Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hand to Hand Combat Without Hands, Part One

I've been feeling so nauseous that I forget where we are in the cosmos. Something having to do with Christianity--whether it is simply a black and white matter of salvation resulting from belief in a certain doctrine, or whether it is actually more complicated than that. Specifically, whether Christianity might represent a "vertical" path with degrees of realization ending in mystical union.

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.


Jenny said...

A very good book to read - kind of "one stop shopping" is "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson. He also wrote a book on the History of Christianity - but after reading the first one (which is about a skillion pages) and being pretty much a lifelong seeker - I thought I had the jist of it and haven't read that one yet.

You mentioned in a previous post that you would explain why Christianity is special to you. I understand the "pearls before swine" thing tho, if you'd rather not.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Bro. Bob,

I am concerned, this rather long bout of nausea, do you know the cause? In Asia, and particularly Korea, seaweed soup would be the prescription. If you need a recipe, let me know.

Bro. Bartleby

Gagdad Bob said...


Yes, I know the cause. "Patient zero" is a certain 10 month old male suspect that lives here in the house. Not to worry. Just a slight setback last night.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Gads, and Bro. Juniper was sure that you were pregnant!

Will said...

Hiya Bob -

My spiritual search sounds not unlike yours. I rejected my parent's Christianity like a heart transplantee rejects a new organ and then I went on to immerse myself in Eastern esoteria. Eventually I returned - although I was never really there in the first place - to Christianity, now with a mystical perspective I had gleaned from my Eastern studies. Fact is, Christianity is replete with mysticism; it's esoteric side is, like,immense. Witness Eckhart, Boehme, etc. (I've been studying Boehme for several years now and there's no darkness at the end of the tunnel)

Coupla things: First, Christainity, both exoteric and esoteric,contains a dynamism, a "share-it-with-your-neighbor" ethic generally not found in the East. Big plus. As E Cayce once said (paraphrase alert), the sin of the East is not selfishness, it's self. Second, I dunno if the early Church fathers were wrong to squash Gnosticism. Truth is, even though more people these days can intuit the mystical side of things (I think), it's still not a very great number. The Nazis, for example, took Eckhart to be one of their own. When mysticism goes bad or is misinterpreted, the result is not just nasty but is often satanic - Charles Manson, Nazism, even communism with its ersatz "heaven on earth". Third, the Christian emphasis on reason and the intellect has not been such a bad thing either, I think. In my view, the world as a whole needs more reason. Reason and the intellect, after all, do hone individuality, which is a necessary step in the spiritual progression. We have to be separated from nature before we can return to it. Once our individuality is sharpened, once we are separated from the herd, then we can begin to explore the meaning of the One-ness, not as unconscious units of the herd, but as true, creative individuals - which is what, I believe, the Creator wants of us.
So, yeah, that's where Western Christianity with its emphasis on reason had done, is doing, the job. The wonderful thing is that the Christian scriptures contain both the exoteric and the esoteric - the gold of the esoteric is just under the surface, once one is ready for it. Hmm, almost as if it had been planned that way, you think?


Gagdad Bob said...


I think I agree with you entirely. Christianity is an esotericism masquarading as an exotericism. It will take you as deep as you want to go, assuming you are worthy of its treasures. Even so, you cannot have the inner without the outer--it's like two sides of the same coin. Formlessness requires form, or else there is the danger you describe.

I didn't know that the nazis embraced Eckhart, but now that I think of it, I can understand why. His teaching of the "ground" could easily be confused with a primitive worship of nature.

Bro. Bartleby said...

Bro. Will,

I think the early Church had to face what every organization has to face, becoming organized. You read it in Paul's letters: how do you gather a group of folks and maintain some sort of cohesion? The Church took the easy out -- dogma. It was their only way to get all the scattered bishops onto the same page, for without oversight, they were all teaching their own brand of Christianity. Was that good, bad, or what Jesus had in mind? Few could read, books were rare, so teaching had to come from the mouths of the learned, the bishops. But that was then and today we all have access to more of the early writings than even the early bishops had. And we can read. And we can think. And I think we can come to Jesus in a way that organizations cannot duplicate, we can come to Him in ways that the apostles came to Him. But churches still have a place as groups of folks that are like minded in their desire to carry out good works, to share the Gospel, and to worship together. But I think the days of the church as enforcer of dogma have passed, it is just that the word hasn't got out yet.

