Chapter 9: On Religion

[Definitions: religion = a system, relevant to a particular human culture and society, with a spiritual basis for how to exist, to which an adherent keeps turning back; religious = pertaining to, in accordance with religion.
Faith = mindful religious practice, conduct.]

As defined here, religion is theory, Faith is practice. A spiritual path is guided by the former, but is demonstrated by the latter. Hence one may be religious, performing various ceremonies, even taking precepts 1, without having much Faith: this is certainly not the way to Eternal Life. It is Faith which really matters. Faith which is strong instils naturally faith - confidence in the efficacy of one's practice.

Structure of religion and a criterion for effective spiritual guides

Most religions have in common the following structuring elements.
(i) The idea of absoluteness - e.g. Enlightenment.
(ii) A way to achievement of (i).
(iii) Exponents of (ii), perhaps in a hierarchical structure, who are the 'clergy', say.
For most people of a particular religion, spiritual progress is significantly dependent upon advice from the clergy. We cannot reach our spiritual goals alone, so we need inspiration from these committed seekers of spiritual truth and reality.

It follows therefore that the clergy have an enormous responsibility and impetus to pursue whole-heartedly their Faith. If their Faith is strong enough then any passage of scripture, with which they were unfamiliar will shine forth its meaning effortlessly. In view of this, I assert that to offer good spiritual guidance one's Faith, made manifest in spiritual insight, ought to be at least as great as one's intellectual knowledge via formal education.

The many paths to truth

It is said, "Everyone has their own truths." This statement (which disturbs me for its separative tendency) is not quite the whole story; I modify to, "Everyone has their own expressions of truth."

Thus, (spiritual) Truth has many valid forms, and I'm sure that the 'ultimate Truth' may be approached by many valid paths, which may be represented by many images such as a 'Truth tree': the ultimate Truth is represented by the base of the tree; different religions are represented by branches of a given colour which are connected to the base; many branches are multicoloured; some are yet to be coloured, but all have the same base.

It has been said by many seekers that one's spiritual journey may be likened to scaling a mountain 2; followers of different religions may not even see each other until they reach the top - only then do they realise that they shared a common destination; what has enabled them to achieve their goal was really commitment rather than the idiosyncrasies of the chosen religion. There are, of course, some religions which suit certain people better than others, reflecting various approaches or perspectives ...

Three Perspectives

From my limited knowledge, I perceive three main perspectives or approaches on the state of one's spiritual progress. They are:

  1. The state of compassion (where the aim is total compassion);
  2. The state of purity and clarity (where the aim is total purity and clarity);
  3. The state of control of mind (where the aim is total control).
The perfection of one's Faith by any of these implies the perfection of all.

The last of these is characterised by tantrism which is one-to-one esoteric teaching, which can't really be described! However, there is, I believe, a form which is accessible to the majority of us - it is psychotherapy.

Western psychology and psychotherapy can together be considered as a potential candidate for a kind of religion - it is well-rooted in society and increasing numbers, particularly in the United States, keep returning to their therapists for more counselling; if its 'followers' (patients) look beyond their single human lifespan (which is often the case), then a spiritual basis is near. Hence the necessary criteria to fit the definition above would be complete. I even venture to say that Buddhism may be called Eastern psychology and psychotherapy.

Typically, one steers mainly along one of the three avenues, but not without an undercurrent of the other two. Otherwise an imbalance in one's overall motivation is likely to occur; imagine having to pull up from the bottom an elastic band binding three parallel poles - it doesn't do to leave one side of the band stuck at the base of its pole!

It appears to me that Buddhism covers amply all three perspectives in the schools of Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana respectively. Unfortunately, Christianity today is in most circles marked very strongly by emphasis on compassion, with little attention to examining the state of one's mind; the result is compassion diluted with sentimentality.

This omission is not surprising since the third approach requires an ongoing one-to-one line of transmission: a well-established teacher- disciple relationship, which is held in so few Christian institutions of today 3. But oh what a loss this is! Just as we depend so much in our childhood on the discerning care of our parents to mature as people, so it is that we need the discerning eye of the attentive spiritual guides to help us mature spiritually.

