Scott Randall Paine
Kansas, an island in the prairie
When thinking of islands, the U.S. state of Kansas does not readily come to mind. Still, there is something insular about the interior of continents, and the Midwest of the U.S., for all its folksiness and charm, can become a place of isolation, especially for those who grew up – as I did – in the 50s and 60s. I do not doubt for a moment that someone from California or New York City can also be insular, and this despite the vast offering of cosmopolitan contact. Maybe even because of it. Sometimes the very density of that access can drive persons into provincial corners of their minds, where they end up being just as insular as a bumpkin from Nebraska or Missouri. The conspicuous global doors on display on the coasts can remain as unopened as the more furtive ones of the hinterlands. Still, my own years of being reared in the Sunflower State made any truly international adventure an unlikely wrinkle in my fate.
Seven islands, nonetheless, apparently beckoned to me already in the mid-70s, and turned my deep Midwestern roots into missile launch facilities, with a final distant target in the unlikely South American wilds of Brazil. These seven islands (or groups of islands) serve as a kind of shorthand to my more lengthy stays and travels over the past 40 some years, and significantly and symbolically string like a garland around the globe, starting in the east Pacific and travelling west all the way round to the East Indies. They are: the Galápagos Islands, Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona (in Scotland), Zanzibar (off the coast of Tanzania), Sri Lanka (in South Asia) and Bali (in Indonesia). These isles are all small, but they remind us that in fact all the landmass of the earth is small when compared with the oceans. Over 70% of the face of our orb is aquatic, so strictly speaking, even Eurasia and Africa are just oversized islands. Indeed, the United States’ controversial claim of ‘manifest destiny’ – interpreting its fated real-estate to go from ‘sea to shining sea’ – in a sense involves a vision of its own privileged spot on earth to be that of one grand triumphant island.
I’ve travelled an unconscionable amount for a 64-year-old, and seen as much of the world as most of the great adventurers ever saw, and more than some. Of course, I cheated as I sped over oceans and continents 35,000 feet above the earth – there where most explorers plied the dangerous waves of our oceans, or braved mountains and desert terrain. I take my hat off to all of those travelers of earlier centuries. And I especially admire those who risked it all on those grand ships of old that are a beauty to the eyes, but certainly a torture to their passengers.
I also salute the grandparents of my grandparents, who, on both sides of our family, rode wagon trains from points east all the way to Kansas.
Like ships, those caravans processed like a pageant, but also like ships, bruised the bodies they carried. Kansans may be easily insular in attitude, but their European ancestors were wayfarers every one. I take pride in that. But I never dreamt, as a boy, that circumstances would carry me from Kansas to just about every major corner of the world, but so it has happened. I can claim little credit for this, for propitious circumstances simply came my way and surrounded me from about the age of 20, and the most I can pride myself on is that I was always swift in grabbing an opportunity when it presented itself. But I can take no credit for the opportunities themselves. And a braver and nobler man might have made better use of them than I have.
Although I did not visit these seven islands in any sort of chronological order – having set foot on them during quite different trips of the last 20 years – they have risen in my memory as landmarks of not only geographical significance, but also philosophical and religious import. Each island pulled a distinctly different mix of messages from my mind, and seeded a discrete meditation in my heart. It occurred to me that it would be of interest – both for myself and for others – to revisit these seven islands, reminisce about the days in which my feet walked upon them, and reflect on what insights the seven meditations have sired.
The seven islands, again, are: 1. the Galápagos Islands, visited by Charles Darwin in the 1830s and by a Brazilian-American priest-professor in the year 2009. What does it really mean to be a living, conscious creature? There is much to the answer to which Darwin’s contribution plays only a subordinate role. 2. Easter Island, ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1722, but uncovering for all of us a realization that those who didn’t (‘yet’) read or write may have known more about reality than we can even dream of. 3. Tierra del Fuego, an island on the southernmost tip of the Americas, braving waves from the two greatest oceans of the Earth, and reminding us of the miracle of the seas that both surround and sustain us, giving a blue face to the Earth that is so much more than a ‘planet’. 4. Iona, in the Hebrides, unlikely diving board of early Christian missionaries, intent on turning that entire group of islands we call the British Isles into a future vehicle of the Gospel and all its crazy challenges, and cradle of an idiom that would become the lingua franca enabling East to speak with West. 5. Zanzibar, a Muslim island in the Indian Ocean, but off the coast of sprawling and promising Africa, and which serves as a symbol of the commercial and monotheistic wave that Islam generated over the medieval world; it would later continue (in warfare and in peace) to move world history on both flanks of the Middle East. 6. Sri Lanka, the only truly Buddhist island in the world, where the simplified dharma of Shakyamuni would grow in South Asia, and then penetrate first into Southeast Asia, Tibet and East Asia, and finally fill the world with the surprisingly simple method – one finally bearing a fecundity perhaps unforeseen by the Buddha himself – for obtaining something called nirvana. 7. Bali, where the oldest religious tradition of India – and perhaps of the world: Hinduism – would leave an almost counter-intuitive trace of its link with primordial humanity, and the beauty of a wisdom not yet wholly forgotten, and all this on a small island in Muslim Indonesia. My concluding reflection – by way of an epilogue – is on the Jews, and on their catalytic role in the whole improbable story.
(The text will be revised, added to, corrected and elaborated during the months to come, but I decided to throw it out as soon as the texts reach a certain degree of coherence, for those who might be interested in medium-rare reflections.)
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In the year 2009, bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I decided to follow in the footsteps of the young man who – like me of somewhat delicate constitution – ventured forth to circumnavigate South America (here I cheated; I flew to Quito), and visit one of the most geologically and biologically significant clusters of isles in the world. I wanted to breathe the air, view the scenery, touch the turtles and watch the finches that had seeded the great idea of evolution in the mind of the gifted young scientist. He made his voyage as ship naturalist on an uncomfortable mapping mission, with minimal amenities for this upper-class Englishman, and multiple bouts with sea-sickness and other maladies during the five-year-long voyage. I take my hat off to his gumption, and to his meticulous work as geologist and zoologist. As great minds are usually followed by generations of lesser minds distorting and blurring the work of a pioneer thinker (whether in science, philosophy or religion), I’ll give Darwin a pass on many of the sillier ways in which his modest theory of natural selection turned into a gargantuan ideology threatening all manner of intellectual custom. It is about these latter twists in concept and causation that made me consider the whole matter of evolution in the very matrix of its gestation. My ponderings, for what they’re worth, were as follows:
I have never felt in the slightest challenged, worried, upset or troubled by Darwinian suggestions that our species may have developed over millions of years. Whether dozens of years or quadrillions has never seemed to me any reason to get into a fuss. Theologically, I can take it either way. But where Darwinians seem to be totally off the map of sanity is when it comes to using that most basic and common-sensical faculty with which our human nature is endowed – the imagination. When I hear them blithely commenting on how all the diverse species of our world came about by minute genetic shifts through a series of aleatory mutations — and that this pretty much explains the menagerie — I feel like not a one of them has ever stood in the presence of an Indian elephant, or a Brazilian toucan, or a Mexican butterfly, or even an annoying tropical mosquito. I wonder if they have even read Aesop. No disjunction in the modern scientistic mind is as gaping and as fatal to any access to true wisdom as that which lies between the question: ‘how?’ and the questions: ‘what?’ and ‘why?’.
