Melchizedek and the Magi


Two seemingly peripheral figures in the pages of Scripture look somewhat enigmatic when viewed alone. But they begin to glow with meaning when considered together. In contrast to the two towering protagonists – Abraham and Christ – who stand at the center of the main Old and New Testament stories, these two ostensibly minor figures are totally subsidiary; members, one might say, of the supporting cast. Still, for a few moments, their episodes in the overall narrative almost steal the show.

No one is more decisive for the whole Old Testament story than the patriarch of patriarchs, Abraham. Three world religions are often termed “Abrahamic” because of the founding importance they give to this man and his deeds. Genesis 12-25 tells of grand occurrences in his life, such as his journey to Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees, his battles with formidable foes, the great Promise he receives, the miraculous pregnancy of his aged wife and the mysterious Sacrifice he was summoned to make but prevented from performing – all of these stand in high profile as we meditate upon the man Christians have come to call the “Father of our Faith.”

From Abraham’s loins will come the Chosen People, and for Christians finally the Church. Understanding him to be the great father, the point of departure of the story of salvation, would seem to be compromised by placing anyone else over and above him. However, this does seem to happen in a couple of verses (18-20) in chapter 14:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abraham] and said: ‘Blessed be Abram by God most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

No more mention is made of this mysterious figure in the Old Testament. Or almost none. There is an exception in one striking poetic reference in Psalm 110. It is brief, but it blows open the implications of this king/priest who intrudes almost illogically into the Abrahamic narrative:

“…From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.'”

Christian theologians have struggled to understand this “order,” this sacerdotal lineage, prior to and thus superior to the Levitical line which still lay in the loins of Abraham. What seemed most logical was to identify Melchizedek as a figure of Christ. That might have been enough. However, the Letter to the Hebrews only adds to the mystery in its chapters 5-7. Anyone who takes the New Testament seriously has to give due attention to what is written there. For example:

“…He [Melchisedek] is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever. See how great he is!…” (Hb. 7, 3-4)

Some Hebrew traditions identified him with Shem, son of Noah, whose descendents would indeed include Christ himself. Sounds promising, but unfortunately we know Shem’s geneology all too well, whereas Melchizedek is supposedly without one. Again, some early Christian theologians assumed he was a pre-Incarnational epiphany of Christ himself. But if there is a “pre-Incarnational” Christ at work in the ancient world, this will inevitably open up a number of questions regarding non-Christian religions, most notably the most developed and primordial religions of the East.

From other quarters, esoteric speculations have identified Melchizedek with everyone from Hermes Trismegistus to Enoch and even Zoroaster. Documents are too scarce to confirm or give the lie to any of these identifications. But their variety does give witness to what everyone senses: whoever Melchizedek was, he was extraordinarily important.


The Biblical dramas – from both Old and New Testaments – do not unfold in Europe. From the beginning to the end they occur in the East, or in what is certainly to the east of the region that will one day be known as Europe. Even Eden was “in the east” (Gn. 2,8), and after the Fall, the cherubim were placed “at the east of the garden of Eden…to guard the way to the tree of life.” (3,24) Of course, St. Paul will venture across the Aegean and finally to Rome, but by then the Gospel drama will have achieved its climax. Paul was just a courrier of the resultant message. Otherwise, the furthest westward reaches take us only to Egypt – both with the Hebrews themselves before the Occupation and the Holy Family before Nazareth. But few will call ancient Egypt a part of the “West,” however defined.

When surveying the great surges of philosophy and religion that emerged from Greece and Palestine, we don’t always take into consideration the degree of commerce and contact between the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian, Indian and even Chinese worlds beyond. The singularity – indeed, the “exceptionalism” – of both Greek science and art, on the one hand, and Jewish and Christian religion and morals, on the other, can still maintain their profile within the context of a robust east-west cultural osmosis. But the significance of the East has recently moved into new prominence due to modern contact with India and China, and with still evolving research into the common legacies and interactive influences between them and the West.

