Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mere Christianity, Zen, and Being Saved After All that We Can Do

Lately, I've been really impressed by C. S. Lewis.

Though I read the Chronicles of Narnia a long time ago, I have refrained from reading his more adult-oriented books for a long time. This is partially out of laziness and partially because I was suffering under the delusion that an orthodox theologian and author could not be profound. I could not have been more wrong. I read the Screwtape Letters first, and was shocked. What I thought would be satirical moralizing was actually full of penetrating spiritual insights. I soon become hooked on Lewis. Ravenous for more, I began Mere Christianity. I was initially disappointed, as its beginning was surprisingly un-profound. However, I soon discovered that it was due to Lewis' covering of the basics. As soon as he swam into "deeper waters", the amazing spiritual insights came back. Just before I began writing this, I came across one that was so amazing that felt compelled to share it and the connections I made with it. That's what this blog post is about.

The stupendous spiritual insight about which this post concerns can be found in the two chapters where Lewis discusses the phenomenon of faith. In the first chapter he gives a fairly practical definition, namely that faith is "the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods".  A little un-profound, eh? No matter. He spends the next one-and-a-half chapters defining faith in a second, greater way. He begins by making the following observation:

"The main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practise [sic] the Christian virtues is that we fail."

In other words, the inevitable result of an attempt to follow the Christian virtues to the letter is failure. We will fall short, one way or another. However, this does not mean that we should give up at the get-go. On the contrary, the realization of our inadequacy and the tireless effort that results in it are integral to our spiritual development. Lewis explains how in the next passage:

"All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, 'You must do this. I can't.'"

We give up. The ultimate result of  your continued trying and the subsequent realization of your shortcomings is that you stop trying to be virtuous (in a sense) and instead "leave it to God". This does not mean that you cease to be a virtuous person. Instead, if you have really handed yourself over to God, it means that you are trying to be virtuous in a new, less worried way. In Lewis' words, "not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already". Furthermore, this giving up means that you put all your trust in God, trusting that Christ will share his perfect obedience with you and make you a man more like himself.

Essentially, Lewis observes that if you give yourself up to God after trying as hard as you can and inevitably failing, God will act through you to make you a virtuous person. This struck me as incredibly familiar, in two ways. One of them will probably be familiar to any practicing Mormon, but I'll treat that second. First, this reminded me of the teacher-student interactions in Zen Buddhism (as I understand it from the various Alan Watts lectures I have listened to). In Zen, the goal is to eliminate the illusion of the ego. However, Zen acknowledges (perhaps implicitly) that nearly everyone will cling to their ego-hood no matter how much you try to persuade them that it doesn't exist. It is like a a person who is convinced beyond all doubt that the world is flat. How do you convince them otherwise? You can't persuade them, so the only way to show them the error of their belief is to actually walk them around the circumference of the world. Similarly, a Zen master tries to show the student the ego is illusory by demonstrating it to him. He does this by presenting him with double-binds (as Watts terms them), such as a challenge "to be spontaneous". Obviously, the attempt to be spontaneous is directly opposed to actual spontaneity. The idea is that after you have engaged in this futile struggle for too long, you will realize that the whole game is based on the idea of the ego. It is the ego that is trying to be spontaneous, and it is impossible to try to be spontaneous because the ego doesn't exist! So as soon as the Zen student sincerely gives up on the double bind, he realizes the illusion of his ego. I trust you see the similarity. Just as the Zen student's giving up on the impossible double-bind leads to the realization of his ego's illusion, the Christian's giving up on the impossible quest to follow Christian virtues leads to his salvation.

If one recognizes some truth from Zen, (which I do) we can make some important connections. First, we realize that Christian virtues can be seen as a double-bind. It is impossible to follow them exactly, so perhaps they have some purpose behind them other than simply the quest to obey. That brings us to the second connection. Perhaps there is something in common between realizing the ego is an illusion and letting Christ take over. Here is my postulate: Christ atoned for the entire world. One could say that he experienced everything that can be experienced. It all has its commonality in Christ, as he brings everything together in his infinite atonement. Thus, we cannot say that anything exists separately from anything else. However, if one tries to perform Christian morals, inevitably your first attitude is opposed to that truth: we all see ourselves as alone. So when we give ourselves up to Christ, we acknowledge the connection that binds us to God, and realize that we cannot do anything without God doing it as well. But here's the key: we must labor under the delusion that we try to perform virtuous acts on our own because there is no escaping it by evasion. We must labor through it until the very impossibility of the quest reveals the escape to us. Furthermore, perhaps that is what the commandments are for: they are a gauntlet through which we lose our isolationist delusions.

