God as an ‘Object’ of Experience

Although it has become something of a cliche, the statement “Experience trumps faith” represents a high religio-spiritual concept.

For example, any amount of scientific knowledge about a particular brand of candy bar may “explain” the candy bar’s material facets, but it is only by tasting that we can personally, subjectively, truly, know if the candy bar is sweet. All prior assumptions, even when based on scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients, come under the category of “faith” or “faith-about”. That is, even exhaustive material-scientific knowledge of the candy’s ingredients may at most permit us to say that it probably will taste sweet, but only the criterion of actual tasting is the one thing that can bring the candy’s sweetness (or lack thereof)  out of the realm of mere intellection into the realm of personal experience, personal consciousness, and personal truth. Similarly, then, the proposition that spirituality is truly a “Way of Knowing” – a way of “gnosis” is, in my view, quite true and valuable for religion.  Jesus himself claimed that Eternal Life consists in “knowing” the heavenly Father and the Son whom He sent (John 17:3) – and not a matter of merely having faith in God as Something or Someone “out there”, Which can only believed-in, but not really, directly, experienced. Only by such direct experience can we taste of the manna and know that it is sweet indeed.

Philosophical proofs and evidences for the existence of God, Spirit, the human soul, etc., are not irrelevant or unimportant. But, in my view,  they ought to be secondary supports for an original, ineffable experience of Spirit. The wordless experience should come first, and its intellectual supporting structures and definitions second. Or at most, the intellectual structures might act as “lures” whose main purpose would be to lead the questioner into the ineffable experience of the divine – into prayer, contemplation, centering, or whatever name we might give the process (and its accompanying states). For instance, of what real use is faith vis-a-vis the Catholic sacrament of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? If Jesus is not, or cannot, be known in this – the most intimate of sacraments – then one wonders what the point of it is; if, in fact, this were the case, the Catholic communicant may as well just switch over to “sola fide”, Eucharist-free Protestantism. That is, one’s experience of the Real Presence had better be “Real”, and not something to merely be believed-in or believed-about!

Scholars such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, as well as “Great Sages” such as Ramana Maharshi, Bodhidharma, the Taoist Masters, “God (or Self-) Realized persons, and countless anonymous indigenous shamans globally, in varying ways of expressing the thought, claim that spiritualities are indeed “Paths of Knowing” and “Technologies of the Sacred”.

This kind of knowing differs from scientific and philosophical ways of knowing in that it refers the questioner inward, not to the external world (science) or to mental/intellectual considerations (philosophy), but to the human soul and its relationship, interactions, and its potential merger with God (“gnosis”). As such, these spiritualities function as “lenses” or sacraments through which God is “seen” (perceived) –  that is, known inwardly through immediate experience, whether direct or mediated. This experience, obviously, sidesteps the question of prior belief or unbelief, because its only requirement is to have an open mind, and is therefore available to believers and atheists alike, as the following hopes to illustrate.

Following the work of the American philosopher Ken Wilber, we might try to interest atheists in this “Direct Experience” approach to (spiritual) knowledge-acquisition:

1. The Injunction:  If you want to know ‘X’, then DO ‘Y’. If you want to know if Jupiter has moons, look through a telescope – if you want to know if its night time, look out a window; if you want to know about God, look through the appropriate lenses (e.g., meditation, contemplation).

2. The Experiment:  Put the Injunction to the test. Look through the lens; do the meditation. Take notes.

3. The Conclusion:  Collate and preserve all the aspects of the Experiment. Then compare notes with others – i.e., those who have already, adequately performed all the three steps. This is a form of “peer review” which places the three steps into a responsible social context.

If this three-step knowledge-acquisition process is valid, then it is one that can be carried out by believer and unbeliever alike. There is no prior “faith burden” or “unbelief burden” to come between the participant and the experiment. It is fair-minded and invitational. This “test” is open to all – and therefore, atheists, as well as believers, may consider themselves equally invited to participate.

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(Notes from a Shin perspective:)

It would seem that Jodo Shinshu adherents are at least partially exempt from this process, for the simple reason that they do not so much typically rely on a three-step process (or any other) of inquiry, but more on a non-intellectual but experiential “Calling” from Amida Buddha, issued from His Presence on “the Other Shore”. It is as if the great “Raft” from that shore has arrived at our feet … unbidden. Our mysteriously-received Faith is at once “faith-full” and experiential.