We are told that Melchizedek was the “king of Salem,” that is “king of peace,” which could mean a particular place or quite possibly a supernatural function. Whether or not Melchisedek actually hailed from east of Canaan, he certainly comes from the fountainhead of all religion, “without father or mother or genealogy,” and in that sense from a symbolic East. When we turn, however, to the Magi in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we stand clearly before representatives of the geographical Orient.

Countries as diverse as Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and even India have claimed them as their own. As always happens with world-changing but mysterious events, traditions and legends have grown apace, with the number of the Magi varying from three to a dozen or more; some will locate the current resting place of their relics near Tehran, others in Cologne. They’ve been given names and grown into integral figures of the Christmas manger scene. Consensus tends to identify them as Zoroastrians from Persia, or, perhaps more likely, as Chaldean astrologers from Abraham’s original home. Back then, astronomy and astrology were so interlocked that any separation of the movements and the meaning of the stars was unthinkable. The behavior of some of those stars indicated to them that a king was to be born in the west.

These Oriental outsiders were allowed to see and venerate the Messiah before a single Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe or Priest of the Chosen People could even get close.  And the visit of these men from the East would unwittingly cause the Holy Family to move to the west, to Egypt (thanks to Herod). Decades later, St. Paul would also go west, but the Apostle St. Thomas would go east, all the way to India. With him, followed by subsequent waves of Syrian missionaries, Christianity would bring its graces and grow in Asia long before ever becoming a “European” religion.

Later Portuguese missionaries would change that, of course, and the crucial contributions of St. Paul and then of Greek philosophy and Roman law would enter instrumentally into the formulations and organization of Christian faith throughout the world. But in the East this would only come after more than a millenium of Asian Christianity had told its story to eternity. The now often forgotten Christianity of the East and its legacy is at least as important as the one we Westerners identify as our own. Both Melchizedek and the Magi may have a lot to teach us if we have the good fortune of meeting them in the afterlife. *


The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age, by Philip Jenkins (HarperOne, 2008) is a good guide to what we have forgotten.

Sobre o meticuloso ritual do Ano Novo


Até mesmo no Brasil, meu país adotado, onde uma massiva e endêmica impontualidade grassa por onde quer que se olhe, quase todas as almas estarão acordadas, segundos antes da meia-noite de 31 de dezembro, com os olhos colados num relógio. Escrupulosamente farão a contagem regressiva para o novo ano civil. O começo de celebrações religiosas, aulas de escola e compromissos de todo tipo são perdidos por margens de até uma hora (ou mais), mas o começo do novo ano secular é consagrado com uma precisão a toda prova. A diferença entre 23:59 de 31/12 e 00:01 de 01/01 é saudada como uma transfiguração mágica e arrebatadora, enquanto a diferença entre o Advento e o Natal sumiu quase totalmente; e a linha divisória entre a Quaresma e a Páscoa também praticamente desbatou. A difusão virulenta das festividades do Carnaval tem alguma relação com a Quaresma, é verdade, mas a Quarta-Feira de Cinzas com frequência escorrega (assim como o resto do ano litúrgico) dentro da longa sombra da Terça-Feira Gorda.

A razão para isso é simples. Quando a religião declina, a religiosidade permanece – apenas muda de endereço; quando não mais se acredita na transcendência, o mundo imanente torna-se o apoio vacilante do culto e da adoração. Nós esbanjamos com devoção fanática e pontualidade escrupulosa o simples e enfadonho instante da mudança de um 2019 para um 2020. Nem sequer cai no solstício (uma boa semana antes)!

E almejamos o ritual com tanta intensidade, quase como um vício, porque nos falta aquele marcador do tempo no dia 25 de dezembro, quando o Cristo Menino foi deitado na manjedoura pela primeira vez desde o Natal do ano passado (em vez de ter sido visto já com frequência, em cada shopping, desde outubro); nos falta o divisor de águas entre as músicas de esperança do Advento e as músicas de alegria do Natal. E três meses depois, para maioria das pessoas, vai faltar também aquele frio na espinha quando as luzes da igreja se apagam todas e a lumen Christi, em forma de uma única vela, seguida por uma multidão de chamas, entra no santuário para a explosão de luzes na Páscoa. Hoje faltam aqueles momentos transformadores que alimentam a alma, e assim cobiçamos os substitutos seculares.