By bracketing (or stigmatizing as irrelevant) the latter two questions – which traditionally were embraced within the notions of formal and final causality – the ‘how’ question could be isolated and all forms of manipulation, technique, power generation and Promethean mastery over nature set free (in a word: efficient causality); the natures of things and their ultimate purposes in a providential plan would henceforth be seen as obstacles to our development of muscle and control – lyrical pastimes for poets and religious mystics, perhaps, but hardly serious considerations for the business of science. Now, when minds that had been habituated to this way of looking at reality in the 19th century, trained in the habits of two hundred years of mechanistic technique and mastery, finally turned their little lights on the world of life, they noticed that there was also a ‘how’ here. Involved in the phenomena of our world’s species of plants and animals, and, of course, also the species to which we belong, lie processes and step-by-step causalities we can also isolate and describe. And, as was the case with physics and chemistry, biology too learned bucketloads of facts about how life functions and how it comes to do what it does. But as had been done with chemical substances and with physical forces, when it came to living organisms, one continued the habit of looking past natures and purposes, and focusing instead on the mechanics of howness.
As I negotiated the unwelcoming volcanic rock on one of the Galapagos islands, I was probably as startled as the great English naturalist himself was, back in the 1830s, as pieces of that rock began to move. Of course, all that had happened was that I had noticed a few of the thousands of sinfully ugly iguana that populate the island.
However, these mini-Godzillas instantly offered their services as symbols of what can often confound the imagination of a scientistic reductionist. What appears to be the tiny interval between non-living and living matter – between rock and iguana – seems negligible indeed when you witness these sluggish, lithic reptiles shifting their living cells atop lifeless mineral molecules. However, we are chastened by our Darwinian, as he shyly lifts a finger and admits that, after all, natural selection has actually not been of much help in explaining the gulf between the inorganic and organic worlds. Not that there are no efforts underway, but whatever triumphs the scheme can already claim in linking living species within a continuum of genetic causality, an explanation of the all-important quantum leap from lifeless molecule to living cell is not one of them. Darwinian explanations of the most stunning gaps between the species have not fared much better. When one grasps just how dogmatic the proponents of evolutionism have become, one cannot escape the impression that some belief-system (physicalism or naturalism, for instance) is in the balance, and no longer disinterested science. It seems to no longer be championed simply as something that happens to be true, but instead as something that has to be true. As a result, scientistic politics can easily trump scientific truth, and ideology ideas.
One tenet of such a system would ordain the following: if you can offer a plausible account of how something came to be, you can deem yourself emancipated from the pesky question of what (that is, what nature or essence) something is or has, and why it is (that is, what its purpose is in the larger scheme of things). My point is that when – if only as a thought experiment – you put the how question to one side, and just look, with wide eyes and disinterested wonder, at giraffes, aardvarks, butterflies, hippos, puppy dogs, eagles, vultures, rattlesnakes, etc., and then take a long further look at a Chinese man, a Yoruba tribesman, a Scotsman, a Peruvian Inca, a Nepalese woman, an Aleut girl, etc., etc, and etc. again – and follow them through all the myriads of cultures, languages, artefacts, beliefs and gestures of human history – you will see a world of ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ dancing before your eyes. And those natures and purposes will be situated miles above the pedestrian curiosity contained in the question ‘how’. Not that this last question is unimportant, but it is obviously subordinate and instrumental. When beholding a great painting, or hearing a great string quartet, or walking through a grand edifice (let’s imagine Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’, Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, and Chartres cathedral), one might show passing interest in a small exhibit of the ‘making of’ that artefact, but such curiosities about ‘how’ it got here and ‘how’ it was made are dwarfed by the here-and-now experience of the thing itself.
The whole Noah’s ark of teeming life – throw in the fish and the plants for good measure – roars with barks and howls and screeches and toots, as if they were trying to tell us something. And anyone who has looked deeply into an elephant’s tiny eye, or into the wide orb of the nearest owl, will know that they are. They are urging us, with their faltering phonemes, to use our words to name them, as did Adam in Genesis, who “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field” (2,20).
I am not convinced that the Darwinian explanation of life is necessarily wrong, but I am convinced that they are trying to explain the wrong thing. Or in other words, by focusing on the mechanics of selection which, by their own admission, only achieves significant change in a context of millions of years (which makes it fairly irrelevant for our day-to-day understanding of people, cats and birds), they are missing the big picture. They are like someone contemplating a painting of Rembrandt and thinking only of where he got the paint, and who cut the canvas; or someone listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and only wondering how the mathematical intervals between the notes could be plotted on a computer read-out. Or – more disturbingly – they are like someone sitting down in front of you and seeing you only as trillions of cells, or gazillions of molecules, or a whirlpool of countless atoms and subatomic particles, and not seeing your face, hearing your voice or uttering the name that your parents once gave to the little miracle that emerged from their loins.
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….about our non-literate progenitors and the wisdom that never got into print…..
In 2010 I island-hopped to my next two South American isles, the first of which has come to represent in my mind the world of pre-literary (but not ‘illiterate’!) cultures: Easter Island. The second straddles a vast encompassing world of water to its east and to its west: the Argentine island of Tierra del Fuego. First we will look at that mystical spot of land in the Pacific, first happened upon by Europeans on Easter Day in 1722.
When we think of the 6,000 some languages spoken on earth today, and countless extinct tongues no longer audible, it should give pause when we are told by the linguists that the vast majority of these languages have never been written or read. When we automatically parrot the progressivist mantra that presumes – other things being equal – that later is always better, more evolved and more sophisticated, we cannot help seeing the invention of writing (usually dated to around 3,000 B.C.) as a great stride forward in civilization. And to a large extent we are right. McLuhan, Ong, Havelock, Goody and others have documented how profound an effect written language has had on human thought, memory, imagination and culture in general. And much of that effect has been beneficient. But early on the great Plato – who by the way, wrote well and much – dropped the paradoxical suggestion that maybe the gods taught us writing in order not to advance our culture, but rather to destroy our memories. Could it have been a bane rather than a boon? As so much in Plato, it is in the first instance a thought experiment, but like the others so abundant in his dialogues, it ought to provoke a genuine experiment in our thinking that is both fruitful and eye-opening.
I once met an octogenarian Christian in India who had allegedly memorized the entire New Testament in Malayalam (language of the state of Kerala). I was told that each time they brought out a new edition of the text, they came to him to check the written drafts against his oral memory, instinctively trusting the latter more than the former. And we read of anthropologists discovering mountain folks in the Caucasus where bards recite from memory epics as long as Homer’s, or Yoruba priests memorizing hundreds of stanzas of poetry as part of their consecration. I once eavesdropped on a simple, semi-illiterate Portuguese nun, singing in the kitchen, and discovered afterwards that she had sung upward of 30 verses of a song, and could do the same with dozens of others. I doubt I could get through the second stanza of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even all of ‘Yesterday’ without help. But of course, I’m literate! Or am I missing something?
Easter Island lies about a thousand miles distance from the nearest inhabited land. It was the home of one of myriads of tribes and clans that have populated the earth during probably at least tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and that either had no writing at all, or – as in the case of Easter Island – may have had some form of basic script limited to a small circle of leaders and priests. There are still countless such tribes around the globe, including hundreds of descendants of the Easter Island native population (now largely Christianized). Archaeologists and anthropologists – sometimes supplemented by sociologists, psychologists, linguists and historians – all study these populations and provide us with mountains of data and further mountains of theory as to how these fellow humans live and think. Since they have left us with no written documents to speak of, we must infer most of what can be known about them through their artifacts and, for those still with us, their living oral culture (to the extent that we can faithfully translate it). And among the many questions that can be answered this way or that, there is one to which all will respond in unison: Are they religious? Most definitely.
