In some respects this chapter 6 in Bede’s book is both a summary of what has gone before and a gathering for what is to come. In his opening sentence he says: The aim of this work is to trace the new vision of reality that is emerging today and we are looking at Christianity in the context of modern physics and psychology on the one hand and of Eastern mysticism on the other.
Up until this point I have let Bede speak without raising any critique. I want to change this approach while still letting him speak. I do this because I think the world has in subtle ways moved on from the world in which Bede wrote, for good or ill. He was trying to gather all the strands into a new sense of the whole, trying to keep all the balls in the air, giving equal weight to all, acknowledging all traditions as contributing to a final whole that will be ‘ a new vision of reality’. He is indeed an English gentleman! But is the world like that now?
What I think has changed is this. While I think the quest for a vision of unity is increasingly of great interest, our culture and those influenced by science and secularity generally, are not prepared in searching for this vision to just accept religious tradition uncritically. In fact, it is not all that interested anyway. I suspect Bede knew this. Although he presents his own tradition Christianity as in some sense the fulcrum between science and the eastern religious traditions, I think he knows that science and secularity in fact hold the trump card. It is love and respect for all religious tradition and for humanity generally that keeps him working to reconcile and to bring all religious thought into some sort of unity.
If I am right, the road forward for a ‘new vision’ must entail all religious tradition being prepared to look at itself critically in the light of science and secularity. Not everyone will agree with this or think it a good thing. It is a great deal to ask and we can expect all traditions to largely resist. Religion is after all tied into identity and identity is a cement of the self that is not easily shifted. But ‘brave souls’ are emerging to shift those identities, because I think the movement toward a sense of one human race and one human story from the Big Bang on is unstoppable; and it is the form of knowledge we call science that is largely sponsoring this, even if it is also ignoring very, very important philosophical and experiential issues along the way which will eventually need to be heard and incorporated in the story. Science is not the last word; the subjective and personal is just as important. I definitely think of Bede as such a ‘brave soul’. However, we human beings want now to understand it from within our own story and not through the imposition of ideas asserted by authority or tradition. All this is another way of saying that perhaps Bede’s greatest contribution is in his interaction with science. No religious tradition will escape the challenge of secularity and scientific thought; and what is true in our spiritual traditions will no doubt challenge science and secularity and keep them from hubris.
But before I say more, lets look very, very briefly at what Bede does say in this chapter. He firstly summarises the contribution of science, and although I love what he says, he leaves a number of key propositions un-argued. For example, he writes: we are concerned with an integrated unity which includes the whole physical universe and also the whole psychological universe, for we know now that mind cannot be separated any longer from matter. For Bede this unity stems from the Big Bang; for a scientific materialist, however, mind is an epiphenomenon emerging from matter, only appearing in the evolutionary story late in the peace. This very issue is a major frontier between science and philosophy at this very moment. Bede needs a lot more discussion here, and in other statements he makes.
He then goes on to discuss firstly how the various traditions within Hinduism deal with the relationship between the Absolute and the world. He concludes with: The problem in Hindu philosophy is that the relation between God and the universe has never been finally resolved. In the advaitic tradition matter, life, human persons and the personal God are regarded as ultimately unreal… to reach the Absolute it is necessary to negate all phenomena. In other systems of Vedanta… the universe, the human person and the personal God are recognized as real, but the relationship of the universe to God is not satisfactorily explained.
He turns then to Buddhism and the goal of nirvana, beyond all becoming and all change, the ultimate Reality. However, there is a principle of differentiation in this. If there is no principle of differentiation, and we have absolute non-duality in other words, we and the whole of life are all eventually absorbed in the Ultimate; if there is no differentiation, we are no more. The Mahayana ... does not dismiss form, matter, and the whole of life and the universe as unreal. We retain our differentiation in the undifferentiated.
In the end it is this issue of differentiation within the undifferentiated that concerns Bede most. If there is an ultimate One in which we all have our being, how can we still be ourselves in our differences. Each tradition in its own way answers this in Bede’s mind, less satisfactorily in Hinduism, more so in Buddhism, and yet more so in Islam and Christianity. Much of what he writes about his own tradition is quite profound I think, and well worth reading. He finishes the chapter with what is clearly his vision.
