Ultimate Concern

Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people's bellies. -- Rabbi Israel Salanter 1810-1883

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The House of Gathering or the Tower of Babel?

After having studied mysticism I thought I had an advantage or two. I could finally look at all religions with sympathetic detachment and unerringly find within them similarities that led me to (or so I thought) an ability to observe from a lofty height the possibilities for union among disparate groups if only they could see their commonalities as I did, if only they could release themselves from the bondage of rigid differentiation and come to the table to speak.

I was saying, as Panikkar puts it, “Here I am, the tolerant one, who has made a place for everybody, and for all the different systems. . . provided, of course, that they behave and sit at the places I have assigned them. . . .” (Panikkar 56). I felt quite pleased with myself in my oh-so tolerant, compassionate understanding. In an attempt to establish my own pluralistic relationship to different faiths, I have recently discovered that I built my own Tower of Babel instead—and using other structures’ bricks and mortar, no less.

Identifying as a mystic, I felt entitled to all of the world’s religions and those of their assorted beliefs and practices that allowed me to pursue a mystic’s brand of monism. Meister Eckhart says, “Since we find God in oneness, that oneness must be in him who is to find God” (Eckhart 78) and it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to look for the oneness of all religions and traditions so that I might incorporate the variety of expressions of Truth into my own personal oneness. Not a bad place to start, but not without hazard: as a persistent state, this approach becomes dangerous, with syncretism, conditional non-duality and inclusivism lurking beneath the surface of what felt like a still pool in which I was pleased to see my own reflection, undisrupted by shadows.

I liked my happy little collection of religious artifacts; it felt easy and comfortable. Therein lies the problem. If Jung is right about the shadow, then the facility of appropriating beliefs, traditions, practices, etc. at whim is dangerous because it ignores the Shadow entirely. In a world of light, nice, pleasant fluffiness, there’s no accounting for the shadow and therefore no access to its potency or power to transform. All that power, left unintegrated, is bound to manifest itself somehow:
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains undivided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposite halves (Jung, Aeon).

What, then, can be extrapolated from this about the conditions of our collective innards vis a vis religion? Macrocosms always echo and reflect the state of the microcosms of which they are composed. The individual, unaware of the innerscape contradictions, manifests in the outerscape the consequences of such an unexamined life. The individual is torn in half, conflicted, irresolute. A collective is composed of individuals. When the constituent parts of a collective are torn, the macrocosm of society will indeed reflect the microcosm of the torn individual. As a result we see the shadow attempting to reveal itself in both the micro and the macro. It is Mobiusan: the individual is torn and so creates a society that is torn, which produces effects outwardly that may allow or encourage the individual to turn inward, creating a new consciousness which will in turn affect the outward, which in turn again may influence the individual. The relationship of the individual to the Shadow is inextricably linked to the collective relationship to the Shadow. The individual must integrate to produce a collective that is integrated; the collective must be integrated so as to produce integrated individuals. It is a delicate interdependence.

What, then, can I deduce about my own reductionist, inclusive, polytheistic monism via mysticism that failed to take into account the acknowledgement of deep, irresolvable uniquenesses and differences among the traditions from which I borrowed?

A revelation comes out of Knitter: “Anyone who would hold that the religions are really saying the same thing reveals that he or she has only begun to study or enter into a relationship with other religious believers” (31). And so it is that I arrive at a new understanding: I have only begun to enter into study and relationship with the deep and rich traditions I’ve been pillaging. I now am afforded the opportunity to revisit the sites of my ransacking, looking now not just for the shiny things but also for the Shadowed. In so doing, I will be permitted to expand my range of impression and expression to more fully see and experience the other as other: tremendum et fascinans.

Pluralism is not the reductionist monism I’ve practiced heretofore; pluralism must be an acknowledgment of diversity combined with identification of a common goal important enough to allow involved parties to be willing to either learn each other’s languages to a point of fluency, or to mutually insist that a new language altogether be created for the sake of said discussion. I do not see either happening anytime soon, nor have I been able to think up an option other than those two. Language and how we use it across the faith line will be critical in the development of pluralism.

