THE SHOCK OF AWAKENING

Frank Parkinson writes

The birth of Christianity was more than a spiritual awakening. With two thousand years of hindsight we can see it as an evolutionary fork, when those who had received the “good news” felt empowered to become a new kind of human. This is Pauline doctrine, and he uses the very specific phrase kainos anthropos – the new human being – to make his point (Ephesians 4:24). In evolutionary terms he was arguing for Homo novus to follow on Homo sapiens.

The religious awakening that became Christianity began with Paul’s dramatic realisation that in some unclear but vitally important way the man Jesus was different: he had what Quakers call “that of God within”. Thus he offered a blueprint, so to speak, for those who desired to have this kind of consciousness. The whole point of Pauline Christianity was to “take on the mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).

However, in order to reconcile this new God-within-us and the distant creator God of Judaism a third element of divinity had to be intro­duced, and this was, of course, the Holy Spirit, which Bishop John V Taylor memorably called “the Go-between-God” in his book with that title. This new facet of divinity was preached and transmitted as a source of spiritual energy, love and deep-seated joy. It is the force behind and within all creation, not worshipped like the old God but shared. Christians prayed out of a sense of incompleteness, Veni Creator Spiritus – Come, Spirit of Creation. It was intoxicating – a God who was on our side!

The concept of a divine spirit is by no means absent from the Old Testament, but on the margin, the corresponding term ruach vaguely suggesting the invisible, wind-like action of God. It is of the greatest significance that Jesus himself, at least as reported in the gospels, would have rejected the doctrine of a trinitarian God, for when he was asked what was the greatest commandment, he replied, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one” (Mark 12:28). It is interesting also that five centuries later Mohamed was to see Christianity’s theology of a triune God not as a religious advance but as a regression to polytheism.

Now we stand on the threshold of new religious awakening. If, as Thomas Aquinas argued, we learn about the Creator by learning about its creation, then the obvious place to look for new understanding of God is science , for it is science that is telling us how the world, and each one of us, has come about. Two theories of evolution which have emerged in the past century throw a dazzling new light on both “the new human” and the nature of a shared divinity – i.e., the Holy Spirit or Go-between-God.

The gist of both theories can be understood by a normal ten year old child – no maths required! The first hinges on belief that human evolution, which has taken us from apes in the trees to space explorers, is still continuing. As one looks at the tragic state of the world today, that is not obvious. Indeed, a recent book on the subject subtitled “The Myth of Human Progress” probably speaks for most people. The new spiritual and religious awakening is the realisation that if human evolution is to continue, the next stage will depend upon us in partnership with the Spirit: we are called to be co-creators in the most literal sense. This has been well expressed by the very anti-Christian biologist E. O. Wilson, who wrote in his major work Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge:

Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us …. Soon we must look deep within us and decide what we wish to become.

What he did not say is what Gandhi had said half a century earlier,

You must yourself be the change that you wish to see.

From this dual perspective, awakening to new awareness is about a clear-eyed commitment to transformation of the species and of our familiar self. In the process the concept “will of God”, which has been the psychological driver for the so-called Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – will take on new meaning and new force.

A new awakening will call for honesty of a most painful kind from which many sincere Christians will draw back instinctively. Do we really believe that the body of Jesus is floating in a heaven above the clouds until he returns again? Do we really believe that his dead body came to life before ascending there? St Paul insisted that this was fundamental in his new religion. If it is taken out, can what is left still be called Christianity? Facing truth at this level can be as painful as deliberately breaking a bone to allow it to reset correctly. There is need for a kind of faith beyond faith, what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “trusting the current that knows the way,” and trust at this depth is something very different from hope. It becomes a defining new form of human consciousness. For the individual it is life-changing, for the human species it is an evolutionary inflection point as important as when our distant ancestors walked, or tried to walk, on two legs.

The second theory rests on a kind of faith in cosmic evolution: do we or do we not believe that time, space and the cosmos came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang some fourteen billion years ago? The question poses no problem for religion but impales science on the horns of a dilemma, for while the evidence brought back by space satellites tells us uncompromisingly that there was a creation event of some kind and thus, logically, a creating power of some kind, to accept this would seem to let in the “occult forces” that Newton had said were the very antithesis of science. Broadly speaking, physicists hold that our universe was self-created by a “quantum fluctuation” in a field of virtual energy that has existed from eternity. In a word, it was an event without a cause that happened in an unobservable reality. From this perspective the coherence of science is now seen to depend, no less than religion, on “faith in things unseen”. What emerges from an honest acceptance of this state of affairs is that true science and true religion are more than just harmonious, they are symbiotic: science learns about reality from the outside, as it were, religion experiences it from the inside. There cannot be two realities.

The theological conclusions of the new cosmology are profound. No longer can we believe that “God” created the universe and each of us by his word out of nothing – a beautiful doctrine in itself – for logic and honesty now force us to conclude that everything has its origin in the Creating Source. Thus, far from being made out of nothing, the long view of cosmic history reveals that we are ultimately made of God-stuff and, in our own small way, God-consciousness. This is significantly different from what Paul called Christ-consciousness. Christianity, we now can see, has left us at the gate.

