Christianity cannot stand alone

So said Dom Bede Griffiths in his book, The New Creation in Christ. This was a published version of his 1991 John Main Seminar in which he gave some of his clearest teaching on meditation. He recognised that, in a globalised world, religions inevitably had to rub up against one another but his concern was much deeper than the negotiation of inter-cultural encounters. His vision for Christian faith was a cosmic one (he would say simply a ‘catholic’ one) in which all people seek to ‘integrate their lives by bringing everything into the inner centre of the heart and finding the meaning of life, not in the external world, but in the inner reality of which the external world is a reflection.’ He considered the phenomenal world to be transient and that it may be transcended through a deep acquaintance with the fundamental reality of the Infinite. Such acquaintance is nurtured in the deeply human practice of meditation, a practice shared across religious traditions.

Of course, not everyone who meditates has an interest in exploring the realm of the infinite, but the religious traditions from which all forms of meditation ultimately derive are consistent in their insistence on this dimension of the practice. This is as true of Buddhism (which may be described as non-theistic, but only if you’re careful about what you mean by these terms!) as it is of any of the more straightforwardly theistic religions.

One of the big questions faced by any religious person who seeks to deepen their familiarity with another faith tradition is that of the nature of their encounter. Some suggest that there is a real possibility for multiple religious belonging, others seek a mutually illuminating dialogue. But one interesting attempt at a middle ground can be found in a conversation between Mark Vernon and Rupert Sheldrake, which you can listen to here. Vernon suggests a kind of ‘crossing over’ to another tradition in order to return to one’s own with a new insight. Many of those Western Christians who have looked to the East for religious inspiration have found that their immersion in the worlds of Hindu or Buddhist thought and practice have brought to light forgotten aspects of Christian spirituality. William Johnston is a fine, if slightly overlooked, example of this phenomenon which we might more readily associate with Bede himself or with Merton, Abhishiktananda, Tony de Mello or Enomiya-Lassalle. The chief gain for Western Christianity has been, I would argue, a reappropriation of Christian traditions of meditation which might otherwise have remained very marginal to our practice of Christian faith.

This project seems to me to have a lot of life in it yet, though I wonder if the early enthusiasm of the first generation of inter-faith explorers has been sustained. There are notable Christian voices still exploring this realm – Paul Knitter and Ruben Habito come to mind – but I wonder if there has been something of a reaction against this approach in favour of a more inward-looking emphasis as Western Christianity faces a decline in contrast to global trends in the opposite direction. I feel strongly that this is a poor response to a decline which masks a consistently strong demand in our culture for authentic spiritualities that are rooted in practice and open to other influences. It is interesting that the energy for such an approach appears to lie on the fringes of the church rather than at its heart (Russell Brand is a powerful advocate for this). We might do well to listen to these ‘fringes’!

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