Archive for October, 2006

Cultural Differences in the Experience of the Fall

October 28, 2006

John Paul II, as part of his theology of the body, argues that men and women experience the fall of man differently.  Men experience the fall as a desire for sexual gratification at the expense of women.  Women experience the fall as a desire for emotional gratification at the expense of men. 

With this mind, the question comes to mind: just as men and women experience the fall diferently, might not different peoples of different cultures experience it differently?  Now men and women, we Christians believe, do have an ontological difference between them that, say, a Japanese and  Jew do not.  Yet history suggests, does it not, that cultural differences are real and that some virtues and vices or patterns of behavior have been more prevalent among some peoples and less prevalent among others? 

For example, it is probably right to associate (not in an exclusive manner) rugged individualism with the people of the Old American West, whereas it is also probably right to associate a high degree of politeness to many Japanese.  One might also associate negative qualities with certain cultures, but since it is not considered polite to do so and since there is no need to make my point, I will not.

Now God is the author of the Bible, but the sacred writer is also the author.  Moreover, the sacred writer is a member of a human culture, and in fact all of the sacred writers of the Bible were members of a Hebrew culture (as it evolved) based in the Holy Land.  Is it not possible that in the writing of Genesis, the sacred writer emphasized the experience of the fall that he and those he knew had themselves experienced?  Put another way: how could this not be the case?  How could he have written about the fall from the perspective of a culture other than his own, he himself being a member of his culture? 

Granted, we Catholic Christians (and many other Christians, too) believe that God, who is universal, saw to it, in a way that did not take away the human writer’s freedom, that the Bible recorded exactly what God wanted to be recorded.   Yet this does not mean, does it, that Genesis, for example, is the only true account of the fall of man?  Could not God have inspired another true interpretation of the fall to be recorded or developed over time by writers in a non-Hebrew culture, who would have drawn from their cultural experience of the fall? 

Non-dualistic Bible Verses I

October 28, 2006

The Bible is, of course, full of verses that are dualistic, i.e., they indicate the multiplity of things rather than their unity.  Perhaps the best example of a dualistic verse is from the Our Father: “Our Father who art in heaven.”  The implication of the verse is that God is not here with us, not Emmanuel, but somehwere else.  Another critical dualistic verse is: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  The implication is that God is outside and separate from his creation, and, again, that heaven and earth are different, separate places. 

Without ignoring these passages, with some looking we can find other passages and Christian doctrines that suggest a non-dualistic universe.  Below are some.  As I find others, and as readers of this blog direct my attention to still more, I plan to update the list:

*  The Trinity: one and three forever

*  The incarnation: Christ both fully God and fully man.

*  Christian marriage: man and wife become one “so they are no longer two but one flesh”

*  Matthew 25: Christ identifies himself with the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned

*  “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me.”

*  “Take, eat: this is my body.”

*  “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son.  They call his name Emmanuel, which is being interpeted ‘God with us.'”

*  When it’s all said and done, God will be “all in all.”

*  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

* “The kingdom of God is within.”

*  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him.” 

*  “Have you been with me so long, Philip, and still you don’t know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

*  “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.”

*  “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?”  (Christ’s identification with the members of the Church.)

*  The notion, very prevalent in St. Paul, that the Church is the body of Christ and the people who make up the Church are members of Christ’s body.

*  “Martha, Martha, you are busy and troubled over many things.  One thing is needful.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

Space, Time, Infinity, Eternity

October 28, 2006

Modern physics teaches that space and time are inextricably linked.  If the spatial dimension of the universe is infinite — and to me it is as yet unthinkable that it could be otherwise — then must not time also be infinite?  And if time is infinite, then are we not living in a vast etermal now?

An Alternative Interpretation of Genesis’s Account of the Fall of Man

October 27, 2006

To a Christinan, zen teaching provides a fresh perspective on the account of the fall of man recorded in Genesis.   Perhaps the most insightful interpretation by a Buddhist of Genesis’s account is the one sketched by S.T. Suzuki in the context of a discussion with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  The following very brief interpretation is inspired by Suzuki’s view. 

 The serpent tempts Eve, saying that if she eats of the fruit of the tree she will be “like God, knowing good from evil.”  Typically in Catholic parishes today the serpent’s temptation is interpreted as the temptation to determine for oneself what is good and evil.  In other words, it is the temptation to do whatever one wants and justify it as good because one chooses to call it good, even if it is objectively evil.  But from a zen perspective — I write as a practising Catholic who has recently become interested in zen and done some reading and practice — the story can be seen in a radically different light. 

