrong view of our understanding of reality. We imagine our ‘selves’ to be separately existing entities when, in fact, all of life exists in a fundamental flow of connectedness. We project our hates and fears onto others as if they are the cause and source of our hates and fears. They are not: these things come from our own distorted perceptions. So the solution is to change our perceptions or, to use a more loaded Christian word, to repent. We simply have to change our minds and we do that by letting go of our mind as a separated, protected thing. There can be no compassion without a radical openness to the ‘other’ that is able to see that there is, in fact, no ‘other’ at all!

Deny Your Self

As Lent begins, I find myself once more blessing the congregation with these words: ‘Christ give you grace to grow in holiness, to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him’. It seems to modern ears that the very worst thing one could ever do is to deny oneself! Surely it’s all we have, the most precious, indeed, the only thing that we truly have. Our contemporary spiritual instinct is to deny such denial and counter it with another injunction: ‘be yourself’!

I can full understand why people react against this apparent call to meek submissiveness, sounding, as it does, like an invitation to be at the mercy of some greater authority, conforming to external norms and expectations, rejecting all individuality and freedom. And I am sure that religious authorities have sometimes been as guilty of such an interpretation as other human institutions have. But I feel more and more convinced that the call to deny oneself is right at the heart of the spiritual life and I have been helped by some Buddhist insight into what this truly means.

In Buddhist thought, there is no separate self to deny: to deny oneself is deny that there is such a thing as a separate self to deny! Buddhism does not posit a self-existent ‘soul’ with some sort of existence that is, to some degree, independent of the body. Indeed, orthodox Christianity also denies such an anthropology! The Buddhist no-self is a recognition that there is no separate ‘thing’ that is ‘me’. We are always in movement, in process, in becoming and not some kind of solid entity with firmly defined boundaries. Of course, Buddhism does not deny that there are ‘selves’ – that would be counter to the simple observation of the diversity of human forms – but it insists that these ‘selves’ are also ’empty’ of substance. But to say they have no separate substantial identity is not to say that they are unimportant or of no value. On the contrary, this awareness opens us up to the fundamental truth of our connectedness with all other things. All ‘selves’ share this boundless, expansive, creative openness, this ‘void’ that is at the heart of all life.

So in denying that there is a separate self, we are denying the self-importance, self-obsession and aggressive self-protection that can lie at the heart of so much of our human misery. To let go of such a self is to find freedom. And I think that when Jesus said  that we must ‘deny ourselves’ in order to find ourselves, I think he something like this in mind: ‘deny your separation, your isolation; do not cling to such things and you will find life’.

I belong to you (two)

I apologise that this post is nothing like as racy as the menage-a-trois sounding title might imply. It’s really a reflection on a phenomenon that has been occupying my thoughts and studies rather a lot recently, and it is the notion of ‘dual belonging’ in religious life. I part, this stems from my research into the writings of the Irish Jesuit William Johnston, whose own interaction with Zen Buddhism was complex and did not lead him to the position where he could in any way embrace a multiplicity of religious identities. For him, the reason was not polemical or judgmental – he simply couldn’t see a way to let go of his primary calling to a spiritual path that was Christian, formed by many centuries of contemplative experience, an experience which he sought deeply in his own life. He felt the same kind of loyalty to one path in his Zen Buddhist friends, for whom loyalty to a teacher, as well as more primary loyalties to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, was fundamental. Nonetheless, his Christianity was deeply shaped by his ongoing dialogue with Buddhism to the extent that he regarded such dialogue as utterly essential.

But many of Johnston’s friends and followers took a different path, one that wholeheartedly, if not always straightforwardly, embraced the practices and insights of Christianity and Buddhism. Robert Kennedy, another Jesuit, writes powerfully of this blending of insights in his books, of which ‘Zen Gifts to Christians‘ is an excellent example. He describes there how Johnston led him round many Zen temples in Japan in search of wisdom and spiritual rejuvenation.

Looking to another exemplar, Paul Knitter is more reflective on the nature of this dual belonging. Knitter was a Catholic priest and has spent his life teaching theology. He also practises Dzogchen Buddhism and has written extensively on inter-religious matters. He used to describe himself as a Buddhist Christian, but now finds it impossible to separate these identities or give one of them priority. He talks of how some ‘dual belongers’ are Christian for one half of the week and Buddhist for the other, some clearly identify a primary belonging, some are simply uncertain about how these two streams interact. Knitter has a particularly interesting way of describing how it is for him (at least, it’s interesting to theology nerds like me…). He uses the Chalcedonian language about the two natures of Christ to talk about how his own ‘two natures’ interact – constantly influencing each other, constantly moving, but completely united. For him, there can be no division, no dualism between the ‘wisdom’ emphasis of Buddhism and the ‘love’ emphasis of Christianity. On a practical level, this means that he also participates both in Christian liturgy and prayer, and Buddhist ritual and meditation, though he brings all of his experience to each. So he hears Christian sermons through Buddhist ears and meditates as a Buddhist conscious of the divine presence. He describes quite movingly how, for him, ‘Buddhism provides the ontology and Christianity provides the particularity. Buddha makes clear what is going on. Christ shows how it goes on.’

For many Christians, this poses severe problems as it challenges both Christianity’s claim to exclusive truth and the believer’s secure place among the elect. Is this ‘dual belonging’ not simply a loss of nerve in the face of declining Christian influence in the West? Is it simply a giving in to the lure of the mystic East, not recongising the treasures of one’s own tradition in the area of mystical wisdom and loving contemplation? I don’t think so. I see this phenomenon as being a genuine fruit of encounter between faiths and I would not want to dismiss it any more than I would want to dismiss Johnston’s choice to adhere to his one Christian way. These dual belongers offer a particular kind of challenge to religious people to see beyond their tribal loyalties and place the faithful practice of spiritual awakening at the heart of all that they do. They embody the urgency of dialogue in their own person and urge us all to see beyond limited horizons. Their approach also embodies a deep spiritual truth, which is that there is no spiritual growth without loosening our grip on the things we imagine to be essential or, as Jesus put it, no gaining of life without the willingness to lose it.