In chapter 10 of his book A New Vision of Reality Bede Griffiths compares the Hindu experience of God, the ascent to the Godhead, with the experience of God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as described in the Old and New Testaments. For Bede they are different but both spring from the universal mystery of existence.
All ancient religion, wherever it has arisen, from the earliest times onwards, is the an exploration of this mystery.
Hebrew religion began with Abraham’s experiences.
What is characteristic of this revelation is that, whereas in Hinduism this supreme Reality was always seen as manifesting in the cosmos and in the human soul, in Israel the same supreme Reality is experienced primarily as manifesting in history, in the history of a particular people.
Bede identifies three regions of consciousness when thinking about the experience of God, something he takes from Buddhism; the manifestation of this world, the Absolute, and ‘the realm of spiritual manifestation, or the sacred, or as the Hindu calls it, the mahat’. The miraculous manifestations that occur in the Old Testament he identifies as belonging to this third level.
Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush is an excellent example of God’s self revelation, of which the human counterpart is mystical experience in the psychic level of consciousness.
The people at that time were living in the world of the sacred, in this psychic realm which is between the spiritual and the physical, of which Western people today have very little experience.
For the Hebrew it is a matter of the transcendence of God, whereas the Hindu is always concerned with the immanent presence, ‘and with a growing awareness of it and experience of it’. And whereas the Hindu’s personal God could have many forms, for instance Shiva, Vishnu or Krishna, for the Hebrews there was only one form, Yahweh, a name and form so holy that it was not to be spoken.
The psychic phenomena that accompanied the early prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, their miracles for instance, symbolise the presence of the God of Israel. So also in Hindu tradition psychic phenomena of this kind are generally accepted.
In Yogananda’s The Autobiography of a Yogi, for instance, there are many examples of a similar nature which are reported as having happened recently. So these experiences are simply part of the universe in which we live, though people today have generally lost contact with them.
The experience of God for the later prophets is more complex and nuanced. They experience Yahweh as a God of justice and mercy, compassion and loving kindness. Hosea experiences God in a love relationship, in a bridal relationship. Linked with this bond of love is knowledge. He hears the words, ‘I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord’.
That is the gnosis which is knowledge of the Lord through love. This is the theme of all mystical experience.
When we come to the great prophets we are very clearly in the world of historic reality. Here there is an experience of the will of God, and the essential attribute of God is holiness, something experienced for instance by Isaiah at the very beginning of his ministry. ‘I am a man of unclean lips’. The holiness of God reveals one’s own sin, one’s own unworthiness. The holiness of God is realised as a moral transcendence.
The God of Israel is primarily revealed in the moral order, whereas the Hindu revelation is primarily in the cosmic order.
In the later chapters of Isaiah, thought to be written by a prophet in the Exile that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, usually referred to as Second Isaiah, Yahweh is believed to be the Creator and the One true God. So Jewish monotheism was born. Bede needs to warn us.
We need to be aware that such strongly emphasised monotheism created a problem later, because when only one form of God is recognised all other forms are denied. Hostility develops towards all other forms of God, and then inevitably great conflict arises with other religions where God is worshipped under other forms.
Whatever we may think of this, I think it is true to say that strict monotheism was tempered later in Judaism by the mystical practice of the Qabala, and in Islam by Sufiism. In Christianity, God was made more complex than a strict monotheism and, as well, many saints were created that took on divine status, at least until the Reformation. We should not forget also the great mystical tradition in Christianity around figures like Meister Eckhardt.
Then we come to the New Testament. Jesus brings a new understanding of the nature of God and his relation to humanity… Jesus brought God down to earth, as it were, in his experience of God as Father.
It is generally agreed that his Abba experience was unique. Jesus experienced God in utter closeness to himself and addressed him as ‘Abba’, which is a term of great intimacy. So what happens with Jesus is that this transcendent God of infinite holiness and infinite righteousness, but also of infinite mercy, becomes present to man…… Now in the New Testament there is this bringing God down to earth, and making him present in a human being.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is within us, and that he was in the Father and the Father in him. This is ‘a relationship of total interiority’.
Jesus makes known this relationship of intimacy, of relationship to God, so that we also can share in that relationship and can know ourselves as children of God.
