Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Meaning Behind Christian Myths

I mentioned in another context how two major revolutions are required before science can be properly integrated with religion.

The first of these relates to the limited nature of science (as presently understood) which is properly geared solely to the analysis of quantitative type phenomena.

However there is an equally important holistic qualitative dimension to science that is properly geared towards - what I refer to as - Integral Science.

Just like a scissors has two blades of equal importance, likewise when properly understood it is the same with science. So a comprehensive scientific approach requires both (analytic) quantitative and (holistic) qualitative aspects working in close interaction.

The second of these revolutions relates to the need to demythologize the manner in which spiritual truths (with a truly universal meaning) are symbolically conveyed in the major religious traditions.
And in this post I am confining myself to some of the major "myths" used to convey spiritual meaning in the Christian - and specifically Roman Catholic - tradition.

The very first - and perhaps most important - that we encounter is the belief in God as One (which likewise defines Judaism and Islam).

It is important from the onset to recognise that while the ultimate nature of God is truly mysterious, that all phenomenal understanding is necessarily conditioned by polar opposites. So its only by coming down arbitrarily in terms of one side of a polarity (in any given context) that truth can be conveyed in a meaningful phenomenal manner. However this always implies a certain bias whereby the opposite polarity (which is equally important) is not thereby accommodated.

Now in terms of polarities the one must be balanced by the many. So if we maintain (from a certain valid perspective) that God is One then we thereby blot out recognition of the equal truth that God is Many.

The strong emphasis therefore on God as One in the Christian tradition leads to a number of further implications in understanding that are not properly balanced.

For example the belief in God as One typically leads to an unduly transcendent view of the nature of God as existing outside creation (i.e. the almighty God). The created universe is then viewed as arising from the action of this transcendent God thereby leading to an unbalanced relationship as between the "creature" (e.g. human being) and the "creator".

However properly understood the immanent aspect of God (as existing in every living being in the Universe) is on an equal footing with the transcendent. So the transcendent aspect (mistakenly identified with the "outside" creator) is in no way prior or superior to the immanent aspect (again misleadingly identified as created being).

Thus the essence of every living thing in creation eternally exists as God. It is not therefore that this essence is created from outside as it were (as it already exists as God in the simple present moment). So remarkably the correct status of our essential being is true equality with God.

Thus the spiritual revelation that I mentioned in an earlier post related directly to this intuition (whereby both transcendent and immanent aspects are experienced as equal). And it is no accident that it occurred at this time as I had been striving for many years in development to correct - what I could see - was an unduly transcendent emphasis. So the real significance for me of this revelation is that perhaps all this work in the womb of the unconscious is perhaps at last bearing due fruit!

So the key point here is that what we call God, combines both individual and collective dimensions.

From one perspective, everything in creation is God (in its unique individual essence); however equally there is a collective shared spiritual dimension to all this life (equally as God).

In the phenomenal realm, there always remains some divide as between the individual and collective aspects of identity. So it is only in the full realisation of God that these distinctions no longer remain.

As well as the prime emphasis on God as One (without equal emphasis on God as Many) there is another obvious imbalance in the Christian tradition on God as male (without equal emphasis on God as female).

In truth God is neither male nor female; equally we can maintain in polarised terms that God is both male and female. This is another way of indicating the sheer mystery of what we refer to as God in that this ultimately eludes all - necessarily polarised - phenomenal distinctions.

Again this unduly male emphasis on God has important consequences. It leads to an overemphasis on the otherworldly transcendent as opposed to a this worldly immanent aspect.

This in turn corresponds to a misleading hierarchy in Christian thinking where matter and the senses is placed on the lowest, followed by mind and reason on a higher ultimately leading to God and spirit at the highest level.

Even the greatest mystics in the Christian tradition demonstrate remnants of this unbalanced treatment.

