Monday, September 18, 2006

Pontiff or Politician? The Pope’s Dilemma with Duality and Subjective Conscience

If one takes Pope Benedict XVI’s word at face value that he merely wanted his talk delivered at the University of Regensburg, Germany, on Tuesday September 12, 2006, to be taken as “an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect” then the inescapable conclusion one must draw is that the Pope has not a clue how to engage in such dialogue, because his original statements and the attempts to defend them have not shown mutual respect, nor have they invited sincere dialogue. Unfortunately, the street response by Muslims to the Pope’s remarks is hypocritical and out of proportion, and the responses of too many of the leaders of Islam also have not shown mutual respect nor the required criticism of Muslim violent overreaction to invite any kind of sincere dialogue. The great irony of the affair is that the Pope’s view of European culture is much more in line with the orthodox view of Islam than with modern European views.

With this state of religious leadership, it will be a long time before sincere dialogue with mutual respect will actually take place. This inability to dialogue stems directly from the inability to deal with dualities in any other way than to literalize them as opposites, and from viewing the human dilemma of subject and object as being resolvable only by the objectification of God through the written word of objective revelation that removes the possibility of subjective revelation from the modern spiritual quest. This objectification of God and its literal belief in the written word of revelation leads the Church, the Temple, and the Mosque to the literalization of evil and the self-image of themselves as institutions of literal good. How the Pope’s Regensburg talk leads to this conclusion it the subject of this essay.

While I was mulling over whether or not even to write about Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg insult to Islam the Vatican spin doctors via the Vatican Secretary of State issued a so-called “apology” in the Pope’s name that settled the matter for me and gave me the title to this piece. Then yesterday, Sunday, 9/17/06, the Pope made a personal statement of sorrow that added nothing substantive to the prior press release. His “apology” (I can’t bring myself to write it without quotes) was the stereotypical politician’s apology saying nothing more than, ‘I’m sorry that you’re wrong about me.’ It is not a true apology that admits error.

The word pontiff means “bridge maker” and the Pope is supposed to be a maker of bridges between humans and God. One presumes that this can’t be done in a vacuum and without the goal of also making bridges between peoples, especially peoples in conflict. However, the Pope has acted like the quintessential politician, first sending his spokesman out to make his “apology” for him, then following it up with a brief statement that continues the spin and refers one to the previous press statement.

In his statement on 9/17/06 the Pope said, “At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims.” The prior statement of the Vatican Secretary of State said, “The Holy Father thus sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful, and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions.” He is only sorry about how others took and reacted to his words, not about his words. In neither of these statements does the Pope accept or admit that in fact his words not only did sound offensive, they were offensive. He says if anyone was insulted it is because they did not “understand the correct meaning of his words.” He is only sorry for other’s reactions not for what he said; he only regrets that his words “could” have sounded offensive. In other words, anyone who was offended was wrong about what he really meant. EXCUSE ME, that’s not an apology! No one interpreted those words in a manner that did not correspond to the meaning of the words. His words precisely meant that Islam is a religion that condones violence, that Muhammad preached conversion by the sword. There was no other purpose than that meaning for the inclusion of his gratuitous remarks. To call this an “apology” is merely putting salt into the wound of insult.

Well, maybe I’m going too far with the word apology. What the Pope has done is to go back to the old meaning of the word apology. Today we use apology to mean “an admission of error”, but that is certainly not what the Pope has done. He has not admitted any iota of error at all. What he has done is go back to the earlier meaning of the word apology as “justification” and “defense” for what he said. He has only defended his words, he has not admitted any error in them.

What did the Pope say? Here’s the main passage of insult presented at length from the Regensburg talk so the reader may have the full context:

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (*4V8,>4H - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry. (Italics added.)

The Pope has drawn the battle lines very clearly: (1) "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached"; (2) spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable; (3) violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul; (4) God is not pleased by blood, and (5) therefore the unstated conclusion is inescapable: Islam is violent, unreasonable, bloody, and incompatible with the nature of God. There could not be a much more direct attack on Islam.

