Bede Griffiths and Godly Paradox

I think it is fair to say that Bede Griffiths was one of the 20th century’s most notable religious pioneers, a true adventurer in the deepest realms of human existence. The experimental monastic community in Tamil Nadu he inherited from his spiritual forebears, Jules Monchanin and Abhishiktananda, combined the life of a Hindu Ashram with Benedictine monasticism but this was not only an experiment in the external aspects of inculturation. What Bede sought to embody was the true coming together of religions in his own person. His goal was the reconciliation of opposites in advaita, non-dualism, a profound level of unity in which all things are held together. In part, he was motivated by what he saw as an excessive reliance in the West on rational processes and their resulting technologies. Ever since an early experiment in simple communal living with two friends in the 1930s, Bede shunned many of the products of industrial activity. Indeed, when he entered Prinknash Monastery shortly after that experiment, he was appalled by the comforts of a monastic life that was considered by many to be exacting! He felt deeply that Westerners, Christians included, had lost touch with the fullness of human life, losing confidence in the darker and intuitive aspects of the human psyche in favour of control and reason.

Bede went to India to find ‘the other half of his soul’ and this journey, a life’s journey, was one of unifying feminine and masculine, ordered and spontaneous, light and dark, intimate and self-contained aspects of his person. In religious terms, he insisted on using texts and symbols from other religions in the Ashram’s liturgies. One of the most potent of these symbols was the cross outside the Temple at Shantivanam:

The use of the sacred syllable, Om, in the middle of a Christian cross aroused anger from conservative Hindus and Christians. And, despite Bede’s unstinting commitment to welcome all who came, some found this desire to embrace all religions as fundamentally expressing one great Truth to be completely unacceptable. Bede dealt with considerable levels of conflict in his life and I suppose this is inevitable for those who try to hold ‘opposites’ together in their own person. For those whose faith is ‘this and this only – never that‘, Bede’s insistence on true faith as always residing in ‘this-with-that’ poses a deeply uncomfortable threat.

For Christians in particular, Bede’s exploration of non-dualism asks hard questions of traditional Christian polarities such as evil-good, law-gospel, dark-light, human-divine, death-life, creator-creature. Do these melt away into an indistinct singularity? I think Bede’s answer would be that distinctions remain, but in constant relationship, in ultimate unity and sometimes in painful tension. To use a phrase from Teilhard, ‘union differentiates’. All the same, the truest reality, the reality we call God, is one. This means that human fulfillment is found in the unity of opposites, the reconciliation of contradictions and the fearless of embrace of paradox.

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