I find it fortunate then that Western psychology and psychotherapy, though in their infancy, could well provide a partial remedy. At the very least they could encourage the growth of one-to-one relationships, and thence lines of transmission. Hence I recommend that all members of clergy acquaint themselves with at least the rudiments of modern psychology and psychotherapy. This would make more effective their counsel amongst themselves and with their congregation; and the informal circumstances of the chat with the local priest, say, would not have to change.

Theistic and non-theistic approaches

I'm going to turn some common notions upside down to try to stretch or remove limiting concepts.

[Definition: theism = religious practise with belief in a God; non-theism = religious practise with lack of belief in a God.]

From this definition (which, in its use of an article (a), agrees with that in the 'Concise Oxford English Dictionary', 7th edition), it is clear that Buddhism is non-theistic. I maintain, further, by what I said in 'Evolution of concepts of God', Chapter 7, that Christianity (and probably any one of most other contemporary religions) is arguably non-theistic! (This is not so fantastic, really). Note also that I cannot very happily 'define' theism as a belief in God.

Perhaps many Christians would agree with me that under this definition, Christianity is non-theistic; but how many speak of God in a truly non-theistic way? It could well be that one claims to be a non-theist, but demonstrates a theistic approach.

Theistic approaches often have implicitly 'holier than thou' attitudes, which comes from their stance of absolute certainty which cannot, by definition, allow alternative possibilities; as some humanists are at pains to point out (see, e.g. Hermann Bondi, 'A non-believer looks at Physics' in 'New Humanist'), it follows that at least all but one are mistaken in their views! In consequence, blind faith will probably grow at the expense of spiritual insight and this may lead to extreme intolerance. Surely, the non-theistic approach is more enlightened?

Unfortunately, Christianity has had and continues to have amongst some followers a strong emphasis on a 'divine being'. This must change. For me, being a Christian means only being a follower of Christ; this does not imply the existence of a God.

In today's pluralist society, a useful aspect of non-theistic religions such as Buddhism is the rather good P.R. enjoyed - mention Buddhism to your acquaintances and they will probably show interest; only the fundamentalists or those with irrational fear will feel an upsurge of suspicion etc.

On Christian Theology

All members of Christian clergy have to undertake years of theological study, so I'm obliged to discuss it even though I lack any paper qualifications whatsoever.

[Definition: Theology = study of or system of religion; rational analysis of a religious faith.]

Under this definition, theology is technically wider ranging than its etymology suggests; considering the inevitable problems concerning the discussion of God, this is probably just as well.

I've scrutinised the introductory chapters in what appears to me to be one fairly standard textbook ('Fundamental Theology' by Gerald O'Collins), and have subsequently looked at others and noticed the same debilitating tendency. This has been enough to convince me that contemporary theology conveys generally little spiritual weight - the words simply lack impact. Various conditioning processes seem to have reduced the study to a rather feeble patch-up job. I conclude that the problem lies once again with the inability to use the whole mind - there has been too much isolated rational thought.

To support my sad assertion, I start with a quote popular amongst theologians, taken from St. Augustine,

"Intellege ut credas. Crede ut intellegas."

("Understand so that you may believe. Believe so that you may understand.")

Theology is also widely described as 'fides quarens intellectum' ('faith seeking understanding').

Alas, I observe, there is strongly implicit in such resonant Latin statements a crude dichotomy formed between experience which lies beyond the physical plane and the rational mind (analogous to the way that the notion of God has been made dualistic). And it has been so deep-rooted in Western culture since the civilisation of ancient Greece and its philosophers. With such an incoherent base, theology is doomed to paltry significance. The process of rationalising should not be of the form, "I've experienced x. Now I logically deduce y."

Western theology, carried out in this vein, regards its purpose rather like that of a (DIY) spirit level - on one side there is Faith and on the other Reason; theology seems to be engaged in a delicate balancing act between the two. In the fortuitous event where both are covered roughly equally, there is still an underlying tension, for at any instant the attention may wander and then the spirit level plunges from one side to the other and vice versa. In reality, I feel, the toing and froing happen very frequently. But spiritual maturity, from which theology must have its foundation, requires a sustained integration. Such maturity has no need for the tension described above.

