Mystical Tradition: Lecture 36 – Final Thoughts on Mysticism Series

Final notes from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

The evidence for mysticism in the Abrahamic faiths is broad and it exists at the beginning of each tradition all the way through to the present.

Within each tradition, the mystic views the world as an affect of some cause.  Through a process of personal transformation, it is possible to access the cause itself. For the mystic, realizing God is realizing the authentic self.  It cannot be defined, but it can be reached.

Mysticism looks very much like pantheism, but all three traditions caution against misperceiving the creation for the creator.  The highest point of mysticism is the return to what is ordinary, not the “achievement” of mystical states.

Mystics provide an apophatic challenge to a world that claims self-sufficiency and the ability to explain everything in minute detail.  The problem is that technology, commerce and communication have conspired to create a view of the world that is profoundly materialistic.  Technology creates a homonized universe where people seldom come into contact with what is other than themselves and the individual is privileged over the community.  Tradition is obsolete.  What is novel is valued over wisdom.

There have been all kinds of religious reform movements in the West in recent times, but they are largely caught up in how to make the world outside reflect an image of God, rather than how God within can be more fully realized.  Much of what passes for mysticism in the contemporary world cannot stand up to classical mysticism because contemporary “mysticism” is largely about gaining material/psychological well-being rather than demanding the critical posture of classical mysticism necessary for personal transformation.  Personal transformation is not the same thing as personal well-being.

I think this is what Huston Smith is so desperately trying to call to our attention – we’re losing a valuable world view.  What claims spiritual depth is often a much more shallow, watered down, materialistic version of spirituality than what classical mysticism offers.  I think this is exactly what Nietzsche realized, too.   The esoteric is barely even recognized in the contemporary world view, and when it does happen to be touched upon, it is almost completely dumbed down into a goal to be achieved for the personal acquisition of well-being.  There is nothing wrong with wanting well-being.  But to confuse psychological well-being with self-actualization as understood by the mystics is tragic.

Mystical Tradition: Lectures 29-35 – Sufi Mysticism

Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series,  Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam

Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam.  It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam.   No one is quite sure what influenced it, either.  There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism.  Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists.  Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia.  Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that.  Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.

Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions.  This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.

According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq).  The empirical world is not what is most real.  It is illusory.  The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real.  Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real.  This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”.  One must move past appearances to find what is most real.  This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.

The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.

  • knowledge
  • love
  • prayer

The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first.  A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control.  A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.

Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge.   Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis.  There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a.   The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers.  They are very short sayings.  Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah.  Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.

There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries.  With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology.  Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time.  Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries.  It took a while for Europe to catch up.

But there were also tensions in Islam.  Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers.  Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law?  Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge?  Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself?  Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?

There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable?  This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed.  Judgment is on the basis of what humans do.  So how can God be both just and powerful?  Perhaps God must be weak and just?

There were three stances taken on this topic.  The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach.  God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice.  Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word.  The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure.  We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does.  The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason.  Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure.  He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah.  This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.

Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so.  Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies).  Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy.  He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time.  He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095.  Then he became Sufi.  The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.”   His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude.  He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind.  Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus  which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation.  Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion.  For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything.  Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real.  Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law).  The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge.  The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.

Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240).  He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time.   He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran.  It is Breathing.  His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters.  He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry.  Rumi’s religion is one of love.  He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history.  The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.

Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan.  It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa.  And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton).  It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics.  The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.

Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253).  He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry.  He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit.  Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity.  The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.

Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom.  He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification.  One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states.  One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you.  Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It.  But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it.  And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything.  Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.”  For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else.  The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is.  One is not simply looking at Realy.  One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.

The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390).  He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah.  Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.

Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…

Islam was in Persia from the start.  Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually.  He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith.  He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist.  “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.”  He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God.  He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.

At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely.  He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis.  His primary interest was esoteric gnosis.  He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry.  As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.

Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism.  There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people.  There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.

Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm.  He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy.  He found a teacher and escaped into the woods.  After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher.  He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression.  It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors.  Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.

Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism.  Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam.  It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world.  At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.

Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism.  Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.

Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old.  She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path.   She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did.  It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.

Idries Shah (1924-1996)  was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master.  He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam.  In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism.   Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion.  He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.

Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated.  Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion.  The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.

Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths: A Critical Inquiry

I watched a show from NOVA about the battle between Intelligent Design and Evolution. Evolution won, which is good.  We really don’t want to go back to the dark ages as far as science goes. Creation Science isn’t science. But at the same time, the battle between Evolution and Creationism always troubles me, a bit.  We always want stories about how we originated, but what if we’re looking at it all wrong? Many Buddhists, for instance, don’t have a problem with Evolution. If we are evolving, we might as well affect that evolution as beneficially as possible. But I have also heard many Buddhists claim that evolution is still just a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. That’s not to say they believe in Intelligent Design, but simply that we are only viewing the surface of our existence when we talk about Evolution.

I have long been a proponent of Evolution and first came across the idea that Evolution is a modern myth in a Shambhala Sun magazine. I don’t remember wrote the article now. I wish I had kept it because it was another one of those punches in the stomach. The author of the article wasn’t trying to discredit Evolution, he/she was simply trying to put evolution into perspective.

There are certain levels where science and rationalism are absolutely spot on. But there are other levels that science and rationalism cannot claim. These levels are not irrational, they are transrational.

I’ve had a book by Vine Deloria Jr. for years and finally got around to reading it after watching the NOVA film:  Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths. He has a knack for busting American prejudices and I think he may be right that the current battle between Creationism and Evolution exists because of something most of us have failed to notice:  both are based on the exact same cultural bias.

I think this is exactly what Nietzsche was calling our attention to over 150 years ago. The Western notion of an abstract God/Reality is dead, yet no one has noticed!   Not the fundamentalist theist nor the atheistic scientist. Both are still stuck in the same mindset that was handed down to us through medieval Christianity and that mindset no longer serves us!  Deloria says the following set of absolute beliefs have been uncritically accepted by science and that they have reistricted our intellectual horizons for over a century:

  • Monogenesis – the idea that all life must come from one source, held to be a creator in religion, determined to be an arbitrary, unseen process in science.
  • Time as real and linear – derived from Christian theology and uncritically accepted by science as the uniformitarian, homogenous passage of time.
  • Binary thinking – derived from Aristotlean logic (either/or) and Christian missionary zeal (“those not for us are against us”)
  • Stability of the solar system – nothing has changed in our solar system since god created it or produced our sun.
  • Homogeneity and interchangeability of individuals – we allege to believe that all atoms and particles are the same, and that all humans are equal – derived from Christian theology and Greek philosophy.  (Read any popular article on science today, and you will find these assumptions taken for granted – without the slightest hint that perhaps they are mistaken.)

Deloria goes on to say, “It may be possible to formulate a new understanding of the world that is not Darwinian, but to do so we must move from these pointless confrontations and let the data speak for itself. We already have a massive amount of data on how things act. Do we need to have a story on how they became what they are? Deep down, since we have no way of knowing, could we not simply admit that the question itself is impossible and invalid?…Do we need a beginning to make sense of the world?”

That is an excellent question. It is only Western society that insists we have a beginning to our story. When the Evolutionists are asked about a beginning on the witness stand, they claim they aren’t interested in the beginning, only about how things have changed. Deloria claims this is a bogus claim. The entire premise of Evolution requires a beginning and a linear progression of time.

The Ancient Greeks don’t claim a beginning. Their story is one of constant creation – societies coming into and going out of being. Perhaps there is a sort of evolution going on, but there isn’t an end. Once we finally make it to the golden age, we are destined to make our way through the darker ages again. That’s Nietzsche’s three stages (camel, lion, child).  The stages never actually begin nor do they conclude. It’s an ongoing process of becoming.

Deloria says we need to ask ourselves: “What is the nature of our ability to understand the natural world?”  He sites three levels (which reminds me of how Huston Smith has dealt with this subject).  At the micro level, Western science has had the most spectacular success.  This is all of the stuff that is smaller than us – the atoms, DNA, RNA, etc.  At the micro level,  scientific formulas work because we have so much control over the data. The macro level comprises everything larger than us: space, weather patterns, continental plates. This is the opposite of the subatomic level because, unlike the micro level, we have no control over the data we are observing and have to accept what it is the universe gives us.

At both levels, time and space have little meaning.  They are just handy mathematical devices we use to describe what is otherwise completely meaningless to us. It is the meso level that is the most difficult to comprehend. This is the level where everything is “man-sized” and where the critical element is participation. Participation necessarily alters experimentation and Deloria says we should  honestly admit that we have virtually no objectivity at the meso level because our participation in the experiment alters the outcome. Everything we say or think about the meso level is therefore subject to cultural blinders. We should not assume science has the same success on the meso level as it does on the micro and macro levels. That science refuses to recognize its blinders at this level has made it the reigning religion of today. Its basis is belief, not unbiased empirical data.