Each one of us as a person is a unique manifestation of the One, and each has a unique destiny to experience the divine and to experience unity with all the others. It means also that our life in this world day by day, and hour by hour, has eternal value. And it means that history itself, the evolution of humanity and of the world, is all part of this divine drama. The whole universe is to be taken up into the divine along with the whole of humanity in all the stages of its history. All is part of this movement of the divine in matter, in life, in humanity, and we are all being drawn into that, such that our ultimate state is a total fullness of being as we experience the whole.
This is Bede’s vision; it may be true; it is grand and compelling; but does it connect with our reality now apart from us as individuals believing it also. More than that, it assumes the One. It starts with ‘God’. But the grounds for doing this apart from tradition are not clear. For good or ill, right or wrong, this is not where our culture, and increasingly the cultures of the world, now begin. They begin with us, with being human. It is our humanity we are most sure of, not the existence of an entity we in the west call ‘God’. If we are all part of a ‘divine drama’, as he states, this has got to be justified somehow and argued for. The once great authority of the world’s religious traditions is not enough now to justify their metaphysics without convincing discussion and argument.
Let me briefly take this further to illustrate what I mean. Let’s look at the title of this chapter, God and the World for instance. We tend to assume we know what these big words mean, and we read them back into the past. When we say ‘world’ many will mean the universe, or the planet. I think Bede is assuming this. It is more interesting than that. The Anglo Saxons were the first to use the word and it meant ‘human existence, life on earth’, as opposed to life in heaven or hell. This connects to when we say the ‘human world’. This in turn implies a ‘non-human world’. Human ethics has traditionally only applied to the human world, not to the non-human world. Nature has been ethically neutral. We have not felt responsible for the non-human world. And even now in the Anthropocene we can’t seem to pick up responsibility for the non-human world from which we emerged. Are we not now responsible for both the human and non-human worlds? If not who is? We have given up on some sort of over-arching intelligence in the universe to look after things; and now we seem to be giving up on Nature as well!! On top of that the human world seems to be on the verge of being taken over by robots! We are no longer homo sapiens, or homo faber but increasingly homo robotico! My point is that ‘world’ is not a simple concept now, and we need to be aware of that.
The word ‘God’ is even more interesting. Yet we blithely assume we all mean the same thing when we use it. Earliest written use of the word comes from the sixth century BCE. It is derived from the Proto German word gudan. It was used to translate the Greek word theos and the Latin word deus, which both meant non-physical, non-human beings who also inhabited the cosmos and interacted with human beings. The big ‘G’ god only appeared when the word was used to translate the Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) word Alaha, linguistically derived from the Hebrew Elohim and probably the origin of Allah. Elohim is the plural form of the word El, chief god of the Cannaanite pantheon. It is the main word for ‘God’ in the Old Testament apart from his personal name Yahweh, given to Moses at the burning bush. It is now generally agreed that Yahweh came to be believed to be the Creator only around the fifth century BC, some nine centuries or so after Moses. Makes you think? Simply reading ‘God’ as defined by tradition back into the past can distort the truth rather than inform us.
So assuming we know what the word ‘God’ means, and pushing the word back unreflectingly into the past, or, as is more often the case I think, rejecting the word outright because of hard and hurt feelings toward the church or religion generally, is not necessarily helpful for our world. ‘God’ needs to be given back to the people!! Lets by all means know about the traditions, and lets all know something of how they developed and why we agree or disagree with them. But lets explore the meanings together in the light of our world, and the great challenges we face. Might it not be that we need the key ideas and parameters of the modern world, such as evolution and astrophysics and analytical psychology and anthropology to finally understand the religious and the spiritual, and so put it all into One story, One great dramatic story, that includes us all. This is exactly what Bede wants also. I think Open Sanctuary can be one such place where these liberating conversations can take place in peace and love.
Some Discussion Starters:
1. Are human beings now responsible for the planet? If so, what needs to happen for us to pick up this responsibility? If not, who is?
2. Is the human world now crowding out the non-human world? If so, what are the implications of this? If not, what do you think is happening?
3. Is there such a thing as a spiritual world? What is it?
4. When you use the word ‘God’ what do you think you mean? What actual ‘content’ is there for you in the word ‘God’.
5. Have you ever experienced anything you thought was ‘God’? What was the experience like?
6. When you meditate, contemplate or pray, what do you experience?