Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Thoughts

I've finally finished reading "Beyond Tolerance" by Gustav Niebhur. His father is famous minister Reinhold Niebhur, who made great strides in the area of interfaith cooperation. Gustav has been a religion reporter for many years. "Beyond Tolerance" is his discussion of how religions overcome obstacles to work together and recognize each other as human beings worthy of respect. It is not enough to be "tolerant", because that still suggests a hostility between opposing groups that remains unaddressed. One only "tolerates" that which annoys them. In the wake of the September 11 catastrophe in the U.S., there was much discussion of fear, hatred, and xenophobia. 9/11 isn't the only documented instance of backlash against certain religious groups--it's been an ongoing problem in some parts of the country. Yet, Niebhur suggests that the negative has been more than adequately documented, and he wants to focus on the positive--the people who worked together and supported each other from very different faiths in the wake of catastrophe, ignorance, and religious tension.

Religious tolerance between Christians, Muslims, and Jews is not as difficult as one might imagine. After all, all three groups are monotheistic, and their scriptures all stem from the same source--the Jewish Torah. What I found surprising, though maybe I shouldn't, is the difficulty that Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, have theologically with the Western monotheisms. On the more superficial textual level, the differences are obvious. Pope John Paul II made some very negative comments about Buddhism that were not well received. His criticism was that Buddhism was essentially "negative"--they believed in an uncreated universe, they didn't believe in the idea of a "soul" as Westerners do, and felt that their whole system condoned inaction and a lack of social justice.

I find this incredible because I love to read the Doctors of the Church--St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Sienna, Therese of Liseux (forgive the lack of appropriate diacritics). When I read their works, the first thing I see is Hinduism--Teresa of Avial talks about the "magnificent refuge inside you" where God lives, which is not different from the idea expressed in the Sannyasa Sukta--the "Lord" that dwells in the lotus of the heart. While Teresa talks about this God in personal terms, the Hindu sannyasis--and the Buddhists, it so happens--prefer not to use such a term. The Pope saw Buddhism as negative because of language that says you are "not this" or "not that". The idea that everything is from "nothing" sounds nihilistic. But it isn't.

The problem is with language. "Nothing" doesn't mean non-existence--it means "no thing". This is perfectly in line with monotheistic teachings--the First Commandment in the Bible says that Yahweh does not tolerate "graven images". We can interpret "graven images" in many ways, but the bottom line is that you cannot associate the Ultimate, which is beyond time, space, language, and mental understanding, with a fixed object. This is necessarily blasphemous, because it suggests that you can limit "God" to a set of humanly-determined images or characteristics. One might argue that Hinduism has many deities, but these deities don't represent the Ultimate--they are symbols that help our minds relate to what we perceive as the qualities of the Ultimate. It is necessarily complicated, and in no way all-encompassing. In the end, one must discard all images--and Hinduism does teach this. As Carl Jung appropriately said, "Religion is the final obstacle to religious experience". While Scriptures, theologies and guidelines can be helpful (or not), in the end, it comes down to the reality behind all of that--one that we can't understand. It's a great mystery.

Science, believe it or not, supports the idea of the great Mystery. Everything quantum mechanics has revealed to us suggests that each individual is the point of reference for the entire universe. The idea of the "multiverse" suggests that all possible outcomes for one's life are indeed possible. At the same time, there is evidence for the idea that the entire universe is a hologram projected off of a 2D surface out in space. If everything we experience is an illusion, than "reality" becomes more mysterious than ever. Neti neti.

It is now Christmastime, and while it is a happy time for many people, it is also a very depressing time for some. We may come together with our families and friends, but we also remember what may have been lost--families, friends, relationships--even the loss of financial position or a home. There is a decided spike in suicides during the Christmas season. The trouble with tradition is that it evokes the past--we tend to wax nostalgic on such traditional holidays, which can open old wounds. In spite of everything the Christmas holiday represents, from the Yule idea of the sun now waxing towards summer, to the nativity of Jesus, to the general revelry before the heart of the winter season, in the final analysis it's just another day. Gains and losses are just part of the perpetual cycle of things--if you lose some things, you gain others. On some level, you don't have any of it, or at least it doesn't last forever. If we think about the mysterious nature of reality, you come to realize at least intellectually that no time really exists but the present. Your life is made up of a set of "nows". This is also a very Eastern concept. However, anyone who has had a very deep meditative experience or spiritual epiphany, regardless of religion, realizes what this means. When you really tune into the great Mystery, you realize how amazing life is--with both the things we think of as good, and all of the things that are bad. The fact that the game is afoot in the universe, and that we're playing it, is astounding. Everything just "is". And, at the risk of sounding subjective--it is all "good".

Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Merry Christmas, Brigid!