The reason for the innate imbalance is a lack of systematic methodology across the whole mind, especially in the non-physical plane. Christian theology is thus a fragmented exercise, fraught with difficulty.

In contrast, Buddhist philosophy cum practice, which regards rational thought at just one part of a smooth continuum of knowing experience, is wonderfully integrated. By its 'experiment and verify' nature, it is genuinely methodical and scientific; 'mysticism' with all its veiled spiritual connotations in Christianity is in Buddhism no more than keen insight! What might be called 'sensing an external presence' in Christian prayer becomes something like, 'awareness of the development of the foundations of mindfulness or the nth Jhana (or concentration) factor'. In this manner, a resigned dualism is replaced by a much better focused unified expression; from the base of whole mind, rational expressions 'pop out' almost as common sense, but they may appear quite fantastical to those who are not spiritually aware. So it follows that theology of any spiritual depth (generated like this) cannot engage in apologetics (the reasoned defence of a religion to humanists).

If one pursues this integrated approach, then one is essentially practicing one's Faith; one can say that subsequently all traditional scripture analysis is conducted prayerfully. And hence theology is far from academic as it has too often become.

Faith does not need a great deal of rational justification. Consider the fact that before he became Enlightened, the Buddha did not jot down bits of the doctrine of Dependent Origination - to ponder over them to satisfy his rationality. It just wasn't spiritually worth it. Instead, the doctrine of Dependent Origination was a direct projection of his insight which was made manifest through oral communication. For me this is theology in practice!

On Religious Institutions

Spiritual truth should somehow be communicated within the structure of society. It follows naturally that the establishment of religious institutions would appear to aptly serve this purpose, usually offering an easy point of contact between the lay community and the clergy.

This is useful but there are likely to be limitations and drawbacks. First of all, I feel that whenever something is set up, then some freedom is lost; the more rigid the set-up, the less freedom remains. Spirituality is, however, unbounded. Second, there is a danger of giving the impression that there exist two tiers, with the clergy implicitly superior by right to the lay people - this is not automatically so. Third, an institution of any reasonable size - one which is known of by most people - must tread a very careful path with respect to society as a whole (unless it is the society!); it must struggle to integrate without compromise.

An institution is usually based on the insight of one person. To retain the raw spiritual essence of this person's vision, which must be of primary importance, is immensely challenging. To provide more than a loose framework risks obfuscation and stagnation: this is potentially crippling, yet the 'Word' must get through! In view of this, I repeat that it is the spirit which counts, spirit which has vision.

I wish now to examine briefly one institution, the Church of England, but my comments apply, albeit to a lesser extent, to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church of England depends on guidance from the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with supporting bishops and other auxiliaries. Traditionally, members of this body of clergy have possessed theological degrees - some are even professors. Does the spirituality of these people match their intellect 4? I fear that in general this is not so, hence I'm sceptical over the wiseness of selecting such evidently learned men to guide to any great depth the spiritual well-being of a country. What's more, I believe that it is preposterous that heads of state have anything to do with the selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The stress on formal education and the method of selection must change. If it does not, then the spiritual progress of all members of this Anglican Church will be jeopardised. Three years of contemplation, meditation and prayer, supplemented by scripture study is far more beneficial than three years of scripture study supplemented by contemplation, meditation and prayer.

Footnotes

  1. Usually, though, such religious commitment requires a good deal of Faith. ^
  2. For instance, about 'Buddhism and Christianity' by Antony Fernando, Rev. M. Catalano S.J. wrote, "To me, a Christian, many of the characteristic features of Buddhism ... appear to be the same mountains I have been trying to scale all along from another side." ^
  3. Buddhism has not been institutionalised in the manner of Christianity: in many parts of the world, 'Buddhism' is referred to simply as 'the Dharma' (that is, 'the Truth'); in Thailand as Sasana (Teachings). ^
  4. It is a fact that many of the most profound monks in Thailand are country monks, who possess no more than a primary school education. ^

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- Paul Trafford 1996,97 Paul's home page