Quando os dias santos viram apenas dias de folga, nossos instintos religiosos órfãos buscam alhures suas regras e rubricas. Hinos religiosos menos cantados? Que tal um “hino” nacional num evento esportivo, com lágrimas nos olhos? Não se paga mais o dízimo? Ora, declaramos nosso impostos de renda, pontualmente, até a data mágica de 30 de abril. Esqueceu-se de como rezar? Tente alguns chavões do politicamente correto, e observe as cabeças inclinadas em reverência. Ou tente até a blasfêmia (que não passa de uma oração travestida—“Ô meu Deus!” “Pelo amor de Deus!”).

Entenda-me bem, não estou desencorajando as festividades de Ano Novo – pontualidade uma vez por ano é melhor do que nunca, e celebrar o começo do ano solar (ou lunar) é uma tradição antiga que merece respeito. Portanto, ergamos um brinde mesmo. E que tal uma resolução de Ano Novo de remarcar aquelas datas no calendário que vão marcar nossa passagem para eternidade muito mais do que o primeiro dia de janeiro? Ao contarmos os últimos segundos do ano civil, deveríamos nos lembrar – se só por um instante – que um dia estaremos contando nossos últimos segundos na Terra. O fim da nossa brevíssima estadia no mundo vai chegar com uma pontualidade mortal.


On the Meticulous Ritual of New Year


Even in my adopted country of Brazil, where a massively endemic unpunctuality rules the land, nearly every soul will be awake, seconds before midnight on Dec. 31, glaring at a clock and scrupulously chanting the countdown to the new civil year. Beginnings of church services, school classes and appointments of all sorts are missed by margins of an hour or more, but the beginning of the new secular year is hit with bull’s-eye precision. The difference between 11:59:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 and 00:00:01 a.m. on Jan. 1 is greeted as a magical and rapturous transfiguration, whereas the difference between Advent and Christmas has all but vanished; and the line between Lent and Easter has faded away as well. The amoeba-like spread of Carnival festivities bears some relationship to Lent, it is true, but Ash Wednesday usually slips (along with the rest of the liturgical year) into the long shadow of Fat Tuesday.

The reason for this is simple. When religion declines, religiosity remains – it just shifts its abode; when transcendence is no longer believed in, the immanent world becomes the shaky support for cult and adoration. Thus we lavish with worshipful devotion and obsessively punctual observance the bland instant in which a 2019 becomes a 2020. It doesn’t even fall on the solstice!

And the ritual is coveted, almost addictively, because we are missing a defining time-marker still inherent in our culture: the cut-off nature of the date of December 25, when the Christ Child is laid in the manger for the first time since last year’s Christmas (instead of being seen in the shopping centers since October), with a neat and dramatic sundering of Christmastide from Advent, and cheerful Christmas songs replacing the longing, wistful Advent tunes sung before the Coming; or, three months later, the chill down one’s spine as a church is totally darkened and the lumen Christi, in the form of one sole candle, enters the sanctuary, followed by dozens of flames in its train. That explosion of light, like a sudden sunrise, begins the Easter vigil. All these soul-filling moments are gone, and accordingly, we lust after secular surrogates.

When holy days become holidays, otherwise uplifting days become “days off,” and our orphaned religious instincts look elsewhere for their rules and rubrics. Religious hymns no longer sung?  How about a national anthem at a sports match, with hands on heart and tears in the eyes (in Brazil, they are actually called national hymns). Tithes all gone?  Let’s declare our income tax before the mystical date of April 30. Forgotten how to pray?  Try intoning one of the politically correct buzzwords of our day and watch the heads bow in reverence. Or maybe blaspheme a bit (after all, it’s just prayer in drag; how many times do you hear “Oh my God!” during the week?).

