Chapter 2. The Divine Mystery: ‘Not this, Not that’
Almost as soon as I had finished studying theology at Cambridge, I was on my way to India. I did not stop to collect my degree in person. Instead, I wanted to reach Tambaram in time to start the summer term and my year at Madras Christian College. There, thanks to a World Council of Churches’ scholarship, I had the opportunity in an unstructured way to learn about Hinduism and Indian philosophy.
In the early sixties, world religions were not taught in schools and, apart from Oriental studies, they were seldom taught at universities. In Cambridge, Dr A C Bouquet, an Anglican priest and pioneer student of ‘comparative religion’, offered a course, but it was time-tabled for 5:00 p.m. in the summer term, just before the main examinations, and I was not surprised that only four other students had enrolled for the course.
Time spent in North Africa during my National Service and a visit to Israel sparked an interest in Islam and Judaism. The fascination with world religions was stimulated by preparatory reading for a conference arranged for young people who saw themselves as potential missionaries. Each of the speakers was keen to search, below superficial differences, for the deeper meeting points of religions. They included Kenneth Cragg, a sympathetic and very knowledgeable writer on Islam, George Appleton, who had worked in Burma for many years where he developed a love and respect for Buddhism and who was later to be Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, and Dr Basu, a Hindu scholar at Durham University, who spoke about two creative twentieth century thinkers, Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin.
It is hard now, forty years later, to remember the impact of the first weeks in India. Certainly I recall the humidity and the delight in the cool stillness of the early morning. I had to adjust to the food and to the way of life in an Indian student hostel --although almost at once I was taken out to buy a bed as it was assumed that unlike my fellow students a ‘white man’ could not sleep on the floor!
But perhaps intellectually the first surprise was that the reality of God was taken for granted. I am not just thinking of the images of divine beings that are omnipresent, but the philosophic acceptance of spiritual knowledge. Horst Georg Pöhlmann, writing of his first visit to India in 1989, says, "Religion is practiced as a matter of course; people pay brief visits to the temple between their shopping. . . Everyone in the street can see through the open temple door the sacred fire which burns in the dark sanctuary of the temple before the image of God. . . There is no distinction between the sacred and the profane, between religion and everyday, as with us. Here God really is a God of the everyday. Religion is something natural. . . It is an innermost need. . . There is no secularization. Everyone is religious. Among the Hindus every house, every shop, every rickshaw has the picture of a deity."
The situation in the sixties was more ambiguous. Recently Indian religious communities have affirmed their identity --often over against other groups -- by building new temples or restoring old ones. In the sixties the humanism and socialism of Pandit Nehru was still influential and perhaps the majority of students at Madras Christian College, except for the committed Christians, put their trust in Western values rather than traditional religious beliefs, although this was probably not true of students at the Hindu Vivekananda College, where I attended some lectures. In the West too, many people assumed the role of religion would continue to decline in the modern world.
1963 saw the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God, of which I first heard in a one paragraph report in an Indian newspaper, and of Paul van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. Both writers acknowledged their debt to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death by the Nazis. In his letters from prison he wrote of the world ‘coming of age’. By this he meant that people no longer believed in a transcendent realm and did not require God as an explanation of what happened in the world. ‘Honesty demands’, wrote Bonhoeffer, ‘that we recognize that we live in the world as if there were no God.’ ‘People feel that they can get along perfectly well without religion,’ said John Robinson and added that ‘Bonhoeffer’s answer was to say that God is deliberately calling us in this twentieth century to a form of Christianity that does not depend upon the premise of religion’.
At the same time, there was growing interest in Rudolf Bultmann’s call to ‘demythologize’ the Gospel. He claimed that whereas New Testament writers assumed divine intervention in history, such a belief was unintelligible to modern man and that the entire conception of a supernatural order which invades and perforates this one must be abandoned. It was argued that in a secular age people no longer believed in divine intervention or activity. For example, miracles could be given a ‘scientific’ explanation and few people spoke of natural disasters as ‘the judgement of God’. ‘But if so’, asked Robinson, ‘what do we mean by God, by revelation, and what becomes of Christianity?’ These ideas stimulated what became known as ‘Death of God’ theology. It was claimed that the idea of a transcendent God was outmoded, although writers differed on whether the image of God had to go or whether there was no God of whom to speak.
At the same time the questioning of the language and indeed of the reality of God was central to the study of religious philosophy in most British universities. Religious Language was under scrutiny from a school of philosophy known as ‘Linguistic Analysis’. In part, this was an attempt to answer the accusation of A. J. Ayer, a leading Logical Empiricist, that religious and theological expressions are without literal significance because there is no way in which they can be verified or falsified. Religious language, Ayer claimed, is entirely emotive and lacks all cognitive value. Linguistic analysts examined the way in which religious statements are actually used. They appear to make factual claims, for example, that after the Resurrection Jesus ascended into heaven, whereas this may be a coded way of expressing the hope that ‘Love is the strongest power in the universe.’ Religious belief was regarded as only an expression of intent to act in a certain ethical way. Religion was about how to behave and not about how to relate to a Divine Reality.
