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...


William Wildblood said...

I'm less tolerant than you, Bruce, since I now regard this as a false spirituality which is actually quite egotistical at base. I say that as someone who has been tempted in that direction myself. Perhaps we're hardest on faults we have shared.

Anyway, what I mean is that this is a retreat from spiritual responsibility, from working in God's creation to help bring that to its hoped for fulfilment, its flowering and fruiting as one might say. This negative spirituality is all about rejecting creation and therefore, whatever is said, rejecting love, beauty and goodness. I see it as an immature spiritual attitude though I am sure you are right that God allows it if people really want it. I can't help thinking however that they don't really want it, not really, and will not rest content with it forever. There is so much more that God offers his children. The whole point of birth in this world is that we may unite the two poles of spirit and matter within our being to make something new in the way that Christ demonstrated. This is the rejection of matter.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - in general I think you are right; but I chose John Butler because - after reading some of his books, as well as watching all the videos - I think he really does want peace and union with deity more than anything else. And therefore, we can use him as a 'test case' for what God might do about such a person.

JB explicitly rejects mortal life, and wants to die and enter the Nivana state ASAP.

...I don't know why he doesn't draw the obvious conclusion and kill himself without waiting. Maybe he has some extra beliefs (as do Buddhists, Jains, Hindus) about why deity would forbid or punish suicide.

Anyway JB is, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule. He is certainly inconsistent about drawing implications from his beliefs, but he knows Christianity thoroughly, and rejects it: his motivations seem solid and sincere.

What I am unsure about is whether it is legitimate for JB to *preach* this kind of spiritual 'nihilism'; but I suppose he really does regard nothingness as a preferable state than Heaven - so perhaps this would not be held against him. And his misleading message is just one of the many more-or-less-adverse experiences we are supposed to learn-from in this mortal life.

William Wildblood said...

My understanding is that there is place in the higher worlds where people like this go and where they find the peace they crave but it is not heaven and eventually they feel the urge to move on though it might take the equivalent of centuries for that to happen.

I looked at the video and he seems a good man but there's a negativity there that doesn't inspire. Mind you, I dread to think what people would say if they saw a video of me! But you make a valid point about whether he should be preaching what you correctly call his spiritual nihilism.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

There’s nothing inherently Eastern about the Perennial Philosophy. Aldous Huxley’s book of that name does quote a smattering of Indian and Arabian sources, but a substantial majority of his citations are from Christians: Meister Eckhart, Francois Fenelon, William Law, Bernard of Clairvaux, Theologia Germanica, Cloud of Unknowing, and many others. In fact, Huxley served as my introduction to this whole world of Christian mysticism but didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about Hinduism or Buddhism.

I agree that the PP is inconsistent with the message of Jesus, but it is still (in many cases, anyway) a plant native to Christendom rather than an exotic import.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - That's what I said, isn't it? Except you go too far in saying 'nothing' inherently Eastern.

The PP developed from the *impact* of knowledge of Eastern Religions on Western people from the 18th century onwards - like Schopenhauer, RW Emerson, Blavatsky etc.

In practice, I'd say PP (as it eventually became) was an attempt to abstract the spirituality from the specific cultural religions. However, many of these wouldn't identify themselves as adherents of the PP (who may well call themselves Buddhists, nowadays) - it's more of a term given to phenomena late, and by outsiders.

David said...

Is it possible to discuss it with the man in question? Perhaps an invitation to discussion via this blog for him? I used to hold pretty much the same spiritual perspective for many years and considered myself a kind of lay western Buddhist, but I was, nevertheless,v serious about it. Let's face it, extreme and widespread suffering is a very common hang-up to modern people, attempting to engage with Christianity. If you are told, which I was often told and still am, by certain Christian groups, that God is omnipotent and nothing ever happens to anybody without his will. Well, very obviously and understandably, most people are horrified by such a deity and often reject Christianity so powerfully, they either never come back and shut down, or they turn to the Buddha who acknowledged suffering head-on and devised a practical spiritual path to become free of suffering and the driving desires, attachments, etc. that are fairly easy for an introspective person to validate.