I was greatly influenced by St. John of the Cross in my 20's and 30's. However ultimately even he maintains this unbalanced emphasis of reason over the senses.
So in coming to mystical union he teaches that the "lower" promptings of the senses (e.g. erotic impulses) must be controlled through the disciplined use of "higher" reason guided by spirit. However this is not strictly accurate. Ultimately pure spirit is attained through removing all rigid attachments with respect to both "higher" spiritual and "lower" sensual impulses. And the very precondition for success in this regard requires that matter (where spirit is made immanent) and spirit (which transcends all matter) be maintained on an equal basis thus enabling true liberation of the pure activity of will.

I have yet to even come across any account in Christian mysticism where the important psycho sexual dynamics of advancing contemplative development are addressed in an open and comprehensive matter.

This indeed is a huge failing and ultimately reflects this unbalanced and mistaken emphasis whereby the Earth (and the body) are considered inferior to mind (and the spirit). In other words a significant failure remains in balancing spiritual transcendence with spiritual immanence.

This imbalance is further accentuated through the doctrine of the Trinity where God is represented in even stronger (exclusively) male terms. Thus we have God the Father as one Person and then God the Son as the second person of the Trinity and the third person (which really represents the indivisible relationship of the other two persons) as God the Holy Spirit.

Now, as always, there is an important universal truth underlying this doctrine for we can only hope to understand God through using opposite polarities (which condition phenomenal understanding).
In Hegelian terms we could say that all understanding starts with a thesis; then this is opposed by its antithesis and the dynamic relationship between both then leads to a synthesis. So in dynamic terms truth must be represented in triadic terms through thesis, antithesis and synthesis (forming an integral dynamic unity). And this is a central truth which the doctrine of the Trinity in its own mythological manner can be seen to represent!

Once again God is neither male nor female (or equally both male and female). Therefore representing God (exclusively as Father) is both limiting and unbalanced. Likewise representing God as (exclusively) Son is again limiting and unbalanced.
Furthermore we have to remember that God is neither personal nor impersonal (or equally both personal and impersonal). So again using exclusively personal symbols with respect to God is likewise limiting and unbalanced.

In the Roman Catholic tradition we still have a clerical ministry that is exclusively male (with no women priests). And as institutional power is directly invested in the hierarchical clerical structure (with the Pope as its head) this means likewise that women are effectively excluded en masse from the power structures of the Church.

Now many are rightly aware in present times of the great injustice of such exclusion. However I would maintain that this incredible bias against women is deeply rooted in the very manner in which the central Christian doctrines are represented. And chief among these is the Trinity!

So before women can be granted their rightful place in the Catholic Church, we will have to revisit doctrines such as the Trinity and recognise the strong cultural bias that has dictated the male symbols actually used in its representation.

Of course it is not possible to exclude the feminine aspect entirely from religion and in Christianity (especially in the Roman Catholic tradition) a special place is reserved for Mary, Mother of Christ.

I find it especially fascinating however to observe the way that the role of Mary (Our Lady) is treated in Catholic theological terms.

Though admittedly honoured with a special status, it is made quite clear that Mary is not in fact God. Rather her privileged positions is seen to arise as a free gift from God (the Father).

Also the Catholic Church has defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception whereby it is believed that Mary was conceived without original sin. It also of course promotes belief in the virgin birth birth whereby Christ is conceived directly through the action of God (without sexual intercourse taking place).

So we have here the unfortunate conjunction as between original sin and sexual intercourse. And it has to be said that this has had an immensely unhealthy effect subsequently on Catholic teaching. Thus it has never been able to reconcile the important role of the World and normal body functions (such as sexual activity) with the equally important spiritual nature of humanity. Rather it has long maintained a mistaken hierarchy where the "lower" world of the senses (and the body) is considered as in many ways incompatible with the "higher" levels of mind and spirit.
Too often therefore the emphasis has been on mind (through reason) as necessary to control - and in truth censor - sensual impulses for spirit to unfold.

So the point I am making is that actual practice in the Churches often correlates with basic theological doctrines, the statement of which is strongly influenced by arbitrary - and necessarily limited - cultural interpretations.

Then when these interpretations become formulated as important doctrines, they assume a more absolute rigidity. This rigidity then becomes projected in the form of a whole set of unwarranted attitudes and assumptions with many unhealthy consequences.

