Continuing from the last post: …I think it’s a common fault of Christians to try to create specifics in a text where there are none. It’s also an understandable one. People are frustrated with abstracts; they want permenance where there isn’t any. As 1 Corinthians 1:22-24 says:
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
Buddhists would be quick to point out to the Greeks that wisdom without compassion is useless. As for the Jews, is it any surprise that people went through the same sort of millennial frights around 1000CE as they did a little over a decade ago? It shouldn’t really shock you then that people have been doing that every couple of centuries. People thought Charlemagne would rise from the dead to fight the Antichrist in may of 1000CE.
The problem is right in front of us. To reference another Buddhist concept, it’s often said that
“All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.” – (likely from the Shurangama Sutra)
This concept and it’s reflections do well to recognize the inadequacies of language; as Thich Nhat Hanh points out inLiving Buddha, Living Christ (I’ve been reading this book a lot so forgive me), Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote “Concerning that which cannot be talked about, we should not say anything.” Hanh goes on to write
Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said that God is not a person, but also not less than a person. Whether we speak of God as not a person, or as more than a person, these attributes do not mean very much. One flower is made of the whole cosmos. We cannot say that the flower is less than this or more than that. when we extinguish our ideas of more and less, is and is not, we attain the extinction of ideas and notions, which in Buddhism is called nirvana. The ultimate dimension of reality has nothing to do with concepts. It is not just absolute reality that cannot be talked about. Nothing can be conceived or talked about. Take, for instance, a glass of apple juice. You cannot talk about apple juice to someone who has never tasted it. No matter what you say, the other person will not have the true experience of apple juide. The only way is to drink it. It is like a turtle telling a fish about life on dry land. You cannot describe dry land to a fish. He could never understand how one might be able to breathe without water. Things cannot be described by concepts and words. They can only be encountered by direct experience. – p. 140
The necessity for a mystical relationship is something that distinguishes the spiritual experience, as a transformational concept of otherwise irrational ethics and altruism, into a lifestyle of necessity for righteousness, versus the layman’s practice of religion as a social ordering mechanism.
Buddhism teaches us that reality is quite different from our concepts. The reality of a table is quite different from the concept “table.” Every word we use has a concept behind it. The word “God” is based on a concept of “God…” – p.148
This is the danger of language – as Tolkin wrote in response to Max Müller’s infamous assertions, language is a disease of mythology. Within our words are etymologies that connotate experiences and understanding beyond the present moment. Within the Christian concept of the “Holy Spirit” is the Greek term pneuma, which means wind or breath, and was used to describe the life given to all beings (humans and other creatures) during Creation. While words are remarkably illustrative and provide a vivid depth for us to plumb with our imaginations, they are limiting in that they can only relate what we already know – even if we speculate, we cannot personally articulate the significance of things we have no knowledge of. When we see space travel in the movies, often the visuals are accompanied with sound effects – some of the space ships in Star Wars had a sound effect created from a sample taken of a car driving along a wet road. But in space, there is no sound. Sound waves do not exist in a vacuum. It’s impossible for us to imagine this if we are deaf; and if we are born deaf, we cannot imagine an alternative. And all of our words are anthropocentric, which is a huge danger when talking about noumenon which by nature escape the bounds of our reasoning.
In every school of Christianity, we see people who follow the same spirit, who do not want to speculate on what cannot be speculated about. “Negative theology” is an effort and practice to prevent Christians from being caught by notions and concepts that prevent them from touching the living spirit of Christianty. When we speak of negative theology, the theology of the Death of God, we are talking about the death of every concept we may have of God in order to experience God as a living reality directly… The Buddha was not against God. He was only against the notions of God that are mere mental constructions that do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality. That is why I believe it is safer to approach God through the Holy Spirit than through the door of theology. We can identify the Holy Spirit whenever it makes its presence felt. Whenever we see someone who is loving, compassionate, mindful, caring, and understanding, we know that the Holy Spirit is there.
Ultimately this is the point of all metaphors. We want God to be phenomenal – we want a sign, like the Jews. We want Revelation to make sense in a way that we can understand it, in a way that has meaning for our lives in the present. But “god” is noumenenal – even the Bible acknowledges God is a spirit, “and they that worship [him] must worship in spirit and in truth.” (again, spirit is pneuma, pneuma is “life” in a biblical context… what can we draw from that?) So the challenge for us is to find personal meaningfulness that is not dependent on permenance and temporal anchors, but is timelessly relevant and aids in our experience. Like the Zen Koan on 無 (Mu, “the answer does not fit the question”) , the significance of our reflections on such scriptures in only useful when it touches on the “ultimate dimension of reality” and the experience of that. For the Christian, this is what Hanh, the Zen Buddhist, explains better than anyone else I know: becoming “someone who is loving, compassionate, mindful, caring, and understanding.”
Our desire for a phenomenal God is realized when we embody the transformational ethics realized through a spiritual experience. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s persona Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions, when we see the question “What is the purpose of life?” we should know to answer
of the Creator of the Universe,
But knowing is not enough. We have to do it too.