Suddenly to be immersed in Indian religious thinking, which assumes the existence of a Divine reality and that union with the Divine (moksa) is the goal of the spiritual quest, was liberating and refreshing. There are in classical Hinduism three recognized paths (sadhanas) to God: the way of disinterested service of others, the way of devotion and the way of knowledge (karma-yoga, bhakti-yoga and juana-yoga). The word yoga, which is cognate with the English word ‘yoke’, means union with God and the way to that union. The third path, juana, means spiritual insight rather than intellectual knowledge. There are two kinds of knowledge: one is the result of the study of the scriptures, but the other is realization or experience of union with the Divine. Intellectual knowledge is not enough. In the Chandogya Upanishad, the student Narada complains, ‘I have studied all the Vedas, grammar, the sciences and the fine arts, but I have not known the self and so I am in sorrow.’ Another conceited young student, Svetaketu, is asked by his father, ‘As you consider yourself so well-read . . . have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?’
Spiritual intuition -- the experience of the Divine -- is accepted in Hindu philosophy as a valid source of knowledge. This confirmed my feelings that the presuppositions of linguistic philosophy were too limited. Indeed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who exposed the limitations of our use of language, himself said, that there was a mystery beyond language. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent.’
For me this Hindu emphasis on experience of the Divine reinforced my own basic conviction. If I tried to summarize my deepest spiritual aspiration, I would use the words of St Paul, ‘It is no longer I that live, but Christ Jesus lives in me’ (Galatians 2, 20), or I would echo the yearning from the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer that ‘I might evermore dwell in Christ and he in me’. My faith was rooted in spiritual or mystical experience. Learning about Hindu philosophy and Western Idealist philosophers, such as Royce and Bosanquet, to whom my Indian Professor Dr. C. T. K. Chari introduced me, gave me an intellectual basis for a theology rooted in religious experience.
Let me clarify what I mean by religious experience by quoting from William James’ land-mark book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was first published in 1902. He puts clearly what I had myself sensed and for which I was discovering an intellectual basis in those first months of being immersed in Hindu philosophy.
‘The overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime and creed. In Hinduism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, . . . we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates language, and they do not grow old.’
The mystic experience is a sense of oneness with All Being --whether that is described as God, Nature or the Real. The experience cannot be adequately expressed in words. Although in Hinduism, many facets of the One Divine Being are pictured as gods, Hindu teachers have always made clear that there is only one Spiritual Reality. Brahman is the One Reality which is the Ground and Principle of all beings. Brahman is described as Being, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat., Cit. Ananda). Brahman cannot be described. ‘Neti, Neti, Not this, not that’. Hinduism can remind us of the holiness and wonder of a God who is beyond our imagining. It recalls the so-called ‘apophatic’ tradition in Christian thinking that God, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, is greater than any picture we have of the Divine. God is best spoken of in negative terms, as in the hymn ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.’
As the fourth century Greek father, Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329 - c.389), asked, ‘By what name shall we name you, you who are all beyond all name?’
Many Indian religious teachers remind us of the limitations of our language but at the same time they insist that we can sense our oneness with God, who is found in the very depth of our being. It is said that the soul or atman is one with Brahman. In Christian mystical tradition there is the same emphasis on discovering God as our deepest inner reality. The mediaeval mystic Meister Eckhart said, ‘the soul is nearer to God than it is to the body which makes us human.’ George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, spoke of the inner light, which he identified with the living Christ. Incidentally, he said he discovered this inner light, ‘experimentally, without the help of any man, book or writing.’
The emphasis on religious experience means also that in seeking to commend Christianity to others I have tried to start from people’s often half-glimpsed awareness of a deeper dimension to life.
Recently I have been writing an introductory book, Learn to Pray. It is intended for people who have never prayed and may not see themselves as religious. The editors and I had long discussions about whether to use the word God. Would it put people off even before they started to read the book? A recent survey showed that the majority of people questioned pictured God as ‘an old man with a long white beard up in the sky.’ It was not surprising that many of them also said that they did not believe in God.
Theology may have moved on from the ‘God is dead’ phase of the sixties, but to many in the West the language of religion and even more the reality of spiritual experience is still alien. A recent survey claimed that among a group of young people who called themselves Christian, forty five per cent said they did not believe in God. Christians who wish to encourage others to grow in faith have first to help people be aware of a deeper dimension to life. The mystery of a child’s birth, a near-death experience, the beauty of a sunset -- all these can make us aware that there is more to life than material existence. The occasional sense of the ‘timeless moment’ should be a threshold to the deeper mysteries of faith. To many people, however, the Church appears to offer pre-packaged answers which do not match their experience of life or their need.
One reason why, especially in the seventies and eighties, a number of people in the West turned to Eastern religions, was, I think, because they offered spiritual experience. Talking to a number of Europeans and Americans who have joined Hindu religious movements, all have said that they discovered in them a spiritual experience that they had not found in Christianity. Scripture and worship, ‘like fingers pointing to the moon’ should lead us beyond themselves and I have come to find the way of silence and contemplation often more helpful than elaborate and wordy worship.
How far the renewed interest of some Christians in the mystical and contemplative traditions is indebted to Hinduism it is hard to say, but Western Christians can still be helped to discover a deeper dimension to life by encounter with the authentic spiritual teaching and practice of Hinduism.