Now the Pope and his Vatican defenders would have us believe that this is just an inadvertent misunderstanding of the Pope’s words. Only a fool, or the Washington Press Corps, would buy that sort of spin when the words speak plainly for themselves. The Pope clearly connects the “Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent,” with being an unreasonable view that, because it is not “in accordance with reason,” is thus “contrary to God's nature.”

The Pope claims his intent was to foster inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. If that is the case then the Pope is totally inept at communication and dialogue. One doesn’t encourage dialogue with another religion by insulting another’s religion, calling is an unreasonable violent religion incompatible with the nature of God. (Of course it should go without saying that the same applies to Muslims and the religious leaders of Islam who are guilty of the same ineptness.) The way to encourage dialogue at this level of discourse is for one to admit one’s own wrongs and to show to the other that one is able to grow morally and change one’s conduct.

At the Bavarian university the Pope said, “To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...", if he wanted to dialogue with Islam he would not have left the distinct impression he was talking directly about Islam’s use of “strong arms and weapons.” Instead he would have said immediately that he was not singling out Islam or any other religion, even his own. Or he would have said at that point, “And one can only feel sorrow for the many victims of the many Holy Fathers of this holy office who did not heed the Emperor’s admonition and instead sought to spread the Roman Catholic faith by blood and violence throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas with blood and violence.”

His Vatican defender says he “simply used [the Emperor’s quote] as a means to undertake - in an academic context, and as is evident from a complete and attentive reading of the text - certain reflections on the theme of the relationship between religion and violence in general, and to conclude with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come.” But unfortunately the Pope did not reject the history of violence of the Catholic Church and only pointed his finger at the history of violence in Islam.

Only by fully admitting first and foremost his own Church’s sins carried on in the bloody spread of Catholicism can he hope to engage in discussion with Islam and broach the question of violence within Islam. One wonders at the complete failure of the Pope and his handlers to not understand this elementary principle of human interaction. Only politicians can equal this degree of failure of understanding on an ongoing daily basis. This is not the dialogue of a bridge maker but of a cold warrior. During the Cold War the leaders of the camps were experts at pointing out the other’s errors and weaknesses but totally failed to admit a single error or weakness in their own sides. This is the Pope’s failure too. If the Pope wants to engage in dialogue he must first admit the bloody and violent history of Roman Catholicism in “converting souls,” such as the Crusades, the burnings of witches, the enslavement of indigenous peoples throughout the world, and not least of which was the fate of Italy’s own scientists at the hands of the Vatican.

The Pope claims his remarks about Islam “were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.” That is contrary to the clear purport of his speech. The Pope quoted the opinion of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and then did not in anyway distance himself form those quoted words in his Regensburg talk. The Pope’s use of the words of others appears to be his common rhetorical tactic when he criticizes other religions, as well as how he maintains a plausible deniability at the same time. This recalls his 1997 remarks criticizing Buddhism where he used the same tactic.

The Pope was asked in an interview in L'Express magazine of April 1997, reprinted in April 2005. if he feared that Catholics would lose their soul’s while dialoguing with other religions, like Buddhism. He answered:

Dialogue between the religions is necessary in a world tending to unify. But the danger is that a superficial dialogue is established. Because the relativism which has seized spirits today develops a sort of moral and intellectual anarchism leading people to no more accept a single truth. To affirm the truth from now on passes for a mark of intolerance. However a true dialogue is not a movement in a vacuum. It has a goal: the common search of the truth. A Christian cannot renounce his knowledge of the truth, revealed to him as Jesus-Christ, the only son of God. If seduced by Buddhism, it is because it appears to have a possibility of touching infinity, in happiness without having concrete religious obligations. A spiritual autoeroticism, to some extent. Somebody had precisely predicted, in the 1950s, that the challenge of the Church in the 20th Century would not be Marxism, but Buddhism.

Here we see his use of the quotation tactic where he says “somebody” predicted Buddhism would be a greater challenge to Catholicism than Marxism. Not saying whether he agreed or disagreed with that somebody conveys the clear indication that he agreed. To call Buddhism "the challenge" in that context is clearly calling it the greater enemy of the Church because as a Godless religion it is more dangerous than a Godless politics like communism. Yet he doesn’t say it himself and lets another’s voice say it for him, so he doesn’t have to own it. Whether “somebody” said it or a “Byzantine Emperor” said it, it is the Pope making it clear he is saying it if he doesn’t immediately say why he disagrees.

