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.

Tanklet said...

I would like to jump in here at your questioning as to whether a person after death can have a change of heart and can choose Nirvana or eternal life after death. You probably already familiar with the philosophies. According to Protestants it is impossible to acquire a different spiritual status after death. However Catholicism has purgatory wherein a person is purged of any hinderance that keeps them from eternal life or union with God. So therefore the person would eventually obtain that which they seek. The Anglicans pray for the dead as well although not as clearly defined in doctrine. Purgatory is a temporary holding place which is separate from heaven and has a form of torment from being separated from God but not as bad as hell. There the person being purged can pray for those on earth and vices versa. Gee, I didn’t know John Butler wasn’t a Christian. I hadn’t read his books. It is misleading for him to be sitting in a Church as a speaker on spiritual matters. But then the CofE and Anglican community have been absorbing more and more eastern thoughts such as the Enneagram, Labyrinth, and Eastern thoughts from this such as Thomas Merton. Does John Butler reject Christian believe or is he merely a confused Christian or a Cafeteria style Christian who cherry picks out of the Bible what he prefers to believe or not believe?

Tanklet said...

@Bruce. I would think after death a person would have more knowledge of God or the afterlife and be able to see more clearly to change one’s mind if they had indeed gotten to meet God face to face. On Earth we are separated somewhat and can not see clearly. Otherwise no one would ever have doubts. Perhaps angry, bitter, or severe rebellious ones, or those who prefer evil would choose to stay separated. On Earth I don’t think we can have definite answers. The Bible says of itself that it is written by man but inspired by God or God breathed. Since Gods breath must pass through the mind of a mortal it seems to me the moral might misinterpret some things or change them for political or other biases? Ancient writings are confusing in that some writings are painful to accept but on the other hand if they were absolute then there is some security in a solid spiritual perimeter provided a person can remain within the positive aspects of that perimeter. But if by disobedience or doubt a person finds themselves outside the perimeter in brings mental and spiritual torment rather than the peace it was designed to bring.

Wall-O-Withnail said...

It makes me smile to see all the angsty comments about which box to put John Butler in, what label to pin on him... and I realize they haven't heard a word he said.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WoW - I've read five of his books and watched scores of his videos - how about you? But if - as I presume - you aren't a Christian, it doesn't matter to you. Anyone who IS a Christian knows that Nirvana is a different destination from Heaven - and we can only go to one or the other place; and potentially/ presumably for eternity. So in this sense categories have consequences, and to claim otherwise is ignorant or deceptive.

Dimitris Mouroulis said...

Hi everyone. I think there's something I should clarify about what this article says: "Most importantly, John Butler's spirituality is distinct from Christianity in that he explicitly seeks the total loss of ego". I have translated Johns' video in Greek at so I asked John what he means by "ego" in order to translate it correctly. He answered: "Ego refers to 'I, me and mine' believed as a separate, mortal entity, distinct from our true I AM made in the image of God" which is very close to what many Christian Fathers say.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dimitris - Thanks you.

However, I do not accept the correction since I regard John B as inconsistent/ incoherent in what he says - i.e. he asserts mutually incompatible things at different times, but does not recognize that they are incompatible.

Different videos have different emphases - but in the most recent videos he has most often moved closer to a pure oneness/ perennialist philosophy - using Christian terminology for these concepts. For example, he says that everything IS Christ ('a mini-Christ') - *everything* - without discernment or discrimination, and without any clarification that Christ is an embodied person, and cannot simply 'be' everything.

I'm not singling out John for criticism, since this kind of confusion is very common among many self-identified Christians (both now and in the past, including the ancient past) - but it still doesn't make coherent sense.

What matters by my understanding is whether we choose to follow Jesus Christ (who is an embodied Man as well as a God) to *resurrected* life eternal (i.e. life with a body, in Heaven - which is a *place* of some kind)- which is NOT the same as becoming a pure spirit that is undifferentiated from God (who is also a pure spirit).

Allen said...

Remember John is a human being. Like us he is not perfect and does not claim to be as far I can tell. I think his main teaching is that we all get lost in thoughts and miss the presence of God. God is in the here and now. I agree with the article in that John's theology diverges from Christian orthodoxy.

I don't doubt that some people practicing various kinds of prayer and meditation can wind up in a place where it feels like "we die to our sense of separation" and it feels like "all is one." There are plenty of witnesses to that. But I don't think that's a good place to be. It's very similar to annihilation, isn't it?

There are many roads to the top of the mountain...but most of them end on a cliff where you fall off the mountain. Jesus Christ is the "only name by which we can be saved" (Acts 4:12).

I, like John, practice the Jesus Prayer. If you practice the same, keep pursuing the one who loves you! You will find he has been with you the whole time

Bruce Charlton said...

@Allen - I think you misunderstand what I am saying. I am not interested in Christian 'orthodoxy' (I am in a minority of one in my theology); but - as far as orthodoxy is worth something - John is far more orthodox than I am.

I am pointing out that John's oneness, stillness, impersonal presence is in stark contradiction to making any discernment or evaluations about anything in the world. There can be no sin, no wrong understanding or action - or rather. all are equally wrong - so John's strong views on farming, the environment, his criticisms of judgmentalism - all these are incoherent.

His belief that material incarnation is a fall from the pure spirit, is contradicted by the fact of Jesus's incarnation and the promise of resurrection.

