Notebook 4: Religion Against the World & for the World

(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)

The first way for many ideas to gain adherents is to make those potential adherents feel insufficient, to even hate themselves, and to then hate or at least look down upon all the others who aren’t now on the bandwagon. The suffering caused by inculcating various degrees of self- and world-hatred are massive in areas like advertising, politics, and culture, but they are all easily eclipsed by the expert ability of religions to make people hate themselves, hate one another, and hate the world. The genuine need for self-reflection, and the experience of guilt and sorrow, are all undone by this exaggeration of self-hatred.

For just as there is no greater vehicle for dealing with uncertainty and suffering than realizing that your own religious system is itself uncertain and always changing, the religions of the world are also great machines for doing the exact opposite. In one way or to one degree or another, it isn’t long before both self-hatred and hatred for the world are a requirement for believers: it isn’t a far step from saying, “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight,”[1] to believing that most people, or most of the world, are also detestable in God’s sight.

 

1. Against the World

      So there are these statements:

This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and seek the kingdom of heaven.[2]

One who avoids others is like a ripe grape. One who stays in company is like a sour grape.[3]

The world is a confusion of insane people striving to delude themselves. Apparently you were horrified when you saw a few corpses in the charnel ground. Yet you delight in your village, which is a charnel ground thronging with moving corpses.[4]

Meanwhile, a monk of the Middle Ages could say of those monks who had given up the monastery that they “returned to the world, like a dog to its vomit.”[5]

The world is a decaying carcass. Whoever desires a piece of this world will live with dogs.[6]

[A man is told that his body] is a disease, a tumor, a dart, a calamity, and an affliction…[7]

I have loved the world because you made the world;
I am detained in the world because the world hates those who are thine.
Now I hate the world, for I have now experienced the Spirit.[8]

Know that the life of this world
is only a frolic and mummery, an ornamentation,
boasting and bragging among yourselves,
and lust for multiplying wealth and children.
It is like rain so pleasing
to the cultivator for his vegetation
which sprouts and swells, and then begins to wither,
and you see it turn to yellow
and reduced to chaff.
There is severe punishment in the Hereafter,
but also forgiveness from God, and acceptance.
As for the life of this world,
it is no more than merchandise of vanity.[9]

There are these six dangers attached to frequenting fairs: [One is always thinking:] “Where is there dancing? Where is there singing? Where are they playing music? Where are they reciting? Where is there hand-clapping? Where are the drums?”[10]

How can man be in the right before God?
How can one born of woman be cleared of guilt?
Even the moon is not bright,
And the stars are not pure in His sight.
How much less man, a worm,
The son-of-man, a maggot.[11]

But now the beauty of the spiritual repose is over, and the contact with worldly men and their affairs, which is a necessary part of my duties as bishop, has left my soul defiled with earthly activities. Now I am tossed about on the waves of a great sea and my soul, like a ship, is buffeted by the winds of a powerful storm.[12]

Where does this impulse come from? A hermit, after having spent a good part of his life at a university, only to retire in seclusion, advised his fellow monks to stay away from towns, castles, universities, and the rest: “peace in the cell is found; outside it, all is strife.”[13]
Far be it from me to disagree that the world is nearly all strife, but there is no better opportunity for empathy and decency than in a world so divided, so filled with pain and uncertainty. To deny this is to deny nearly all of life as it is lived in the world. (And while there are certainly those who do better outside of worldly life, that is no reason to disparage those who choose to live in it.) The closest we can get to God is in relating to one another, and any belief which demonizes others, and demonizes the world in which we encounter them, can’t help but remain futile.
Even worse is the hope, “May all beings have immeasurable life. May they always live happily. May the very word ‘death’ perish.”
[14] Rather, religion is at its best when it admits that life is not immeasurable, life is often unhappy, and death is all around. Religion is at its best not when it denies these dour statements, but when it helps to find meaning amid them. When it doesn’t, religion is merely like a teenager: one remembers the closing words in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”[15] A few passages from an early biography of the Buddha repeat this unfortunate sentiment:

No true eminence exists in my view,
where death exists as a general trait…[16]

If in the end one were not severed from dear ones,
then who would not wish to see his dear kin;
But when there’s severance even after a long time,
even my loving father I forsake.[17]

The state in which there is no old age and no fear,
no sickness and no birth, no death and no distress,
That alone I take as the highest good for men….[18]

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.[19]

In other words, “Because life is painful, and because attachments hurt, the world should be given up.” Yet it’s much worse than that, since it is barely a step from existential sadness to condemning the entire world as an illusion, as evil:

There is no evil equal to pleasures
in the world, yet it’s to them that people
are attached through delusion.[20]

This progression lives in all religions: other people are at first dismissed as merely mistaken, but soon enough they are evil, less than human, and finally unfit to live. At some point all religions can’t help but try to make sense of the world by wanting to do away with it. I once heard it put this way:

Another immoral and sinister thing about religion is that lurking under it at all times, in every one of its versions, is a desire for this life to come to an end, for this poor world to be over, the yearning, the secret death wish that’s in all of it—Let this be gone, let us move to the next stage—is present at all times.[21]

This desire for an end is also tied to a belief in some perfect beginning; after all, every religion has its concept of a golden age which was followed by a cycle of gradual decline. “The world wasn’t always like this,” such ideas say, “something bad happened back there to cause it; someday it will all be made right.” And whether now or three thousand years ago, the present moment is always knee-deep in what must be some final degeneration—the “end times” are always right now.
As three commentators (Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish) have put it, there is “a reality that we have now forgotten as a result of the fall from our original and primordial state and the subsequent decay in the human condition caused by the downward flow of time”;
[22] there is a desire “to leave the present and directly experience the state before birth, before the division of wholeness”;[23] and there is the “view that in the future world, whenever that would be, all things would return to their original holy state…. Nahmanides spoke of ‘the return of all things to their true essence.’”[24]
There has always been a desired return to some “original,” “true,” or “pure” state. Similar ideas are to be found in early-modern science, and in what is now considered the pseudo-science of alchemy. In the former, the followers of Renaissance polymath Paracelsus are said to have “insisted on a far more subtle and intuitive interpretation of nature—one that would reveal a truly objective reality.”[25] In the latter, the goal of alchemy—the transformation of matter—is defined as “the harmonious state [which is] attained when the opposing principles of the opus, suplhur (male, hot, dry, active) and argent vive (female, cold, moist, receptive) are united.”[26]
Yet whether the desire is for some original purity or wholeness, or the harmonious unity of opposites (whatever they are), or the belief in an actual “objective” reality, Alfred North Whitehead put it simply enough: “Exactness is fake.”[27]

When a religion inevitably fails at trying to establish this exactness, objectivity, and certainty in the world, the world is quickly condemned. An example of this entire progression is found in the Gospel of John, where even that most positive of all Christian sayings has always been used to simply deny the world and those living in it. John 3:16 sounds wonderful—“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—but taken a cog in a theological machine of absolute truth, this sacrifice is only necessary if the world is bad enough to need it.
Those who deny this, or who simply follow another faith, are clearly deluded. In John 15:18-19, Jesus tells his disciples:

If the world hates you, you must realize that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you.

Such sentiments can only live side-by-side with the condemnation of others—in this case, of other Jews, of whom Jesus says:

You are from your father, the devil, and you prefer to do what your father wants[28]…. You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I have told you already: You will die in your sins. Yes, if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.[29]

And the apocalypse cannot be far behind, especially when in John 12:31 Satan is referred to as the prince (or lord) of the world. And so, in keeping with James 4:4, where “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,” 1 John 2:15-18 says:

Do not love the world or what is in the world. If anyone does love the world, the love of the Father finds no place in him, because everything there is in the world—disordered bodily desires, disordered desires of the eyes, pride in possession—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world, with all its disordered desires, is passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains for ever. Children, this is the final hour; you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and now many Antichrists have already come; from this we know that it is the final hour.

The reality of human suffering being what it is, I can’t blame anyone for seeking a form of certainty that does away with having to deal with different people and different opinions, and with much of the world in general; but, the reality of human suffering being what it is, what a colossal waste of ingenuity and creativity and faith, that we have allowed our fears and uncertainties to overtake us to such a degree, that our minds are removed from the present reality of suffering to some past perfection, or some future reckoning, rather than the present which desperately needs us.

2. For the World

But this is not where it needs to end. One Christian monk had the humility to say, “It is not through virtue that I live in solitude, but through weakness; those who live in the midst of men are the strong ones,”[30] while a Zen Buddhist monk said about the same: “One who preserves the Way through old age to death in mountains and valleys is not as good as one who practiced the Way leading a group of people in a commune.”[31]
And as early the fourth century, Saint Augustine (no stranger to life in the world), could not honestly bring himself to proclaim any form of life more or less Christian or devout than any other. Commenting on the three traditional modes of Christian life (contemplative, active, and mixed—otiosus, actuosus, compositus), he wrote:

As long as faith is preserved, a person can lead any one of these lives and come to the eternal reward. What counts is how he holds to the love of truth and how he weighs the duties of charity. No one should be so contemplative that in his contemplation he does not think of his neighbor’s need; no one so active that he does not seek the contemplation of God.[32]

Elsewhere, the following story is told about the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, a form of Judaism which revels in music and dance and the everyday:

Once Rabbi Israel passed through a house of prayer. An old Jew sat there huddled over a book, reading in a hasty mumble, reading faster and faster, hour after hour.
Rabbi Israel said, “He is so absorbed in his learning that he has forgotten there is a God over the world.”[33]

Which may as well be rephrased, “He has forgotten there is a world which God gave us.” The Baal Shem Tov also said,

In all the deeds of our daily life we serve God as directly as though our deeds were prayers. When we eat, when we work, when we sing, when we wash ourselves, we are praying to God. Therefore we should live constantly in highest joy, for everything that we do is an offering to God.[34]

A saying attributed to Muhammad has God telling his prophet, “I loved to be known; therefore I created the world so that I would be known,”[35] and indeed there is a long tradition in Islam of the natural world being a revelation from God equal to that of the Quran:

Since in Islam the revelation came in the form of a sacred book, many Muslim sages have looked upon nature as a book of God, as did many of their Jewish and Christian counterparts. The cosmos is in fact God’s first and primordial revelation…. In the same way that each letter, word, and sentence of the Quran revealed in Arabic comes from God and conveys a message from Him, each phenomenon of nature is also a sign from Heaven. In fact, in the Quran both the phenomena of nature and the verses of the Quran are called āyāt, or symbols and signs, each conveying a meaning beyond itself…. This “philosophy of nature” is of the utmost significance in this day and age when, because of sheer outwardness and literalism in both science and much of religion, we human beings have become destroyers of nature rather than its protectors and channels of grace.[36]

And one of the most moving stories from the Buddhist tradition has him seeking enlightenment by starving himself. At some point, he realizes such actions are counter-productive, and he begins to accept food. And so, he says, “I ate some solid food—some boiled rice and porridge.” At the time, five other monks had taken him to be their guru of sorts, but when they saw him eating food and giving up his austerities, they scoffed and said, “The recluse Gotama now lives luxuriously; he has given up his striving and reverted to luxury.”[37] Yet it was this simple acceptance of food, of physical nourishment necessary for life in the world, which led to his rejuvenated health, and his eventual enlightenment.
It is also to be remembered that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree, the death god, Mara, appeared, and asked what right the Buddha had, to be doing what he was doing. And what was the Buddha’s response? It is seen all over the world in statues which depict him, seated in the Lotus position, left hand open on his lap, while the right touches the ground. This is called the “earth-touching posture,” the moment the Buddha called on the earth itself to witness for him. And it did: the world, the natural order, the way things actually are, supported what the Buddha was doing.
And in the words of an early Korean Buddhist, the entirety of the natural world is equated with the body of a different Buddhist deity:

The beauty of the mountain is Mañjuśrī’s eye,
And the sound of water is Avalokiteśvara’s ear.
When I hear the bellowing of the ox and the neighing of the horse,
Then I heard the speech of Samantabhadra.
All the Cahnges and Yis are fundamentally Vairocana,
Buddhas and Patriarch, Sŏn and Ky—
How can they differ but through the discrimination of men?
The stone man plays the flute,
And the wooden horse nods in time.
Ordinary men do not know their own nature, but merely say:
“The highest plane is not my lot.”[38]

Thomas Merton, the Catholic Trappist monk of the last century, put it this way (and swap “the body” in this passage for anything which religious fundamentalists would like us to abhor):

Let no one, then, dare to hate or despise the body that has been entrusted to him by God, and let no one dare to misuse this body. Let him not desecrate his own natural unity by dividing himself, soul against body, as if the soul were good and the body evil. Soul and body together subsist in the reality of the hidden, inner person. If the two are separated from one another, there is no longer a person, there is no longer a living, subsisting reality made in the image and likeness of God. The “marriage” of body and soul in one person is one of the things that makes man the image of God; and what God has joined no man can separate without danger to his sanity…. For these bodies become a source of falsity and deception: but that is not the body’s fault.[39]

And one group of Buddhists recently put it:

Our first responsibility as Buddhists is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life. The promotion of Buddhism as a religion is a secondary concern. Kindness and compassion, the furthering of peace and harmony, as well as tolerance and respect for other religions, should be the three guiding principles of our actions.[40]