The second connection that Mere Christianity spiritual insight (and the Zen connotations it has in my mind) has is a oft-repeated Mormon aphorism that "we are saved after all that we can do". I used to not like this phrase, as to me it reeked of moralism and earn-your-way-to-heaven theology. I now understand that does not merely consist of God deciding what is "all that we can do" and then rewarding us accordingly. Instead, it means that, in this life or the next, our tireless effort directly causes the realization that leads to our salvation. Indeed, I believe that C. S. Lewis's spiritual insight is precisely what this aphorism is talking about: when we have tried as hard as we can, the inevitable realization that we cannot possibly achieve salvation alone causes us to give ourselves up to God.

Alan Watts' Behold the Spirit: Connections and Ruminations

On Christmas of 2010 I received an extremely interesting book as a present.

It is entitled Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion and is written by my favorite philosopher, Alan Watts. I've mentioned Watts in an earlier post, but let me recap for those who don't want to look for it. Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British-American philosopher and student of comparative religion, famous for popularizing and interpreting Eastern religions for a Western audience. Late in his life, he espoused the view that you are God and the universe, endlessly manifesting yourself through a divine game of hide-and-seek. However, he was not as radical when he was young. This book, originally published in 1947, serves as a great example of his less-extreme younger views. Its main purpose is to show that the intuitive religion of the East can be reconciled with orthodox mainstream Christianity, something it does quite well. This post is my "review" of the book, in a sense.  Here, I will give some of the ideas from my reading that I found interesting and show that they can be applied to Mormonism, beginning with the following.

In the section entitled The Being of God, Watts says the following:

"If the union [of man with God] is to be perfect, God must be in the most intimate and inseparable union not only with the soul but also with its entire experience of life and the world. But if that with which the soul is united is to be God, he must at the same time be infinitely above, beyond and other than the soul and the world. Furthermore, if God is the source and height of liveliness and creative power, he cannot be anything less than a person, since a law or principle is simply an automatic, mechanical and dead mode of behaviour. On the other hand, if God is the ultimate Reality, the one source of all things, he must be free from the limitations of personality as we know it, and must not be subject to the mutability and the limitations of the forms in which his creative activity is expressed.”  

Here Watts states to a tee the problem that every mystic faces. If man's life is to mean anything, God must be immanent (within the universe, man, etc.). However, if God is to be God, he must be transcendent as well (infinitely above the universe). Furthermore, God must be both a person (all Mormons are familiar with arguments as to why) and a non-person (so that he can be identical with Reality). These four requirements for the nature of God seem vastly contradictory. However, in his brilliance Watts comes up with a solution.  The following passage begins to explain it:

"[...] If the unity of God is truly all-inclusive and non-dual, it must include diversity and distinction as well as one-ness; otherwise the principle of diversity would stand over against God as something opposite to and outside him.”

This reasoning makes several assumptions. First, it assumes that God, in his unity, includes all things. Contrary to appearances, this is not in fact contradictory to Mormon doctrine. In fact, D&C 88 states of God that "all things are before him; and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things [...]". Secondly it assumes that God is non-dual. Elsewhere in the chapter, he clarifies that by "non-dual" he means that God has no opposite. This too is scriptural, as Isaiah states messianically that "I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me [...]".  Using these assumptions, Watts states that because God includes everything and has no opposite, he must include what makes things distinct and separate as well. This may seem odd, but in reality it is the key to the whole mystery. If this were not true, all separation between God and the world would be an illusion. The world and God would be simply identical, meaning that one minus the other would equal zero. The problem with this way of thinking is that this "oneness" is not non-dual; it has multiplicity as an opposite. However, if one does not exclude multiplicity from our vision of God and the world, it would cease to oppose God. God would become non-dual again. Watts expounds on this and goes a bit further in the following quotation:

“The state of union, like God himself, has no opposite; it is all-inclusive, for which reason any experience may participate in it. Therefore, we discover the union of ourselves and of the creation with God through the very realization that they are themselves and not God. His very transcendence effects his perfect immanence, for ‘he ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.’ [Ephesians 4:10] The distinct, individual reality of all things is the very measure of their union with God, of their fulfillment and expression of his freedom to include diversity, to love and be what is other than himself. For this reason, and not because he is a pantheist, the mystic apprehends all things as one with God. He does not see the reality of God behind the illusion of the creature; he sees God in the very reality, entity and uniqueness of the creature, in its very distinction from God.”