Next to language, syncretism is the largest bogeyman I now face in my interfaith stance. Included in the etymology of syncretism is “uniting opposing parties against a common foe” (Dictionary.com). This implies, however, that there is in fact some sort of external other, someone or something against which groups with similar enough practices, principles and/or values may unite in order to vanquish or conquer the “opposition.” At the end of the conflict between the newly-formed syncretic group and the perceived foe it is likely that, whether by victory or defeat, the syncretic group will dissolve back into its original divided patterns without a “foe” to unite them. View of the shadow is then lost again, tearing the world into opposite halves once more. Pluralism cannot survive under those circumstances; it will only work if the parties involved unite to create a common goal, something proactive and positive instead of the negativity of “defeats” and “foes.”

Another definition of syncretism is “the union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief.” We have discussed at some length the notion that pluralism is not about fusion. We cannot have pluralism if we reduce all religions to one common internal precept. Nor am I convinced that we can attain pluralistic dialogue unless we can establish a commonality of some sort, something important enough to all involved to make them willing enough to withstand the implications of diversity within harmonious co-achievement. Again, I turn to Jung for a personal, microcosmic example of the collective, macrocosmic phenomenon:

“The "other" may be just as one-sided in one way as the ego is in another. And yet the conflict between them may give rise to truth and meaning-but only if the ego is willing to grant the other its rightful personality” (Jung, Archetypes, 237).
The conflict between religions, the very differences that create contention, may be what gives rise to truth and meaning both in an intra-and interreligious sense, but the “if” is a pretty big one. Drawing the micro/macro parallel between the ego of the individual and the “ego’ of a religion, then, in a Jungian framework, pluralism depends on each religion being willing to grant the other its rightful personality. In order to grant others their rightful personality, we must have first faced our own personality and the shadows it contains; in order for pluralism to emerge, each religion will have to find a way to come to terms with its own shadows, and in so doing, acquire the compassion to afford others the same right of being. I cannot, at present, put my interfaith stance into words better than Patel’s:

Religious pluralism is neither mere coexistence nor forced consensus. It is a form of proactive cooperation that affirms the identity of the constituent communities while emphasizing that the well being of each and all depends on the health of the whole. It is the belief that the common good is best served when each community has a chance to make its unique contribution. (Patel xv).
It’s going to take an amazing bravery of soul to actualize this phenomenon. As with any collective, these changes must be seen in individuals within the population, which will in turn reflect these values back to the population at large. As Margaret Meade once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." This is to become the cornerstone of my House of the Gathering, built right next door to the ruins of my Tower, so that I might never forget what it taught me. I pray never again to forget that each religion is unique and cannot be reduced. I also pray that I may become the person Jung describes:

If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a [wo]man has saddled [her]self with new problems and conflicts. [S]he has become a serious problem to [her]self, as [s]he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against. [S]he lives in the "House of the Gathering." Such a [wo]man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in [her]self, and if [s]he only learns to deal with h[er] own shadow [s]he has done something real for the world. [S]he has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day. (Jung, Psychology 140).

To that end, I return to mysticism though no longer through the lens of entitlement, but responsibility:

Mystics are artists; and the stuff in which they work is most often human life. They want to heal the disharmony between the actual and the real: and since, in the white-hot radiance of that faith, hope and charity which burns in them, they discern such a reconciliation to be possible, they are able to work for it with a singleness of purpose and an invincible optimism denied to other men (Underhill 30).

The Great Mystery lies within me. The Great Mystery is all around me, manifesting constantly. My own other is the seed of mystery; the other in interfaith constructs is the visible flowering of seed. My responsibility to my other and to the mystery is to create—to deliberately manufacture—an integration of my Shadow. That may be the ultimate pluralism: the full embrace of other(s) as other(s), as they are, in Shadow. I must allow myself my “rightful personality.” I must pluralize, transforming myself from an exclusionary, monofocal imitation of inclusion to a true interior pluralism in which I learn and become fluent in all the shaded dialects of my other(s). I must risk conversion, though I cannot help but wonder to what singular or particular mystery a mystic might convert.

Works Cited

All dictionary definitions cited from www.dictionary.com.
Eckhart, Meister. “Sermon 11: Honor Thy Father.” In Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation by R. Blakney. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1941.
Jung, C.G.. Psychology and Religion: West and East. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950.
Jung, C.G.. The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. R.F.C. Hull, trans. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1959.
Knitter, Paul. One Earth, Many Religions. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.
Panikkar, Raimon. "The Myth of Pluralism: The Tower of Babel." 1995. In Invisible Harmony: Essays on Contemplation & Responsibility, pp. 52-74. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2007
Underhill, Evelyn. Practical Mysticism. Columbus, OH: Ariel Press, 1914.

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