Heisenberg warned: “When we speak of the picture of nature in the exact science of our age, we do not mean a picture so much as a picture of our relationship with nature.  We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”  Deloria says that much of what passes for scientific certainty is simply the personal belief that entities exist because they help explain mathematical equations. And what we Westerners call religions in other cultures (Buddhism, Shinto, Native American spirituality) is often far more empirically based and less biased than is Western science. We Westerners, on the other hand, were converted to monotheism by force and coercion which required a manipulation of belief and we have yet to let that manipulated belief go – even within science.

It’s a very interesting argument!

ACIM Lesson 145: Review of Lessons 129 & 130

My mind holds only what I think with God.

  • Beyond this world there is a world I want.
  • It is impossible to see two worlds.

I truly am understanding this so differently now. It’ s so exciting! This isn’t magical mumbo jumbo about a world that exists separate from this one. Just the opposite. (It’s a fun play on words!)

Huston Smith said that modern world gets the medal for cosmological achievement, the postmodern world gets the medal for achievement in social justice, and the traditional world view gets the medal for metaphysics. (Smith defines the traditional world view as before the middle ages – before Constantine made Christianity the political religion of Rome.)

The Enlightenment was so influential at creating the belief that the world of nature as science conceives it is all there is that we are no longer able to conceive metaphysics in the same sense as those with the traditional world view understood it. This is true within modern religion, too. Modern religion equated cosmology (which is clearly the realm of science) with metaphysics and turned God into an actual physical, entity that requires our defense against claims that God is “not true”. But the question of whether God exists or not is a purely scientific question and any religious person who insists that God does, in fact, exist is engaged in a scientific query, not a metaphysical query as it was understood from within the traditional world view.

God was understood as metaphor. But as Joseph Campbell has pointed out, we moderns are almost completely incapable of understanding metaphor. We mistake it with simile. We are taught that difference between simile and metaphor is that a simile uses “like or as” and a metaphor does not. But it’s not just a difference of words, it is a difference of meaning. He uses the example of a man (John) who runs very fast and people exclaim – “John runs like a deer.” That’s a simile. But imagine that we are so in awe of how fast John runs that we exclain, “John is a deer.” We know on the one hand he isn’t a deer. But on the other hand, he is a deer. That’s metaphor and it’s also metaphysics in the traditional worldview sense. God (and the gods) were understood in this metaphorical sense. Just like it makes no sense to try and prove that John is or is not a deer in the physical sense (we know he’s not), it makes no sense to try and prove that God does or does not exist. When we say John is a deer, we aren’t talking about a physical reality, we are talking about a metaphorical/metaphysical understanding.

Metaphysics is the study of everything and includes science. From this perspective, it makes no sense to reject science in favor of religion. Cosmology is the domain of science and there is no reason to challenge this. But the view that physical nature is all there is has created a lot of really big problems in terms of meaning. It’s created nihilism in both the secular world and the religious world.

The religious don’t really need to care about this world because there is another world waiting for them. And the more secular deny this world by placing their primary focus on the possibility of a future, better world through technological progress, future medical breakthroughs, more perfect forms of government, etc. It is more subtle, but it’s not that different than what the religious have done. It’s not this world that matters – it’s a future world that matters. (And so we destroy the earth in the name of progress.)

It is impossible to see two worlds. So which world is it that we see? The world as it is, or some future, better world? When ACIM says “Beyond this world there is a world I want” it isn’t trying to say there is a future better world waiting for us. This is about a shift in perception that allows us to see the world as it is rather than through the eyes of egoic desire that rejects what is. What is the use of wanting anything other than what is? It’s like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. If we had to live our same life over and over and over again – would we say “no thanks – don’t want to do that” or do we have the sort of gratitude toward life (this life!!) to enthusiastically exclaim “Yes!” The ego, on the other hand, must forever say “no” to what is in order to uphold desire. We think the ego shows us what it is we want. But what happens once we get it? We don’t want it anymore and so the ego finds something else for us to want. But is that what we really want? Do we, in fact, want (as in lack)?