Almost without exception, these cultures – whatever the color of their skin, the style of their garb, the phonetic singularity of their tongue or their location on the globe – harbored no doubts at all that there exist forces and realities (usually personal ones) above and beyond mankind, and accordingly practiced rites inherited from a distant past which negotiated their relationship with those realities. Expressly atheist or sceptical tribes are not easy to find, either in history or around the globe. Today’s atheists and sceptics, however – seldom at a loss for words of scorn about benighted believers – are quick to identify this pan-religiosity in primal man as evidence of primitive, almost pre-human thought, and a consequence of backwardness and lack of scientific enlightenment.
When I was growing up, cartoon culture taught me to believe that ‘primitive man’ was a crude, thick-browed cave man, grunting orders to his wife and whacking her over the head with a club before dragging her into the cave for God only knows what domestic engagements. In contrast, the Flintstones were presented as a flight of high fantasy, funny precisely because impossible.
Now this was in the 50s and 60s, and modern archeology and anthropology had already long since debunked the myth of the brainless cave man; and even more significantly, when the caves of our distant ancestors were actually examined in earnest, what was found were not R-rated remains of unspeakable savagery, but rather paintings and sketches displaying a level of artistic skill, and mysterious insight, that Fred Flintstone would have found challenging to say the least. Even Picasso was impressed.
The original Rapa Nui (as the Easter Islanders have come to be named) invested huge amounts of effort and time quarrying their island’s volcanic rock in order to construct huge moai (monumental statues). They were apparently lined up at strategic points of the island with the massive, stylized faces all turned landwards. Since some sort of environmental catastrophe, along with another layer of culture subsequent to the moai period, lie between us and the original population of a thousand years ago (again, with no written documents), we can do little more than stare at their huge faces and wonder what they were staring at.
The 900 some moai we can now identify invite an array of interpretations – from simple icons of bygone ancestors looking over their descendants to extraterrestrial invaders – but their simultaneously inward and upward gazes mesh perfectly with traditional understanding of the spiritual world as being both within us and above us. The Rapa Nui may well have not been the clueless, superstitious primitives who hadn’t evolved enough to write (as our modern narrative suggests), and instead have been one of thousands of pre-literate peoples so full of an ancient wisdom that nothing short of prodigious sculpted gesture could remotely hint at the height and breadth of all they knew.
Of course, the preliterate come – as we do too – in all varieties, from highly cultured to more regressive and brutal. I do not mean to romanticize them en masse. But there are too many marks of a primordial, unwritten sapience in their art and language for us to dismiss them as illiterate simpletons. And even our social scientists are perhaps suggesting more than they realize when they create categories with which to describe them. They call them ‘animists’; and they did indeed see above and through the world of matter to its transcendent archetypes, and thought that everything was – as Thales put it – ‘full of gods’. They call their clergy ‘shamans’; and these mediators did indeed serve to lead others to the transcendent dimension that lies within the hearts of all, but needs the ministrations of the few to be kept alive. And they remark on the nearly universal practice of ancestor veneration; but the dead are indeed only dead to the world we see with eyes of flesh, but continue to live above and within the times that follow their bodily demise.
As is often the case with the remote tribes of the world, it was Christian missionaries that not only first contacted them, but that studied and documented their history and culture. It was no different on Easter Island. The Capuchin Sebastian Englert lived for 30 years on the island, learned and then taught the traditional language and preserved their culture and heritage all the while he brought them the Gospel. As any good missionary should do, he endeavored to show them that Christianity fulfilled and crowned their native beliefs, and even when it corrected and reoriented, it did not suppress. There are indeed gods in all things (we call them angels); we do indeed need mediators to strengthen our trembling link with heaven; and, finally, our ancestors are indeed still with us, looking up and looking within. And we too will soon be ancestors ourselves, as we join those who died before us, and look not only inward and upward, but also back at our time on earth as a confused and approximate rehearsal of what awaits us in the Land of the Living.
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…..the oceans, what they mean but can never say….
Sometime in the 20th century we were taught by astronomers to stop calling the Earth our special home, our unique place in space, our central spot in the vastness of the cosmos, and to start calling it a planet – the indefinite article is mandatory. In order to scientifically know what it is that we live on, that which provides us with oxygen, oceans, mountains, continents and all the rest, we were instructed henceforth to place the very idea of our ‘world’ nicely into its proximate genus, and thus plop the whole blue orb into the new category of ‘planet’ – of which it is, of course, just one among eight (or so) others. The problem, however, is this: the glaringly obvious difference between Earth and any of the other sun-circling bodies is a difference we are being seduced into seeing as a mere gradation, looking especially to Mars as a comparable orb touted as being not all that different from our own. Likewise we were instructed by Carl Sagan, decades ago, to turn radio ears to the black semi-void of outer space in the certitude that we would soon – he thought in just a matter of years – hear howdy-do’s from other comparable planet-dwellers who, after all, just have to be out there, waiting to hear from us.
Of course, as of 2017? – not even a whistle. But there seems to be something a bit suspicious about all this: Earth just one planet among others; man just one animal among others; Christ just one sage among others; and, more recently, man is just a woman with testicles, and woman just a man with a womb…. I see a pattern here, and one designed more by ideology than actually seen by science.
As I took my tourist tour down the Strait of Magellan, just south of Tierra del Fuego – with the cold, agitated Atlantic to the east and the relatively calm Pacific to the west – I felt strangely staggered by the oceans of our world; they impressed me even more than they had during my multiple flights over their seemingly endless expanses as I traveled so many times between the continents. They are obviously stupendous and unparalleled. And yet, we feverishly scrutinize samples from Mars, hoping to detect droplets of water or crystals of ice, so that we can proudly humiliate the five-star status of Earth and point to other comparable life-support systems in space. The difference – we seem always to be hoping to prove – is just a matter of degree, and not of kind. Of course we are interminably lectured to by Darwinians on how small is the difference between man and the animals, and by comparative religion experts about how illusory is the difference between Christianity and other faiths. In our haste to quantify everything, differences that used to be momentous have become mathematical; things that used to be wholly other have become more or less the same thing, differing only in degree; gauges of quantity have slowly replaced perceptions of quality, and we’ve become the blinder for it. William Blake warned us early on in the 19th century: “Our life’s dim windows of the soul / distort the heavens, pole to pole / and lead us to believe a lie / when we see with, not through the eye.”
Curiously, since first Galileo detected relativity in mechanical, local motion, and then Einstein in electromagnetic terms, we have been told until our ears hurt that an absolute point of view simply does not exist (especially not any of the traditional ones), but in the same breath, and without batting an eye, the same scientists will urge upon us their own new brand of an absolute point of view. We are told we must teach our minds to disassociate our Earth from any notion of centrality, and assume the supposedly disinterested, abstract vantage point of some remote spot in space from which we can look down upon our world, the solar system and even our galaxy. That is supposed to be seeing things as they are, whereas looking up from my front yard into the sky and watching sun, moon, planets and stars all follow their courses across the celestial vault is erroneous, misleading, illusory or – to really pour acid into the wound – medieval.
Yokels like me might point out that even if we could manage to live our lives without an absolute point of view (a bit of a stretch), still a point of view we must have, at least if we harbor the hope of viewing anything at all. And Earth does not just seem as good a vantage point as any other, but presents an avalanche of obvious advantages, beginning with the mundane fact that we happen to live here. But another mega-fact is the existence of the oceans.
For the past few years I have had the privilege of owning a small oceanfront apartment in the northeast of Brazil, and now repair to my 18th-storey perch overlooking the Atlantic whenever I can. I spend next to no time on the beach, but hours on end sitting on my balcony and gazing at the water. Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant taught us to reach for an even more potent word than beauty when in the presence of such over-sized and over-powering grandeur. To say the ocean is beautiful is not false, but somehow flaccid, for what it is – these modern sages assure us – is invincibly, defiantly and expansively sublime.