The Pope’s attack on Buddhism is based on his view of Buddhism as Godless. He calls it “autoerotic spirituality” because he sees Buddhism as a self-stimulating spirituality in contrast to Catholicism which a God-stimulated spirituality. The Pope’s attack on Islam is based on his view of Islam as unreasonable and thus spiritually opposed to God’s reason, and he used his Regensburg talk to spell it out.

The Pope’s avowed aim of the Regensburg talk, was to assert the that Christian faith and Greek reason are conjoined in a Hellenized Christianity, that on the one hand the reason of science without faith is mere subjective relativism and on the other hand not to act with logos is contrary to God’s nature. He criticized Islam for asserting a God whose nature is transcendent and not bound by categories of reason and is thus capricious rather then reasoned. He also stated that the Jewish Bible was correctly revised and rewritten in the Greek version to create the Hellenized Christianity which is the full flowering of Christianity as God intended. However, his premise fails totally due to his inability to present his arguments in a manner that demonstrates reasonableness.

The Pope expresses a nationalistic Christianity. He says that Christianity as the convergence of Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry “with the subsequent addition of Roman Heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” Exactly which Europe the Pope speaks of is a mystery. The real Europe of today was created in direct opposition to the Biblical faith which, let us remember, was the faith that tortured scientists using “a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death” to coerce compliance with the Church dogmas of Biblical faith. The truth is that the creation of Europe as we know it was forged in the divorce from Biblical faith, not in the conjunction with it.

What single Pope in the history of Roman Catholicism prior to the creation of Europe practiced the admonition of the Byzantine Emperor that “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable” and “not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature”? It appears from history that the Popes ware to a man acting contrary to God’s nature when they supported the use of violence in spreading the Church.

Today, Pope Benedict XVI would have us believe he is an advocate of reason because he says the Church is founded on the Hellenistic belief that “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God.” However, his definition of reason is one that is intrinsically unreasonable, because it defines as truth a revelation that Jesus Christ is the only son of God. He defines his truth as reason and any conclusion contrary to this revealed truth as unreasonable. A revealed truth such as that is merely a presumption of the conclusion and is thus not reasonable by definition.

The Pope alleges that “disturbing pathologies of religion and reason” necessarily erupt “when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” First, one wonders which religions he means because he does not name any but Islam as being unreasonable. Second, one wonders what he could possible have in mind when the historical truth is that the pathologies of the Catholic Church have erupted precisely when it has reduced and drowned out reason by swelling the questions of religion and morality with a hyper concern, not when they on longer concern it. The history of Europe coming out of its dark pathology of religious persecutions is the history of the enlightened conjunction in society of reason and ethics without religion, one that reduced the concern for questions of religion to the personal sphere not the social realm.

This should be the starting point for discussion between Catholicism and Islam. If the Pope could testify to the benefits to Europe and Catholicism both as a result of the Church having been separated from the State and from direct involvement in politics, then perhaps the Pope might have something to say to the leaders of Islam about the problems of violence arising in Islam from the lack of separation between Mosque and State. But the Pope’s failure to engage in this kind of frank and sincere dialogue stems from his Church’s, and presumably his own, inability to deal with the dualities of consciousness that have locked philosophy into the very conundrum that the Pope would have us appreciate.

The core of the Pope’s Regensburg talk was a continuing chapter in his argument against scientific reason without faith in God. Here the Pope is on good footing with his warnings about the limitations of scientific reasoning if it limits itself too severely to the single view of materialism. The Pope warns against a narrowly conceived science that says certainty only results “from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements.” This is a good warning, but it may be misunderstood to imply scientific certainty where none is proposed even in science. Science is often misrepresented as asserting certainty when in fact science more often asserts what is better described as probable hypotheses of varying degrees. What makes science interesting is the continued exploration of its hypotheses to determine their degrees of certainty. So the Pope’s criticism of science is actually a criticism of misunderstood science, not of science itself, though this misunderstood science is too often portrayed in the media and entertainment as the real science.