The wonderful thing about realizing that God's relationship with the universe includes multiplicity is that man's reality distinct from God is not a bad thing. Instead, the more you are a distinct and unique individual, the more you are affirming your union with God, and in a sense, the more you glorify him. This is especially insightful for a Mormon, as Mormonism's vision of Reality is full of the distinctions: of man with man, of man with God, and of man/God with the world. Instead of viewing these distinctions as absolute, or else absolutely rejecting the distinctions in favor of complete oneness, one can see them as manifestations of God's non-duality. My separateness from God or from my neighbor is God's way of being complete, his way of avoiding the lopsidedness of simple oneness. For through this separateness we and God become part of a greater oneness that cannot be expressed in words.

Incidentally, this is precisely the point of view that God expresses in Moses 1:39: "For behold, this is my work and my glory - to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man".This essentially says that the struggle that results in immortality and eternal life, involving separateness and limitedness, actually glorifies God.

The second and final idea from Behold the Spirit that I'd like to relate concerns ritual. Ritual is a conundrum for anyone who tries to reconcile mysticism with any orthodox Christian religion, as it seems very un-profound. Alan Watts counters this idea with the following passage, which I shall explore piecemeal:

"Christian liturgy [public worship/ritual] has three characteristics. Firstly, it is corporate [pertaining to a group] because Christ has not been given to one but to many, and the many have thereby been made one Body."

In this passage, Watts first references the New Testament idea that the members of the Church are "one body in Christ" and then explains how we partake of that unity through ritual. Reading this passage brought to mind the activity of group prayer. When we bow our heads as a group to pray, (to ask a blessing on food, to open and close a church meeting, etc.) each member of the group listens to the words of the prayer. Ideally, no one is thinking of (or doing) anything different from the next person. This is also true in the ritual of the Sacrament. Everyone thinks of Christ (or spirituality in general) and eats and drinks at roughly the same time. For these rituals the participants are, in a very real sense, of one heart and one mind.

Watts continues with the second characteristic:

"Secondly, it employs formal words, that is, a ritual, both because they express formally religious thoughts and because liturgical worship is not something which we on the one hand do towards God on the other, but something which God does through us. Thus liturgy uses, not our own words, but the words of scripture understood as the words of God."

This passage makes a rather remarkable connection. Since scripture is the word of God, whenever we recite it we are letting God act through us. This would understandably apply more to other Christian sects, where a large part of ritual is recitation of scripture, but this is also applicable to the LDS faith. Consider the sacrament prayer: it has to be recited word for word precisely as it is in the scriptures. If a person makes any mistakes, they have to redo it. Here, Behold the Spirit tells us, the concerned priesthood holder is acting in the place of God, letting God act through him. This also applies, as far as I am able to tell, to the temple ceremonies. Though I am not yet endowed, I understand that the components of the endowment are of divine origin. I postulate that because of this divine origin, by participating in these elements a person partakes of the divine nature.

Finally, Watts explains the third characteristic:

'Thirdly it involves formal actions because worship is not something done with the mind alone but with the whole man; like the love between man and woman, it includes both mind and body."

Placed at the end of the list, this characteristic is arguably the most important. Consider again the ritual of the sacrament. In it, we do two very physical things: eat and drink. According to Alan Watts, part of the reason we do this is because it testifies of the physical nature of God and of our souls. Prayer too is supposed to be physical, as we are told that we need to actually kneel down and/or fold our arms. This is not prudish religiosity. On the contrary, encouraging formal actions with prayer is a way to involve the whole body in worship. To focus just on the mind leans toward the world-denying tradition in religion that Joseph Smith was so opposed to.

All in all, Behold the Spirit is brilliant. If I could, I would provide a commentary for the entire book, as it is one of the first books I have read that is both profound and orthodox. I highly recommend it.