Hand to Hand Combat Without Hands, Part One
The version of Christianity that most of us are introduced to as children is generally the former variety. While no doubt fine for many--again, I am by no means denigrating the person of humble and sincere faith--I remember having serious misgivings about it as soon as I began attending Sunday school at the age of five or so. Instead of providing me with religious instruction, as my mother intended, it had the practical effect of turning me into perhaps the world's youngest atheist. As it so happened, the certainty of my atheism only relented somewhat when the Beatles began publicizing their interest in transcendental meditation in 1967-68, when I was 11 or 12. This left an indelible impression on me. Finally I was hearing something, however vulgar and garbled, that spoke to me about the vertical. Even as a young gagboy, I was especially impressed that the most famous and powerful cultural figures of the 20th century--people whom I idealized as gods--should (apparently, anyway) so quickly see through the illusory trap of wealth and fame, and want to devote their lives to something higher and deeper.
Just as an aside, it shows you the importance of the public behavior of famous people. It doesn't matter what celebrities do in their private lives, so long as we don't know about it, but if they would only conduct themselves with dignity and nobility in public, as they once did, it would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the people who look up to them, even if the celebrity in question is a rotten hypocrite. People do need positive role models--people to look up to--even if the role models secretly have feet of clay. Now the only lesson taught by celebrities is "don't be a hypocrite. Be the authentically selfish and narcissistic bastard you really are, for all the world to see."
At any rate, I had an early metaphysical template that revolved around anti-Christianity, atheism, and infatuation with most any nonwestern form of spirituality, so long as it did not involve God. Slowly, as I began to immerse myself in the study of what is called the "perennial philosophy"--the idea that each religion represents a different path ascending to the same destination--I began to see how Christianity might fit in. But still, I generally regarded it as a needlessly mythological and inferior representation of the more pure metaphysics of the East.
I don't remember exactly when it was, but it was probably only about six or seven years ago that I really began to turn this around. I won't bore you with all the details, but something in (or out of) me told me that I had to study Christianity from the very ground up. Instead of beginning with the watered down gruel that we are given in the 20th century and working backward, I needed to go back to the very beginning and find out how it all came about.
I was especially fascinated with the period between Jesus' death in approximately 33 AD and the official establishment of Christianity as a state religion some 300 years later. 300 years is a very long time. Exactly what did the earliest Christians believe? Why did they believe it? What were their practices? Was this a secret mystery cult with esoteric techniques of spiritual transformation? Why did they happily dance and sing on their way to being tortured and slaughtered by the Romans? Most mysteriously, exactly how did it come to pass that a fringe movement that should have ended with Jesus' anonymous and ignominious death eventually spread like wildfire and conquer the most powerful empire on the planet? That doesn't just happen. And yet, he said it would happen--that his words would somehow be preached in every corner of the earth. If you were alive at the time, you would have said that the chances of this happening would be no higher than zero.
Catholicism generally takes its bearings from Augustine, in the sense that everything before leads up to him and everything after flows from him. But he's already into the fifth century--he died in 430. That's 400 years from the death of Jesus. As most people know, the original Christian church eventually split in half by the year 1000 or so, into its Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox varieties. But in reality, the basis of that split was present much, much earlier than that, really from the very beginning. For the sake of time, I'm going to oversimplify here, but the differences can be detected almost from the very outset, and by the time of Augustine they were quite marked. And I would define those differences, in the broadest sense, as being exterior vs. interior, horizontal vs. vertical, and mystical/gnostic (in its non-heretical sense) vs. intellectual/theological.
This is not to say that the East was free of dogma and the West free of gnosis--only to highlight a certain emphasis, or inflection, that has maintained itself to this day. In fact, I would suggest that the later Protestant rebellion was at bottom an attempt to recapture the religious immediacy and intensity that had been de-emphasized by the Western church. They weren't seeking less intensity but a more intense religious experience that seemed to be denied them by dogma, corruption, and authority.
Although there is naturally much overlap, the East tends to look to a very different set of church fathers than the West, and by the fifth century we see a pretty clear split between the rational theology of Augustine and the mystical theology of the great Denys the Areopagite, a central figure through which all later Christian mysticism runs.
Interestingly, in the Eastern rite, what are called the "sacraments" in the West are referred to as "the mysteries." Now, I may well be treading on thin ice here, getting into something about which I am unqualified to speak, and I would certainly welcome our dear reader, Dilys, to correct me if the mood strikes her. But I believe in the East it is fair to say that there is a de-emphasis on the atonement theory--of Jesus simply being a substitute sacrifice for your own sorry hide--and more of an emphasis on what is called theosis, or the realization of the two perfected natures in the individual, in the fashion of Jesus. This is not to meddle with the basic idea of salvation of the believer, only to emphasize that it is possible on this side of manifestation to realize the higher possibilities that salvation intrinsically entails. Grace is still freely given and cannot be manufactured by any worldly techniques. However, there are things we can do to "get out of the way" and therefore "amplify" the grace that is already present.
Upon Jesus' death, it is said that the veil of the temple was rent vertically from top to bottom. In ancient Judaism, there was a veil that separated the "holiest of holies," the formless, inexpressible mystery of God, from the faithful. Only the high priest could traverse that boundary and confront the mystery of mysteries. But if that veil was rent upon Jesus' death, the implication is that it is now somehow accessible to all of us.
Importantly, it does not mean that there isn't still a sharp distinction between this and that side of the ultimate mystery. It just means exactly what it says--that a certain veil has been removed. One still has to know how to enter it. That is what spiritual combat is all about, which I had hoped to discuss today, but which will have to wait until tomorrow. And please bear in mind that I will only be discussing these matters in the most general sense, because they are not things to be treated causally, nor are they to be indiscriminately tossed out to all and sundry. No, you are not a swine. But you know the cyber-swine are out there, and you know what they do with pearls. What I hope to do is simply throw out a rope for others to pick up if they are truly called to do so. Under the circumstances it would be highly inappropriate for me to do more than that.