Now I am not discouraging New Year’s festivities – once-a-year punctuality is better than never (speaking here especially to Brazilians), and the solar (or lunar) year’s inauguration is a hoary tradition that deserves respect. So let us lift a glass indeed. But as we countdown the last gasps of our civil year, let us briefly recall that one day – soon – we will be countdowning our own last gasps, and all those neglected holy days of the year will prove to have been far better training for that final transition than the confetti and champagne of January 1. This New Year could possibly be our Last Year, and our connection with lasting things be far more vital than our distracting innovations. Even though we propose to hail the new and to salute the promises of the future, we are still haunted by the perennial and ancient. “Auld Lang Syne,” after all, simply means “long, long ago.”



Festa da Família Inquieta



Cada vez que celebramos a Festa da Sagrada Família, lembro-me de minha viagem ao Egito, há tantos anos, e das visitas a alguns dos vários lugares dedicados pelos cristãos coptas àquela Família. A fuga para o Egito (mencionada apenas por São Mateus) recebe alguma atenção da arte cristã, e é até contada como uma das Dores de Maria na tradição católica. Mesmo assim, é bastante negligenciada pela igreja ocidental – ao menos quando se a compara com a importância que, previsivelmente, teve no Egito. Não menos de 14 lugares egípcios comemoram aquela visita com capelas e igrejas. Elas marcam os locais de pouso ou as residências temporárias da Sagrada Família, enquanto seguiu os passos daquele outro José que entrou no Egito (igualmente constrangido, contra sua vontade), mil e quinhentos anos antes. No devido tempo, esta Família seguiria também os passos de Moisés fora do Egito. Porém, neste caso, em vez de buscar a Terra Prometida lá além do Mar Vermelho, ela levaria a promessa consigo, no Menino Jesus.

A doce paz da cena da manjedoura pode nos pôr a dormir num conforto decepcionante. Todos nós amamos estar “em casa no Natal,” mas a ocasião do nosso feriado é a comemoração de um desabrigo dos mais cruéis. O estábulo sujo e os animais fedentes são circundados com luzinhas de Natal em nosso presépios, no que foi apenas um abrigo temporário para esses três fugitivos. É muito fácil esquecermos a agitação que se seguiu à inesperada gravidez de Maria, e o massacre dos inocentes provocado pelos três astrólogos orientais, que apenas perguntavam sobre o paradeiro de Belém. Os anos da Sagrada Família no Egito – os coptas contam sete – assim como os quatro séculos da longa estadia de seus ancestrais, devem ter sido mais formativos do que se imagina.

Jesus teria começado a falar nas terras do Nilo, e algumas das primeiras vistas captadas pelos seus olhos jovens teriam sido pirâmides e templos faraônicos. Quando a segurança permita, os turistas de hoje amam fazer um tour dos monumentos exóticos do Egito e maravilhar sobre essa cultura que gerou toda uma ciência (egiptologia). Contudo, para Maria e José, devia ter sido mais assustador do que fascinante. Quais pensamentos deviam ter passado pela mente do Menino Jesus quando sua memoria inocente ficou armazenada com essas imagens da terra misteriosa dos faraós. Mas de alguma forma faz sentido. Como os judeus se tornaram um povo no Egito, e o Velho Testamento se tornou um livro na Babilônia, aqui também parece que, muitas vezes, Deus faz o seu “melhor trabalho” quando seus escolhidos se acham no exílio.


