Monday 17 February 2014

Re-conceptualizing the nature and consequences of 'Eastern' impersonal religions in relation to the personal God of Christianity


What follows is an excerpt from the writing of a little known mystical author called William Arkle (he died in 2000). I know about him because he lived nearby when I was at school.

I never met him (except once, in passing) but my impression is that he was a genuine mystic who had some real insights of potential value to Christians - although the context he worked in was very New Age. He uses Christian language, but also other concepts which are not mainstream and may well be contradictory to scripture (e.g. reincarnation).

It is almost as if Arkle was trying to rediscover afresh and for himself Christianity (which he already knew), entirely non-scripturally from the certainties of personal mystical insight.

This is often a pride-full and power-seeking thing for someone to do - but not always; and in this instance I think Arkle was essentially sincere and non-egotistical; I think he was essentially humble and not proud.  And this is why he was able to have some genuine insights.


However, what results from his subjective, meditative process is - almost necessarily - idiosyncratic, eccentric, and partial - and therefore sometimes wrong and (more than usually) potentially misleading; and his whole metaphorical and symbolic structure is not presented as being literally true but as a personal expression of personal insights - as a report of how things look to him: thus it was presented by paintings, poetry and music as well as prose and teaching/ lectures.


Anyway, I came across a very interesting perspective in the context of Arkle's main short 'summary' work - Letter from a Father - which has the character of God trying to explain his purposes to us.

I will add bold emphasis to highlight the striking points. Excisions are marked ...


In the beginning before time was, your mother and I had a longing in our heart to share our values and the substance of our being with others who could rejoice and be glad about them as we are glad about them. So we considered how we could do this.

We realised that to make living beings directly and ready formed was one way, and to make the seeds of this, and plant them in a situation which would cause them to grow in their own way, as a gradual process, was another.

There were two things we had to bear in mind. We had to decide how important to us it was that these children were real and not remotely controlled puppets. And we had to decide how we could guide and teach them what we knew they would have to learn without them losing the position of judgement for themselves over the values which we already knew to be good. 

We ... would have to be careful not to dominate them too much or we would destroy their individual differences and the integrity of their reality. But we also understood that they would have to grow into a certain type of person if they were going to be able to understand what we had to show them and give to them.

And of course we realised that they would begin their growth as our children, but that what we really longed for was not that they should be our children, but that they should slowly mature and become our companions and friends.

For our longing was to share this undemanding gladness in other centres of being who were in harmony with us but who were truly independent individuals to us. We understood this relationship to be the most delightful, and one which was open to endless variations, and these variations seemed to us of the greatest value since they had an absolute creative context between them.

In order that your being should mature slowly and fully, we had to think of a way to bring experience to you which would awaken you without overwhelming you, and in the process of awakening you enable you all to become different in your individual ways. As you already know, the quality of wholehearted affection and the quality of integrity or stability were two of the qualities most important to understand. Knowledge, both factual and of qualities, was also a part of this. 

... the individuality of your own being was of the essence of the matter from the very beginning. You were the one who was eventually to become aware of your own uniqueness and individual value, and you were to learn to carry the responsibility that goes with this gift.

We, most of all, felt as our deepest and dearest wish, when the time came that you understood what it was that we had undertaken on your behalf, that you would be glad, and choose to take up this option we have offered to you as our most loving gift, and live together with us as your friends and helpers.

But, as you know, in the case of friendship, the relationship between the two sides must be one of perfect balance and understanding and has to be freely and spontaneously taken up and maintained.

Therefore our purpose was to bring you to a stage in your experience when you could understand what we were offering as friends, but we had to arrange for you to have an alternative open to you, for friendship and love cannot be thrust upon people or they cease to be real.

Now, if you will follow me carefully I will try to explain what the alternative was. If you have understood that our personal love and friendship was one way for you to take, then our impersonal eternal being was another way for you to take if you so chose

In both cases you would come to eternal life, as this was the basis of our gift, but if you did not notice or did not respond to our personal nature, then you must be in a position where you could respond to all the qualities that we hold to be valuable but which do not involve our own personal love or friendship, thus uniting with our impersonal aura or being, which is itself bathed in love. 


