Reflections on Arise My Love, by William Johnston

November 1, 2006

Using Augustine and Aquinas, Johnston explains a couple New Testament passages that I had never before understood.  First, why does Jesus forbid Mary Magdalene from touching him after his resurrection?  Second, why does Jesus tell his disciples that it is better than he return to the Father than stay with them in the flesh?  According to Johnston/Augustine/Aquinas, the reason is that while Jesus’ sacred humanity is, of course, a critical segment of the path toward union with God, attachment to his humanity can prevent us from moving beyond his humanity to the Trinity.  In other words, if we only see the form of a servant, then we won’t be able to enter into the higher state of consciousness that comes from union with the Godhead.  Practically and historically speaking, this is surely true: it would have been pretty hard, if not impossible, for people in Jesus’ time to look at a 33 year-old Jewish carpenter, whose mother and father everyone knew, and see that he is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Even for us today, there is a paradox that, on the one hand, Christ’s humanity is for us a bridge, perhaps the primary bridge, to the Trinity, and yet, on the other hand, there is a danger that we can focus too much on his humanity (isn’t this what some scholars do who are ever in search of the “historical Jesus”?) and hence on what is contingent (even Christ’s humanity is created), dualistic, etc. and ignore the Godhead, which surpasses images, dualities, etc.  Another insight from Johnston — it’s really part Johnston and part my own interpretation of recent readings from Augustine’s Trinity — is that the Christian mystical tradition can answer some of the objections raised by the Buddhist and Hindu East to the alleged “dualism” of Christianity, but at the same time everyday Christianity could benefit from a dose of the Christian mystical tradition (and perhaps even the non-dualistic mystical tradition of the East).  Specifically, as you know Buddhists reject dualism, i.e., that something is this and not that.  (In fact, my favorite zen koan treats this point.  The zen master sits in front of the novice monks in the monastery meditation hall and holds the kyosaku (stick used to slap drowsy monks, release their energy, and help them toward awakening) in one hand. He says: “Say this is a stick and you affirm. Say it is not a stick and you deny.  Now which is it?  Somebody give me an answer fast!”  A very bright novice rises, takes the stick from the master, cracks it over his knee, and replies “What’s this?”)  It’s hard for us in the West, I think, to understand how it is possible to move beyond dualities; to do so looks like an improper negation.  Yet take a look at the Trinity.  Christ and the Father are one (Christ says so), and yet they are not one.  They are essentially the same, and yet they are also different.  The divine essence is the same in each, yet there is a difference in relationship.  Whence this difference in relationship?  How, if God is simple, can there be a “part” or “aspect” of God that is Father and one that is Son?  We were not able to answer this question at out last Augustine seminar.  At the level of the human and divine, St. Paul can say “It is not I but Christ who lives in me,” thus asserting identity and indwelling, and yet he also speaks of Christ as being different and in a way “outside” himself.  According to this Christian mystical tradition, our destiny is to be one with God (“God will be all in all” says the New Testament, and, “In the end it will be one Christ loving himself” says Augustine) and yet there will still be “room” for us to cry out “Abba, Father!”  I recall that in the dialogue with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, D.T. Suzuki criticizes the Christian mystical tradtion for not going far enough along the path of non-dualism.  On the contrary, maybe the Buddhists go too far, and the Christian mystical tradition does go very far indeed.  A good practical starting place on our side of the religious dialogue, it seems to me, would be to use the Christian mystical tradition (which is rooted in Scripture and in Trinitarian theology) as a counterweight to some of the dualism of everyday Christian practice (for example, the notion that God is in a place called heaven and not here, or that God is an object outside us), which it seems to me the Buddhists and Hindus are right to criticize. 


One Response to “Reflections on Arise My Love, by William Johnston”

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