However, there is a minor chord to add to my maritime symphony. I once chatted on the beach with a young man who had spent his life living close to the Atlantic shore, and I (from Kansas, remember?) exuded to him all my enthusiasm about the glories and beauties of the sea. He – who knew those waters far better than I – looked briefly over the waves and into the high horizon of cold salty H20, and, clearly unmoved by my rhapsodies, protested: “You know, the sea scares me.”
Not too long after that I happened upon the bodies of two teenage boys who had just drowned (they were covered with a cloth and surrounded by onlookers); they had been playing soccer on the sand, as so many thousands of boys do every day, and the ball had shot off into the waves. One of the boys jumped in to retrieve it, got pulled under by a heavy surge, followed by another boy who sprinted into the waves to rescue his friend, and was also pulled under – and the game was over.
But, to return to the Tierra del Fuego: The sea is scary indeed, and as I looked out at the Strait of Magellan, admiring again its aesthetic charm and trying to remember a poem that might give voice to my romantic spirits, our guide dourly reported that some 3,000 maritime vessels, with their crews and cargo, lie at the bottom of that strait – so intense are the waters where the Atlantic and the Pacific passionately (and violently) embrace.
It is sublime and it is wonderful; it is incomprehensible and bears a mystery deeper even than its most plunging trenches. The world ocean surrounds our proud continents, humiliating them into the status of islands, moistens our air, feeds us with its creatures, carries us around the globe and is a single massive symbol of the Creator who put it there. Still less than 5% of its seabed has been explored or mapped, and marine biologists assure us that species of life yet to be spotted have been swimming there for millennia. And it is dangerous too, with hurricanes and tsunamis on its agenda just as much as breathtaking seascapes and tranquil beaches. And all that water is the big secret, and the big mystery, of our home, the Earth.
But to call it a ‘planet’ is to do it a great injustice. Sure, it is interesting and astrophysically revealing to know that our world revolves around the sun along with all the planets, and that we can learn much from that extra-terrestrial perspective. But to interpret that new viewpoint (which we’ve had at least since Copernicus, and actually – as a possible theory – since the Greeks), as meaning that our eyes are lying to us when we look up and marvel at the starry vault of heaven; that we are duped by a sinking horizon into thinking that the sun actually rises, or conversely, that it ever sets. No, our common-sensical perspective is accurate, and just as true – I would argue, far more true! – than cerebral calculations on how things might look when an imagined interstellar sightseer views our home from outer space.
The Earth is a massive and irreducible singularity, and those trying to prove otherwise are only revealing the poverty of their poetic imagination and the ideological character of their supposed science. They are like people calling a diamond just another stone, Dante a guy who wrote some poems, gold one more substance on the periodic table, their mothers mammals, Mount Everest a promontory, Bach an organ player – all true, and all irrelevant. The Earth is a miracle, its oceans a stunning and jaw-dropping marvel, its mountains fearful, its rivers furious. We reach for poetry not because we are too stupid for science, but because science is too pedantic for the immensity of the prodigy that greets our eyes every living day.
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From Bethlehem to Ultima Thule : the Permanent Christian Headline
Christianity, the least-known religion in the world…..
I had to take buses, boats and ferries to get to the small island of Iona, east of mainland Scotland in the Inner Hebrides. It may not seem the obvious vantage from which to consider Christianity, but when you reflect on its role in evangelizing the British Isles and what they would finally mean to history – both in bringing the Gospel to the world at large (together with other European adventurers and missionaries), and in linking East and West (especially through the British Raj in India) – there is probably no other small island that can boast a bigger impact on the growing catholicity of Christianity. Whether it is true or it is false, Christianity talks globally, and Iona – despite (maybe because of) its tininess – is a capital witness to this. The claims of Christ are either globally right or globally wrong.
To begin our reflections – bearing in mind what we have learned from the earlier islands – let us listen to the most resonant African voice revered by both Protestant and Catholic ears, and hear what he had to say about the universality of this ‘breaking news’ from the Middle East. I am speaking, of course, of St. Augustine of Hippo: “What is now called the Christian religion existed even among the ancients and was not lacking from the beginning of the human race until ‘Christ came in the flesh.’ From that time, true religion, which already existed, began to be called Christian.” This surprising proclamation (in the 12th book of his very last work, his Retractationes) simply highlights the patent Biblical fact that the Logos, the Word, through which the world was made (Genesis 1) is the selfsame Word Christians believe became man in Christ; and since seekers of wisdom – and of its twin sister: holiness – from time immemorial have wondered about the cause and meaning of the world and our place in it, they were already addressing, and deeply reflecting upon, the pre-incarnate Word. The iguana of the Galápagos, the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, and both the great oceans that meet at Tierra del Fuego, came into being through that Word.
The first chapter of Genesis is only deepened and prolonged, and neither replaced nor demoted, by the first chapter of John. Creation and re-creation emerge from the selfsame Beginning, which is at once the everlasting Word forever spoken by the Father in the Spirit, and – philosophically – the locus idearum of the great Plato. It is the source of the Intelligence both above and within the physical cosmos around us – the intelligibility of which is its most ‘miraculous’ feature, according to Einstein – and quite simply, to put a final touch to the matter, the ultimate Meaning of Everything.
The first documented conversion of a recognized philosopher was with the 2nd century saint, Justin Martyr. After his baptism, he chose to wear the distinctive philosopher’s toga – as recognizable back then, as today a policeman’s uniform or a judge’s robes – and proclaimed the Gospel as the fulfillment, the realization, the coveted consummation of philosophy. In his Dialogue he relates how he had run the gamut of philosophical accounts of reality. After dismissing the Epicureans, he passed from the Stoics to the Peripatetics to the Pythagoreans and finally to the Platonists; only with them did he discern a plausible approach to the transcendent echos of the Logos within all philosophical wonder. From the Stoics, however, he borrowed the key notion of logoi spermatikoi (‘seminal reasons’) and used it to characterize how the truth of the Logos, through which all things were made, is present like a seed within human reason. It constitutes our nature’s ascending appeal to a non-incarnate Transcendence – the source of all human quest of wisdom and liberation. But then follows its seismic surprise at the later discovery (in the ‘fullness of time’) of a descending and incarnate Transcendence; for this time, instead of us, it is the Transcendence itself that is making the appeal.
For St. Justin, Plato’s philosophy never quite dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s as a truly convincing path to realizing the truth. It seemed forever stuck in minor dialectical ascents without any perceptible help from above. And then one day he met an old man by the seashore who told him of another source of truth, called prophecy, and narrated to him both the story of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Gospel as their fulfillment. Here was a Truth that was looking for us, rather than one being clumsily hunted by us. Instead of hearing this above all as a ‘religious’ message associated with temples and oracles, Justin perceives instead the unmistakable sound of the lessons of the Logos he already studied as a philosopher. “What is now called the Christian religion” was for him, as it would later be for St. Augustine, not just a religion, but also true philosophy.
So much was this the case that earlier philosophers should henceforth be seen as Christians avant la lettre (for instance, both Heraclitus and Socrates he named as Christians). Conversely, those in possession of the full revelation in Christ – and this, in effect, is the more revolutionary suggestion – should accordingly be seen as philosophers par excellence. This will prove a bitter pill to swallow both for ‘crisis’ theologians, eager to promote the wholly unprecedented originality of the Gospel message, and for more conservative theologians, intent on tracing a solitary arrow to Christ from the Old Testament, grudging only vague, confused gestures within alien traditions. As always, the truth lies in a rich and multifaceted middle, and never in the loud and simplistic solutions that typically come either from the impatient gallops of the so-called left, or the fearful clutchings of a conservative right.
