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In my study and practice of religio/spirituality I operate, as does everyone, under certain basic premises. One of these is the firm conviction that Truth transcends human knowledge. As the Christian Apostle Paul explained, what we consider to be reality is merely a dim glimmer in a darkened mirror. Primarily, we perceive our own reflection, our own preconceived, limited views (I Cor. 13:12). I also believe that we are quickly approaching a major paradigm shift which will radically alter those perceptions. As we enter what many have called the New Age or New Paradigm our actual perceptions, and the consciousness which generates them, are, even now, being transformed. We will be elevated to a higher realm of reality, wherein we will behold, not the Truth, but a clearer image of it. A little less dust will cover the mirror and our own enlightenment will add illumination. As this process continues, many, if not most, of our previous conceptions will be recognized as outmoded - not wrong, just insufficient. New understandings, new philosophical assumptions and new religio/spiritual conceptions will be born. This process of transformation is slow, and at times painful. It requires nothing less than the complete renovation of what we currently deem to be reality. In this new era spiritual and secular truths will merge in a type of spiritual symbiosis. Mysticism and personal spirituality will replace religion as the method of transcendence, even though many of the older forms will remain to offer their particular emphasis'. The current scientific methods of acquiring and evaluating knowledge will likewise be radically altered.
As we prepare for the new era, in the study of religion, East or West, there are certain philosophical and methodological difficulties which must be addressed. Among these is the question: If Jesus was correct, if we can know the truth and thereby become free, how do we do it (John 8:32)? There are many answers to this question of course, and herein I will present my own.
In the study of western religious history (or any other aspect of religious tradition), our intention, I should think, is to not only understand the development of religion and spirituality, but also to gain personal insight into the truths which have been proclaimed. In other words, it is not enough to gain a degree of academic mastery with regards some subject; we will also naturally want to reflect upon the wisdom they have shown and apply it to our own lives where applicable. Why else would one embark upon this course of study? As Plato said, "If a person had all that sort of knowledge that ever was, that person would not be at all the wiser; but only able to play with people, tripping them up and oversetting them with distinctions of words. Such a person would be like someone who pulls away a stool from someone who is about to sit down, and then laughs and makes merry at the sight of her or his friend overturning and laid on his or her back" (TW 737). Acquiring in-depth knowledge of religious traditions, without applying them to one's own life, seems senseless, as Plato says above. Implicit in the religious studies discipline is, one would therefore expect, the determination that through the acquired knowledge personal and/or social enlightenment will result. While I am aware that not everyone in the discipline shares this view, I can not understand why they don't. But for those who do, the discipline makes it possible to eclectically accept those aspects of the various traditions which further one's own spiritual quest, as well as intellectually understand the traditions and beliefs of others. Those aspects which we do not or can not personally accept, can be 'placed on the shelf' as gained knowledge which may be useful at a later date, and may be applicable to our own quest as our realizations deepen. In this way we further our own understandings while honoring the various traditions of others
Socially, it seems to me, the discipline is likewise vitally important. As the world becomes a smaller place in which to live, its cultures and religions are losing their ability to exist as in a vacuum. All too often violent confrontations occur between good-hearted people simply because they do not understand one another. Religious studies, as a discipline, can do much to remedy this situation by presenting information to the public which rightly reflects and honors the various traditions and encourages people to pursue a spiritual path of tolerance and mutual respect, whether that path is of a particular religion or is eclectic. In this way all may see that "religion is fundamentally one, though the sages call it by different names," to paraphrase the Upanishadic wisdom. The question remains however: what is the most efficacious method to "know the truth?"
In this attempt there are two primary schools of thought. There are those who approach religions and sacred texts critically, academically. Such people call into question all doctrines and beliefs, demanding that they be validated by contemporary scientific and philosophical methodology. They seek to gauge the ancient traditions through contemporary conventions, maintaining that any belief which can not be thus supported should be rejected as 'mere superstition.' The other view holds that the diverse traditions should be honored, and not subjected to an excessive amount of critical analysis from another discipline. According to this view, religio/spirituality is based on entirely different premises than contemporary philosophy, archeology, science etc. If contemporary theories such as natural selection or determinism were subjected to religious criteria, they would fail miserably (with the advent of the new sciences such as chaos theory, it is quite possible that science will confirm many of the religio/spiritual understandings and dispose of its own Note 1). It should not be surprising therefore that portions of the ancient traditions do not measure up to our criteria. This in no way negates their testimony.