Feast of the Restless Family



Each time we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, I am reminded of my trip to Egypt, several years ago, and the visits I paid to a few of the multiple Coptic Christian sites dedicated to that Family. The Flight to Egypt (only mentioned by St. Matthew) does receive abundant attention from Christian art, and counts as one of Mary’s Sorrows in the Catholic tradition. It is otherwise somewhat overlooked in the Western church – at least if one is to judge from the prominence it predictably achieved in Egypt. No less than 14 Egyptian sites commemorate that momentous visit with chapels or churches. These mark the resting spots or temporary abodes of the Holy Family as they followed that other Joseph who had also entered Egypt against his will, one and a half millennia before. In due course, they would also follow Moses out of it, although this time they would be carrying the Holy Land with them, in the Child Jesus, rather than looking for it on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

The sweet peace of the manger scene can lull us into a deceptive comfort. We all love to “be home for Christmas,” but the occasion of our holiday is the commemoration of a homelessness of the most cruel variety. The dirty stall and smelly animals we festoon with colored lights in our domestic manger scenes served as a brief and temporary shelter for these three fugitives. We easily forget the turmoil that followed upon the unexpected pregnancy, and the massacre of innocents brought on by three Eastern star-gazers only asking directions to Bethlehem. The Family’s years in Egypt – the Copts count seven – like the four centuries of the long sojourn of their ancestors, must have been more formative than we tend to imagine.

Jesus would have started to talk in the land of the Nile, and some of the first sights caught by his boyish eyes would be pyramids and pharaonic temples. When safety permits, today’s tourists love to tour Egypt’s exotic monuments and marvel at this culture that has sired a whole science (egyptology). But for Mary and Joseph it must have been more foreboding than fascinating. What thoughts must have gone through the mind of the boy Jesus as his young memory was stocked with these images of the mysterious land of the pharoahs. But somehow it all makes sense. As the Jews became a people in Egypt, and the Old Testament became a book in Babylonia, here too it seems that God often does his “best work'” when his chosen ones are in exile.


Espiritual, mas não religioso? (rev.)


Um refrão comumente escutado hoje em dia por aqueles que relutam em sucumbir inteiramente ao secularismo, e tentam manter uma porta aberta à transcendência, mas avessos a instituições religiosas corruptas e calcificadas, é: “Eu sou uma pessoa espiritual, mas não religiosa.” Quando questionados sobre o conteúdo dessa espiritualidade – dificilmente se pode afirmar isso sem algumas convicções de fundo –, eles responderão mais ou menos o seguinte: 1) eu acredito em uma ‘força superior’ – chame-a de Deus, se quiser; 2) na última análise, todos nós somos um, e eu gostaria de me sintonizar com essa unidade – chame isso de ‘amor’, se preferir; 3) encontrei vias comprovadas de comunhão com essa força superior – chame isso de oração ou meditação, se gostar; 4) todas as religiões são basicamente iguais, e a espiritualidade que eu encontrei constitui a sua realidade interna; o resto é só ‘decoração de vitrine’. Em suma, esses buscadores espirituais concluem que, se você já descascou a banana, é melhor jogar a casca fora de uma vez. É difícil negar que isso soa, de cara, convincente.

Testemunhamos hoje um amplo espectro de variações desse tipo de atitude, desde a opção mais simples e pessoal de se manter distante da religião organizada, em favor da própria espiritualidade privada (com crenças meio flexíveis, e com alguma relutância em discutir os pormenores delas e em prega-las aos sete ventos – afinal, “são privadas”), até crenças universalistas alardeadas publicamente. Encontramos gurus convencidos de ter chegado a uma revelação perene, a uma jardim de verdade escondida. Podem convidar todo mundo, com ou sem convicção religiosa para participarem de retiros de fim de semana e workshops. Assim, ou por livros que divulgam a mensagem, lhes darão acesso às próprias experiências espirituais extrassensoriais ou preternaturais. Tudo isso com frequência é empacotado em técnicas tomadas emprestadas a várias tradições (principalmente orientais), ou feito sob medida por colaborações especiais entre práticas antigas e a moderna neurociência.

O bufê oferecido é bastante extenso, mas a mensagem é, no fundo, a mesma: o isolamento do essencial e a marginalização e relativização do secundário. Os gurus desse evangelho podem até recomendar uma ou outra tradição religiosa externa, mas quase sempre na qualidade de um adjunto cultural (um ‘meio útil’ entre tantos outros, chamado de upaya na Índia); o que importa é que se apreende a essência subjacente e se reconhecem todas as formas e instituições religiosas, em última análise, como secundárias e dispensáveis.