The striking idea I get from this is that the 'impersonal' religions we think of as 'Eastern' - Hinduism, Buddhism and the like - religions which lack a personal God - can be conceptualized from our Christian perspective as not so much wrong as incomplete

Or, they are religions deriving from the choice of accepting God as an eternal impersonal being; instead of accepting the offer of a relationship with God - in which God is a personage.


Thus God actually is a personage, who wants more than anything to have a loving (familial, friendly) relationship with us persons; but since a loving relationship must be chosen, there is an alternative (there must be an alternative); and the alternative (for benignly disposed people) is as good a God can contrive.

The alternative is one of us of choosing not to regard God as a person but instead choosing to regard God as an impersonal entity: an eternal force or tendency or influence. 

This is, in effect, to choose to regard God in terms of what he does, rather than what he is. 

Arkle's notion here is that this is, in fact, a path to 'salvation' - that is, a path to eternal life; but to an eternal life of a qualitatively different, and non-personal, kind. 


Perhaps I like this so much because it chimes with my idea that all religions are essentially honest about what they offer: all religions deliver on their promises. 

'Eastern' religions claim to deliver an impersonal kind of immortality, aspire to destruction or dissolving of the self and of attachments, regard reality as essentially im-personal and therefore regard personality as delusion, a drag, a trap. Life is suffering, consciousness is suffering - both to be escaped-from, as an ideal. 

Adherents of 'Eastern' religions want to dissolve or destroy their own personality, and do not want a personal God - and perhaps God gives them what they want; and does not give them what they do not want. 


Something similar was said about 'paganism' (and all other religions) by CS Lewis, that they were glimpses or partial forms of Christianity - but Arkle's idea is that the 'Eastern' impersonal path was actually provided by God, as an alternative and valid - albeit lower - form of salvation. 

The Eastern path is less than what God wants for us; but is nonetheless a gift from God to those who believe in God and in Goodness; but who choose not to accept the highest gift. These are not punished, but generously allowed to have what they most wish for. 


NOTE ADDED: Perhaps the reason that this idea resonated immediately with me, is that God the Father must (surely?) be at least as loving towards his children as I am to mine. On this basis, if the children of a loving God chose to decline or reject His offer of a continuing and developing personal relationship after death (and denied His fatherhood and/or personhood) I assume He would nonetheless certainly try to fix things so that His children might live after death in a relatively benign - albeit impersonal - kind of existence - in fact the best existence that they could be induced to choose. It is a sad fact that we children so often refuse to choose our Father's best offer.


Matthew C. said...

So then God loves the people born in Ireland or Italy or the United States better than He loves the people born in India, or Tibet, or Saudi Arabia?

George said...

Strange you would read that conclusion Matthew. Did not he just write that God gives what we desire out of love?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MatC - That is a perspective almost opposite to the one that struck me! India and Tibet have, culturally, chosen to reject the relationship with a personal God. Many Christians would say that means that they will suffer in Hell - but this perspective suggests that instead they will get what they want/ what their religions promise them. In SA they are promised Paradise, but not Heaven - and perhaps Paradise is what they will get.

From the Christian perspective all these seems a miserable thing compared with Resurrection and dwelling with Jesus Christ etc. - but that is apparently what *they* want...

Atheists who reject Christ's salvation, reject God, disbelieve in Goodness, and reject all religion etc... will be allowed to choose to reject all of these things.

However, extinction of the soul is probably impossible, so they would perhaps get the worst deal: eternal solitude.

George said...

That's my understanding. The idea that Hell is ultimately just - not an unjust punishment as many interpret it. For if God has truly given us free will without impediment, where for can we go but Hell (e.g. separation from God) if we chose to reject goodness?

Now, I am more inclined to the Mormon philosophy, in that perhaps there is continued spiritual progression after death. Even the Catholics seem to accept this to some degree - did not Jesus visit those who died before his coming to give them a chance at Heaven?

However, perhaps this life is so absolutely important - or so deterministic, that if we reject God completely during it, changing direction afterwards is nigh impossible.

The idea of "outward darkness" makes sense in that Christ is the light, truth and way. If you turn your ship from the light, where is there to go?

Arakawa said...

I think Matthew is pointing out that one's religion is decided as much by what's available in the culture, as by one's own desires. In order to become outwardly Christian, even in modern Western society, you only have to sort of want to become Christian, whereas in an Islamic country you have to really want to become Christian. (And, obviously, this only applies to the time period after Christ.)