There is, in my opinion, room and need for both methods of inquiry. As the Hindu Swami Vivekanada so aptly said:
"One thing should be especially remembered here, there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is, the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing [in this case the Mahabharata] is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask? It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas due to ignorance. In this country [India] people think very little of the importance of such inquiries ... But our duty should be to convince ourselves of the truth, to believe the truth only (SV 101, 102)
What this Truth is however, is not so easily defined.
If, for instance, scholars could prove their theory of the multiple authorship of Isaiah and other biblical books, or if they could produce the alleged illusive Q Document Note 2, which they can not, would this establish the Truth? I think not. Jesus' definition of truth is that it is that which sets us free. While one might argue that such knowledge might free us from ignorance, i.e. that we would no longer be fettered to the false notion that a single man, the prophet Isaiah, under the direct inspiration of his God, wrote all sixty-six chapters of the book bearing his name; such a view would be incomplete and offer nothing by which the soul could find liberation.
Unlike Hinduism, to which Vivekananda was referring above, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are historic religions. By that I mean that they rely upon the historical accuracy of their beliefs. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead, as the Scripture states, then "..your faith is vain, and you are yet in your sins" said the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 15: 17). This is very different than most Eastern religions. Swami Harshananda has pointed out that:
"What is called Hinduism in the present day could not be destroyed as no invader or foreigner or practicing Hindu could explore Hinduism in depth. Its roots are embedded in mysterious sources. Its branches have invaded the space. Hinduism is all-pervasive, all-inclusive and penetrating into the depths ... Even if the three Prasthanas (Authorities) namely, the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagadvadgita did not exist, that could have hardly done any harm to Hinduism (HG x).
This strength is not present in the three great Semitic religions. Since the fact is that no one can conclusively prove who wrote the books of the Bible, apologist or critic, or even when they were written in most cases, we should seriously consider the effects of such 'scholarly deductions' on the religious faithful as well as on society at large. The vast majority of religious Jews, Christians and Moslems firmly believe in the Divine authorship of the Bible Note 3. Furthermore, their faith, and in many cases their very lives, have been built upon the premise that in the Bible God has revealed the Divine Will and Purpose for the earth. Moreover, therein God has proclaimed the way of salvation. If Isaiah was not written by the prophet to whom it is ascribed, if there in fact existed a first and second Isaiah, as the book is often divided by scholars; if the Q Document were to be produced and if it contradicted the Gospels or seriously called their authorship into question, then the entire Bible would be suspect, not only as to which human instruments God employed to present the Word of Life, but more fundamentally, The Creator's very hand therein, nay, God's very existence! After all, how does one know of God? For the three Biblical religions the answer is, primarily through the pages of Scripture. As Fundamentalist Christians often say, "God said it [in the Bible], I believe it, that settles it." The same applies to many other areas of religious studies. This is, therefore, a most profound question which scholarly investigations, with their oft-premature conclusions, should, but I think seldom do, take into consideration. The potential ramifications of their research is unimaginable.
It has been said that contemporary science and philosophy has replaced religion in the West. While this thesis may be a bit extreme, there is some truth to it. The scientist/philosopher Ludwig von Bertalanffy has concluded:
I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in hard science, has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds. Society and science have been so steeped in the ideas of mechanism, utilitarianism and the economic concept of free competition, that instead of God, [Natural] Selection was enthroned as ultimate reality (A 156).
For many, faith in traditional western religion is no longer sufficient. Confused by the 'future shock' of the post-industrial (and post-modern) world, many are looking at the traditional religions and value systems and finding them wanting. Faith in the biblical accounts are being shattered by scientific reasoning and critical religious studies. Credulous faith in the Bible is no longer considered viable by the majority of people (LM 47-78). Belief in God, as historically exercised in the West, is becoming untenable (PN 95).
