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"East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." -Rudyard Kipling
"The West shall shake the east awake." -James Joyce
“For the first time in modern history, Christianity, the predominant faith of the West, is faced by reinvigorated Eastern religions.” -Mircea Eliade
"Soon, in order to Westernize our kids properly, we will be sending them all to the East." -Marshall McLuhan
“A century ago when Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous line the British Roj was at the height of its power; as late as 1830 the Indians were still practicing suttee, slavery, child marriages, and sacrifice. The people of
Alan Keightley affirms the Eastern alternative in his work Into Every Life a Little Zen Must Fall: A Christian Philosopher Looks to Alan Watts and the East (London: A Wisdom East-West Book, 1986). This paper will critically examine Keightley’s thesis.
Although the subject of this paper is Keightley’s book, the broader aim is a fairly comprehensive survey of the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, recent cultural receptivity of the West to the East, the relation of Eastern ideas to neuroscience, historiography of mysticism, philosophy, and so on.
Keightley offers his personal interpretation with a nod to the late Alan Watt’s interpretation of the East; ultimately his views differ little if at all from Alan Watts. Although this may seem a rather roundabout journey to the East, it should also prove quite instructive.
We will begin with a brief survey the principle religions of the East with which Keightley’s views most closely identify (in spite of Keightley's subtitle this does not include traditional Christianity, or philosophy in the usual academic sense, but Eastern religions exclusively), turning next to recent Western cultural receptivity to the East; and finally to adjudicate Keightley's "New Age" treatment of all that is East via Watts. Our critique of Keighley/Watts aims throughout to illumine what has come to form a sizable portion of contemporary New Age, Buddhist, and Hindu thought in general.
Our present scope will not allow us to cover more than two religions germane to this discussion (Hinduism and Buddhism), but this should more than suffice. Their primary usefulness for our discussion is not that Keightley and Watts claim to have gotten their "ideas" there (they do not; Eastern/New Age writers in general deny the heart of the East is about ideas at all), but it still remains the case that their own mysticism led them to a portrayal of ultimate reality in a way that greatly resonates with much Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions have to offer. The same can be said of most recent New Age exponents as well.
The first section is mainly exposition with critiques to follow; but much of the critique which follows cannot be adequately understood without attention to the first section of this essay.
After a very abbreviated look at the historical and linguistic context of their development, we’ll then give cursory examination to the content of two of the five major world religions, both of which were born in
I. THE HISTORICAL/LINGUISTIC ROOTS OF EASTERN RELIGION
The earliest civilization of
What was left of the Harappans was conquered by invaders, the Aryans around 1500 BC. The Aryans established separate kingdoms in
Hinduism, for 2500 years the major religion of
[Some technical notes (the casual reader may skip this section): Two categories of Hindu Sacred Scriptures are Cruti (hearing or revelation) and Smrti (memory or sacred tradition). Cruti consists of four Vedas (root vid --to see, to know) while Smrti is represented by a vast amount of literature of varying degrees of significance. The four Vedas are: (1) Rig, (2) Sarna, (3) Yajus, and (4) Adharva. Each of the Vedas consists of three distinct parts, corresponding to three important periods in the evolution of the Indo-Aryan religion. The Samhita co1lection, ca. 1500-1000 BC is the Upasana-Kanda, i.e. worship section of the Vedas. Next comes the Karma-kanda, i.e. action section (liturgical sections known as Brahmanas were composed ca. 1000-800 BC). The third and final section is the Jnara-kanda, or wisdom section, also called Vedanta--end of the Vedas which were composed ca. 800-300 B.C. They contain the most developed Indian/Aryan thought on God, world, and soul. Until the 7th century BC the Vedas were orally transmitted by a priestly class of Brahmin whose task was to know them by heart. Conservation of the proper text in its written period was ensured by a variety of elaborate measures (comparable to the extremely rigorous measures of the later Masoretic Scribes in preserving the text of the Hebrew Bible): (1) Pada-patha: verbal test--each word written separately, thus avoiding the transformation which Sanskrit words undergo when they combine; (2) Krama-patha--gradual text--each word repeated: AA. BB. CC; 3) Kata-patha woven text in which each text is repeated three times (in direct, inverse, direct order: AB BA AB; BC
Two central doctrines of Vedic scripture include: (1) Insight that the individual self is in effect the Highest and (2) Insight that the ultimate or genuine Reality is non-dual Brahman/Consciousness/Blessedness (S. Radhakrishnan and C.A. Moore, Eds., Source Book in Indian Philosophy (Princeton, 1973), p. 512, 514, 525-530). The Brahman eludes any objectification (Source Book 537, III. 11.21; also J.F. Staal, Advaita and Neoplatonism: A Central Study in Comparative Philosophy (Madras, 1961), pp. 102ff.). The world of things is not what it appears to be. The many things of appearance are at bottom only Brahman. Therefore, every day experience is illusionary. Sankan is diametrically opposed to all common sense.