The Soul of Christianity – Remaining Items of Interest

  • Original sin: “original” not in the temporal meaning of that word, but in the sense of being archetypically universal, a template from which variations arise.
  • Though God is defined by Jesus, he is not confined to Jesus.
  • The reason Christianity had to split from Judaism is because Judaism is an ethnic religion. The same is true of Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhism had to split from Hinduism because Hinduism is an ethnic religion. There may be some converts, but by and large, the people within Hinduism and Judaism are born into it. Neither religion actively seeks converts.
  • There is no way to take the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion at face value without their sounding anti-Semitic. Placing them in their historical context and seeing them as a reaction to the persecution Christians were suffering from the Jews when the Gospels were written – as severe as their persecution of the Jews would be when they got the upper hand – is the only way to fold the Gospels into the Christian revelation.
  • The Jesus Community: Melting the barriers of fear, guilt and self-centeredness, it [God’s love] poured through them like a torrential stream, heightening the love they had hitherto felt for others to the point where the difference in degree became a difference in kind. A new quality, Christian love, was born. Conventional love is evoked by lovable qualities in the beloved, but the love that people encountered form Christ embraced sinners and outcasts, Samaritans and enemies. It gave, not prudentially in order to receive, but because giving was its nature.” (“It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”)
  • Institutions, organizations of whatsoever sort, have problems built into them; they come with territory. Those problems must be faced and dealt with, for it is institutions that give ideas traction in history. If Jesus had not been followed by Paul, the Sermon on the Mount would have evaporated in a generation or two; but as it is, we still hear and heed it. Comparably, if the Buddha had not instituted the sangha – his monastic community – his teachings too would have vanished from the face of the earth.
  • Among the revealed religions, Christianity is unique in not being content merely to juxtapose the Absolute and the contingent, the Divine and the human; it conjoins them from the start.
  • The most important scientific discovery of all time – anticipated by Einstein, worked out in Bell’s Theorem, and experimentally confirmed by the EPR (Einstein-Podosky-Rosen) experiment – proves that the universe is “non local”…. For prayer, nonlocality suggests that the person praying and the person being prayed for are closer than side by side. Distance doesn’t apply – they are in the same spaceless mathematical point. When the pray-er plunges deep down into his praying self, his prayer spins downward, so to speak, and spins its recipient upward. When Jesus prayed all night, and during the day, he was “spun upward” by placing himself in the presence of his Father who so loved the world that he “spun down” – into his Incarnation, Jesus – and transformed him.
  • Lead us not into temptation… if we adhere to the Aramaic, this would read “Lead us not into confusion, or mistaken priorities.”

The Soul of Christianity – Main Branches of Christianity

There are three main branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism.

Roman Catholicism

  • Primarily located at the Vatican in Rome, Poland, central and southern Europe, Ireland, and South America.
  • Subscribes to the immaculate conception
  • Mary is the contemplative heart of the Catholic Church, where heaven and earth meet in Jesus.
  • The Church is seen as the Bride of Christ
  • The saints are the glory of the church – they are the “Church triumphant” (“Many are called but few are chosen”)
  • The Church is a family and the Pope is it’s authoritative but loving head – the “Papa”.
  • The Papal Church represents a kingship “not of this world” and is a thorn in the side of the powers of this world.
  • The office of the pope has the final responsibility for preserving “the deposit of the faith” and is responsible for keeping the Gospel pure and whole.
  • The Roman Catholic Church’s golden age took place in the Middle Ages.

Eastern Orthodox

  • Broke off officially with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. Includes the churches of Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Sinai.
  • Each church is self governing but they are to varying degrees in communion with one another, and their members think of themselves as belonging primarily to the Eastern Church and only secondarily to their particular divisions within it.
  • Does not subscribe to the immaculate conception
  • Denies purgatory
  • Does not have a pope
  • Truth is disclosed through the conscience of the church – consensus of Christians
  • Bishops decisions focus the decisions of all Christians but do not decide them
  • All members are considered saints (not just those sainted by the authority of the church as in Roman Catholicism)
  • While the Middle ages were the golden age for Roman Catholicism, the golden ages for Eastern Orthodox were with the church fathers before the split.
  • “One can be damned alone, but saved only with others” – familiar adage in the Russian Church.
  • Mysticism figures more prominently in the East than in the West. The Eastern Church actively encourages mysticism.


  • Dominates northern Europe, England, Scotland and North America.
  • Split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century over religious differences. (Western)
  • Not so much a church as it is a movement of churches with no single authority.
  • Justification by faith
  • Protestant Principle: The relative should not be absolutized (chief Protestant idolatry is bibliolatry). Protests against idolatry because it testifies for (pro-testant = one who testifies for) God’s sovereignty in human life.