The Pope’s second point is that science when limited to math and empiricism “excludes the question of God” making the question of God “appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question.” Again, the Pope’s criticism is only a half-truth. The Pope would have it both ways so that the question of God is seen not excluded as scientific yet the question would never be put to the questioning process of the scientific method. If the Pope wants the question of God to be included in scientific inquiry, the Pope can not predetermine the answer to that question. But the Biblical faith that the Pope espouses does exactly that, and the Pope is blinded by that faith to see it. The Pope says that science may not challenge the Biblical revelations, so to that extent it is the Church that excludes the question of God from scientific inquiry, NOT science.

Fundamentally, this problem arises because the Church that the Pope represents has no way of dealing with duality other than to assert the primacy of belief in the Biblical word as revelation that has settled all such doubts. Actually, this dilemma is the core dilemma of Catholicism and its historical attempt to control the terms of Christian belief. This dilemma is in fact shared by both Islam and Judaism, the two other religions of the Levant tracing their lineages back to Abraham and Moses. The Pope’s dilemma. Let me be clear, the dilemma of human duality is shared by every human being and every religion. What is historically unique to the religions of the Levant is the particular relationship that they have to the revealed texts of their religions, making them the answers to the question of subject and object by objectifying God as objectively separate from the subjective human.

In Regensburg the Pope stated this by referring to his view of a narrow-minded science as consisting of only mathematical and empirical elements:

[I]f science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.

Here we see the Pope’s true enemy, “the subjective conscience.” Indeed, this, not the Devil, has been the true enemy of the Church since its birth. This is the enemy that led to the bloody persecutions of Christians by the Church in its formation as it used the “strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death” in establishing itself and its hegemony over every other form of Christian belief and practice. Every institution of this kind holding state power, whether it is religious or political like the communists in the Soviet Union, sees its true enemy as the individual who asserts “subjective conscience” against the institutional prerogatives of a totalitarian faith.

As a practical matter of psychology, this means that as long as the Pope holds subjective conscience to be the enemy of the Church he must view subjective conscience as an evil and seek some objective source as the arbiter of good. Since he can find no ethical system in mathematics the only appearance of objectivity is to be found in written words which stand by their very nature of having been written down as objective reality. As an historical event, the Church has taken the available writings and decided which are authoritative and which are not. Those determined to be authoritative become the objective truth of the Church. Obviously, the inherent and insurmountable flaw in this view of objective ethics is that the subjective revelation does not become objective merely by being written down on the page. It is simply a circular argument that the subjective origin of revelation is transcended merely because of the historical fact that Church officials used their subjective consciences to determine what was objective truth.

The same dynamic holds for Islam’s reliance on Muhammad’s Quran as objective revelation. In fact Islam does Catholicism one better by asserting that the mathematical aspects of the written Quran, such as the number of suras, verses, and words and their arrangements, are evidence of both its miraculous origin and its objectivity as revelation.

It is one thing for a religion to say this or that written book is their orthodox teaching as determined by the consensus of their teachers, but another thing altogether to say that such orthodoxy is an objective fact transcending the subjective conscience of the writer and of the religion’s teachers who acknowledged the writing. Though the Pope would have it otherwise, the individual is the primary element making up the fabric and energy of society, and it is the respect for the subjective conscience of the individual that is the grounding force that distinguishes a balanced functioning society from a super-charged mob or polarized totalitarian state.

The Pope states unequivocally that reliance on subjective conscience “is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” His analysis fails because it depends on his false assumption that a social system of ethics based on subjective conscience is merely a personal ethics that cannot create a community if it is not based on the written revelation of the Bible. In other words, the Pope refutes the very foundations of Western democracy as articulated by the European-American Enlightenment of the 18th Century in which it is asserted that the highest ethics of a community are those that are established by each member of the community using his or her subjective conscience to determined the shared ethics of the community. In this the Pope is much more in line with Islam than with post-Enlightenment European sensibilities.