But then...

There is *potentially* better offer...

The question is, is it a real offer and not just a pie in sky idea, based in fantasy and self-delusion? Or is it real?

For me, it was an open-minded reinvestigation of these kinds of questions that ultimately led to me returning to pursue my understanding of Christianity more seriously and to accept the offer of eternal life. I will be honest though, unless I had met with Mormon missionaries and began following this and other blogs (most notably WW and the Arkle site) I would never have been able to answer the questions that were separating me from faith to my satisfaction. The popular misconception of a traditional hellfire and brimstone Christianity has done a fantastic job of pre-immunizing countless souls against the western Christian tradition, and, of course, this has been exploited to the hilt by forces that would very much like to discredit Christianity; both man-made and supernatural.

David said...

@william wildblood - I find myself intrigued by your notion that a soul may choose Nirvana after death but that the offer of eternal life still stands and that, presumably, God will offer again from time to time to check if there hasn't been a change of heart so-to-speak. I actually rather like this idea as it seems to reflect what fits with my highest possible imagining of a loving heavenly parent. I wonder though, if all that meditative training to reject the world of form as inherently samsara/illusionary/driven by Mara, might be unable to move past these metaphysical assumptions once firmly embraced. Your thoughts on this would be interesting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - As I say, I have read John Butler's books and watched his videos - my belief is that his position is a consequence of his deepest nature and decades of consideration. I take him seriously enough to believe that

"the offer of eternal life still stands and that, presumably, God will offer again from time to time to check if there hasn't been a change of heart so-to-speak. "

My difficulty with this idea is that my understanding is that resurrection into Heaven is a permanent commitment to love and creation. In other words, part of our agency, a vital part, is the ability to make permanent commitments.

The flip-side seems to be that there is also an ability to make permanent decisions of other kinds. This may not be the case - because it may be something about resurrection that makes for the possibility of permanence. So rejecting resurrection may well keep things open for a revised decision.

If that is possible, then I am sure God would 'allow' it. The question is whether it is possible, Scripture, including the fourth gospel, *seems* to be adamant that if a person chooses Hell, then that is permanent - however the same may not apply to Nirvana.

But the fact is that I regard Nirvana as a perfectly 'rational' option for some people. I don't find it at all difficult to imagine that Nirvana is exactly what some people most desire; after all, vast numbers of Eastern people have apparently expressed this desire over many centuries/ millennia.

Arkle thought the same - ie. that some people do not relish the personal nature of Heaven, but desire to be one with God's impersonal love. Maybe they felt that way in pre-mortal life, and mortal life was just to make sure that this was truly the best decision for themselves.

William Wildblood said...

David, my feeling is that if a person is a genuine spiritual seeker and they choose the Nirvana option they will have the opportunity to reconsider when something inside them begins to feel a dissatisfaction with their timeless state. This is because they have not so much rejected God as chosen a diminished or partial aspect of God. But then they would have to come back to Earth which might entail a risk.

David said...

Interesting! It draws me to consider this question of what decisions become permanent and when the point of no return might be reached in general and specific cases. On this theme, I seem to recall that in an earlier thread of comments, the feeling was that the opposite might happen i.e. accepting heaven permanently but with 'Nirvana' break's when a resurrected soul feels the need. A kind of replacement for mortal sleep? Just speculation

Bruce Charlton said...

@David and William - I think the key fact is that God, as loving Father, would not leave anyone in anything less than Heaven if he were to 'change his mind' and come to want it. I am just not sure whether everybody would, or could, change his mind. It is very difficult to change another person's mind (for the better) here on earth; and I don't think that would necessarily be easier after death.

Also, there are 'all sorts' of people - always have been, and probably always will be - and people want very different things. I do not see a tendency for people to 'converge' but the opposite - people seem to get more different from one another.

Everyone is an unique individual, and probably most people outside of Heaven have unique situations? There may Not be just a few (let alone just one) other destinations for post-mortal souls than Heaven - but billions of them?

Maybe Heaven is the special situtation when, because of their shared commitment to love, very different people may live together in harmony.