People such as Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, believes that the destruction of religion would be an important factor in freeing the masses, but let's consider the results more closely (LWG 34). What has been, and may be, the result of what Nietzsche called "the death of God?" Having lost faith in traditional religion, many, especially in the West, find themselves spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Without a spiritual context they find life meaningless, without any direction. As Nietzsche explained in his The Gay Science, this loss of faith by the "monstrous logic of terror" comes as a "prophet of gloom, as a solar eclipse whose like has never before been seen" (PN 447). As he predicted, a "long and all-encompassing period of ruin, destruction and cataclysm" seems to be descending upon our civilization, which was established upon religious convictions but now is becoming devoid of that rubric.
We need look no further than the evening news caste to validate his statements. Murder, assault, crimes of all types are skyrocketing in the spiritually-impoverished United States and throughout the West. What is emerging under the new religion of Scientism Note 4 is a nation and culture whose leadership is corrupt and whose citizenry are irrevocably divided; where faith in a better tomorrow is being replaced by the greedy pillage of future generations.
The situation is critical. According to Joseph Campbell, we can not maintain ourselves in the universe without some mythological belief context. Indeed, he says, the very fullness of our lives stands "in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of [our] rational thought but of [our] local mythology" (MoG 4). It is this local mythology which science and much of the current scholarly approach to religious studies is undermining.
Who could deny the marvels of modern science or the insights offered by comparative religious studies? Certainly not I. Without them my life would be very different. Despite this however, it must be admitted, as Erich Fromm has, that:While we have created wonderful things we have failed to make of ourselves beings for whom this tremendous effort would seem worthwhile. Ours is a life not of brotherliness, happiness, contentment but of spiritual chaos and bewilderment dangerously close to a state of madness - not the hysterical kind of madness which existed in the Middle Ages but a madness akin to schizophrenia in which the contact with inner reality is lost and thought is split from affect (PR 1,2).
In our pride contemporary society believes itself the most advanced ever to have existed upon this planet. We hail our 'discoveries' as absolute and boldly judge our predecessors by our own narrow standards. And yet, as Fromm has observed, the society which we have created is woefully inadequate with regards to human development and potential. David Frawley has further argued that even our modern advancements may not be as enlightened as they now appear. Modern technology, as well as contemporary methods of religious studies, continue to be limited by our mechanistic proclivities and concentration on the outer world which, alone, is deemed as real. Little if any attention is given to the inner realms, where true realizations and innovations are to be found. Furthermore, he says, our interpretation of history is no more real or objective than those of earlier ages and civilizations, perhaps even less so. As people always have, we judge the past from our present understandings and temperaments (GSK 22). For this reason, as we seek alternative understandings, let us not forget that:In every age people believe that their universe contains whatever is real and significant. In their temples, academies, monasteries, and universities they reject the rest as opinion and illusion. Forget the superstitions of the uneducated and the myths your parents taught you. For behold! Here is the true universe, awesome, vast and wondrous ... The scene is timeless. Yesterday a false universe, today the true universe (SW 40).
As Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua has explained, unless theories have some universally acceptable evidence, which these do not, and aid in the awakening of one's buddha nature, or spiritual consciousness, there is no relevancy to them. All mechanistic theories are groundless and therefore may be likened to science fiction (A 111- 156; comp. PN 522). Knowledge of them is merely 'extra baggage' which should be discarded (L 57).
Consistent with this is the Christian Apostle Paul's warning that "...It is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? ... Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? ... Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger that men" (I Cor. 1:19-25). Saint Augustine is even more concise. He says that, "One is miserable who knows all things, and does not know God; and one is happy who knows God, even though knowing nothing else ..." (TW 737).