The serpent’s temptation is two-fold, and it is based on two fundamental lies.  The first is that Eve is not already like God or, in other words, that she needs to do something or undergo some transformation in order to become like God.  In fact, not many verses before the account of the fall, the sacred writer of Genesis informs the reader that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  Scripture thus teaches that in the beginning man was like God by virtue of God’s grace and that he needed not grasp to become something he already was by nature.  Thus, the first part of the serpent’s temptation was to sow doubt in man about his fundamental identity as one made in God’s likeness and image.

The second part of the temptation from this zen perspective as a second dualism: separation of good and evil.  In other words, the temptation is not so much that of choosing for oneself what is right and wrong  — that interpretation assumes of course that the two exist separately — but of separating the two in the first place. 

An understandable Christian objection to this last statement might be that it is wrong to call good evil and evil good, to identify the victim with the oppressor, etc.  This is true, yet perhaps it is not really relevant to the question.  The question, after all, is why what we know as good and evil appear to us to exist, and why we do things that are indeed properly called evil.  This zen-influenced interpretation of Genesis suggests that one reason may be that under the spell of delusion we have divided a world that was, and in its essence is, one, into a a dualistic world: God is there, we are here; God is God, we are men; do these things, avoid those things, etc.   Again, the argument is not that good and evil have no existence for us and certainly it is not that wicked actions are no different from good actions or that justice is the same as injustice.  Rather the argument is that the reason for the existence for us of these categories, and the reason we even think of committing evil acts, is our delusion of wanting to think of reality in terms of good and evil. 

This is not an easy concept to articulate, and I doubt that it is one that, if true, can be grasped through logic alone.   Perhaps an unlikely example from scripture will illuminate it: St. Paul writing about the Mosaic law.  What does Paul say about the law?  He says that God gave it to men so that sin might abound!  In other words, God gave man the law knowing full well that man would not follow it, and indeed that the very knowledge of the law would lead man into greater sin.  God did this, Paul explains, so that grace and mercy might abound all the more; in other words, so as to draw a greater good out of greater sin. 

Isn’t it interesting that St. Paul would argue that knowledge of the law — that is, knowledge of good and evil, of what to do and what to avoid — would lead to an increase of wickedness and guilt?  It’s consistent, though, with the zen-influenced interpretation of the fall of man: we do wrong because we know good from evil.  If we were like little children, not knowing good from evil, we would not do wicked things or, more accurately, whatever we did would not be wicked. 

William Johnston’s Praise of Bernard Lonergan

October 27, 2006

A couple weeks ago I finished Arise My Love…: Mysticism for a New Era by William Johnston, SJ. Johnston has spent 40+ years in Japan teaching religious studies and is quite knowledgeable about Asian religions. In a few places he makes criticisms of JPII that I don’t like to hear, but there is much that is worthwhile and indeed fascinating in the book. Johnston comes across as a big fan and admirer of Lonergan, whom he quotes more than a dozen times. Above all, Johnston is impressed with Lonergan’s notion of conversion. Quoting Lonergan, he writes: “[R]eflection on conversion can supply theology with its foundation and, indeed, with a foundation that is concrete, dynamic, personal, communal and historical.” Conversion coincides with living religion. It is the experience by which one becomes an authentic human being. The true light enlightens EVERYONE. “For Lonergan conversion reaches a climax with religious conversion, wherein one’s being becomes being-in-love. If reflection on such conversion becomes the basis of fundamental theology, the theology of the future will be mystical theology.”

A Dialog on Zen, Dualism, the Trinity, and Creation

October 27, 2006

The following is an email exchange between the host and a good friend who is a strong and faithful, theologically sophisticated evangelical Christian. It begins at the bottom with a quote I sent my friend from Robert Kennedy’s Zen Gifts for Christians. My friend responds and then I respond to his comments. What do you readers of this blog think about these issues? What is your perspective?

Response to my friend:

Hi there, thanks for these thoughts! You are surely right to highlight the disunity of the world, the reality of sin, and what has been called the “already but not yet character” of the present world — these should not be ignored. It’s a strong point, it seems to me, that this disunity has provoked a divine judgment and radical divine intervention. On the other hand, I wonder to what extent some of these points can be understood in a way that is harmonious with zen.