De novo, tudo isso pode soar bastante plausível. Mas há problemas. Em primeiro lugar, eu perguntaria se esse esquema de coisas é operativo em outas áreas importantes da vida e da cultura. Caso negativo, por que na religião deveria ser diferente? Ou seja, essa suposta oposição entre o ‘essencial’ e o ‘adjunto’ funciona em outras dimensões de nossa experiência? Vamos considerar alguns exemplos.

Comecemos primeiro com o corpo. De que eu preciso absolutamente para viver e sobreviver? Na verdade, cabeça e tronco são suficientes em larga medida, e mesmo os olhos e as orelhas não são estritamente obrigatórios para que o organismo funcione. Membros e sentidos superiores podem ser dispensados e mesmo assim o corpo continuará vivo e respirando. E, apesar de esses casos existirem, e nós fazermos o melhor para pessoas assim lidarem com sua deficiência e valorizarem a sua dignidade humana, ninguém há de ser hipócrita a ponto de defender que seja desejável, digamos assim, ‘restringir-se ao essencial’ em termos de nossa existência corporal. Aquilo que não pertence necessariamente à essência do corpo pertence sim à sua integridade. E esta última existe por causa da primeira. Nosso membros e os sentidos mais elevados estão no serviço da sede dos nossos órgãos vitais (tronco e cabeça), os quais, por sua vez, dão a aquelas capacidades ‘secundárias’ a possibilidade de expandir e explorar.  Separação das duas esferas é sempre vivida como violenta.

Em seguida, consideremos nossas necessidades corporais por comida, vestuário, moradia, combustível e transporte. O ‘essencial’ aqui seria que os bens materiais simplesmente circulassem entre nós, fornecendo a cada um o que precisa, no momento certo, e numa medida que permitiria a todos participarem da riqueza de forma equitativa. Sonhos utópicos das mais variadas linhas – fascistas, comunistas, ou até de um capitalismo desregrado – oferecem vislumbres saudosos desse Shangri-La. Contudo, os adultos entre nós suspirarão e admitirão que a história nos tem mostrado, repetidas vezes, que não se pode manter os bens em circulação no longo prazo sem algum tipo de moeda, sistema de mercado, lojas, bancos e até mesmo algum grau de controle governamental.

Na ordem política, igualmente, o ‘essencial’ seria para nós vivermos em harmonia, lado a lado, portas destrancadas, solucionando todas as questões comunitárias por meio de festivos referendos (com aprovação unânime e espontânea); em suma, vivendo numa Pleasantville de sorrisos fáceis, mas superficiais. Novamente, franzimos nossos cenhos e admitimos que, fora muito poucos e curtos experimentos comunitários, apenas chegamos perto da paz e prosperidade por meio da ação de algum tipo de poder soberano, de alguma burocracia, e ainda por cima alguns soldados e policiais. Essas coisas podem não ser necessárias no Paraíso, mas todos os ‘paraísos’, até agora ensaiados nesta terra, têm se transformado rapidamente em infernos. A única estratégia que deu certo é a seguinte: a minimização dos males predizíveis através de ‘checks and balances‘, revisão judicial, subsidiariedade, limites de mandados e outros freios aos nossos apetitos facilmente desviados. Para preservarmos um mínimo de espontaneidade na natureza, só a criação de boas instituições mostrou-se eficaz.

Acho que o leitor pode ver onde quero chegar. Como nossos membros e sentidos superiores emergem de nosso organismo embrionário, servem-no e o protegem, e o levam às suas mais promissoras aventuras; e como nossas instituições econômicas emergem de nossa necessidade por bens e dessa forma servem a seu conseguimento; e assim como nossas instituições políticas emergem de nossa necessidade de paz e ordem e, por sua vez, atendem a essa necessidade; por que a relação entre espiritualidade e religião seria diferente?

