Thursday, 28 November 2019

John Butler - Christian 'Zen' (not Zen Christianity)

I have been watching the videos and reading books by a modern English mystic called John Butler - the above is a typical example. Most striking is that Butler seems a lovely old chap, with one of the most hypnotically soothing voices I have ever heard (at the Bob Ross level!). He is also a very serious spiritual seeker; having diligently practiced meditation for fifty plus years.

Butler has travelled all over the place, been an organic gardener, done a degree in Russian in middle age and lived in Russia for a total of more than five years; nowadays he meditates twice a day, for two or three hours per session, in the CofE church in Bakewell, Derbyshire.

He reveres the Russian Orthodox tradition of ascetic monasticism and hermit life, a life of prayer and meditation. Furthermore, Butler was steeped in the Bible as a young person; quotes frequently and fluently from scripture to support his explanations; and the YouTube videos are mostly recorded in an Anglican church. Superficially, it might be assumed that John Butler is a Christian...

But is John Butler a Christian? No he isn't; and this is just a plain fact, not intended as any kind of criticism, since Butler is quite clear about his beliefs.

By his own account Christianity is - for him - merely the spiritual language he was raised-in and knows best. Christian language is - in this sense - wholly arbitrary; and he has said that it could have been any other religion without affecting the essence of his religious practise.

In other words, John Butler is an advocate of the 'perennial philosophy' - which is the Western understanding of the universal one-ness of God and Man that is found primarily in Hinduism and Buddhism and their variants and descendants.

(I say the PP is a Western version, an abstraction of Eastern religion - because it is detached from the specific ethnic communities and ways of life that characterise these religions in their Eastern actuality. In the East, these religions have numerous practices and rituals, and are also linked with 'pessimistic' and indeed threatening beliefs about reincarnation that Westerners seldom or never adopt.)

Most importantly, John Butler's spirituality is distinct from Christianity in that he explicitly seeks the total loss of ego, a state of non-thinking, a complete and permanent union with the divine. His over-riding motivations are the desire for peace, and to be free of all possibility of suffering: he wants to live free of the body as a spirit (not to be resurrected) and to live outside of time, where nothing changes - and change would not be desired because existence is a state of bliss.

As far as I can tell, JB is absolutely sincere in this wish - and indeed he assumes that everybody else also wants what he wants.

From my perspective, John Butler represents a genuine and perhaps universal human motivation; but probably one which is much rarer than he supposes. Such views have mostly been expressed by those like JB who are from intelligent and sensitive members of the upper classes - they have never been the basis for mass religions; and mass-consumption Eastern religions are a very different matter altogether.

Even the mystical tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy (which is the closest that Christianity comes to Butler's perspective) is qualitatively different from John Butler's spirituality; in that Orthodoxy does not seek loss of ego, cessation of thinking or union with God - but rather a perfect communion - and as resurrected incarnates, not as bodiless spirit.

Readers will know that I do not have any hostility to those with John Butler's views, and can indeed feel their appeal. They are the response of those who regard mortal life as ultimately negative; who regard incarnation and bodies as a limitation and who prefer spirit; who regret the development of Man's agency with its 'self' distinct from God and its subjective life of conscious thinking.

Butler's spirituality has the nature of  wanting to 'hand back his entrance ticket' to mortal life; to return to our earliest state of Being, before we were incarnated, when we were simply immersed in the Goodness of God, dwelling as spirits in Heaven. And I am confident that the subjective state of Being sought by people such as JB will be allowed and made possible by God - they will, indeed, live in the kind of unconscious union with the impersonal aspects of the divine - just as they hope for.

I do, however, wish to emphasise that they are not Christian, and the motivation is incompatible with the Life Eternal that Jesus came to make possible for us. And Perennial Philosophy becomes actively harmful if and when it is put forward as being the 'true' Christianity, or the deepest form of Christianity.

Also, it makes no sense at all to link PP with any kind of this-world morality: this is just incoherent! John Butler does not seem to realise that his convictions relating to the importance of environmentalism are sense-less in terms of his own philosophy. For example, in one video he (albeit half-heartedly) gives 'advice' on the subject of 'climate change', and he often opines regarding the desirability of unspoilt nature or organic food production...

And this nonsensical incoherence seems very hard, almost impossible, for Westerners to avoid - so that all the Western advocates of Perennial Philosophy that I have encountered are intractable hypocrites about politics; some of them very much so!

My feeling is that someone who sincerely regards unconscious union with impersonal deity as their deepest post-mortal desire, and who wish to approximate this during mortal life, should just get on with it! Perhaps it is legitimate to help other people to attain it by advising on meditative techniques (as does John Butler).

But such folk really ought to shut-up on every other subject! - especially politics and social organisation - since their views must inevitably by their own account be wrong and irrelevant; merely part of the maya (illusion) of this mortal, incarnate life...