This relationship is communicated to us in the Spirit.
This is the central Christian revelation and the central Christian experience…. There is no revelation coming down from above without any relation to human experience. It always has to be experienced in order to be revealed. It is only through experience that we know God.
I think what Bede writes here is fundamentally important. We only know God through experience, and through experience we can become one with God. But as with Jesus, so also with us, this is a unity of distinction. Jesus sustained his identity in his oneness with the Father; so also in our experience of God, we sustain our distinction.
This is what distinguishes the Christian experience of God from that of the Hindu. The Hindu in his deepest experience of advaita knows God in an identity of being…. The Christian experiences God in a communion of being, a relationship of love, in which there is none the less perfect unity of being.
Our experience of God and the activation of our inner life is the work of the Spirit, sent first to the 120 disciples that gathered in the Upper Room after this death and resurrection. Through the Spirit we know love and our bonded in community. We become conscious of Presence.
Love of God and love of neighbour can never be separated. Comparing this with bhakti in Hinduism, bhakti is always a personal relationship to God, a self-transcendence, going beyond and being one with God, but, although the relation to the neighbour is certainly there, it is not normally expressed. It is an experience of identity, not of relationship.
Lastly, Bede deals with St Paul’s experience of God. The Spirit is fundamental for Paul. God is revealed to us through the Spirit.
Through Jesus, particularly through his death and resurrection, the Spirit has been communicated and now this Spirit encounters our spirit…… So in us there is a spirit by which we know ourselves and by which we can also know God. At that point of the spirit we are open to the Spirit of God. There is a very important distinction between the Hindu and the Christian understanding here. In the Hindu tradition there is jivatman, the individual self, and there is paramatman, the supreme Self…. It is an identity with the Absolute That is a genuine and profound mystical experience without a doubt. By contrast, in the Christian understanding the human spirit is never identified with the Spirit of God. The spirit in man is rather the capacity for God, the capacity to receive, and always the experience of God comes as a gift, as a grace from above. So the spirit of man receives the Spirit of God.
The Spirit of God enters into our spirit and actually transforms it, and our spirit is revealed as a capacity for the Spirit of God. Through that we realize ourselves as children of God. This is very close to the Hindu experience of atman, but in the Christian understanding the spirit in man is a capacity, a receptive power; it is not identical with the Spirit of God. We receive the Spirit and in that Spirit we know ourselves as sons.
But this experience of God in the Spirit can only take place when we have died to ourselves. ‘You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God’, says St Paul. We are dead. We died to ourselves in baptism and this dying goes on in the whole Christian life which is a continual process of dying to ourselves, to our ego, and identifying with our real Self which is hidden with Christ in God.
So for Bede one of the most important distinctions between the Hindu and the New Testament experience of God is that in the former there is a profound experience of self-transcendence and then a going beyond this to the ultimate oneness, to ultimate unity. In the West this parallels neo-Platonism. ‘The Christian experience is distinctive in that identity with God is not claimed’.
So there we have Bede’s take on this important theme. He is remarkable in how he can open his heart and mind to all traditions and at the same time keep the integrity of his own while being aware we are all moving toward a common human story. May there be many more like him.
1. Bede writes ‘It is only through experience that we know God.’ What is your response to this?
2. Bede writes that the ancients ‘were living in the world of the sacred, in this psychic realm which is between the spiritual and the physical, of which Western people today have very little experience’. It is in this psychic realm, according to Bede, that what we traditionally call miracles took place. Why not in our world?
3. Bede saw the Hindu understanding of our spiritual journey as an ‘ascent to God’, while his understanding of the Christian understanding could be called the ‘descent of God’. What can we make of that.
4. Bede saw the Hindu experience of God as one of identity, but the Christian as one of relationship. What do you think?
5. Bede makes a very clear distinction between us as spirit and God as Spirit. How might we think about spirit and Spirit? How can we experience the difference, if we can?
6. Bede warns us about the down side of 'monotheism'. Do you think he is right?
7. Someone once described an atheist as ‘someone who has not yet experienced anything within their own experience that they can genuinely call God’. If they were to experience such an experience, what do you think such an experience might be?