According to the Upanishads, life is basically bad (suffering). Individuals are reincarnated to ever higher lives, ultimately achieving nirvana (oneness with the Brahman. Nirvana derives from the root va, blow out/extinguish; oneness with Brahman entails annihilation of craving/desire, individuality/self/ego). The Upanishads affirm that Oneness with the Brahman requires that an individual lived well in past lives. How you lived previously determines your karma, which is living proper life according to dharma (dharma refers to duty corresponding to caste position). Karma is understood as an unfolding of the nature of Being rather than divine law imposed externally. Individual human believings ultimately participate in “The Highest One.” This represents the pantheistic world view (E.g. especially Source Book, pp. 350 I; p. xviii, 101. Our scope does not allow attention to the six schools of philosophy (c.f. Source Book). It should also be noted that pantheism comes in several varieties, from West and East, e.g. Parmenides’ absolute pantheism (cf. his disciple Zeno), Plotinus’ emanational pantheism, Hegel’s unfolding pantheism; Spinoza’s modal pantheism, Radhakrishna’s multilevel pantheism, etc). The predominating view of the Absolute in Hinduism, no matter how it is signified, is the Monistic unity of all things - Brahman - beyond all authority - inexhaustible. All living beings participate in God’s being, i.e., God dwells in all beings. The cosmos is God’s body. Truth or reality (satya) and knowledge or awareness (jnana) are two of the properties of God’s essential nature. “Knowledge” (jnana) indicates a state of permanently unconstricted knowledge. Brahma is knowledge yet at the same time he is the subject of this knowledge and blessedness (idealistic pantheism). Absolute knowledge cannot be known discursively. Brahman is absolutely inexpressible. All doctrine is untrue, i.e., only an idol (although, it must be admitted, "no doctrine" is a doctrine). Though all human thinking is contaminated by untruths, without language, myths and metaphors, no knowledge could be intersubjectively passed on. Yet discursive knowledge is held to serve at best imperfectly, much like a “finger pointing to the moon” cannot convey “the moon in all its heavenly glory.” It can at best point you in the direction of the heavens (metaphorically speaking). Broadly speaking of Hindu views is that all religions are paths to one Reality (P. Bowes, The Hindu Religious Tradition: A Philosophical Approach (London, 1977), p. 277). The Pluralism of views represents a multiplicity of ways to the truth, not an array of equally valid positions. In any case, "truth" in Hinduism is not found in “positions;” Brahman alone is truth. People cannot know Brahman's thoughts for Brahman is pure thought. Since the One has many aspects, it can be approached in more than one manner. Reality is far too complex to be presented in one theory. Satya (the true/real) is “set.” The true is Being which permeates all that exists. The relativity of various schools is dissolved because of the common recognition that reflections about knowledge are serviceable to the aspiration of purifying oneself and the achievement of true insight and liberation (Note there is conflict within the pluralism of schools regarding the place of ‘doctrine’ in religious traditions).
The True/Real is a more inclusive term than the Highest or than God. God as Brahman is impersonal, omnipotent, and omniscient. Every limitation is foreign to the cosmic Darth Vader god. (e.g. rejection of the Incarnation and Inscripturation). The form of communion with the truth is the essence of religion and the cornerstone on which life itself rests (E.g., B. Richards, “Gandhi’s Concept of Truth and The Advata Tradition” Religious Studies 22 (1986):4.14). Communion is not to be confused with worship in a Western sense, but in the sense of monistic pantheism. The absolute surpasses all devotion to a personal God in non-dual transcendence, the other denies non-duality. Prayer suffers a similar fate. Brahmanic religion taught resignation in the face of suffering. Evil as well as the good finds unity in the Brahman since ultimate reality (for monism) is One (Bowker, John, Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World (
Not everyone could accept the Upanishads view that life = suffering. Some asked why this was so. Among the questioners was the son of a Raja (chief, of the Sakya clan in southern
Buddhism spread to
As with Hinduism, conceptual truth (shamma in the Pali canon, intended in the sense of doctrinal truth) is relative (e.g., The Blind Men and The Elephant). The blind men experience a contradiction! The example assumes that reality can be approached from many sides. Note that their descriptions were all wrong because “someone” knew what an elephant was (is). Buddhism seeks an “open minded,” “non-conceptual” experience of the absolute, accompanied by being without attachment and liberation from the burden of discriminating cognition. (Absolute Truth vs. conceptual truth; (H.V. Guenther, “The Levels of Understanding in Buddhism,” Journal of American Oriental Society, 78 (1958): 20-23).