If we are supposed to return to a state of oneness and absorption into the universal divine, this is not compatible with God being our loving Father, and we his children.

My point is that we cannot have it both ways. If meditation reveals the reality of stillness and oneness and no divisions; it cannot also be the presence of Jesus: who is a resurrected divine Man, an actual person.

I very much like John as a person, I have watched all his videos several times, bought and read all his books and written him a letter of appreciation. He describes certain things very well indeed. But I do him the courtesy of taking him seriously as a thinker, rather than making excuses for him because he is such a nice man.

Philosophically, John is trying to combine two incompatible things - trying to go in two opposite directions at the same time. To make sense of him, we must take some of his ideas and reject the others - which it seems most people are doing, taking John as if he were a Western-Eastern spiritual philosopher like Eckhart Tolle or some such; and therefore Not as if he were a Russian Orthodox mystic like Fr Seraphim Rose or some such.

As for John himself, I would judge that he wants his death to lead to Nirvana (absorption of the self into the divine) much more than he want Heaven (resurrected life eternal).

Myself, I want Heaven; and for that I must follow Jesus. But I am confident that God, my loving Father, will also give John what he most deeply wants.

Allen said...

I should have replied..I appreciated your detailed reply and I found it very helpful


Mary said...

I have watched John Butler and enjoyed his perspective. However, as a Christian I found his emphasis on absorption into an impersonal God to take away from the living, very personal nature of our loving Heavenly Father. I don’t want to be “absorbed” into an impersonal nirvana, selfless state. I want to live forever with my loving Savior, sent by a loving Father, to rescue humanity from our fallenness and self-centeredness, and to restore us to the relationship He originally planned for man. This original plan was for man’s spirit to be the dwelling place of our Creator! John said he’s not comfortable with the man Jesus or a Father because he was somewhat afraid of his stern dad. He doesn’t seem to know that Jesus is the “Lamb of God…..”. He says all creation and nature is God. He prefers the impersonal view of “pantheism” to the tender in dwelling life of our precious Lord. I was a little confused listening to him at first, because he quotes the Bible constantly. It appears he knows the Bible but not the Author.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mary - Yes, exactly. John regards his view as higher and more grown-up than a personal God and a heaven of resurrected (i.e. embodied) Men with personal relationships.

The problem is that John also sometimes expresses *many* moral evaluations (such as stating that human judgment is evil!), and indeed all kinds of other evaluation - which don't make sense from the perspective of genuinely believing as you describe.

In other words, he is philosophically incoherent - as are almost all Westerners who advocate Eastern type spiritualities but who cannot help making all kinds of evaluations, judgments, recommendations.

Why teach, why even remain alive, if all is one and will return to one?

For Westerners, oneness spirituality is always a partial thing, and usually seems primarily therapeutic. John's main message is that 50+ years of meditation eventually cured him of lifelong depression and he is now very happy - in other words, this is ultimately a kind of counselling about how to get through this mortal life with the least misery and most happiness.

But if avoiding suffering is the priority - why not suicide? This is where all oneness religions become inconsistent, because they have various prohibitions on suicide ('punishments' for suicide, in terms of karmic consequences etc); none of which make sense from a oneness perspective.

In other words, we need to discriminate in listening to John Butler - as with everyone! And he does have several valuable things to teach us.

Mary said...

JB does spend a lot of time developing his spirit by retreating from life and seeking a “spiritual” escape. Jesus said “If you suffer with Me you will reign with Me.” Life is messy. Interacting with fallen humanity is messy! Western Christianity has become a “religion,” devoid of the Spirit of God, for the most part. Or if the Spirit is recognized He is supposed to be used to give humans prosperity, healing, and whatever they claim with their spoken words. I heard Chinese Christians are sending missionaries to the USA, to show us what real Christianity is. We have institutionalized the church and we no longer understand or teach the mystery of “Christ IN you, the hope of Glory! Perhaps that is why some have turned from disappointing, watered down Christianity, to explore more Eastern philosophies or religions. If not well grounded in true Biblical truth,, however, we can be deceived by those things personalities such as Eckert Tolle and JB, who offer a way to avoid suffering and a “higher consciousness,” which is a false replacement for “ the mind of Christ” and avoids the cross as God’s answer to the human condition.

Mary said...

Also, as to suicide. JB seems to prefer dying and “absorption” to living a full life of loving service to spread the true message of Christ-as-life to fallen humanity. Eckert Tolle also has a huge following, after Opra’s endorsement but he, also presents absorption into a nirvanic state, with the “Buddha” and reincarnation thrown in. So many want to bypass Christ and the ONLY way into True Life. I am saddened though by the state of Western Christianity.

Mary said...

There does seem to be a deeper level of conscious awareness that man is capable of entering. The problem is that Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light. I think he disguises himself as this higher consciousness that can b accessed, through repeating a mantra, and hours of meditation. He ALWAYS offers “a way that SEEMS right to a man but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Meditation does not catapult one into eternal life. Eternal life can only be found in the PERSON of Jesus Christ and being born again. If not our Lord’s suffering abs death, resurrection, ascension, glorification, we’re unnecessary; which is the position of universalists. John has no assurance of salvation and views himself still a sinner instead of a saint!

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mary, If you don't already know his work - you may be interested by William Wildblood; who is now a Christian but in earlier life was deep into more Eastern spiritualties - especially Hinduism. He has recently done several pieces on the differences between Buddhism and Christianity:

Mary said...

Thank you. 👍