Bro. Bartleby

Chip said...

Putting together historical scraps to form a picture of early Judaism and Christianity, studying the debates from 1,700 years ago, trying to make sense of the multiple language barriers, it's like peeling back the onion.

Just staying horizontal requires the vertical. If you'd like to study early Christianity you need to look into heresy, topically speaking. Arianism is a strand which has culminated in the most radically-Left political party in the United States, the Unitarians.

The Unitarians have moved so far from their theological roots, I'd wager most of them don't even know what the name of their "church" means.

The change from Jew to Roman Christian is a fascinating example of continuity in religion and ideas moving from one tradition to another.

Islam seems to think it invented real monotheism. How can a scholar of religion even respond to that? Um, not?

Bro. Bartleby said...

If you haven't already discovered the Nag Hammadi library, then here is a great start:

Check the index to all the writings that are online. And this is some of the thinking and pondering during the first two hundred years, yeasty stuff indeed! In the 4th century Augustine would have had access to "some" of these writings, but without the printing press, few copies "of anything" existed. Again, to get all the bishops on the same page, the early councils nailed down the biblical canon, and what you read in the Nag Hammadi library are all the "weeds" that the early leaders saw fit to put.

Will said...

Bob, Bro B -

Bob, re Nazis/Eckhart, yes, and the Nazis thoroughly, satanically, misinterpreted Eckhart's "beyond good and evil" metaphysic and his emphasis on the importance of "detachment".

Also, Bob, I don't mean to pick at bones here but I'm not sure if scriptural esoteria really "masquerades" as exoteria, which would seem to imply that the exoteric is not real or is an illusion. I think it's real enough to the people who require it, as many do. Yours is a telling point though. It would seem to me that both the esoteric and the exoteric are real and have their dual roles to play. They are two different perspectives - and yet, in the scriptures, they are one! Just as all of Creation is One and yet is Many! This gets my analogue gears grinding away so I'd better stop . .

Bro B - Yes, I think you might even say that when a spiritual leader passes away and the organization takes the reins, the true spiritual impact dies on the vine. Only in the case of Jesus, it didn't. His Spirit punched through all the astral pollution (or however you might want to put it),allowing us to draw on It 24/7. In other words, Christ is here, now.

Also, Bro B, I agree with you on the essential lameness of "dogma" vis a vis the original teachings and very Presence of Christ. I'm just saying that given the wildness of much of Gnosticism and the inability of most to really comprehend it on a spiritual level, the Church's insistance on dogma may have been, in the long run, Providential.


Will said...

Chip, yeah, contrary to what many think, Islam is NOT part of the Judaic/Christian historical continuum. The latter is a blueprint for humanity's general spiritual progression as it has, in fact, unfolded. Islam is, in a way, a reprise of Judaism, what with its God as totally "Other", its emphasis on rules, etc. Trouble is, this was done 2500 years ago. Islam is way out of sync. It doesn't fit the progression. Now, I don't want to draw hasty conclusions but one definition of evil is that which is out of sync with the natural progression. Paganism, for example, was probably necessary long long ago - it was sort of the basic earthy fire which later was to be sublimated into the divine energy of the Christ ethos. But today, paganism is out of sync, evil, in other words.

I dunno, maybe this is why there is something inherent in Islam that compels it to self-destruct in fire at this time.


90 said...

Well Bob, if you really want to know what the earliest church taught and believed, you have to read the New Testamant. I don't know what your church experience was as a child, but I remember when a Sundy School teacher once told me that "we just teach this stuff out of the Bible, but we don't really beleive it". That would have been a good start for turning me into an athiest, but I was fortunate to have met a few key people along the way who had a sincere love for God and others. There are a lot of churchs that are better suited at creating atheists and agnostics then they are Christians and it is tradgic, because they are throwing stumbling blocks in front of people.

Nick said...

To me one of the main distinctions between orthodox and esoteric Christianity has always been the existence or otherwise of the historical Jesus. Some esotericists and historians such as Alvin Boyd Kuhn felt that the life of Christ is predominantly allegorical and therefore we need not insist on the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is my position also, and one that has prevented me having any active involvement in the Anglican church in which I grew up. There is not one single wing of the church of any denomination that allows for strict allegorical interpretation of scripture, and hence this excludes a significant number of seekers from any participation in the church.