Amida’s Call has been issued and has pierced our heart with its love-laden arrow. Our only reply to this gift is to voice, verbally or mentally, our simple, sincere “Thank-You” as phrased in the Nembutsu. Amida has enabled us to sidestep the three-step inquiry, without our having to strive with its inherently self-powered methods of searching.

Namo Amida Butsu.


Materialists, the Human Soul, and Introspection

One issue I’d like to bring up is the question of how to communicate the idea of non-material reality to those who claim that matter is a universal fact of being, a stance, which by nature, cannot allow for the existence of, and evidence for, spiritual realities, entities, and “realms”.

In claiming that only matter exists, materialists let themselves off the metaphysical hook, because they a priori  dismiss evidence for non-material realities. They talk the liberal, open-minded approach – you know: “I’m open to believing if you show me the evidence”. However, since evidence for the non-material is itself non-material, the atheists cannot and will not accept such evidence. Which, in a negative sense, makes them the “winners” because they live in an air-tight dialectical bubble, where nothing from “the outside” can reach them and shatter their worldview. So, how to reach them, since there is no argumentation they will accept?

Perhaps one angle of approach would be to attempt to address the fact of their own non-materiality, i.e., their own mental functions and their subjective selves.
At first, they will no doubt protest that the self is nothing but a product of neurological function. The reply to that, I think, would be to ask them to introvert, to “look inside” not only at the fact that they are conscious, but also to examine the contents of their consciousness. At that point, it should be easy to show how utterly different mental life is from the brain – and the first thing they will discover is that they won’t find anything like a brain or a body within the field of their awareness.

The brain is a three-pound skull organ, whose purpose and functions are well-known. And none of those functions demonstrably constitutes the creation of a mind or mental contents. At best, there is only a correlation between the two, but not an identity. On principle, “Like begets like” – so the brain might perhaps beget more brain – but never a non-material, subjective self. Moreover, the brain is not “about” anything, whereas the psyche is “about” everything under the sun, including the experience of its own – non-material – contents. Therefore, to claim that brain equals mind, self, subjectivity the qualia, personhood, etc., is to commit a category error of egregious proportions.

One suggestion for mental introversion would be to have the experimenter realize that he or she is the observer – that is, in and as a non-material self, he or she can realize that the body and the myriad objects witnessed within the stream of the introverted consciousness are simply things that exist outside the observer, and are therefore not the observer him–or-herself. This will bring the realization that the observer – the soul, the self – is not material and is not part of the passing objects that stream by in front of the observing self. Rather, the observer is the non-material consciousness that merely – simply – witnesses the passing sense impressions and mental phenomena, and therefore, because it is not identifiable with such material-world phenomena, is not a material category – not a body and not a brain.

So, if materialists could be weaned from their naive “Brain equals mind” / “We ARE the brain!” perspective, simply by having them empirically discover, via introspection, that the exact opposite is the case, their materialism might weaken – and weaken to the extent that they would begin to make intellectual room for God, the Spirit, and the human soul.

I think that this hands-on, empirical, experiential approach would have at least as much success as pointing materialists to books, websites and philosophical ruminations, on the principle that experience trumps mere intellection or “belief-in”. That is, giving a person real fishing equipment to catch real fish is more pragmatic than merely telling a person about fish and how to catch them. Introspection could function as the unbeliever’s rod and reel, with the Catch being as big as their net could handle.

These considerations also seem to at least in part successfully dovetail with certain categories in Jodo Shinshu – namely the experiential reality of the non-material Transcendent as postulated by Masters Shinran and Rennyo and interpreted so well for us by scholars such as John Paraskevopoulos, D.T. Suzuki, Harold Stewart, and others. “Our” Transcendent – “our” Amida Buddha and his gift of Shinjin – are our very own experienced, unmediated reality of “the Other Shore” – from which our “Raft” of salvation has sailed to us for our benefit.

New Book by Richard Smoley

Longtime scholar of religion Richard Smoley has written a fascinating book about the origins of Western religion titled, How God Became God:

The book follows the historical, historical and ecclesiastical path of religion in the West, and therefore concentrates on Judaism and Christianity. Much attention is given to ancient Israel and the origins of its deity. Or perhaps we should say, “deities”.

