The Scientific and Medical Network, an association mainly of professional people, centres its interests around recovery of the spiritual dimension often felt to be omitted from modern science. This talk (here abridged) was delivered to the West London Group by George Walford on January 20th 1993. – GW
Some people, especially in the East, have gurus, and I had a friend, Harold Walsby, who played almost that part in my life. He died in 1973, and since then I’ve been working on his ideas, issuing a journal that discusses them. Back in November I sent the Group Secretary some specimen pages and he responded with an invitation to talk to the group. So this evening it’s my turn to be sacrificed on the altar of discussion.
The title announced is one I chose myself, and I have to admit that it’s misleading. What I shall actually be talking about is more like this: Some Reasons why Some of the Major Religious Groups Follow the General Course of Thought and Behaviour that they do. But if I had asked our Secretary to announce that he would never have spoken to me again. And quite right, too. I’ve prepared a detailed script to make sure no time gets wasted. It takes about half an hour, and even so a lot of corners will have to be cut. The general idea behind the talk is that although every one of us has our own ideas, different from those of everybody else, yet people tend to group themselves according to the way they think, the pattern their thinking follows. That sounds pretty abstract. It becomes clearer when you turn to actual examples, and this evening I shall be talking about appear in religion. Not whether God or gods or goddesses exist or not, or what he or she or they are like if they do exist, but how it comes about that some people concern themselves about God while others don’t, and why some believers think in this way, others in that.
Most of the Christian artists have painted God as an old man with a long white beard, but recently this has been changing. Somebody has reported: The feminist saw God, and She was black. That doesn’t show that God has changed. It does show that ideas about God have been changing, and that’s the sort of thing I shall be talking about. They are all powerful institutions, with a long history behind them and enormous numbers of believers who congregate for worship.
If we go out and look for signs of religious activity we find churches, temples, priests, holy scriptures, hymns, prayer-books, vestments, rituals, and congregations kneeling and bowing and prostrating themselves. These things indicate the presence of the great religions, the huge organisations counting their adherents in millions and tens of millions. These differ from each other in almost every feature. Each of them has its own temples, scriptures, rituals, prayers and so on, and none of the others have exactly the same ones. But if we lift our eyes from the details, and look at each of them as a whole, these religions have a great deal in common. Every one of them does have temples, prayers and the rest. They are all powerful institutions, with a long history behind them and enormous numbers of believers who congregate for worship. Each of them marks off the sacred from the secular, and each of them draws a firm distinction between behaviour to be encouraged and behaviour to be discouraged. Usually they talk about good and evil. Buddhism puts it a different way, setting actions that bring happiness against those that don’t, but this comes to much the same thing, for every religion says that being good makes you happy in the important way.
The biggest thing I have left till last because it requires a bit of discussion. Most of the great religions are monotheistic, but Hinduism has a great many gods and Buddhism seems to have none at all. Let’s look at Hinduism first. The difference between this and the other great religions is smaller than it looks on the surface. The others are by no means purely monotheistic; each of them, at least in its more popular forms, has a multiplicity of saints, angels, demons, djinns, cherubim, seraphim, afreets, golems and the like. These are not far from being minor gods, and some are known to have originated in that way, taken over by the great religions and demoted. When we add to this that Hinduism recognises Brahman as the one Supreme Being, the differences between it and the others shrink to become largely matters of emphasis.
Now Buddhism. We shall be coming back to this later; for the moment I will give just one quotation to show that Buddhism is not as completely without any God as we in the West sometimes think. This is from A Manual of Buddhism for Advanced Students, by Mrs. Rhys Davids: For the Eastern Buddhist Gautama was an avatar of the Buddha-who-is-God, and for the South Indian Buddhist Gautama attained ‘superdeity.’ There have been other Buddhas beside Gautama, he himself had teachers, companions and disciples, and in the legends these bulk as something rather more than human. Each of the great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism with the others, puts forward a monotheism surrounded by traces, more or less strong, of polytheism.
In spite of the differences between them, the great religions all do the same sort of thing, and I’m going to call this a pattern of behaviour. They all display the same pattern and have done so since they first appeared; the religions of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Israel acted in much the same way as the great religions of today. This pattern is made up mostly of things you can see people doing, but there’s something else behind that. People who pray, or kneel in church, or read holy books, don’t do these things instinctively, and if they are sincere they don’t do them mechanically. They intend to do them, they think about what they are doing; the way they act shows the way they are thinking. The great religions all display the one pattern of behaviour because their believers all follow the one pattern of thought.