While zen does not understand sin in the way that Christians understand it (principally as an offense against God), it does recognize that we commit transgressions and it also recognizes that we are full of delusions (the last point has parallels to the Christian concept of original sin). Zen does not just accept the brokenness of our world. On the contrary, one of the four great vows in zen is, by attaining enlightenment, to “save all beings.” Enlightenment means, principally, an experiential knowledge of the unity of all things, both the relative and absolute. Vowing to save the world may sound a bit presumptuous — after all we Christians believe that Christ is the unique savior. Yet there is no doubt that Christ has joined himself mystically with his Body the Church and its members. Moreover — and I have a perception that Catholics are generally more open to this idea than Protestants — Christ invites us to share and even play a part in his saving mission. So in a way each Christian is called to save “all beings” provided that this call and the power to follow it can never for us be separated from Christ and our mystical union with him.

Zen does then recognize a need for salvation, but it sees the way to salvation as awakening to the true nature of reality and of course it does not recognize (at least not in the Soto and Rinzai schools–the “Pure Land” school may be different) a heaven that is separate and apart from the rest of the universe. Of course zen’s understanding, lacking the knowledge of Christ and the Triune God, must come up short, yet there is also much truth, it seems to me, in some of the teachings that illuminate some truths found in Christianity.

Regarding creation, that is a hard subject. I always thought I knew what it was — in some eternal moment God suddenly formed the universe out of nothing, gave it its principles and laws, set it in motion, and sustains and governs it forever. God is “in eternity,” whereas we are “in time.” This must be right–as far as it goes. Moreover, I see your point about the disunity of the world, on the one hand, and the unity of God. In other words, how can the world be one with God when we know of God that he is perfection whereas we know of the world that it is far short of perfection?

Yet Scripture says that God is pleased with his creation, that man is made in the image and likeness of God, that Christ himself is present in the poor and disadvataged, in the Eucharist, and in the church, that St Paul says it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him, and in the end Christ will be “all in all.” All of this suggests a very strong identification of God with his creation. I agree that it does not mean God is not creator and we his creatures. However it does indicate that some of the dualism in ordinary Christian practice may be unscriptural and indeed that true orthodox Christianity may have more parallels with a Buddhist or Hindu understanding of creation that we would have expected.

I’m trying to understand zen on its own terms even as I try to deepen my understanding of Christian theology. Stephen Covey says that one of the key principles for effective communication is to begin by seeking to understand the other fully on his or her own terms. I appreciate my fully orthodox Christian friend, though, raising certain objections and arguments when it may appear I am wandering too far off the reservation. 🙂

Friend’s response to quote from Robert Kennedy:

” How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us?”
The question contains the answer. If God created us, then we are separate from him as a creation is separate from its creator.

“Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity. ”

There is a difference between a creation of God and a manifestation of God. And God is not pleased with everything that occurs in the world so there is a disunity. Even the roshi’s urging to acceptance of a supposed unity seems to betray an admission that there is not unity. The unity that we have with one another has a possiblity, an ideal where we are in unity with one another as the persons of the Trinity are but that is not something which actually exists in fullness no0w, it is something we hope and wish to see attained and our dependent upon the intervention of a separate God for it to even be possible. The one position contains a radical judgement on the way the world is; the other seeks to passively accept all that is in the world and see no evil, it seems to me.

My original email, with the quote from Robert Kennedy:

Some interesting thoughts on dualism, zen, and the Trinity. This passage is from Zen Gifts for Christians, by Robert Kennedy, SJ, who is a theology professor and zen teacher in New Jersey. When I read books on zen, I find myself continually reflecting on readings of St. Augustine on the Trinity. Yamada Roshi, whom Kennedy mentions in the passage below, was a zen master in Japan who taught Kennedy and many other Christians.

“Having experienced the Zen belief in the unity of the absolute and the relative, Yamada Roshi of Kamkura once told us that he could believe in God. What he could not believe was that God could make a dualistic world. So steeped in the unity of all things, so at one with this world, Yamada Roshi could not imagine a world of separate realities. . . . We ask ourselves, why ever would it be necessary for Yamada Roshi to have to believe that God would or could create a dualistic world? Why would Christians, of all people, who believe that God is a Trinity, that is Three Persons in one reality, present their faith in a dualistic fashion? We believe we are made in the image of God; we know we are one with God, not identical but not separate. How can we believe God created us in God’s own image if God can in any way be separate from us? We do not believe that God is only in heaven and we are on earth, and that we relate to God as one who is outside ourselves. Instead, believing that the world is a manifestation of God, we know that the unity of God and the world as well as the unity we have with one another are analogous to the unity of the Three Persons in the Trinity.”