As Smoley shows (and here his work dovetails with that of Margaret Barker and the late Alan Segal), in pre-Deuteronomic times, Israel had a binitarian theology. That is, the ultimate God was held to be El Elyon (the Most High), but this topmost father-god had a multitude of “sons”, who were conceptualized as other, lesser gods – or as angelic beings – who constituted El Elyon’s high council. At one point, the Most High appointed each of the world’s nations to an angel, a process by which the Council’s god/angels  became a protector, benefactor, and judge of a particular earthly nation. Surprisingly, this scenario is embedded in the Jewish Bible itself,  in Deuteronomy 32:7-9:

7 “Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, Your elders, and they will tell you. “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, When He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the sons of Israel.  9 “For the LORD’S portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.… (Bible Hub)

From the inception of this belief, an ancient tradition looked to the “second God” or “Great Angel” of Israel as that nation’s guiding, tutelary, and judging deity, a literal Son of the Most High. He went by several names such as Yahoel, Son of Man, Heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon), and Metatron, but for religious and historical purposes, his greatest name is Yahweh.

Far from the traditional, commonly received picture of Yahweh being the high God, in the earlier picture, Yahweh was God’s (El Elyon’s) Son, representative, servant, and Israel’s particular “deity”. Of course this means that Judaism, at least in part, contained a conception of “Two Powers in Heaven” – El Elyon and his Son, Yahweh. The situation is even more complex, per Barker, when it is realized that Yahweh the Son had a female consort – possibly a mother figure or simply a spouse. Thus a royal-divine dyad on earth was worshipped in Israel, along with a most high Father. Some of the prophets raged against the divine consort and urged that her symbols be permanently removed from the Temple. And, in any case, the ancient El Elyon-Yahweh dynamic plays a huge role in New Testament christology.

The New Testament Jesus identified himself with a Jewish figure called the Son of Man. In certain texts, he uses it as a circumlocution for “this guy”, i.e., “me, myself”. But in others, he seems to be speaking of the heavenly Son of Man who is enthroned next to the Most High, in which case he would have equally have been speaking of the Angel, Adam Kadmon, or of Yahweh (again, not as topmost deity, but as son of El Elyon). This makes sense of Jesus’ answer to the high priest Caiaphas’ question about his identity, where Jesus says that people will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with “Power” (another circumlocution designating God). And it would mean that Jesus’ frequent New Testament references to his own sonship in relation to God could in reality represent the ancient view of Yahweh’s son-like relationship to El Elyon.

This christology would mean that the New Testament Jesus is actually saying that he is not the high God, the Most High, but rather that he is the son of the Most High,  Israel’s Great Angel. This in turn might explain why the earliest Jewish-Christian sects held that Jesus – unlike his later Trinitarian counterpart – is a divine Son, but of course cannot not be the Father-Creator-Most High. And this notion is supported in Patristic reports of several early Jewish “Christ cults” which claimed that Jesus had been a righteous man in whom the heavenly Messiah-Christ, the heavenly Adam (Adam Kadmon) “incarnated”.

The El Elyon/heavenly Father-to-Jesus/Yahweh/the Son relationship is only one of many refreshing and informative points of interest in Smoley’s book, which I strongly recommend for anyone interested in religion, religious history, and christology.



Buddhism and the New Testament

This is my response to a discussion over at Dharma Wheel, **

regarding the question of whether Buddhism can “absorb” other religions. Of course, there are many paths to “the One”, but I think it strains the capacity, as well as the purposes, of any religion to absorb all the others:

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I don’t see how all religions could be absorbed into Buddhism, although I do think that most religions and expressions of spirituality share certain core ideas and values with Buddhism. For example, and not to stretch a point too far, some would associate, if not identify, particular aspects of the New Testament teaching with Buddhistic ideas.

Like Buddha, Jesus taught a way of self-denial (“take up your cross daily and follow me”; “whoever loses oneself for the Kingdom will find oneself”), which – when sincerely practiced – would ideally lead to self-transcendence (“resurrection”). Thus, Jesus taught, at least in some of his parables and sayings, a kind of “ego-death” brought on by centering the self in Spirit rather than in world and culture. Some would even say that his life and death represent the victory of Spirit over culture.

His saying, “seek first the Kingdom of God” / which “is within you and among you” could be interpreted as brushing aside all peripheral values by way of a kind of “not this”/”not that” stripping away of egoic, cultural, “super-egoic” categories, and blossoming into one’s true spiritual nature which at base is not separate from unadulterated Spirit. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 says

“Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

In this passage, perhaps similarly to Buddhism, “evil desire” is an obstruction to merging with the Divine Nature – and if we would care to associate this with a participation in Bodhi, discovering of our real Buddha Nature, and our link to the Dharmakaya, then we might see some Buddhistic parallels. This interpretation, of course, even if accurate, does not mean that NT categories can or should be absorbed into Buddhism. It merely indicates that the two systems may be spiritual cousins in some very central matters.