Because “the world” (the natural world, our bodies, other people) and “religion” cannot be separated. As much as we yearn for an abstraction free of human or natural features or categories, the image of the God we love is yoked to our own ability to visualize, to create, to integrate, to join with others in a visible ritual amid visible architecture and imagery, amid a solid world of the senses which informs all of it.
Finally, there are few traditions which more eloquently testify to the virtue of everyday life and the world than Zen Buddhism:

To attain Zen enlightenment it is not necessary to give up family life, quit your job, become a vegetarian, practice asceticism, or flee to a quiet place.[41]

The great cause of the Buddhas is not apart from your daily affairs.[42]

To manage a household and to govern a state are also religious practices.[43]

The path is in daily activities, but if you linger in daily activities, then you are taking a thief for your son. If you seek some special life outside of daily activities, that is like brushing aside waves to look for water.[44]

Zen is not in quietude, nor is it in clamor. It is not in thought and discrimination, nor is it in dealing with daily affairs. But even so, it is most important that you not abandon quiet and clamor, dealing with daily affairs, or thought and discrimination, in order to study Zen. When your eyes open, you will find all these are your own business.[45]

If you want to see the subtle mind of Zen, that is very easy. Just step back and pick it up with intense strength during all of your activities, whatever you are doing, even as you eat, drink, and talk, even as you experience the stress of attending to the world.[46]

Right now, as you walk, stand, sit, and recline, responding to situations and dealing with people, all is the way. The way is the realm of reality. No matter how many the countless inconceivable functions, they are not beyond the realm of reality.[47]

 

 

[1] Luke 16:15.              

[2] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, tr. Joseph N. Tylenda, 3.

[3] The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, tr. Benedicta Ward, 10.

[4] Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, tr. Crosby and Skilton, 94 (8.69-70).

[5] C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., 181.

[6] Albert Camus, quoting “the great Imam Ali,” Notebooks 1942-1951, tr. Justin O’Brien, 218.

[7] Magāndiya Sutta 21 in the Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha), revised translation by Bhikku Bodhi, 615.

[8] Victorinus; quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, 200.

[9] Quran 57:20.           

[10] The Buddha; in Dīgha Nikāya 31: Sigālaka Sutta: To Sigālaka, 10. In the translation of Maurice Walshe, 463.

[11] Job 25:4-6.

[12] Pope Gregory the Great; quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century, 35.

[13] Quoted in C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., 269.

[14] Śāntideva, The Bodhicaryāvatāra, tr. Crosby and Skilton, 141 (10.33).

[15] J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 214.

[16] The Buddha; Ashvagosha’s Life of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 119.

[17] The Buddha; Ashvagosha’s Life of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 257.

[18] The Buddha; Ashvagosha’s ife of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 321.

[19] The Buddha; The Diamond Sutra, tr. A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, 53.

[20] The Buddha; Ashvagosha’s Life of the Buddha, tr. Patrick Olivelle, 301.

[21] Christopher Hitchens, debating Alistair McGrath, 49:00. Found here: http://library.fora.tv/2007/10/11/Christopher_Hitchens_Debates_Alister_McGrath

[22] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, 5-6.

[23] Mi-an; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 201.

[24] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 127.

[25] Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, 57.

[26] Lyndy Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, 141.

[27] Quoted in Alexander Roob, Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum (1997 edition), 26.

[28] John 8:44.

[29] John 8:23-4.

[30] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward, 145.

[31] Quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 36.

[32] Augustine, City of God 19:19; quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century, 257.

[33] Baal Shem Tov; quoted in Meyer Levin, Classic Hassidic Tales: Retold from Hebrew, Yiddish, and German Sources, 114.

[34] Baal Shem Tov; quoted in Meyer Levin, Classic Hassidic Tales: Retold from the Hebrew, Yiddish, and German Sources, 47.

[35] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, 42.

[36] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, 46-7.

[37] Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha), revised translation by Bhikku Bodhi. 340.

[38] Sŏn master Kyŏnghŏ’s poem, Odo ka (Song of Awakening); quoted in Henrik H. Sørensen, “Buddhist Spirituality in Premodern and Modern Korea,” from Takeuchi Yoshino ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 117.

[39] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 27-8.

[40] From an Open Letter issued by the Network for Western Buddhist Teachers in March 1993, quoted in Sallie B. King, “Contemporary Buddhist Spirituality and Social Activism,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 455.

[41] Dahui; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 127.

[42] Daio; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 153.

[43] Quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 3, tr. Thomas Cleary, 642.

[44] Wu-chun; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 48.

[45] Dahui; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 184.

[46] Ying-an; in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1, tr. Thomas Cleary, 199.

[47] Quoted in Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 2, tr. Thomas Cleary, 11.

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