The Pope assets that “disturbing pathologies of religion and reason” erupt necessarily “when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.” The historical evidence is against the Pope. He is wrong because he fails to distinguish between religion and ethics, assuming from his preconceived assumptions that they are identical. The correct statement is that both reason and religion may become pathological when the ethics of subjective conscience no longer concern them. The history of Catholicism unequivocally demonstrates that the combination of religion and reason are pathologically deadly when they are combined under the claim of objective reason derived from Biblical faith. When Catholics were in charge of European society and claimed that their ethics were based on reason and the Bible they subjected Europe to a bloody Inquisition and the rest of the world to bloody conquest.

The Pope has some valid criticisms of modern science, but he doesn’t have a valid explanation for the causes nor does he have valid solutions. All of the Pope’s valid criticisms of modern science when looked at with an unbiased view, that is a view that does not equate religion and ethics, show that his valid concerns about science arise when science does not include ethics, not when science does not include religion. For example, while Popes have argued for disarmament, which Pope has condemned the manufacture of nuclear weapons and stated that an individual’s work on nuclear weapons is un-Christian and that the nation that builds and stockpiles such weapons of mass destruction is an un-Christian nation and not acting ethically? Only subjective conscience touches this directly.

In June 1998, 75 U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement on The Morality of Nuclear Disarmament in which they acknowledged the error of the Church. In fact their statement is an example of subjective conscience in action within the institutional structure of the Church. The bishops stated, “For the past fifteen years, and particularly in the context of the Cold War, we, the Catholic bishops of the United States, have reluctantly acknowledged the possibility that nuclear weapons could have some moral legitimacy, but only if the goal was nuclear disarmament. It is our present, prayerful judgment that this legitimacy is now lacking.” Thus the bishops implicitly recognized that there was no Church teaching directly from the Vatican against the very creation and existence of nuclear weapons, only against using them in war.

While the Church has the obvious problem with subjective conscience arising from the fact that subjective conscience cannot be controlled by the institution, the core of the problem goes even deeper to the objectification of God as the basis for the Church’s very existence. The dilemma of a personal ethics based on conscience is that it turns the individual inward to listen to conscience rather than turning the individual outward to institution and dogma for the answers. Ever since Jesus said “The Kingdom of God is within” the Church has had to come up with ways to convince its followers that Jesus did not mean what he said. Objectifying God and worshiping the Bible as objective revelation are the two primary weapons in the arsenal of the Church’s war on against the conscience of the Kingdom of God. The Roman Catholic Church has had a very difficult time in its history with personal Christianity. Until successful armed revolts against Catholic domination, the Catholic Church has used the most violent and bloody means possible to eradicate any personal view of Christ and God that deviates from Church dogma. Therefore, historically speaking, for over fifteen hundred years “the question of God” was not excluded by anyone but the Catholic Church itself. That is the impressive irony of the Pope’s complaints now about the question of God being excluded by science.

By the objectification of God the Pope closes the door on the empirical verification of God by so-called subjective conscience. For it is the path through personal conscience that verifies God not any objective writings found in a written text. By calling personal experience of conscience merely subjective, the Pope denies that the Kingdom of God is within. Thus, the objectification of God is the greatest sin of any religion, because it closes the door to the personal contact with the living God.

And by reliance on Biblical authority as the objective revelation of truth, he denies the real possibility of the dialogue between cultures and religions that he claims to desire. When two religions base their beliefs on written text, there is no common ground upon which to meet except on demonstration of common passages in those written texts. And even then, because the common text must be interpreted in the context of the other uncommon passages and the different circumstances and doctrines of the books creation, there is very little ability for even common text to establish common ground. Personal conscience can play no role in such an objectified encounter.

The objectification of God is also why the religious institutions have such difficulty distinguishing between belief and faith. When religion has the need to objectify its religious basis it must establish objective truths for its beliefs. But religious faith is inherently personal and cannot be established by objective truth in the conventional sense of rational discrimination of reality into subjective and objective distinctions. Religious inquiry takes one outside of the usual subject-object divisions of reality and consciousness. This is the common root of all religions that has such labels as the perennial philosophy or the mystical experience of the source of life. The “I am” of God is not an objective experience of belief, but a deeply personal experience of faith. To confuse the two, that is objective belief and personal faith, is a fundamental error of religion and a misunderstanding of the psychological source of religion that the inquiry of reason has provided in the Western world.