The Soul of Christianity – Thoughts on Jesus

From David Bentley: “The message of Jesus is grounded in a metaphysics of peace, not the metaphysics of violence that Nietzsche mistook it for. The truth of that metaphysics cannot be proved, and it can be urged only by the beauty of the communal life of those who commit themselves to it.”

I’ve never studied Nietzsche but will have to do so one of these days because everyone who refutes religion and labels it nihilistic quotes Nietzsche. What I find interesting is that Hitler, who was most definitely a nihilist, based much of his idealism upon Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” yet thought Christianity was idiotic. So clearly, Nietzsche gets interpreted in many different ways. Perhaps he also misunderstood the message of Jesus? I have a hard time thinking how his message would have been interpreted as a “metaphysics of violence”. 

Smith writes:

That Jesus stood in the Jewish tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is the most important fact for understanding his historical career. His immediate predecessor in this tradition was John the Baptist, and it is a testament to John’s spiritual power that it was his baptismal initiation of Jesus that opened Jesus’s “third” or spiritual eye, through which he saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove. Having descended on him, the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, where, during forty days of prayer and fasting he consolidated the Spirit that had entered him and decisively faced down Satan’s temptations to use his newly acquired power for his own personal ends….What made him outlive his time and place was the way he used the Spirit that coursed through him not just to heal individuals but to heal humanity, beginning with his own people.”

I found this interesting because I’ve been reading The Brothers Karamazov and just got through "The Grand Inquisitor". The Grand Inquisitor blames Jesus for the hardship of man telling him, for instance, that if he had just accepted the bread that Satan offered him, he would have made life much easier for mankind because it would have made it OK for individuals to be subject to institutions which could feed them. That true freedom, according to the Grand Inquisitor, exists in not having to worry about being hungry. But what Jesus’ says is the opposite. If we obey our hunger, it can enslave us. And he says this not just for the sake of individual freedom, but for all of humanity.

Smith continues:

…Unlike the Sadducees, he wanted change. Unlike the Essenes, he remained in the world. Unlike the advocates of armed rebellion, he extolled peacemaking and urged that even enemies be loved. It was the Pharisees that Jesus stood closest to, for the differences between them was one of emphasis only. The Pharisees stressed Yahweh’s holiness while Jesus stressed Yahweh’s compassion, but the Pharisees would have been the first to insist that Yahweh was also compassionate, and Jesus that Yahweh was holy. On the surface the difference appears to be small, but it proved to be too large for a single religion to accommodate…The mission of Jesus and his followers had been to crack the shell of Judaism in which Revelation was encased and release that Revelation to a ready and waiting world. Putting it this way does not cancel the need for a continuing Jewish presence. Until the world is redeemed, there will always be a need for the witness of a nation of priests.

In other words, what Jesus wanted/offered was unique among his fellow man during the time in which he lived.

     Everything the New Testament quotes him as saying can be spoken in two hours. Yet those sayings may be the most repeated in the whole of history. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, to do them.” “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

     My teachings are true, he said in effect, not because they come from me, or even from God through me, but because (against all conventional odds) in your deepest selves you know that they are true.

He’s not demanding people to follow him. He is making an offering.

     If the infinity of God’s love pierces to the core of a being, only one response is possible – unobstructed gratitude for the wonders of God’s grace.

     Jesus wiped away all smudges of ego to attune his will perfectly to God’s will. His love for his Father was so complete that no love remained for him to squander on himself. Thus emptied of self, what remained was a vacuum to be filled by God.

I recently read in Free and Responsible Search that the idea we Westerners have of emptiness as a vacuum is sort of problematic because it resembles a blob with a vacuum inside. It is better to think in terms of the space that is inside of us is a misconception. But when I think vacuum, I don’t think blob. I think of something actively occurring within me. At the same time, any idea that there is literally a “within” or an “inside” to be filled is a misconception.

    Among the many possible meanings the word “God” carries, none is more important than “that to which one should give oneself without reservation.” In saying that Jesus was God, one of the things the church was saying was that his life provides the perfect model for that self-giving – in other words, the perfect model for the way human beings should order their lives.”

     Christ was the bridge that joined humanity to God. Bishop Irenaeus: “God became man that man might become God.”

What a beautiful understanding of Christ! (Bishop Irenaeus lived in the late 2nd century, early 3rd century. The understanding of Christ within the traditional church is definitely different than how that understanding has evolved today.)