It seems likely that there are, or were, many people in history who desired a personal relationship with a personal God, but who would have pursued, say, Buddhism as a matter of religious practice (as the only viable religious path available to them, say) even though its ultimate promises did not match their desires -- and they felt deep down, perhaps not wanting to admit it, that the religion was on some point mistaken. So, after death, what is their fate?

At the same time, there have been many theologists in Christianity who tend to downplay the personal, incarnational aspects of it in favour of a static, bodiless, incomprehensible picture of God and Heaven -- so perhaps there are many people who still feel more drawn to the impersonal view of God in spite of having access to Christian revelation?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Extremes seem ruled out - it does not make NO difference into which situation you are born and live - but neither does this determine things. Mission and evangelism are vital, worthwhile etc - yet even in their absence there is internal evidence of a personal God in the world (there is and was Hope of Hope - unspecific yet pre-prepared); and yet the crucial thing is what happens after death and resurrection.

Put simply, salvation may be much less sensitive to 'society' than is theosis - or at least this was the case all over the world and throughout history until recently.

However, the extraordinary (anti-common sense, anti-rational, perverse) inversions of secular, Leftist modernity seem to make it a special case.

Ours may be the first or one of very few societies *ever* in which basic salvation is seriously imperilled for large numbers of people: in which people might choose to reject salvation (and feel good about this), despite knowing all about it.

Matthew C. said...

Thank you Arakawa!

That was an almost infinitely superior expression of what I was trying to convey!

David said...

If you get what you want from a particular religious path then I wonder what would happen to the boy from the movie the life of pi? He proclaimed himself to be a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim and perhaps many other things besides including existential doubts. I must admit it was an intriguing movie. I wonder what everyones thoughts are about this fictitious character in the light of this post theme?

I can see the difficulty expressed by Mathew C and clarified by Arawaka are not easy to dismiss. I have often pondered on such things. Does an earnest Jew recieve damnation for not recognising the messiah in Jesus Christ? I can only imagine how difficult it must be to extricate yourself from the enforced conformity of cultural and religious traditions. There seems a lack of spiritual pull factors and a lot to losse: ostracism by friends, family, loss of community standing. At least as an atheist my fear and gut-feeling I was going the wrong way has kept me seeking until I have finally found there is no peace to be found in my soul until my relationship with God is corrected. I have chosen to do this and see no good reason to ever go back. I would chose a personal relationship with God over a static 'nirvana' without question. It sounds much more satisfying. I can hardly contain my excitement at the prospect. I wonder therefore why I have alway been sold the binary choice: total salvation or total damnation? Perhaps this accounts for a lot of the reticence of modern people to approach Christianity earnestly? I remember attending a Christianity explored evening relatively recently and lots of young seemingly earnest young men and women left because they were told their hindu friends were damned to hell unless they repent and convert. This was painful to the core of my being to find that this was the deal. It seemed totally alien to any conception of a loving God I could imagine. It kept me guarded and at odds at a deep level with the Christian faith for a long time. I couldn't leave my friends behind. But if as you suggest is true then well why would you choose a static Buddhist Nirvana when God is offering something so much more profoundly beautiful. I want to love this God with all my heart and soul. The buddhists can keep Nirvana. Why wwouldn't you follow Christ if this truely is the offer? I wonder if this kind of discussion might be particularly effective as a strategy for drawing would-be Christians into the loving embrace of God; in a manner much more effective than the binary choice I have seen rolled out time and again by perhaps unintentionally fightening Christians at a congregation near you

Arakawa said...


To be honest, I'm getting the impression that the "fire and brimstone" preaching was possibly the forerunner of the modern apostasy.

I came across Konstantin Leontyev, a Russian writer and eventual Orthodox monk (contemporary and antagonist to the more famous Dostoyevsky), who openly preached a doctrine of "transcendent egoism". Essentially, he made explicit the implications that countless preachers before him dared not utter -- if the salvation of one's own soul is an overriding concern, so that I have no room to worry about my neighbour, or my family, or some Hindu friend, that is in fact absolute (if enlightened) egotism. In order to fulfil Christ's commands and the Gospel commandments under such conditions, the Gospel morality (which is focused on other people) must be sustained, he says, by a constant and an "almost animal" terror of damnation. This incidentally drowns out all those cursed questions about the desire for universal salvation, the asymmetry of thinking yourself the worst devil no matter how many good deeds you do, but seeing Christ in every neighbour even if he is outwardly the worst of sinners, etc. etc. -- things that concerned Leontyev's psychological opposite Dostoyevsky.