If Buddhism precludes “true doctrine,” then what is its attitude toward other faith systems? (Some central issues include: (1) The Doctrine of Two Truths, which includes the resistance to reification. Reification is the process of regarding something abstract as material or real. (2) The idea that every human being must achieve liberation through personal transformation. (3) The idea of rebirth (Transmigration of the Soul/Reincarnation). The doctrine of Two Truths makes all doctrine a relative matter. All relative truth is an attempt to point out another perspective on reality. M. Sprung, Ed., The Problem of Two Truths in Buddhism and Vedanta, (Dardrect, 1973), pp. 9-27; Commentary on The Distinction Between The Two Truths (
All forms of Buddhism and Hindu pantheistic monism reject the Judeo/Christian doctrine of God as ultimately inadequate. (Even the use of Meister Eckhardt’s Theologia Negativia cannot reduce or cross the impasse between the Judeo/Christian God and non-Christian religions articulations about ultimate reality (some authors see a point of contact between the Buddhistic “void” and the Christian idea of God in the Theologia Negativa, which affirms God cannot be expressed in positive terms without limited meaning. If God is infinite and transcendent, all limitation must be negated from terms which apply to him. Without such negation anthropomorphism, anthropopathism, and the danger of conceptual idolatry result; God is finitized. This approach has exponents from both Eastern and Western perspectives). In religious pantheism, God is transpersonal/ suprapersonal transcendence (as opposed to personal/impersonal). "Thou art that." God as a principle, universal law, vibration or energy; Universal Consciousness. "It" not "Him." It is us. Cf. Endless and confusing stream of 'god-men', gurus and avatars. Since Buddhistic Truth has nothing to do with language, it has nothing to do with true doctrine, tradition or any theological system. Language, doctrine and written revelation are considered ultimately inadequate and meaningless. They are a barrier to the Experience of enlightenment and truth. The relativity of all doctrinal truth does not mean doctrinal absolutism is absent from Eastern theologies/philosophies, e.g. absolute rejection of Christ's death, resurrection and atonement for sin as unnecessary and irrelevant. No forgiveness. Problems of evil and suffering never resolved. No redemption, only an eternal balancing of karma. Physical world is illusory or a projection of consciousness (maya, “the veil of ignorance”) Works righteousness. You save yourself (enlightenment provides a way off the “wheel of reincarnation"), etc.
In most forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, the problem of the One and Many no longer exists, since classical resolution opted in favor of The One. Meaning disappears from such systems, since meaning imposes limits and requires discrimination, all of which are alien to the unity of the One. Since history is discrimination and struggle, history means a revolt against the undifferentiated unity of being. Eternal cyclicality cannot be the foundation for the relevancy and meaning of history. (Cf. Classical western philosophy has been dialectical, i.e., holding two antithetical principles in tension, such as form/matter in Greek thought, nature/grace in scholasticism, and nature/freedom in contemporary thought, etc.).
[We will return to our discussion of Watts and Keightley's East and provide a critique just below after the brief bibliographical section, and a brief discussion of how and why our present cultural context has come to develop an unprecedented Western receptivity to the East].
Important References: Moore, F. F., History of World Religions (Edinburg, T. & T. Clark); Powkes, John, Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, 1999); Eliade, Mircea, The Encyclopedia of Religion (NY: Macmillian, 1995), 16 volumes in 8 books; Melton, J. G., and Baumann, M., Eds., Encyclopedia of World Religions, 2002; Nos, J. B., A History of the World Religions (NY: Macmillian, 2003 Rev. Ed.); Van Voorst, R. E., Anthology of World Religious Scriptures (Wadworth, 2003); Finegan, Jack, The Archaeology of World Religions: The Background of Primitivism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Islam, and Sikhism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965)
Some Useful Bibliographical Aids:
Barrow, John Graves, A Bibliography of Bibliographies in Religion (
Berkowitz, Morris I., and Johnson, J. Edmund, Social and Scientific Studies in Religion: A Bibliography (
DeGeorge, Richard T., A Guide to Philosophical Bibliography and Research (NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts).
Higgens, Charles L., The Bibliography of Philosophy (
Index to Religious and Periodical Literature
International Bibliography of the History of Religions
Mitros, Joseph F., Religions: A Select Classified Bibliography (
Philosophy Abstracts (
Plott, John C., and Mays, Paul D., Sarva-Darsana-Sangrah: A Bibliographical Guide to the Global History of Philosophy (
Religious Index I (American Theological Library Association).
Religious Index II (Biannual).
Religious Periodicals Index
Religious and Theological Abstracts (Quarterly).