The first part of this article made the general point that we stand on the threshold of a new understanding of religion and spirituality in which the essence of Christianity, “taking on the mind that was in Christ”, will be seen within the context of an evolving species and of science’s discovery of a universe which began fourteen billion years ago in a moment of creation. We are now challenged to go on to a deeper understanding of “the mind of Christ” and a renewed commitment to acquire it.

The new awakening has been expressed in the Jesuit Karl Rahner’s often quoted assertion that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all,” argued also by other theologians, such as Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry. Rahner did not go on to explain what being a mystic implies, nor how to become one, nor the kind of community structure that will be needed to guide and support its members and propagate its new good news. Nor does he mention that “mysticism” has been repeatedly condemned by both the Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity, as well as by Islam and Judaism. It is a sorry record. In the Roman church the teachings of Molinos, Eckhart and Madame Guyon, among many others, were banned, the Béguine communities were stamped out, Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake and in 1687 the blanket term “Quietism” was invented in a papal anathema to clearly define any movement towards mysticism as a heresy. The Protestant record is hardly better. The Blasphemy Acts in Britain were speci­fically passed to crush Quakerism, which Evelyn Underhill called “group mysticism” (perhaps too enthusiastically) in her classical work Mysticism. In the American colonies, ostensibly upholders of religious freedom, the Quaker Mary Dyer was “hanged like a flag for others to take example by.” To make the same point the Moslem and Sufi mystic Al Hallaj had been crucified and chopped to pieces in Baghdad some centuries before and, Jesus himself was stoned “for blasphemy, that you a mere man, should make yourself out to be God” (John 10:33).

The Anglican William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which is almost pure mystical doctrine, asserts quite bluntly that “wherever thou goest, thou wilt have a priest, a church and an altar along with thee,” and in considering the implications of this, one starts to see the mortal danger that mysticism presents to Christianity as we have inherited it. Clearly it is a threat to traditional structures and authorities, but also to long-established and valued communities and to good and honest individuals who have a need for authority or for what is called today “a strong steer”. We are all in our different ways shorn lambs for whom the wind must be tempered. Clearly mysticism is a hugely ambivalent concept and unclear goal. It is at once the highest spiritual ideal, yet perceived by organised religion as a foreign body. It is at once the ultimate purpose of religion, yet regarded as both undesirable and unattainable. It is, in the words of the eminent and authoritative Karl Barth, no more than a “misty theology leading to schism.”

If Rahner is right, however, then Christianity in the form passed down to us is a transitional religion, and logically the next phase will call for a new kind of grouping, a new kind of theology and a new kind of religion in which “mysticism” is not a marginal and impractical ideal but its whole point and purpose. A new wineskin is called for, as once it was for a budding Christianity, and in this situation an amorphous New Age network or spiritual supermarket are not going to answer to that need, nor is a reformed Church offering only cosmetic change. One starts to understand why St Paul listed organisational skill (cyberneseis) among his gifts of the Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:28). There is nothing for it but to co-opt the Holy Spirit, aware of the paradox that it is the same Spirit that moves us to call on it in the first place.

For a start, we shall need a much clearer understanding of what the word “mystic” means. Does it include nature mysticism? Is nature mysticism, in fact, the easiest entry into a more universal kind? Is mysticism another word for an empathy that widens to include all creation? Do bells and candles and incense help or hinder? How can an unclear and doubtfully attainable ideal compete with the ever-present reality of the Old Adam? It seems like a “no contest”. Mysticism, in the broad sense of habitual God-awareness, is abnormal and unnatural, but that should count in its favour if we consider that every step that has taken us from the ape was seen and felt at the time to be unnatural. It is inevitable therefore that the next step too will seem at first unnatural and indeed it will be so. This should, however, encourage those who belief that true religion is about changing human nature

Awakening can be enlightening and exhilarating, but the really shocking aspect comes from awakening to the fact that it will ultimately entail a death of some kind. Some part of the old familiar self must be given up and its abandonment can be as traumatic as death. On this Paul and the most reliable spiritual guides in the Christian tradition agree. It may be seen as the fruitful death of a grain of wheat, as Jesus put it, or as the death of the caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly, but shorn of the comforting metaphor the death of the old and familiar can hardly be anything but painful, confusing and instinctively resisted. What awaits on the other side, so to speak, is a radical change in our sense of identity, so that a genuine awakening can be recognized in the fact that after it has happened, one will give a different answer to the question, Who am I?

And here a second paradox arises, for, as Abbot Chapman emphasizes in his Spiritual Letters, when it comes to spiritual development, we are what we want to be, but at the same time we are painfully aware that we are not what we want to be. How does one cope with that kind of split identity? We are also what we know; so hidden in the simple word “awakening” is an educational programme as yet unwritten. Much can be learned from the past, for trans­formation – metanoia – was not invented yesterday, but the spiritual seeker faces new kinds of challenge today. Perhaps Rahner should have said “would-be mystic”, rather than “mystic”, for to go in one leap from being an ordinary decent, even a spiritually inclined human to a state of habitual awareness of the divine – in the cosmos, in the natural world and in our self – is beyond anyone’s unaided powers. Questions like these ramify.

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