Other people follow different ones, and this appears even in the religious books. According to the Bible, one of the first events in human history was disobedience of a divine command. They ate the forbidden apple and got turned out of Paradise. The story continues with Cain killing Abel, Jacob using sharp practice to gain an inheritance, Sodom and Gomorrah, greed, murder, blood, treachery and deceit. It culminates with the judicial murder of Christ. The Bible ranks among the great religious books, and it tells us that over a period of some four thousand years many people did not follow the religious pattern. The Ten Commandments show how they did behave, but you have to reverse them. It was just because so many people were committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and so on that they had to be commanded not to do these things.
This hasn’t changed in any way that matters. The opinion surveys show that although most people in Britain think of themselves as Christian, a great many don’t, and even among those who do there are many who don’t act like Christians; millions recite the Lord’s Prayer who have no intention of allowing any will to be done other than their own. The nonreligious people are seldom atheistic, mostly just not concerned about religion and the moral demands it makes. They live by expediency and, unlike religious people who backslide, they see little need to justify themselves.
Much the same holds for the countries with other faiths. No matter what the religion, the constant complaint of its ministers, monks, priests, bonzes or whatever is that so many people don’t live as their religion says they should. They cling to worldly things, they turn away from the Noble Eightfold Path, they light fires on the Sabbath, they don’t obey the Koran, they remain bound on the wheel. And so on. Non-religious behaviour plays a great part even in countries we tend to think of as dominated by religion. In 1947, when India was partitioned, Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other by the million, and today in Northern Ireland things get done that both the Catholic and Protestant churches try to stop.
We can recognise two big groups, each of them extending all over the civilised world. On the one hand those who live by the principles of one or another of the great religions, or at least make a serious attempt to do so. On the other hand those who don’t. It doesn’t matter whether these call themselves religious or not, the important thing is the way they act. They follow a different pattern of behaviour from the religious people, and thereby show themselves to have a different pattern of thought.
It has to be added that the difference is not always as clear as that makes it sound. In practice you often get things like the cannibal tribe in one of my favourite stories. According to the tale these cannibals were visited by a very persuasive Catholic missionary. He converted them, and after that, on Fridays they only ate fishermen. I’ve never been able to decide whether they were following the religious pattern or not.
Now, back to Britain. The main weight of Christianity here lies with Catholicism and the orthodox Protestant churches, mainly the Anglicans in England, the Presbyterians in Scotland. These all put forward an authoritarian God, one who sits up in Heaven and issues commandments, but this is not the only British version of Christianity. We also find here a rather large number of smaller churches. These mostly call themselves Christian, but they reject the authority and doctrine of the main church, and not because these are too rigorous. Just the contrary; they object to the established Church because it lets you off too lightly. They hold that it’s not enough to perform your religious duties and trust the priest to deal with God on your behalf. There can be no intermediaries, you have to look after your soul yourself and meet God face to face.
First, ordinary, everyday, worldly, non-religious thinking. Second, the pattern of the great churches, outward religion. Third, inward religion.
When people start enquiring into things for themselves they tend to reach a variety of answers, and this leads these more independent religious thinkers to form a lot of small organisations rather than one or two big ones. These breakaways first appeared publicly in Britain during the disturbances of the Civil War period, and under a wide range of names: Familists, Mortalists, Fifth Monarchy Men, Socinians, Baptists, Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, Behmenists, Ranters, Muggletonians, and those who later became the Society of Friends. A lot of these movements have disappeared – I read somewhere a few years ago that the last Muggletonian had just died in Kent – but new ones have arisen. They are still very much with us, sometimes calling themselves, collectively, Free Churches or Independent Churches. Paradoxical though it sounds, one thing all these have in common is independence of thought. This is a feature of the pattern they all follow. It’s a religious pattern, intensely so, but different from the one followed by the great churches.
Another feature marking it, and from a religious viewpoint a much more important one, is a distinct idea of God. Here the deity ceases to be an external figure up there and has to be sought within the heart. I shall call the first of these outward religion and the second inward, and both of these also appear in countries where the main religion is non-Christian; there will be more to say about this later.
So far, then, we have three distinct patterns of thought. First: ordinary, everyday, worldly, non-religious thinking. Second: the pattern of the great churches, outward religion. Third, inward religion. In addition to these there is a fourth. It is one in which the institutional side pretty well disappears, the emphasis falling so heavily on spirituality that it can lead to conflict with the institutions. The mystics are among those who follow it, and although mystics sometimes get accepted as saints, this tends to happen after they are safely dead. While alive and active they run some risk of being condemned for heresy.
We can call this fourth pattern spiritual religion. People taking this approach show still greater independence in their thinking, coming to find even the small inner-religion churches too restricting. They usually don’t join any formal religious organisation at all, and when they come together it’s mostly in groups for discussion rather than congregations for worship.