The Pope would have us believe that theology is the “inquiry into the rationality of faith”, but in fact his theology is the avoidance of that inquiry, because as he said in his 1997 interview: “A Christian cannot renounce his knowledge of the truth, revealed to him as Jesus-Christ, the only son of God.” If the revelation is by definition a non-renouncible truth, then there is no room for inquiry. In other words, the Pope would only allow a reason subservient to Biblical revelation with no possible verification or falsification by experimentation.

By contrast, the Buddhist begins with the analogous revelation of truth that “Every sentient being is one with Buddha nature and it is only ignorance that obscures this truth.” But the inquiry begins with the acknowledgment of the doubt that asks why does this truth not appear to be the truth. It is the personal resolution of this apparent opposition of faith and doubt that is the Buddhist inquiry. From the Buddhist point of view, this dilemma cannot be resolved by affirming the objective and denying the subjective, but only by resolving all doubts about the apparent opposition of subjective and objective through experimental verification and falsification by meditation. It is this reliance on personal experimentation that most dramatically distinguishes Buddhism from the religions of the Levant and distinguishes Buddhism as a religion of reason. This is why Albert Einstein said:

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.

I don’t assert that Buddhism is the only religion that can cope with modern scientific needs, but for the religions of the Levant, such as Catholicism and Islam to do so, there must be a radical change at the root of their dogmas retracting the position of non-relative objectivity of their revealed texts before they can expect to cope with modern scientific needs. The Pope concluded in Regensburg:

In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.

The fact is that the “divine” is not excluded from the universality of reason; it is the objectification of the divine without objective evidence that becomes the self-imposed exclusion of such religions. Conviction based on a revelation that will not submit itself to scientific scrutiny is a shallow conviction only, not a profound conviction. When religion bases itself on the depths of personal experience then there is no basis for exclusion from the universality of reason because personal experience is universal. Reason is not deaf to the divine, because it is reason that is asking directly what is meant by “the divine”? It is religious culture that is deaf to this question and refuses of offer a reasoned answer, other than the circular arguments of Biblical or Quranic revelation.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Near Death and Great Death Experiences

Near Death and Great Death Experiences
By Gregory Wonderwheel
(c) 2006

There was no limit to the outpouring as I came to the rapturous awareness of the infinite nature of God's love. There was no place that God did not exist and I was within God. I am an inseparable part of the light. The truth of who I am, indeed, who we all are, is perfect love as a creation of God. All of God's creation is one creation and I am one with creation. God and I are one, Creator and created.

I had spent a lifetime of fear of judgment and now, standing with God, I had been known completely and found faultless. I knew God regarded me as perfect. God loved me because love is the totality of God. God loves without limit. Finally it all made sense. God could only love me because God is only love, nothing other than love. The only reality is God; there cannot be another and GOD IS LOVE.

I had reached my true home. I turned to Christ and said, "This is beautiful. I am home. This is where I want to be. I want to stay." And Christ answered, "You can stay for a little while and then you must return."

I recently came across this fascinating account by Linda Stewart of her near death experience. It is wonderful reading, and I thank Linda Stewart for sharing it. Here, I want to discuss how Linda's account demonstrates why these experiences are called "near death" experiences and are not the "Great Death" experience of awakening in Buddhism.

Cross culturally, modern Western near death experiences (whether viewed in Christian terms or not) are very similar to the reports of the American Plains Indians’ vision quest, African shaman journeys, Christian desert mystics, etc. These paths of spiritual inquiry may lead to Great Death experiences, but it is not usual, just as it is not usual in Buddhist communities that every meditator experiences Great Death.

As fascinating and wonderful as these reports are, one should know that near death experiences are not Buddhist awakening experiences because even though the experience of the infinite light is reached the person does not go past the light, and instead only bathes in it. You can see from Linda's account that she still objectified "God" and kept a subtle self in subjective relationship with the infinite light. Though she says "God and I are one" she immediately adds "Creator and created" which shows the subtle self still lingering.