Now, it was on the island of Iona that early Celtic monks not only preached the Good News; they also brought visual transparency to the Word. The marvels of the physical cosmos – all visible witnesses to the Word – enter into the very display of the written Message by way of the illuminated page. Thus they created one of the most sublime books ever confected. It was later called the Book of Kells, after the Irish monastery to which the treasure was taken after the Vikings raided Scotland in the late 8th century.
All this suggests the traditional two-volume expression of the Logos. I refer here not to the two Testaments – which, although a veritable library of texts and literary genres, finally make up one grand story from Genesis to the Apocalypse – but rather to the two books that, according to the early Fathers, were written by the Divine Author: yes, the Bible itself, written in words, but also the vast material creation, written in things. Theology may read the former book, and philosophy the latter, but both belong together, just as the Word’s presence in time and space (as its origin and meaning) complements and commentates the Word’s descent into that same time and space in the Biblical narrative. That is the essence of Christianity (no apologies to Feuerbach).
The more one appreciates the singularity of Christ, the less one is tempted – paradoxically – to brand all other religions as falsehoods or confusions, precisely because they too pursue the Logos – the yet unincarnate Logos – but approach it in very different, even incommensurate, ways. The difference is this: Christianity does not offer so much a leader to be followed, an example to be emulated or a doctrine to be learnt (although it does all these things too), but above all an event to be acknowledged. We are not being asked to appropriate a perennial wisdom coming to us from the dawn of history, nor to learn to pacify our minds in the face of the inevitable flux of samsara, nor to align our thinking and doing according to a great tao that embraces all things, nor even to simply obey God’s law in the Torah or to submit to his peace in the Quran. Each of those religious acts are laudable and a good Christian would do well to appropriate them all. But none of them make him a Christian.
You become one only by receiving the witness of the most astonished men and women in history. They have passed down to us the story of God’s invasion of our world, within the very fibers of the humanity we carry and under which we suffer. They told us that the most horrific things that haunt us – violence, despair, disease and death – have been taken into God’s very heart and transformed. They still hurt and they still haunt, but there is meaning now where there was only resignation before. Christ is not just another messenger, another sage, another example we are summoned to follow or hear. He is the place in our humanity where the Transcendent God has gone all the way into our lives and our pain, and has shown us, in return, the way to go all the way into God’s mystery.
The missionaries also went all the way – all the way to Ultima Thule (the end of the earth, as the British Isles were sometimes known to the ancient Romans), and in Iona – as in countless other stations around the globe – told the story, brought the sacraments and changed the world. For a Christian, something happened to all of created reality when Christ happened to the world. This island is in the middle of my Seven Islands, but the miracle that was preached there is at the center of my life.
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My ears clogged with dust after visiting Tanzania’s Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and pursuing a wild goose-chase in search of a remote site of nearby primitive cave paintings (a passion of mine), the small plane landed in Zanzibar’s airport as my head thumped with pain. When we had taxied our way to the miniature terminal, the headache subsided and I peered out the window for my first view of the fabled island of Zanzibar.
I had visited several Muslim regions before. Once I had traveled by train from Tangier to Fez in Morocco, and was surprised when a boy who shared my compartment had drunk from my water bottle while I was sleeping. I was off-put at first, but later learned that this is nothing to get ruffled about in the world of the desert. I also made extended visits to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan – and a year later Bosnia-Herzegovina and Indonesia – and began to feel the full impact of a culture where calls to prayer, inspired by passages from the Quran (Arabic for ‘recitation’), are publicly chanted from prayer-towers every day. No one who has heard that chant will ever forget it, and those who understand the language will say that its mesmerizing poetic beauty is at least as important as its message (perhaps because, in part, it is its message). When you proceed to enjoy the famous Arabian hospitality, to absorb the uncanny peace within the omnipresent mosque, and to study – as my profession required – half a millennium or so of medieval Muslim philosophy and science (and that is just a part of the heritage), it is difficult to view recent terrorism as the prominent face of the religion of the Prophet.
Every great religion bears a claim to a certain ultimacy, some version of singularity and election that makes it incoherent for it to look at other faiths and simply say: “we’re all the same”. Hindus may point to their unmatched antiquity and gift for virtually unlimited assimilation; Buddhists to their conviction that the Enlightened One has discovered the ultimate method for attuning human consciousness to the truth; Taoists to what appears definitively obvious in their methods for aligning our many human ways to the one Way of Heaven; Jews to the irrevocable and exclusive calling of their people to a divine plan still unfolding; Muslims to a finality linked inseparably to the last and consummate of the accepted Prophets; and Christians, finally, to an Event that finds no true parallel elsewhere in time or space, making Christ, for them, the very hinge of history. Common denominators of mythical, metaphysical, moral and mystical nature run through all the great traditions, and these clearly invite comparisons through shifting emphases of perennial truths and values. But although they may encourage inter-religious and ecumenical understanding, the differences mentioned above, though few, are undeniably crucial, and challenging to say the least.
Each of these six symbols could easily drift to the sun-center of a system of planets, with the other five in subservient and dependent orbit. What is challenging in inter-religious understanding is not identifying and rejoicing in the abundant shared truths and values mentioned before. It lies rather in placing the deep differences in a context that allows them to maintain their emphasis, but without entailing a look down one’s nose at the other claims, or – worse yet – military jihad, armed crusade, or even genocide as required implementations of one’s own claim to uniqueness. Since the majority of the world’s religious adherents participate in their usually inherited traditions more by custom and culture than by pondered conviction, the unrelenting confrontation of traditions in a globalized world demands that each show forth their greatest saints, most clinching arguments and most other-worldly beauties – if just to get everyone’s attention. The only truly convincing witness to any claim to uniqueness is to give witness to a behavior, and to a splendor, that is uniquely convincing. Anything short of this lines up too suspiciously with a self-centered obsession we all share: that of always wanting to be ‘right’.
Contrary to popular assumption that fundamentalism is a simple return to ‘fundamentals’, a conservative reversion to one’s roots, it is in fact a conspicuous and vocal movement of very recent times, emphasizing literalism in Scriptural exegesis, exclusivism in doctrine and often militancy in practice, on a scale only sporadically present in the past; it is a very modern version of living one’s religion, including a neurotic modern obsession with being right about everything. We find Hindu and Christian versions of this, as well as Islamic – and even the occasional Buddhist specimen – but all of them are, in truth, the result of very old religions coming to terms with very modern threats (hindutva, for instance, confronting modern colonial incursions in India, or Christians in the face of a secularizing scientism beginning in the 19th century). Islam certainly has no monopoly in this deviation, but what it does have is more aggressive and constraining circumstances: the political and cultural fallout of the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire after the Great War and the random patch-work division of its area into Western-conceived ‘nation-states’ (cutting across many a tribal land, and throwing together tribal foes), meddling Western intrigue in the fortunes of the ancient world of Persia (Iran) and its links with Russia, and the West’s (and then the world’s) addiction to high-speed transport and the thirst for oil to fuel it (with sprawling subterranean oceans of it discovered under Muslim feet).