Tanto as instituições econômicas quanto as políticas, sendo realidades vivas, crescem; e tudo o que cresce, tende, com o passar do tempo, a crescer demais, de modo que serão necessárias podas e reformas periódicas. Só assim as coisas conseguem ficar colimadas aos seus propósitos originais. As grandes religiões começam com uma grande espiritualidade, com um encontro especial de alguém com uma realidade transcendente (deixo para uma outra postagem falar das diversas possíveis partes da realidade espiritual e das implicações disso para a diferenciação entre as religiões – ver Filosofia da Religião), e isso engendrou uma interação humana complexa com essa realidade, sob a forma de tradições sapienciais e sistemas de crenças para a mente; guias morais para a vontade; e rituais e liturgias para nossos corpos. As instituições geradas por uma espiritualidade original crescerão, e às vezes crescerão excessivamente, e – assim como em suas congêneres econômicas e políticas – também precisarão de podas e reformas.

Em resumo, longe de ser alheia ou oposta à espiritualidade, é na geração e preservação dela que consiste a raison d’être da religião; a religião é, no seu melhor, o rebento natural e o prolongamento da espiritualidade testada. Durante milênios, nada além dela conseguiu protegê-la e guiá-la. As suas instituições podem ser tão enfadonhas e entediantes como as transações financeiras na vida econômica, ou as discussões parlamentares na vida política; contudo, sem tudo isso, os bens param de circular, a ordem pública entra em colapso, e a chama da espiritualidade se apaga. A espiritualidade sem a religião pode até funcionar para uns poucos, mas não para todos; e mesmo para aqueles poucos, funcionará apenas por algum tempo, e mais cedo que mais tarde vai perder a sua forma e achatar-se em suspiros vazios. Enfim, espiritualidade sem religião nunca erguerá uma civilização. A religião, não obstante todos os seus excessos e corrupções, não apenas tem sido um essencial pré-requisito para civilização – tem sido, comprovadamente, a sua única causa documentável.


Spiritual, but not religious? (revised again)


A common refrain heard today from those reluctant to succumb entirely to secularism and atheism, and intent on keeping a door open to transcendence, but who are still wary of corrupt and calcified religious institutions, is: “I am a spiritual person, but not religious.” When queried on the content of their spirituality – one can hardly make the claim without an approximate frame of conviction – they will reply with some version of the following. 1) I believe in “some higher force” – call it God if you like; 2) we are all somehow one in the final analysis, and I wish to stay in tune with this oneness – call it love if you like; 3) I have found proven ways to commune with the higher force – call it prayer or meditation if you like; 4) all religions are, on close analysis, basically the same, and the spirituality I have found constitutes their inner reality; the rest is just window-dressing. In short, these spiritual seekers quite reasonably conclude that once you’ve bared the banana, you might as well throw away the peel. And this does sound very convincing on the face of it.

We witness a wide spectrum of variations on this today, from the simplest, personal option of steering clear of organized religion and fostering one’s own private spirituality (with open-ended tenets of belief, and reluctance to discuss its details or preach it from the rooftops – “it’s private,” after all), to publicly trumpeted universalist claims. We find many a teacher who will claim they have isolated the perennial revelation and mystical minimum of it all, chopped their way through the overgrowth and found the hidden garden of truth. They may welcome those of any or no faith to participate in week-end retreats and workshops – or to read the books that vehicle the message – and thus gain their own access to some variety of extrasensory or preternatural experience. All this is usually packaged in techniques borrowed from various traditions (usually Eastern), or made to order by unlikely collaborations between ancient practices and modern neuroscience.

The buffet on offer is quite extensive, but the usual inner message is the same: the isolation of the essential and the marginalization and relativization of the secondary. Some gurus may even recommend adherence to an outer religious tradition of one sort or the other, but almost always as a mere cultural adjunct (one “skillful means” among others, called upaya in the Buddhist tradition); what is important is that the underlying essence be grasped, and that all religious institutions and forms be seen as ancillary and ultimately dispensable.