In Buddhist terminology she first met Avalokiteshvara (Ch. Kwan Yin, whom she called Christ) and then she met the Buddha of Infinite Light (A.K.A. Amitayus, Amitbha, or Amida, whom she called God). As Linda says, the names don't really matter as every culture and spiritual path has its own name for these experiences. Of course the problem for some folks who haven't experienced this is that the name still does mean more to them than the experience, and an account like Linda's becomes incorporated into their belief structure of "Jesus Christ" as the one and only Son of the Infinite Light God and all others are still wrong to use a different name, even though the person telling the account explicitly relates how the name is for convenience only.

I do not want to downplay the wonderful joy of a near death experience such as Linda's nor do I deny the awe inspiring sense of belonging and acceptance that it engenders, but in the Buddhist path this is one of the stages along the path of the jhana states of rapture, joy, equanimity, and abiding peace not the full awakening.

Jhāna (nt.) [Sanskrit, dhyāna. The popular etymology from meditation on objects & from burning up anything adverse] literally meditation. But it never means vaguely meditation. It is the technical term for a special religious experience, reached in a certain order of mental states. It will be seen that there is no suggestion of trance, but rather of an enhanced vitality. In the descriptions of the crises in the religious experiences of Christian saints and mystics, expressions similar to those used in the jhānas are frequent (see F. Heiler Die Buddhistische Versenkung, 1918). Laymen could pass through the four jhānas. The jhānas are only a means, not the end. To imagine that experiencing them was equivalent to Arahantship (and was therefore the end aimed at) is condemned as a deadly heresy. (Entry abridged, full Pali Text Dictionary entry on Jhana)

First Jhana

But to look at Linda's account a little more closely, it is important to note the stages that she took. First was the letting go of the idea of a physical body. That is the giving up of corporeality. "The decision to leave this world hung suspended in an extended moment of absolute quiet." That is samatha, the stopping of disturbance. This is the sometimes spontaneous immediate meditation that is brought on by extended pain or acute trauma which lets a person who has not formally practiced meditation still have the letting go experience. This feeling of having let go of corporeality is the first jhana of rapture born of withdrawal.

Second Jhana

She continues, "I observed my new reality with tranquility. Slowly I looked around and below me I saw a vast, endless blackness. Like a void or black hole, I was irresistibly drawn toward the darkness. Gradually, I felt myself sinking toward it. I thought, without fear or any emotional reaction, "Isn't that strange?" " Here she is encountering the fear gate of the Bardo realm she has entered. If she had reacted with the fear of the "blackness" that she expected she would not have been able to meet the light. This is a crucial part of the transition. The fear reaction would have sent her back to the body or to another Bardo state of confusion. Having no fear born of evaluation of the "blackness" she entered the second jhana, the rapture born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation.

Third Jhana

Having no fear arise, Linda next says, "Offering no resistance, I released my hold on any remaining shred of consciousness and personal identity." This is the entrance to the third jhana state equanimous and mindful, having a pleasurable abiding. She says, "I became aware of a deep sense of peace and warmth that permeated my senses." Here she encounters the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the beingness of love and mercy known as Avalokiteshvara, Christ, etc. "I did not see the Spirit as I had seen Jesus of Nazareth depicted in paintings, but the innate knowing of my heart remembered and acknowledged Christ. The radiant Spirit was Christ, the manifestation and expression of pure love." She adds, "Safe in the gentle yet powerful embrace of his love, I rested, secure that everything was okay, exactly as it was supposed to be." This is a perfect statement of the third jhana, as a sutta says, "He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture."

Fourth Jhana

Then, she goes on, "Ascending ever farther, I lifted my eyes to see a great light in the vast distance." "The light moved over and through me, washing every hidden place of my heart, removing all hurt and fear, transforming my very being into a song of joy. I had thought the love I felt from Christ was complete, yet, the light toward which we were soaring was the fulfillment of my search, the loving Source of all that exists, the God of truth and unconditional love, the origin of creation."