All this has provoked decontextualized readings of the Quran’s more militant verses, fatally fused with an appropriation of the West’s most lethal and sinister portable technologies of death. Thus Muslim extremists try to sting the Western Goliath with enough stones from their furtive slings to bring him crashing down. While the West demonizes as ‘terrorism’ these sporadic forays that kill scores, or hundreds or (rarely) thousands, the Muslim Orient glares in indignation at a 20th century in which myriads of their own innocents have been slaughtered by the West’s airborne bombs. When the West protests that it never targets the innocent, whereas the terrorists do, the latter continue to point to the high numbers of their own collateral innocents, and adjudge all who are fed by a culture generating such carnage to have lost their neutrality and to be fair targets. This disproportion in weaponry has led us to shift our moral yardstick from virtue and vice to power and price – how people are killed becomes more pivotal than that they are killed, and those who can afford sophisticated and expensive weaponry seem absolved from their acts, since there is no visible blood on their hands. The suicide bomber may be a murderer, but unlike the bomber who drops death on thousands by pushing a button thousands of feet in the air, these self-immolating warriors are in the midst of the fray and can hardly be called aloof killers. And when Muslims do attain more sophisticated weaponry, the double standard continues. A ‘nuclear’ Iran, we are told, is unacceptable, but a ‘nuclear’ West can be tolerated (but the Iranians know too well that only one of them has ever dropped an atom bomb on a city). All this gets terribly complicated, and no resolution will appear until the religious backgrounds on both sides have been honestly explored.
Islam has perhaps the simplest of creeds (two articles to the typical Christian twelve), and the most insistent monotheism of them all, but behind that first-blush severity of focus lies a complexity that has created one of the world’s most influential civilizations, and a religion currently tending to overtake Christianity in sheer numbers – by mid-century some predict. Only some 15% of today’s Muslims are Arabs, and most of the rest live in Turkey, Iran, South Asia and Indonesia. The resultant symbiosis resulting from their march east – a march more commercial than military – was no longer with tribal desert nomads, but with the ancient and established cultures of Persia and India, and thus brought new diversity into the simple ‘recitation’ of the Prophet.
As I looked over the Indian Ocean from a warm-water beach on the coast of Zanzibar, I wondered where the complexities of our religious legacies would lead us in the 21st century. At least this much is clear: both Islam and Christianity are growing still, especially in the global south, and between them embrace over half of humanity. If we add Hindus and Buddhists to the mix, in statistics alone, we have encompassed the majority of human beings living in this world. If the peace that the name ‘Islam’ allegedly purports has anything at all to do with the New Testament’s “peace of God that passeth all understanding” (Phil. 4,7), we will have to first redress our misunderstandings and replace them with that measure of understanding that God’s peace can indeed transcend.
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So easy to think you understand it, when you haven’t, but it has understood you before you even asked…..
“Avoid evil, do good and purify the mind.” That is one version of the Buddha’s parting lesson as he passed over into a state his followers will spend centuries trying to describe, or name, or even remotely understand – the ‘despiration’ (sic), called nirvana. His teachings are similarly resumed in the deceptively simple formula of ‘four noble truths’, but they too have germinated into interminable rows of loose-leaf collections of sutras and shastras, termas and tantras, agamas and canonical collections in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan and more. The extreme simplicity and immediacy of what Gautama Siddharta claimed to have discovered beneath the bodhi tree in northern India has paradoxically bred libraries of texts – beginning with the considerable ensemble of his own sayings (some collections run to over 20 volumes) – , then multiplied many times over by later commentary upon commentary, and then commentary on commentary. No less than the allegedly more ‘wordy’ traditions of the Hindus and the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhism too has filled the world with words.
It was with this paradox in mind that I arrived in Colombo from Singapore in 2007 — from that other island of high-tech, air-conditioned complexity (that understandably did not make my list) – to what I imagined would be an isle of meditative one-pointedness. And to a large extent I was not disappointed. I had spent two weeks the year before in the then still-untouched Buddhist world of Burma (Myanmar) – which, in recent years (I am writing this in 2017) has opened itself up to the distractions of the West – and visited multiple Theravada temples and monasteries in and between the two cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Since Sri Lanka also adhered to this branch of Buddhism, which prides itself on being the most original, historically rooted of the various traditions – free of latter overlays of interpretation and elaboration – the fact that already here one encounters a panoply of texts, symbols, chaplets and sanctuaries unfolding from the Buddha’s simple teaching, only highlighted the paradox.
As I visited the various Buddhist sites of this isle which drops off the Indian subcontinent like a tear – including Kelaniya, Kandy, the Aluvihara Rock Temple (where those sayings of the Buddha were first committed to writing), Dambulla, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Anarhudapura – that single tear seemed to shine like a symbol of the single idea which, I venture to suggest, dominates all forms of Buddhist practice (and there are many). That idea is this: if we could only get our subjectivity properly adjusted – not unlike adjusting the settings and lenses of a camera – we could in effect leap-frog over teachings and temples, libraries and lamaseries, verbiage and vice, and suddenly (an adverb that will be much used, and much disputed, in Buddhism) find that ultimately correct vantage point, that consummately supreme and revealing perspective, from which our mind could look out on reality – and look back on itself – with complete transparency and beatifying truth.
That the refreshing simplicity of this project morphed rapidly and easily into complex ramifications is hardly a surprise, as our subjectivity – our reflexive consciousness and even more our apparent freedom of will – is arguably the densest reality in the universe (just as the brain is the most complex matter), and putting order in this universe of thoughts, memories, desires, hopes, anticipations, intentionalities, doubts, fears and all the rest, is going to demand more than what some superficial enthusiasts for Buddhism regard as a quick fix. Hence the rainbow of versions of the great Buddha’s dharma – from the Theravada, ‘back-to-basics’ approach of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, to the at times seemingly re-brahmanized Mahayana which first budded in India but ended up finding the best soil for further growth north and east of the subcontinent in East Asia, to the currently fashionable versions of Vajrayana (particularly the Tibetan), that reconnect so much with prior shamanisms, and the originally brahmanical Tantra, and an almost Vedic pantheon of semi-deities, one wonders if the initially thick line between Hinduism and Buddhism has grown almost invisible.
Buddhism has always reminded me of the project of much of modern European philosophy, that is, the attempt to get the mind attuned to itself before letting it look out at reality. Cosmology and metaphysics – and often even logic – are quickly pre-empted by psychology and epistemology, and one submits oneself to endless inquiries over what knowledge and consciousness actually are, their limits and causes, their sources and methods, until one finally turns over the rest of the world and even human nature to the new modern sciences; philosophy itself, often enough, ends up stranded in a cul-de-sac of incurable skepticism.
But just as modern philosophy has famously failed as an encompassing project – leading many into poses of post-modern relativism, and others (I raise my hand here) to a reconsideration of classical philosophy – it has also sired countless insights into how our mind works, the nature of intentionality, the enigma of freedom, and a variety of methods for gauging and measuring certitude. Buddhism, too, whatever one may hold of its overarching view of reality, has provided the most profound and searching examination of the varieties of human consciousness on offer in the world’s traditions. Practical methods of calming the ‘monkey mind’, of bringing to convergence a consciousness that has turned into a kind of multi-tasking gone mad, and an array of challenging meditations on the fleeting nature of experience – all this is a solid legacy, and the West ignores it at its peril.
No one will dispute that Buddhism grew out a Hindu matrix, but many will argue over how radical the Buddhist tradition’s break with the latter ultimately was, much of the disagreement having to do with how that protean matrix is to be defined to begin with. Still, that Buddhism practically disappeared from India, but spread to become the most universal common religious denominator in the rest of Asia, makes India a true mother of Asian religion and philosophy, even if at times only a step-mother. The single most intractable problem of Buddhist philosophy – how, namely, to reconcile a radical denial of any true substantiality with the equally affirmed perduring effects of karma and rebirth – is far from being resolved in any consensual way among scholars both within and outside of the tradition; it certainly invites a widening of the conversation to include insights from Western thought. The globalized world, for better or worse, is now an ambience in which the progeny of India and the progeny of Israel – not without help from Persia and Greece – can embark upon the most promising intellectual engagement of history. As Hans Urs von Balthasar predicted, the conversation between the Christian tradition (already a fusion of Abrahamic faith with Greek science and Roman law) and the East will occasion an even greater challenge, and holds even greater ultimate promise, than those portentous engagements of the first two millenia.