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Too much me vs. you

Following the recent US election, I am shocked and disappointed in the reactions of the Left. I “tend toward” the Left in many things myself, but the violent, clownish and infantile Leftist response to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has thoroughly disgusted me. Talk about sore losers. Talk about demonizing one’s fellow citizens, starting with Hillary Clinton’s calling potential Trump supporters  “the Deplorables”, right down to the point, immediately after the election, when arrogant Leftists took it upon themselves to condemn voters who elected Trump, holding signs that said, “Your vote was a hate crime!”  This kind of reaction just staggers me, and is contrary to the spirit inherent in the voting process of a democratic nation.

What has this country come to? I have witnessed people I have known, and known affectionately, for years, unfriending people on Facebook, to the extent of announcing that anyone who they may have missed on their lists might as well unfriend them as well. Ending friendships, sometimes lifetimes long in the case of younger posters, speaks volumes about the attitudes and values of the “noble, tolerant, liberal Left”.

Morally speaking, its “there” seems to have absconded, only to be replaced by the very fascism that the Left falsely claims to eschew. Haughty hypocrisy has become the rule, not the exception. I myself do confess to a kind of uncharitable satisfaction watching the Left play out all the cliches projected onto it by the Right, such as its sore loser-ism, its fascistic thinking, its whining and its (quite literal) weeping, its impotent rage, its sissified indulgence in hurt feelings, etc.

Donald Trump is no dream come true. I didn’t vote for him, any more than I voted for Clinton – on the principle that voting for “the lesser evil” is still voting for evil. We are now stuck with the evil – as well as any potential good – that the voters put into place in the White House as of November, 2016. The Leftists need to grow up and accept this simple fact, or risk becoming the living stereotypes which the Right perceives them to be.

“Exorcist”: Iraq Prologue: Its Purpose

The prologue in Iraq – featured in both Blatty’s (R.I.P.) novel and Friedkin’s film – connects with the rest of the story because it introduces the viewer, from the first frame, to the theme of “the Demonic”, and to “the exorcist”, Fr. Lankester Merrin.

Merrin’s ongoing fearful reaction to the stone Pazuzu amulet, and the large Pazuzu statue on the hill, describe his inner state. Since they convey and produce fear, we immediately know that there is “something special” that accrues to them – something which is evil. The museum curator acknowledges this when he says of the amulet, “evil against evil”. As a Muslim, he probably believes that Paganism and its charms and idols are evil. But Merrin – as the story will tell us – is familiar with an even more universal evil, namely a demon he expelled some twelve years earlier.

The sense of evil and omen is not limited to the statuary at the dig. It is present in the over-loud street noises as Merrin takes tea; in staring Arabs; in the nitro that we see him taking. He is old and has a bad heart. When the clock stops in the curator’s office, it means more than a classic paranormal event presaging death: in a real sense, it hints at the stopping of Merrin’s own “ticker”, which happens at the story’s climax.

Merrin also runs across evil in the form of human weakness and illness: he sees an Iraqi leading a blind or lame partner by the hand; then he encounters a blacksmith afflicted with blindness in one eye.

The omens and premonitions continue: along his way he is nearly run over by a droshky whose passenger is an old, sick-looking woman. Just before this, we see that he is being watched by a silent man in a tower. Omens and premonitions.

What had started as a standard archeological dig has now become a projection-carrier for Merrin’s fears, specifically as the novel says, in the certainty that “soon he would face an ancient enemy”. The very air of Iraq itself now reminds Merrin of the kinds of feelings he had in the African exorcism twelve years before.  The atmosphere has become, in Jungian terms, a projection carrier for the elderly cleric.

Finally, the old priest confronts the Pazuzu statue, but not without first encountering rifle-toting guards. As he ascends the hill, the camera shows a single Arab staring at Merrin, while the soundtrack presents the sound of tumbling rocks (will Merrin “lose his footing”?).

Then, as he faces the Pazuzu statue by the light of the setting sun, a demonic wind whips up to the tune of the frenzied growling of fighting dogs, while the soundtrack mixes a guttural “MERRIN!” into their cacophony.

That’s how Merrin and the Iraq prologue tie into the rest of the story. Once we see the old priest from the prologue walking in the American woods, and then arrive at the MacNeil house, we realize that the story is coming full circle and that now Merrin will indeed face “the ancient enemy”.