For example there is a direct correspondence as between the manner in which women are treated in the Catholic Church and the theological understanding of Mary. Just as the privileges that Mary enjoyed are believed to have been granted by God, likewise any privileges bestowed on women in the church are at the behest of their male clerical masters (ultimately controlled by the Holy Father!).

Likewise just as traditional belief on the virgin birth has led to this unhealthy split as between spirit and the body, this has been especially projected on to women through a split in thinking with respect to the feminine archetype that lacks any true integration. So fallen woman (and the feminine body) is seen as the potential temptress for clerical (hopefully celibate) males. So women are excluded entirely from the priestly ministry and then because power structures are invested in this hierarchical ministry, they are likewise excluded entirely from all the important power structures in the Church.

And the ultimate basis for this - what is patently absurd - position is the manner in which Catholic doctrines have been formulated (where the male aspect unhealthily dominates to a remarkable extent).

Though once again all such doctrines point to important spiritual truths (with a universal meaning) the particular symbols used to express these truths are properly of an arbitrary limited nature.
Thus when we attempt to give these symbols an absolute meaning, such spiritual truths can assume a mythical and even magical meaning!

A key doctrine of the Christian Churches is that of the Incarnation whereby God (the Father) sends his only son Christ into the world to redeem it from sin and then having been subject to a cruel death rises from the dead. So for Christians eternal salvation is due to Christ's death (whereby he atoned for our sins).

Now I do not wish for a moment to reduce the importance of this doctrine in either theological or historical terms. No one can deny that Christ's life and death have exercised a dramatic influence giving rise perhaps to the greatest religious movement of the past 2000 years.

Likewise I would accept that in theological terms the doctrine of the Incarnation strives to portray spiritual truths of a universal nature.

However there are necessarily strong mythical elements in the way this doctrine is conventionally understood.

It starts with the basic understanding of the Trinity (which as we have already seen is couched in unbalanced male terms).
Again in human language, God is both personal and impersonal (and equally neither personal nor impersonal) which is another way of saying that God represents pure mystery (which ultimately cannot be grasped through phenomenal symbols).

However if we give God a male identity as Father, we should equally be giving God a female identity as Mother. However in the Christian tradition - for obvious cultural reasons - only the male aspect is recognised.

We are then told that God sends his only Son into the World. Once again it begs the question as to why only the male aspect is recognised. Why for example would God send a Son as opposed to a Daughter? So once again this arbitrary choice of personal "heirs" is dictated by cultural understandings.

The use of "only" while in a sense true is highly problematic. From an equally valid perspective we can say that everything in creation has its origin in God. So if we wish to use this language, every human being - and indeed everything that exists in creation - is sent into the World by God.

And there is a certain important sense in which every life is unique (thus distinguishing it from other things living). Thus in this sense we are all unique beings (sent into the world by God).

So in what sense is Christ different? Well he gradually realised I imagine as he grew up that he was destined to fill an important role as the special leader of the Jewish people (that had long been prophesied in their scriptures). It is also apparent that he had attained a very high level of spiritual realisation (i.e. his true nature as God).

There is a therefore a big distinction to be made as between the universal identity of every human being (and indeed living thing in creation) whose essential origin is God and the exceptional few who come to existentially realise in mature fashion this identity.

So we can say without hesitation that Christ would fall into this rare group of highly enlightened individuals who grow to realise their essential identity as God. However we have to say that this had already occurred for certain individuals several centuries before Christ. For example Buddha would be a good example of another rare individual that reached a similar level of spiritual realisation.

It is maintained that Christ had both a human and divine identity. But this is true - by definition - of all living beings (with the important proviso that very few in practice existentially realise to any significant degree their inherent divine nature). So Christ would have been exceptional - though not altogether unique - in attaining such God realisation.

We are then told that Christ was sent into the world to redeem sin. Now this is very interesting. In the most general sense sin relates to the manner in which we mistake phenomenal symbols (in the world) with spirit (which is of an empty ineffable nature). Thus in being attached to the World in so many ways sin takes hold in blotting out the pure light of spirit (which is our essential identity in God).