From such comments it is clear that, from a religio/spiritual perspective, the important thing is the development of spiritual attunement, mukta, or salvation, not the accumulation of knowledge alone. The critical study of religions and their texts are, as stated above, very important, so long as they are kept in balance. No religion is knowable through intellectual study and speculation alone Note 5. Those scholars and academicians who approach religious studies from an 'objective perspective' simply can not understand their subject fully - "Without faith it is impossible to please God." At most, they are able to describe the outer aspects, the 'dim reflections.' As Samuel ben Kalonymus has said, "Among the heretical scholars there are a few who know of something like a reflection of the mysteries, though not of their substance (TW 418). To truly understand requires, at the very least, a kindred spirit or personal longing for realization/salvation. To the degree that this element is present within the discipline, to that extent it is truly beneficial. Conversely, those studies which have as their goal the destruction of people's faith and religious traditions, which seeks to disprove everything yet offers nothing superior in return, can benefit no one. Such scholarship has been called intellectual masturbation, but I call it intellectual assault and rape. If it doesn't free, it isn't Truth.
Science has a deep respect for scientific theory. Doctors are committed to the healing arts. In every discipline, the practitioners honor and support their various fields. It is very strange that in religious studies one is often respected for his or her ability to discredit religion and texts, the "Jesus Seminar" being merely one example among many.
As stated above, there is room and need for both basic methods of religious studies. Those who choose the critical path need merely redirect their intentions, in my opinion. Rather than attempt to demonstrate the falseness of the traditions, we should seek to support them. An example of how this type of scholarship can be implemented may be found in the book Life of Sri Ramanuja. Therein the Hindu Swami Ramakrishnananda seeks to support his thesis that Shri Ramanuja was an incarnation of Lakshmanna Note 6 by citing the Brhat Padmapurana, Naradapurana and Skandapurana. Swami Budhananda, his translator, points out that "We have tried our best to verify these traditional references. But unfortunately we have been unable to trace them in the published editions of those Puranas. Probably those were found in some versions available only in manuscript" (SR 74). In this way the apparent weakness of the text is acknowledged, while a possible explanation is given. If one were to find that in a great many cases Shri Ramakrishnananda's references were fictitious, which is certainly not the case, then his authority would rightly be called into question, which it is not. Furthermore, due to Shri Budhananda's handling of the situation, both he and Shri Ramakrishnananda maintain our much deserved respect.
This method will not undermine the discipline, rather it will enhance it by making it more informative to the subjects it considers, and more accurate in its depiction of the various traditions. The current system is based squarely upon the old reductionistic model of study, a method which is currently being rejected by many authorities in other fields. Bringing the discipline more in line with the New Paradigm will enable it to investigate depths of consideration presently not dreamed of. For instance, if one wished to examine a shamanic culture from the Old Paradigm perspective, one might critically reject its findings from the start, saying that as out-of-the-body experiences are not scientifically verifiable, they do not occur. This is the view taken by the Jesus Seminar. As a result of such shody scholarship, the only people who are being swayed by their 'research' are those devoid of faith anyway. [While at JFK one of my professors was a member of the Jesus Seminar. He and I enjoyed friendly banter of this type, though neither of us were convinced by the other]. With that premise, little value can be found in such traditions. Under the New Paradigm however, one would learn the techniques of shamanic journey and undertake them so as to discover their potential validity and contributions. By this open minded approach such experiences may be verified and the discipline can examine them experientially.
By thus redirecting our assumptions we can also honor the various traditions, while at the same time, uncover the validity or inauthenticity of their claims. This will not threaten the religious faithful, and they will therefore be more inclined to accept the results of such research and incorporate them. This will enhance people's willingness to accept both the strengths and the weaknesses of the various traditions and, as a result, they will grow in their understanding. With this, even in the West, people can learn to rejoice in the Truth, understanding, as Swami Vivekananda said above, that such researches will do nothing harmful and in fact will have a most beneficial role. This type of religious study, if done from an eclectic perspective, which I believe the discipline demands, will encourage inter-religious dialogue and a more eclectic spirituality which is based upon personal realizations rather than traditional dogma.