Here she is in the fourth jhana, purity of equanimity and mindfulness. What a wonderful experience. A Sutta describes it thus, "He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There's nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness."

The Attainments of the Formless Heavens

Still, that is not the ultimate in Buddhist terms, but unfortunately in Christian terms it is seen as the ultimate achievable in life until actual death takes us to heaven, and it is most difficult for Christians to proceed beyond this point. Not because of any inate difference, but because the mind-set of the teaching framework doesn't teach to go further and so one rests satisfied with a feeling and doesn't go to the cessation of perception and feeling. This was also true of Brahmins and the wandering shamans in India at the time of Buddha. It was Buddha's greatest discovery to see that jhana/dhyana/chan/zen practice must proceed past the jhanas and not be satisfied with even the purity of unconditional love and bright awareness or the sense of being one with the origin of creation – while a subtle self still maintains an objective relationship with God as an object of experience.

As Linda says, "I had spent a lifetime of fear of judgment and now, standing with God, I had been known completely and found faultless. I knew God regarded me as perfect. God loved me because love is the totality of God. God loves without limit. Finally it all made sense. God could only love me because God is only love, nothing other than love. The only reality is God; there cannot be another and GOD IS LOVE."

As wonderful as this is for Linda, as it is for anyone who experiences this state, Buddha teaches that there are more formless states to pass through before complete awakening. The four jhana states that arrive at the perception of Infinite Light and Love are the heavens of form. Beyond the Heavens of Form are the Formless Heavens and the attainment of these perceptions are the threshold of the final attainment of emptiness.

In the formless states even the notions of God and creator are let go. When the light completely burns away any lingering sense of subject and object then, going beyond the light, there is the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space. Letting go of the infinitude of space one enters Manjusri's diamond-like castle of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. When Manjusri's sword destroys even the sense of consciousness then one discerns the perception of the dimension of nothingness. Letting go all sense of nothingness then one comes to the singleness based on the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

The Theme-less Concentration of Awareness

Finally, letting go of even the state of neither perception nor non-perception, then one attends to the singleness based on the theme-less concentration (samadhi) of awareness. This is the true Dharma rain. In this state the meditator "discerns that 'This theme-less concentration of awareness is fabricated & mentally fashioned.' And he discerns that 'Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.' For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, 'Released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

"He discerns that 'Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the effluent of sensuality... the effluent of becoming... the effluent of ignorance, are not present. And there is only this modicum of disturbance: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.' He discerns that 'This mode of perception is empty of the effluent of sensuality... becoming... ignorance. And there is just this non-emptiness: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.' Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: 'There is this.' And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, pure — superior & unsurpassed."
The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness

Great Death

This is the description of the Great Death as "entry into emptiness according with actuality." Many people fear Buddhism because they think emptiness means forgetting or losing the awareness of God's or Buddha's Infinite Light and Love, but this is a superficial understanding. This going beyond to full emptiness (a wonderful oxymoron) does not mean losing or forgetting infinite light and love, it means seeing their place in the whole scheme (Dharma) of things (dharmas). Here there is no forgetfulness, as one bodilessly abides as all three bodies (body of reality, bliss body of infinite light and love, and appearance body among the myriad forms) simultaneously.

The above analysis of states on the path to final attainment is what the Indian Buddhist Dhyana masters excelled in. In China, Chan developed (which of course became Zen in Japan, Soen in Korea, and Thien in Vietnam) which was not so interested in the fine-toothed analysis of dhyana states but in the direct realization of the final "stage" of the themeless concentration of awareness as the direct threshold of awakening.

The point is that after the Great Death is the Great Life. As Zen master Seung Sahn said of life after awakening, "Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way come from this attainment." That is because even though one has discerned that there is nothing further in this world, one's continued presence in this world of appearances is now informed by all the jhanas including the knowledge of Infinite Light and Love that one has passed through. Though people with near death experiences usually do not find the state of mind of theme-less concentration of awareness, they too are informed by the shared plateau of perception of Infinite Light and Love and for this they and we may all be grateful.

Enough said,
Gratitude and bows,