Again, this sounds plausible enough. But there are problems. First, I will ask if this scheme of things proves operative in other important areas of life and culture. And if not, why should religion be different? I mean, does this scheme of essence and adjunct serve as a functional norm elsewhere in our experience? Let us look at some examples. First, our body. What do I absolutely need in order to live and survive? Actually, head and trunk pretty much suffice, and even the eyes and ears are not strictly speaking imperative for the organism to work. Limbs and higher senses can be dispensed with and a living, breathing body will be left behind. Even those in a coma are still alive. And although such cases exist and we do our best to help them cope and continue to value their human dignity, no one will pretend that it is desirable to, so to speak, “get down to essentials” in our corporal existence. We instinctively know that that which does not belong necessarily to the body’s essence, does indeed belong to its integrity. And we also sense that the latter exists for the sake of the former. Our limbs and higher senses stand in the service of the seat of our vital organs (trunk and head), which in turn enable those outlying capacities to expand and explore. Separation of the two spheres is always experienced as violent.

Next, in a somewhat different register, what about our bodily needs for food, clothing, shelter, fuel and transportation? The “essential” here would be for material goods to simply circulate among us, providing everyone with what they need, when they need it and in a measure that would allow others to also share equitably in the wealth. Utopian dreams of whatever stripe – fascist, communist, or even unbridled capitalist – offer wistful gazes at such a Shangri-La. However, adults among us will sigh and admit that history has shown, repeatedly, that we cannot keep those goods circulating over the long haul without some sort of currency, market system, shops, banks and even, regretfully, a degree of governmental control.

In the political order, too, the “essential” would be for us to live in harmony, arm-in-arm, doors unlocked, resolving all community questions through cheery referenda (with unanimous approval effortlessly forthcoming) – in short, a Pleasantville of easy, but superficial smiles. Again, we wrinkle our brow and admit that apart from a very few, short-lived communal experiments, we only get close to peace and prosperity through the agency of some variety of sovereign power, some degree of bureaucracy, and at least a few soldiers and policemen into the bargain. They may not be needed in the earthly paradises we dream of, but all the real paradises hitherto rehearsed on earth have swiftly turned into nightmares. The only successful strategy has proven to be the following: the minimization of predictable evils through checks and balances, separation of powers, judicial review, subsidiarity, term limits and other bridles on our easily misguided appetites. If we are to preserve any refreshing spontaneity in nature at all, the design of good institutions alone has shown the way.

I think the reader can see where I’m going with this. As our limbs and higher senses emerge from our embryonic organism, serve and protect it, and lead it on its more promising adventures; and as economic institutions emerge from our need for goods and services, and then, in turn, serve that need; and as political institutions emerge from our need for peace and order and then, in turn, attend to that need; why would the relationship between spirituality and religion be any different?

Both economic and political institutions, being living realities, grow; and what grows, tends also to overgrow, and will need periodic pruning and reform to stay true to its original purpose. The great religions all began with great spirituality, someone’s singular encounter with transcendent reality (I am leaving for another post the question of what part of spiritual reality that might be, and why religions are so different – see Filosofia da Religião), and this engendered a complex human reaction in the form of wisdom traditions and belief systems for the mind; moral guidelines for the will; and ritual and liturgy for our bodies. The institutions generated by an original spirituality will grow, and, like other institutions, at times overgrow. Thus the need for pruning and reform.

In summary, far from being something alien or opposed to religion, spirituality is precisely what religion is all about, and religion, at its best, is the natural outgrowth and prolongation of tested spirituality. Nothing else has proven capable of protecting and guiding it. Its institutions can be as bland and boring as financial transactions in economics, and congressional debates in political life, but without them, the goods stop flowing, public order breaks down, and the flame of spirituality soon blows out. Spirituality without religion may occasionally work for the few, but never for all; and even for those few, it will work only for a while, and sooner rather than later will lose its form. Alone, it will never build a civilization. And religion – for all of its excesses and corruptions – has not just been a prerequisite of civilization; it has been its only demonstrable cause.