This vision of Leontyev's was a really backhanded sort of praise for the pastoral approach advocated by a consensus of previous Church fathers. Because even if they did not preach as baldly as Leontyev, the implications are there. (Such Saints as Seraphim of Sarov offer an indubitable counterweight, but not one that has been dogmatically elucidated -- it can only be taken "in foolishness of faith".)

But -- the thought suggests itself -- this was perhaps all a cruel trick and a subtle perversion of Christ's own preaching about Hell. Humans are not animals, and are psychologically incapable of sustaining a constant state of terror, no matter how convenient that would be for eliciting some behaviour. But humans are humans, gods or devils in potential, and by the devilish tendency in them, they are capable of sustaining a constant and wretched state of absolute ('transcendent') egotism. So, in a scheme that produces moral behaviour by yoking absolute egotism to absolute terror, the terror - an animal, emotional quantity - will eventually wither away through mere physical habituation, but the egotism - a spiritual quantity - will chug merrily on. It can be stopped, for a while, by threatening more and more vivid and elaborate damnation, but the human imagination -- no matter how morbid it is -- still has an upper limit. Eventually, a person cannot be induced to care about the most feverish and elaborate visions of Hell -- the fire and brimstone preaching reaches its most extravagant peak when, and because, people are on the point of apostasy, and can only be made to retain their allegiance to God's commandments by this increasingly artificial and increasingly less plausible (given what people know of God) motivational vision.

Arakawa said...

[continuing my previous comment]

At this point we get a pile of Leftists -- people whose every political and spiritual movement, is merely a cover for a black hole of egotism, i.e. self-ness, i.e. Pride. Their typical reaction to Bad News of Hell is to consider the matter -- more seriously than you would believe just looking at them -- and then laugh at you and say: "well, we're going to Hell then! We'll at least be in better company with all those Hindus, than you will be in Heaven with all your fundamentalists!"

Or, for another picture, it's as if the Dean of a university called in a problem student and announced that he must study for his exam next week -- "study hard! for your soul will be demanded of you -- if you fail the test, you will be clapped in the deep, dark dungeon, where you will never see the sun and flowers again -- for all eternity, you will be tortured by rats!"

And the problem student shrugged, and said to himself: "Very well! If the Dean puts it that way, I'll spend the week partying. It's ridiculous to expect me to learn everything in a week when I've been slacking all year. I'd just end up studying hard for a week but failing the exam anyways -- what a waste of time! Far better to party like I've never done before -- it's my last chance, and I won't have to worry about failing the exam when I'm too boozed to think straight anyways!"

Then the Dean called in another student and said -- "study hard! If you fail the test next week, I will lock you up into the dank and musty Library -- you will never see the sun and flowers again unless you learn the lesson and re-take the course successfully. And if you never learn the lesson, you will stay in there for eternity!"

And the other student blanched and said: "I had better study for this, because if I don't make an effort now, how do I trust myself to make an effort later in the dank, musty Library? I will stay there for an eternity, and it will become my Hell. Whereas, even if I make an effort for this entire week, and fail, I have made my best attempt, and can go and study in the Library with a clean conscience for as long as I need -- the Dean is only doing this to me because he believes I can eventually learn the material if I try -- so I'll believe in him as well, the Library will be my Heaven, and I will come out of it justified."

Arakawa said...

[continuing comment; sorry, this has turned into an overly long essay-rant-thing :-P]

The top two (really, the only two!) commandments of Christianity are to love your God and love your neighbour -- the cause for my suspicion that fire-and-brimstone is a devilish distortion is how easily it seems to nullify the spiritual meaning of both of these commandments. Especially if the first commandment means to love, in the same way that God loves us -- freely and unconditionally -- then that means loving God regardless of whether He accepts us -- even if He chooses to reject us and put us in the depths of Hell:

"MG: So, you’re not satisfied with overcoming your sins. If not, you want salvation from… what, exactly?