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Bali: Hinduism Out on a Limb
The Hindu universe, located overwhelmingly in India, has invaded the world, courtesy of the British Empire. But long before Englishmen colonized South Asia, Hindus colonized Southeast Asia, and a rare relic thereof lies on the enchanted isle of Bali….
The words ‘India’ and ‘Hindu’ both come from the same root, which in Sanskrit simply designates the Indus River. But not just in etymology, also in reality, the two things are largely coincident. Quite distinct religious traditions – whether home-grown or immigrant – will gain a foothold in South Asia solely when Mother India finds a way to take them into her Hindu arms. Even Islam, perhaps the most unlikely newcomer, was only able to make inroads of a non-military nature by allowing its own mystical missionaries, the sufis, to acknowledge the Hindu sadhus as a league of arguably monotheistic brothers. And Christians may wince when they see Jesus – already preached to them in the 1st century by St. Thomas the Apostle – ranked among the avatars of Vishnu, but it is one way for a Hindu to regard them as family. The Jains, and what Buddhists are left, are looked upon in the way mainline Christians might look at Quakers or Mennonites: just some brethren who’ve gone a bit extreme. And the Sikhs follow a 16th century guru who claims to have found a way to a kind of marriage of convenience between Hinduism and Islam. So from a Hindu perspective, they all are choreographed into a broad space under the Vedic umbrella, although some are far closer to its mysterious and welcoming center than others.
Bali is thousands of miles from India, and although it did hold on to its Hinduism while the surrounding islands of Indonesia were won to Islam, the ensuing centuries of isolation from the Indian homeland, and from neighboring co-religionists, created an idiosyncratic version of India’s oldest religion. One might compare it to what happened to Ethiopian Christianity after its surrounding countries similarly went Muslim. Religions require their communities – the Jews are by definition a people; the Muslims, an ummah; the Christian church, an assembly (ecclesia); the stratified Hindu population, an interconnection of castes; the Buddhists, a sangha – for all see their beliefs and rites borne collectively as well as individually. But the underlying primal religious dimensions (called by social scientists shamanism, animism and ancestor worship), are almost always present under the surface and of influence in the formulation of more organized religion’s beliefs and practices (they typically precede the founding of the great religions anyway). They tend, however, to assert themselves more aggressively when a given area is cut off from intercourse with the larger population of the faith in question. Thus we see local shamanic and animistic traits in Balinese Hinduism that are less on display in India, and – since Buddhist missionaries had also penetrated the area – the adoption of boddhisatvas into their devotions as well. Add to all this the human beauty and sweetness of the Balinese, you have a religion of uncommon fascination and charm. Unlike the palpable antiquity of much of India’s Hindu display, Bali’s religion seems somehow fresh and recent. But it still is fed by what modern Hindus call their sanatana dharma, that is, the perennial teaching.
All this invites us to ask what is indeed this primeval tradition that seems to have left its most visible traces in the multiple and polymorphic manifestations of Hinduism. With roots in an oral tradition that goes back further than will ever be documented, still today it customarily mocks our attempts to put a name on it. ‘Hinduism’ is more of a forfeiture of nomenclature than anything close to an informative label, for it points to a host of doctrines, rites and artifacts that finally defy conventional conceptual limits. Unlike the other great religions, there is no single, normative founder, and no one book, but rather a diffuse library of texts called the Vedas. Still, if we persist in wanting to ‘talk’ about India’s most native traditions, we will have to use names, however inadequate. And scholars, in their majority, suggest we make our peace with the word and get on to more substantive questions.
We are on firmer ground when we ask, simply, the following question: is there – back in the mists of prehistoric time, in a context of at least hundreds of thousands of years, probably even more – evidence of a tradition of wisdom and holiness that antedates – by those kinds of chronological yardsticks – the first documented appearance of writing, estimated at some 3,000 years before Christ? When we think back even to more recent pre-literate witness, such as the moai of Easter Island, and then to the multiple, sophisticated cave drawings found throughout the world (which date back tens of thousands of years), does it really make sense to give wholesale credence to the standard modern narrative of our race as having evolved up from primitive beginnings to our (supposed) present sophistication? Does it not make incomparably more sense to accept the unanimous witness of the millennia? Virtually all traditions embrace some idea of a primeval ‘golden age’, one or the other version of a ‘lost paradise’, and carry persistent memories, and often enough explicit doctrines, of a primordial, and deeply intuitive past – borne more orally than scripturally – from which, for whichever reasons the various traditions might propose, we have receded. And this, by the way, need not belie the fact that human populations have, at times, descended to barbaric lows, such that we do find evidence of occasional ‘ascents from savagery’ in our long story. It would be difficult to find more brutal savagery in centuries past than that which we witnessed in the last century, courtesy of the ‘national socialism’ of the Nazis and the more ‘international’ socialism of the Soviets and the ‘Red Chinese’. I wonder how far we have actually risen from that savagery even now.
So – just to be clear – I am not suggesting a simplistic recipe of ‘the older the better’. But in the face of the overwhelming presence of beliefs in a glorious past of untold antiquity – evident also in both Plato’s and Confucius’s presentation of their work as a retrieval and recuperation of ancient wisdom, and not something entirely new – it would seem to be the upward, progressive, evolutionary story of our cultural development that is the simplistic version. Perhaps the most convincing fact in support of cultural devolution over evolution is that we have yet to find a single human language that is not a complete system of meaning and expression (whether extinct, or among the 6,000 some tongues still spoken); nowhere do we find a half-intelligent scheme of sounds, ‘on the way’ to becoming a full language. If a language is there, it is always fully there, and we can witness this even on an individual scale, when language first bursts forth from the mouth of a child. Language, together with reflexive consciousness (perhaps even coincident with it?), continues to defy all attempted evolutionary explanations. To even venture to give an account of the origin of something so sublime as language and consciousness through something so low as a biological survival mechanism, seems not just misguided, but suspiciously ideological.
The Hindu tradition is arguably the most primordially rooted of all religions. Unconcerned with pinpointing an historical date of inauguration, it leans its multi-millennial weight on an undefinable, utterly radical font of being and truth, sovereignly secure in a time that was before all time. We are told its amaranthine truths were seen by antediluvian rishis (‘seers’ in Sanskrit), recited in resultant hymns (the source texts of the Vedas: a word meaning vision and knowledge), and then heard by a subsequent tradition forever intent on taking its mantras into its collective ear through the brahmins (a tradition which itself came to be called shruti, meaning ‘heard’). Forever morphing like a kaleidoscope of immeasurable diameter, the tradition maintained its unity precisely by proliferating, with every twist of the tube, the possible views of that unity. It is still turning today.
As Israel pioneered a path through history, India paved a route out of history; and both traditions view those it intends to liberate, although for different reasons, as somehow trapped in history. Incommensurate means to distinct ends, but sharing the universal religious imperative that man needs to be freed. The Jewish prophets and then the Christian apostles will show the way through and beyond time (and of course Christ will present himself as that very transcendence incarnate); the Indian sages will essay a centrified dynamic away from time to an ever-present source. Whether through work (karman), devotion (bhakti), insight (jnana) or meditation (raja yoga), India has filled its heritage with a variety of ‘points of philosophical view’ (darsanas), and a range of ‘lord gods’ (isvaras) to focus our rampant human plurality and get our consciousness on topic; and all this is buttressed by an articulated system of sacrifices (pujas) to draw our body’s awkward movements into one, unending gesture toward the Absolute. Bali has taken this last to perfection, and all over the island, fresh offerings of fruits, grains and flowers can be found on street, wall and market. Processions of the oblations can be observed throughout the day.