British people taking up spiritual religion often develop an interest in Buddhism, and before going on we need to look at this for a moment. Like Christianity and all the other great religions, Buddhism covers a range. It certainly does attain high spirituality, in Zen Buddhism for example, but that requires years of training and most Buddhists are no nearer to it than most Christians are to the mystics. Buddhism is often said to be a religion without a god, but we have seen that this is not altogether true, and Tibetan Buddhists use prayer-wheels.
Robert Frost has a poem, rather disrespectful, about a visitor to Asia who brought back a Tibetan prayer-wheel; set up in the American garden it ‘… kept repeating pardon, pardon. Teach those Asians mass production? Teach your grandmother egg suction.’
The Tibetans have mechanised prayer, and this is hardly a spiritual approach. Aldous Huxley has this to say: ‘For the Buddha of the Pali scriptures, ritual was one of the fetters holding back the soul from enlightenment and liberation. Nevertheless, the religion he founded has made full use of ceremonies, vain repetitions and sacramental rites.’ The Buddhism that has millions of followers is an outward religion, it displays much the same pattern as the other great faiths.
In spiritual religion contraries coincide, emptiness and fulness are one, and zero equals infinity. If these things are so, then individual soul and omnipotent deity are one and the same
Now turn to Hinduism. This offers the concept of Atman, the supreme knower in each of us that is also Brahman, but until quite recently it also included suttee; I believe this still happens occasionally, and it’s on about the same moral and religious level as the Inquisition. Hinduism also presents that extraordinary jumble of gods with elephant heads, monkey faces and six arms waving bloody skulls. It covers much the same range as the other great religions. Each of them has its esoteric subtleties, but these interest only a few of the believers. As religions of the great numbers they all offer authority, security, divine patronage, moral guidance, thrills and costume drama.
Spiritual religion is different from this and different, too, from inward religion. It comes in various forms from various parts of the world, but they all follow the same pattern. Two examples, widely separated in space and time. In seventh-century China Hui Neng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, was teaching ‘not self-realization but realization pure and simple, beyond subject and object. In such realization ’emptiness’ is no longer opposed to ‘fulness,’ but emptiness and fulness are one. Zero equals infinity.’ Eight hundred years later, on the other side of the world, the Christian mystic Nicholas of Cusa was speaking of ‘the ineffable coincidence of the maximum and the minimum’ and ‘the absolute and perfect coincidence of contraries.’ They are saying different things, but clearly they are both following the same pattern, one in which opposites turn out to be not only opposed but also united.
In spiritual religion contraries coincide, emptiness and fulness are one, and zero equals infinity. If these things are so, then individual soul and omnipotent deity are one and the same, and occasionally a mystic will say this directly. Meister Eckhart speaks of the multiplicity of things in the world and then continues: ‘But in the measure that the soul can separate itself from this multiplicity, to that extent it reveals within itself the Kingdom of God. Here the soul and the Godhead are one.’ Once Eckhart has perceived that, and put it into words, I can easily say it after him, but saying it is not achieving it. The religious undertaking calls for a great deal more than saying the truth, but I am not setting up as a spiritual director, only talking about some of the patterns that appear in religious thinking. We now have four of these on the table, and in conclusion I’d like to say a few words about another one. It’s the pattern that these four fall into when we put them together.
I have been speaking as if they stood side by side, leaving us free to choose whichever we prefer like selecting a biscuit from a tin. They are better understood as forming a series. In the order in which we have taken them, they bring God and the self progressively closer together, and the image that comes to mind is that of stages in an ascent. At the bottom, no definite conception of God. Above that, outward religion, God up in heaven with the worshipper down below. On the next level, God as a living presence within the heart. And on the fourth level, spiritual religion, even the distinction implied by that word ‘within’ disappears. At this point the task is rather to get past the idea that self and God are separate beings, and each form of spiritual religion has its own way of expressing this. Buddha attains enlightenment, Christ ascends to his Father, some of the mystics celebrate a spiritual marriage, Meister Eckhart says that when you are neither this nor that you are omnipresent.
We all begin life on the first level. We may be born into a religious community, as Mohammedans, Hindus or whatever, but we are not born committed to the principles of a religion; to begin with, we live the worldly life. Some remain in this primal condition all their lives, but some move up to outer religion, some of those to inner religion, and some of those to spiritual. At each level some move on while others remain as they were, and the outcome is a pattern or structure in which numbers diminish in moving upwards.
Here we are talking about the pattern formed by patterns of thinking, and that’s a long way from the religious experience. But it does help to explain why numbers fall off in moving from outward religion to inward and then on to spiritual. All these patterns of religious thinking have been with us for a long time now, and they continue in much the same numerical proportions. Spiritual religion is not universally accepted now any more than it was in the time of Christ, or in the 6th Century B.C., when Gautama was alive. This is important, it needs explaining, and I suggest that this conception, of patterns of religious thought which form an ascending series, numbers falling off with each step upwards, goes a long way towards accounting for it.
from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.