Q: From Hell, I suppose.

MG: What is Hell?

Q (*getting impatient*): Haven’t you read scripture? The fire, and cold, and the worm that dieth not, and all that, which the ungodly are threatened with?

MG: Any man who truly loves God would gladly endure any amount of those things for His sake."

This at least explains the book of Job and the dark nights of the soul where God withdraws from us to see what we will do -- will we curse and turn away from Him, or call out to Him all the louder?

This is probably a deep splitting point from The Other Monotheism, which records Abraham saying (to a star that he followed until it set beneath the horizon) -- "I love not gods that set!" -- but imagine if Job had said that? His God, in giving him up to be ravaged and mocked by Satan, has set on him in a far more terrifying manner than some mere star! God did not merely turn away from Job -- by permitting the approach of Satan, God played the part of Job's enemy, to see if Job will love even his enemies....

So, that is more an existentialist approach to things. But you can't build a Church organization on existentialism -- so, I suppose, bring on the fire and brimstone. While it still works.

I suspect that, if (I'm really undecided on it... I think human culture still has a long way down) we're heavily into the end times, the Leftist cultural relativism thing might be just a fakeout to fool the elect. The antichrist is said to be a righteous-seeming man who "shuns idols" -- hardly the kind of person you'd see mingling approvingly with a crowd of ecumenists -- and he could easily be a fire-and-brimstone kind of guy. As an ecumenistic decoy-antichrist prepares to sit down in the Third Temple, real-antichrist might come out of the sky in a fake second coming, defeat the decoy-Antichrist with no end of flashy special effects, squat in the Third Temple, and stage a fake Last Judgment, where billions of infidels are burned up by a deceptive fire out of heaven... on purely sectarian grounds. Only people who, amid the feverish self-righteousness, notice that the Christ in the Gospels not once mentions religious allegiance as a criterion for the Last Judgment, will be able to smell the rat.

(This probably goes to show how little attempts to literally interpret prophecies are actually worth. I don't really like the antichrist prophecy because there is supposedly only one antichrist who will supposedly appear under very specific circumstances, but he will have countless forerunners who come in countless spiritual shapes and sizes, and appear to work at cross purposes to each other. Trying to shoehorn all of them into some spiritual scheme for preparing the last antichrist can lead to simply second-guessing and misjudging the motivations of actual evil people who are acting right now. e.g. any sufficiently bad guy is now automatically supposed to want to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem, even if that makes no lick of sense for them to do....)

Arakawa said...


Oh, and Life of Pi was originally a novel. I've read the novel, haven't seen the movie; but the character struck me as a nice kid who saw that these people all had faith in something that sustained them. Every religion he met, he met because of a particular person who displayed love to him -- and reciprocating that love from Pi's understanding obviously required to believe what the person believes. Which is the proper way to acquire faith -- person-to-person transmission. Then it was an unpleasant shock that all these religions are supposed to be at each other's throats, so the people don't want Pi to love all of them that way, they'd much rather he take a side....

On the downside, it's edging towards that lukewarm, amorphous sort of spirituality which is popular on the Left because it can be subverted to pretend that all religions have the same "real" core which is perverted by sectarian fundamentalism -- and that real core happens to be Leftism. I don't think Pi is guilty of this -- if I remember the book accurately, he's more of a genuinely harmless person which most people regard as a nut because a "normal" person would bite when put into that situation, and Pi doesn't. So, a bit more like Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin.

(Although, ironically, Prince Myshkin is pretty religiously intolerant. His rants, however, are directed at abstract and far-away Catholics.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Great stuff - you've broken all records with a four part comment!

I cannot resist pointing out that there IS a religion which dispenses with original sin (a concept that makes Hell into the default), dispenses with fire and brimstone preaching; and yet maintains high standards of devoutness and behaviour - maintains 'social control' - you know the one I mean... in this respect as so many others, the exception.

David said...

@Arakawa - Wow that really was a very comprehensive response, but also very interesting. Thank you! It serves as a reminder to pursue a balanced response and not develop the habit of acting in fear (although that too has its place to avert spiritual disaster) but through the lense of love when getting to know God at a personal level. There are a lot of traps out there 'fire and brimstone' being a notable example. Trust and discernment being key tools to avoid the pitfalls along the way.