Under the current system of religious studies and those sciences with which it is associated, such as anthropology, archeology and the like, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water. For the most part, the only thing offered to replace the old religious systems is stark materialism, reliance on the limited understandings of science and the corrupt political systems. Regardless of our current ethnocentrism, these have never been sufficient to satisfy our inner needs. I submit they never will be. Despite this, western society, with few exceptions, has learned to accept the antiquated scientific notion that there exists an objective, physical reality which, only through their methodologies, is knowable. We have transformed the scientific community into an infallible, lab-coated priesthood. Conversely, the new sciences are now beginning to understand that there is no reality, no universe existing independent of our own experiences and perceptions (BS 181). Our myths and belief systems dictate our definition and understanding of 'reality.'
As we enter into the New Era, our antiquated understandings of religion and science must be reexamined. This will not be an easy task, however it is essential if we hope to establish a world of peace and justice. What we do now will determine the world we leave to our children, and theirs. For this reason, I see the need for a thorough reordering of this discipline. Its potential contributions to the emerging new world are immense, though they remain largely untapped.
When we seek to understand anything, religion, science, or what have you, it should be realized that as our perceptions are based upon personal observations, our views will be limited (BS 236,237; SW 113). In other words, we tend to find the answers we expect (BS 216). It is not, I'll believe it when I see it, but rather, I'll see it when I believe it. It is not that the scientific method is somehow unwilling to examine facts objectively. The problem is, as recent neurophysiological studies have repeatedly shown, that even before consciousness is established, our sensory perception is modified by a complex series of past experiences, expectations and purposes. Perception takes place in stages, yet requires only a finite time to occur. These stages include the initial perception with some type of conceptual content; an emotional response to that content; a verbal meaning analysis, and then finally what is commonly called consciousness (SW 163). Before we are even aware of our perception, we have undergone a thorough analysis and established the way in which we will respond (BS 187,188). The faint smell of perfume, for instance, may immediately evoke joy, sorrow, pleasure or pain through our associations with it (TP 295). Likewise, our assumptions regarding a particular people, the reality of gods, spirits and similar topics, will have a direct bearing upon our interpretation of religious myths and traditions (ex. GSK 36).
Our religious, philosophic, scientific and mythological beliefs need no longer be a divisive and destabilizing agent. With the advent of modern archeology, psychology, comparative religion and the cognitive sciences, we can at last establish a paradigm which unifies the world in a rational spiritual symbioses (MoG 4,5). In order to accomplish this however, we must continue to question and redefine our methods of knowing.
Traditional Western science has become so theory-laden by its own belief systems that it is highly unlikely to develop anything which violates its basic assumptions. The notion of pure, unbiased observation, which science requires, is therefore unattainable by the methodologies of the old paradigm (SW 35,36). This is finally being recognized within the scientific community itself. The result is the emerging cognitive sciences. The discipline of religious studies however, continues to a large degree, to base itself upon reductionism and the old paradigm. With the advent of the New Age Movement and the rethinking of New Thought and the Mind Sciences, traditional religion is being coaxed into the New Age. A case in point is 'contemporary Christian music.' This new worship music borrows heavily from the east with it almost chant like nature and emphasis on key words and phrases.
Gone (or going) are the days when we naively believed in an objective reality which, step by step, science would eventually come to understand (SW 31). Our gullible faith in material science, along with our submissive credence in the Church, seems to be coming to an end. This realization is central to the emerging New Paradigm. The scientists, philosophers and religionists who are embracing this aspect of the New Age are in the forefront of this revolutionary movement.
With the dawning of the new era, something more is taking place than simply the adoption of new theories. Despite the current Reaganesque turn to conservatism and fundamentalism, there seems to be a radical transformation in consciousness underway such as has not been seen for millennia (TP 33). Today any viable system of knowledge, whether science, religion, philosophy, or what have you, must have, at its basis, an understanding of the relative nature of human perception and our role as co-creators of reality (SW 33).
With the dawning of the New Era, something more is taking place than simply the adoption of new theories. Despite the current turn to conservatism and fundamentalism, there seems to be a radical transformation in consciousness underway such as has not been seen for millennia (TP 33). Today any viable system of knowledge, whether science, religion, philosophy, or what have you, must have, at its basis, an understanding of the relative nature of human perception and our role as co-creators of reality (SW 33).
End Part One
Go to: You Shall Know The Truth, part two
Go To: Reaching for the One
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