So to attain God realisation (of one's own inherent nature) one must die to sin (in all that is not spirit). Then when an individual (again admittedly rarely) reaches such a level of God realisation it generally leads to an active zeal to lead others towards the same destiny.

So there is always a collective nature to sin (which is shared by all). So in dying to our own sins we inevitably must embrace the sins of the world at large (in all the faults and limitations restricting the true vision of God).

So I would see the doctrine of the Incarnation - when divested of restrictive interpretations - as a very clear statement of the implications of achieving enlightenment (for one growing towards such realisation).

An interesting phrase is often used that God atoned for our sins by His death on the Cross. Now once again there is no absolute significance to the use of the Cross. However one can definitely say that overcoming sin (and attaining realisation) will always entail considerable suffering (certainly psychological and often physical) for this literally requires dying to all phenomenal attachments. So the death of Christ on the Cross is a particularly graphic and gruesome symbol of what might thereby be required.

Atonement is a very revealing word. It can be rewritten at-one-ment. In other words one becomes one with God in existential experience through dying to sin (representing attachment to phenomena of form).

In an important sense as all experience is necessarily of a collective (as well as uniquely individual) nature when one achieves enlightenment one thereby atones for the sins of others (helping them likewise towards similar enlightenment).

Then the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, points to the fundamental religious truth that life is spiritual and eternal (which thereby cannot end in death).

However certain mythical elements are still associated with conventional understanding. The idea that Jesus Christ - as a human being - could be without sin is existentially meaningless as sin with the limitations it causes is inseparable from our existence as human beings. Now there is a certain sense in terms of total God realisation that we could say that one is without sin but this could never fully happen while living on Earth as a human being.
And of course the death of Christ represents an event that is truly graphic in its raw existential dimensions. So it would be much more realistic to accept that Christ like everyone else suffered certain limitations (implying the effects of sin). And sin by its very nature entails both individual and collective dimensions. It is true that with the enlightened, sin becomes largely free of personal elements (enabling its embrace in an ever more collective sense). However with human beings original sin always necessarily remains. To be without original sin is therefore not to be human. So how can any human being therefore possibly identify with someone who is believed to be born without original sin?

There is an interesting paradox about being a Christian. A true follower of Christ (who has become enlightened) would essentially be the same as Christ in all important respects.
However for the many Christians who profess their beliefs (without truly realising God in their inner beings), Christ must always be a figure that is set apart to a degree magically as a kind of spiritual superhero (where His divinity is understood as exclusively unique!).

This also leads to an unwarranted exclusivity in portraying Christian doctrines which leads to barriers in furthering true authentic understanding between the various Churches.

Just one further example of this is given by the doctrine of Transubstantiation whereby it is maintained by the Catholic Church that in its mass at the Eucharist (Holy Communion) the bread and wine are literally transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ (with the accidental properties of the bread and wine used remaining unchanged).

I can only attempt to be honest here and state that this represents another good example of what is a somewhat magical interpretation in an admittedly sincere attempt to convey authentic mystical truth.
In normal understanding if the accidents remain unchanged (e.g. bread and wine) then no material transformation has taken place. So any transformation therefore involved must be of a spiritual - rather than material - nature.

So the essential truth of the Eucharist is the recognition that behind the veils of all material phenomena lies a true identity which is spiritual. And with the realisation of this spiritual nature comes the enhanced ability to recognise all phenomena as interconnected in a cosmic manner. So therefore we could perhaps explain the significance of the Eucharist more meaningfully in terms of a spiritual transformation (seeing spirit as the source and goal of all material phenomena) and then in a related secondary manner through an enlarged cosmic appreciation of the nature of material phenomena. So in this sense the bread and wine would indeed become transformed in understanding so as to represent all physical creation (symbolised in mystical terms by the Body and Blood of Christ).

The over literal attempt therefore to explain a doctrine (which has undoubtedly important mystical relevance) has created a major barrier in dialogue between the Roman Catholic and other Christian Churches.

The problem that will always remain is that it requires genuine mystical understanding to free such doctrines (from an over literal meaning).

Therefore it is inevitable that when dialogue is not actually informed by such mystical understanding that seemingly insuperable barriers to reconciliation will inevitably exist.

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