If one has heard nothing else about Hinduism, one has probably heard the buzzword ‘pantheism’ applied to it. A stroll through any Hindu temple, or the green walkways of Bali, strewn with colorful offerings, should be enough to prove how superficial such Western labels can be. If Hinduism is pantheistic, then so is Islam and Christianity.
All three endeavor, in three distinct ways, to insist on God’s uniqueness, and dethrone every aspiring usurper. For Muslims, the absolute, peerless oneness (wahid) of God is highlighted by removing every even remotely conceivable competitor from our visual field and imagination (on evidence in the ‘aniconic’ tendency of especially Arabic Muslim art), and to allow the uniqueness to reside in and be attributed only to The One, Allah. For Hindus, that same oneness is profiled in a converse effort to show how every single grain of sand, flower, star, person and community can be shown to point, as if in a synchronized dance, to Brahman. And there is more: ultimately they will claim to find in their own contingent being a direct, pre-existent relationship with the Absolute, in the form of their own deepest metaphysical root, called atman. At that depth, and at that depth only, the tiny drop of the relative is engulfed by the infinite sea of the Absolute.
For a Christian, the Muslim drum-beat of oneness may seem to portend a descent into monotony, and the Hindu modulation of voices and sounds a veritable cacophony, but still the Gospel embraces the uncompromising doctrine of God’s absolute oneness, as does the Muslim; and it affirms the reality – dependent but solid – of creation as a manifestation of the One, like the Hindu. However, for the follower of Christ that oneness refracts necessarily in Life, Truth and Love, and thus in Father, Son and Spirit. The Christian ‘newness’ of the New Covenant is the new focus on personhood, both in God and in man, and how that notion reclaims both the oneness of God out of the multiplicity of creation, and the reality of the multiple as participations precisely in that oneness. The fact that every created person is unique and irreplaceable reflects, in the order of creation, the archetypal fact that God is incomparably more unique and irreplaceable. Insofar as every created person is self-possessing, self-conscious, self-determining and self-transcendent, it is a created participation in fullness of Life, ultimate Truth and consummate Love; or, in Vedantic inflection: being, consciousness and bliss (satcitananda).
All this went through my head as I trekked through the rice paddies of Bali, trying to avoid the drunken party-goers from Australia, the surfers from all over the globe, and the New Agers keen on tapping into Bali’s secrets. For myself, I just tried to learn the lessons of this, India’s most unlikely child, and its implications for any approach to wisdom that tries “to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:18-19)
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If you don’t have an approximate understanding of who the Jews were and are, you’ll never make sense of our world, of any religion, or of any pain.
Israel is hardly an island, or if so, only in a more metaphorical sense, as the one I attributed to my native American state of Kansas at the beginning of these reflections. But in another sense, the Jews have been like a moving island throughout most of their history, passing only a fraction of it in the land of Canaan. Almost half of them now live again in that land, a fact that is hugely significant – both for Zionists and anti-Zionists, though for obviously opposite reasons. But whether in Canaan or elsewhere, since the days of Abraham (4,000 years ago), the Jews have always been there, an inevitable and unmistakable counterpoint to everything else that happens in the world. Countless peoples of greater population and superior power have risen and fallen in the pages of history, finally absorbed and blurred (like the Etruscans or the Aztecs), but the Jews always survive. Love them or loathe them (and an in-between is hard to find), even since the coming of Christ, they continue to be the often unwilling foil of a gemstone the world can never quite identify, but must presume is there. Christians do claim to understand their role in the time before Christ, but are less sure what they have been up to thereafter.
The paradox of their survival is matched by companion paradoxes. To begin with, no other people has ever composed and assiduously defended a text (the Tanakh, our Old Testament) in which they are depicted in the most uncomplimentary terms. This, more than anything else, gives us little excuse for not taking the text seriously, for if we want evidence that no one has tinkered with the content, we need look no further than to note that all those damning details – reluctant prophets, randy psalmists, and above all a repeated infidelity to the One who called them – have not been edited out.
It is probably the densest and most diverse collection of texts ever produced on Earth; the stories are unforgettable, the songs irresistible, the prophecies haunting and the wisdom almost too bright to peer into. After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the sacrifices, the synagogues popped up like a forest of flowers, and the great book was given the same meticulous attention and its recitation the same studied performance as were the Levitical rites. You know a book is great when it invites, even demands, commentary, and exhibits a fecundity usually only on display in plants and animals; for here letters and paragraphs spawn a host of literary offspring. The Jews become master readers, literate by profession and vocation, and also master commentators, as the Tanakh became surrounded by layer after layer of interpretation and application. Since the Hebrew characters double as both phonetic signs and numerical symbols, the centuries-long study of their Bible has transformed the Hebrew scholars into ‘clerics’ par excellence, equally skilled in construal of texts and balancing of accounts.
Unlike the Vedas, the Quran, the Tao te Ching, or the Buddhist sutras, the Bible is a story – a raucous, bigger-than-life tale with enough pretzel-like twists and turns to make us dizzy, but not for a moment letting us doubt that the whole thing is going somewhere. With New Testament annexed, it is still the best-selling book in history. The world seems unable to understand or steady itself without periodically consulting this supernatural screenplay inherited from the Jews.
But even the Scriptures make us repeat the question: who exactly are the Jews? Are they a race, or are they a religion, or just a culture? …or all three, or some fourth thing? To this day, there is no simple answer to any of these questions, but everybody agrees that whatever they are, they are unmistakably there, and of an influence and significance in staggering disproportion to their numbers. The most infamous attempted genocide of the last century has Germans going after Jews. But who can explain that before that massacre, easily the five most influential figures in forming contemporary world culture – in social science, physics, psychology, philosophy and music (Marx, Einstein, Freud, Husserl and Schoenberg) – were all German-speaking Jews?
That list could easily be lengthened. What indeed is going on here? And there is more. As for geopolitical convulsions, even typically unstable regions in Latin America, Africa, the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Koreas look comparatively serene when placed next to the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. And Jewish presence in the powerhouse of America is unmistakable. About a half of the world’s Jews live in the USA, and are represented in finance, academia, medicine, law – and also in cinema, music, literature and comedy – in a profile that is vastly incommensurate with their percentage of the population. They are clearly couriers of a message they are unable to disown, and one the rest of us – of whatever conviction – are unable to ignore.
Trying to explain all this while dismissing the hypothesis of a transcendent God who chose them, instructed them and established a covenant with them is futile at best. Most commentators will at least point to the great and new idea that Jewish experience and history bear witness to. Even those who think it is all a huge fantasy will admit it is a stupendous fantasy. That idea is ‘ethical monotheism’, the first real fusion – in the history of religions – of the idea of absolute being with the idea of absolute goodness: no arbitrary force, no being with a good side and a bad side, but rather an Absolute that is wholly, eternally and inscrutably good. To the predictable protests of all victims of sin and horror, the Jews refuse to sing ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ or play Polyanna; instead, they point to the perplexing trial of Abraham, and finally, to the august book of Job. God’s goodness refuses to collapse into ‘niceness’, and his mystery evades every formula. Like Abraham and Job – and the entire cast of the Scriptural drama – the Jews serve as God’s meticulous mirror of all that is best in us, and all that is worst, but above all, of the suffering and immanent death that lie in each of our destinies, together with the meaning of it all that lies ahead of us, just out of sight.
If my inner pilgrimage – beginning in the Galápagos Islands, and passing through Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, Iona, Zanzibar, Sri Lanka and Bali – has taught me anything at all, it is that I, together with any seeker of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, must look deeply into that mirror. There we will see ourselves as we are: wandering Jews every one of us. And we travel best if we accept our trajectory – with wonder, humility and courage – until it has disclosed its last lesson.