One misconception accrues to the prologue, namely, the notion that the archaeological dig somehow disturbed and released a sleeping or dormant demon. This explanation doesn’t really work, because  the demon is not confined to any time and place – it is a non-material spirit entity completely free of any dependence on territorial or geographical roots. It is free to travel, to scrutinize potential victims, to go about the world in its own dark odyssey. Merrin first met it twelve years earlier in Africa – but who knows where it had been in earlier centuries and in different locales? Since its exorcism, it has been keeping tabs on Merrin, and Merrin, as the prologue shows, is psychically linked to the demon. He intuits its re-emergence into the world and into his life while he’s excavating.

But the excavation itself is not a causal element in Regan’s possession. The novel explains that the demon strongly desired a grudge match with Merrin because it did not like losing that time before, in Africa. It had  finally located another target in the person of Regan MacNeil. Merrin sensed that something was brewing again, and went back to the States where he began working on another book, passing the time before the ultimate encounter. Events then conspire to convey the bishop’s message to Merrin, based on Damien Karras’s exorcism request. And we know how the story goes from there.

Merry Christmas…

…to all who celebrate or observe the holiday, even if only to have a day off to be with yourself, your friends, your families.

Recalling  the atheist slogan that appeared on billboards a few years ago (you know the one) showing a traditional Nativity-creche scene with the caption, “You know it’s a myth!”. I would only comment, as I have before, that the Gospels’ (Luke, Matthew) Infancy Narratives are not myths in the sense connoted by the modern non-believing critics – first because they are not primordial traditions, or survivals of such, as the critics imply; and second, because their proper literary category is not myth to begin with.

As certain scholars have pointed out, the Infancy Narratives are a type of literature that forms a prologue to the main body of the Gospel to follow; and as a parable that delineates the main theological and christological themes of the following Gospel. These stories are, therefore, not “myth” in the “ancient pagan religions” connotation – they are not legends handed down from times in the primordial past – but rather preambles, overtures, and parables. They are ways of explaining that what Jesus was at his Ascension, Resurrection, Crucifixion, during his career/mission, his Spirit-receiving baptism by John in the Jordan … he was also all those things at his birth. Each Infancy Narrative echoes all these spiritual themes in its own way.

Luke emphasises the Pax Romana, a time of order and peace, into which Jesus is peacefully born; Matthew, on the other hand, depicts the Savior’s birth against a backdrop of political antagonism, with the holy family needing to escape the “pogrom” of Herod the Great against Jewish infants of Bethlehemic birth. And the two Evangelists (Gospel authors) weave into their Infancy stories themes that will fully blossom later in the main text of their respective Gospels. The birth stories are in one sense condensed or miniaturized “mini-Gospels” in themselves, by way of their revelation of Jesus as God’s pre-selected Christ and Son of God, a selection, as Luke tells it, that was made even before his earthly birth.

So the ancient myth connotation that the modern “Mythicist” critics falsely project on the Infancy Narratives is a simple misconstrual of the type of literature in which the birth stories actually consist.  The late scholar Raymond E. Brown identifies the Narratives’ profound, complex connection with Jewish – not Pagan – theology, traditions, allegory, and mysticism. The Infancy Narratives are rooted in remembered stories about Jesus’ Jewish ministry to Jewish people in Jewish Galilee and Judea, as well as in “midrash” and interpretation/re-interpretation of Jesus associated with extant Jewish themes.

Finally, I would remark that Matthew’s and Luke’s Overtures/Preambles and Parabolic disclosures are “mythic” only in the sense that they didn’t occur in mundane, historical, material space-time. They may not be historical/scientific, quantifiable facts, but what they express is nonetheless truth – truth allegorically expressed, because allegory  – as scholars such as C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell have shown us – is the only way in which certain sacred and ineffable realities can be expressed on the human level.  And, because it taps into and expresses deep archetypal material from “the eternal verities” of the soul, it is not dependent upon modern notions about science and history as defined in our post-Enlightenment culture.

Our God-experience, our God-conceptualization – must be refracted through the prism of human language for it to be understandable. And the Infancy Narratives – the Gospels’ Christmas story – continue to succeed on that level. Their language fits the truths they convey. They refer the reader outward – not into pagan myth – but into Jewish, biblical history, and to the memory of the humbly-born Nazarene whom they claim as Messiah and Lord.

Merry Christmas.

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Two excellent books on this subject immediately come to mind, and to which I refer the interested reader:


… and …