Scripta Recenter Edita: International Current Bibliography of Books Published in the Fields of Philosophical and Theological Sciences (
The Shelf List of the Union Theological Seminary Library in
Social Sciences and Religion Periodical Index
Theological and Religious Index
International Bibliography of the History of Religions
II. The East in the Post-Christian West (
The most significant work which traces the origin and development of contemporary post modern themes is Carl A. Raschke’s The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and The Origins of The New Religious Consciousness (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980). This work is not just a description of post modern phenomena, but rather a probe into the historical origins of the so-called “new religious consciousness” (see also C. Glock and R. Bellah, The Religious Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976) and the constant flow of articles in the journal, Scientific Study of Religion). For our immediate purposes we must forego all but the most modest sketch of the contributing historical factors. The “new religions” and their psychotherapeutic surrogates are the final cresting waves of forces that have been at work in Western intellectual culture for the past two hundred years (c. 18th century pantheism, i.e., Romanticism, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, et al. Note the emphasis on self-realization in much contemporary counselling (see E.B. Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).
1. Formation of Royal Asiatic Society (late 18th century) and various Oriental and Sanskrit societies helped recover classical Indian culture, restore Indian temples, etc.
2. Classical Religious literature translated - Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East; Davids & Davids’ translation of the Buddhist Pali Canon.
3. Eastern apologists, e.g. Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), father of Modern India; Ramakrishna (1836-1886); his disciple Swami Vivekenanda (1863-1902) --combined preaching and social action -- found fame overnight at the first Parliament on World Religions in Chicago, 1893 where he declared "We accept all religions as True." Influenced many Americans and Europeans, notably Aldous Huxley. 19th century origin of Theosophy (Hinduism + Buddhism + Occult)
4. The East comes to
5. Influence brings Eastern Scriptures into vogue: e.g. Bhagavad Gita, the Rig Veda, the Ramayana, the Pali Canon, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
6. Eastern Explosion in the Post-Christian West. Beatles brought TM to the West in early 1960's (Transcendental Meditation: Yoga therapy based on Hindu philosophy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who studied physics at
7. Western Cultural Receptivity to the East.
A. Suspicion of dogma -- need for understanding in a nuclear age and loss of cultural sense of absolute authority in the realm of religious truth and morality. Eastern religions generally, and Hinduism in particular, are able in a remarkable way to absorb practically any other religion and reinterpret it in Eastern terms.
B. Disillusion with Rationalism: Contrast the extremes of scientific rationalism which tends to dehumanize men to the level of a biochemical machine. The revolt against reason (also Romanticism - Blake, Coleridge, Wordworth, et al) is revealed by the great emphasis on experience, irrationality, and absurdity (cf. Theater of the Absurd). Transcendentalists substituted nature instead of God as the wellspring of divine inspiration (see Perry Miller, ed., The Transcendentalists: An Anthology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press); esp. W.E. Channing’s “Likeness to God;” J.S. Judah, The History and Philosophy of The Metaphysical Movements in America (Philadelphia: Westminster); Leslie Bullock; note the relationship of the cult explosion in the 19th century and the post modern revolution in the 20th/21st centuries. Eastern thought is antagonistic at its roots to the methodology of scientific enquiry e.g. exploitation of nature. Thus the origin of the revival of interest in mysticism. Western scientific technology has reached an existential terminus.
C. Disillusion with Materialism: Christianity has always insisted that material benefits alone are inadequate to satisfy men's needs. In Western society the Christian Church seems as acquisitive as everybody else. In the East it is possible to find a religion that emphasizes the need to discover internal contentment which is independent of "things."
D. Appeal of Positive Aspects/Correctives in Eastern Thought: Emphasis on quiet/stillness contra the hectic rush of modern society; importance of man’s spiritual aspect; benefits of exercise and concentrated focus/control of the mind; importance of connectedness vs. isolationism/ individualism; experience vs. mere theory, etc.
III. ALAN KEIGHTLEY’S AQUARIAN EAST
Having traced some salient points from the East we are now ready to see in Keightley’s book what basically amounts to a popular representation of All that is East (page references are to Into Every Life a Little Zen Must Fall (London: A Wisdom East-West Book, 1986).
A. AN OPINION-FREE ZONE?
Keightley contrasts his "worldview" from others like Christianity and materialism which have definite views about the world. “The Tao man... does not have fixed ideas about the world. He sees the true status of ideas... he does not mistake the conceptual description of the world with the world itself” (ibid, p. 167). “Christianity has definite ideas about what is there to be seen,” whereas the “transformed and enlightened consciousness... reveals what is there free of all opinions about what should be there” (ibid). Lets look at an abbreviated list of claims from Keightley’s book to see if he succeeds. Keightley claims:
The world is non-dual/ undifferentiated (p. 165)
The materiality of the world is illusory (p.152)
There are no things in the world (p. 70)
The ego is unreal (p. 161)
There are no separate events (p. 70; cf. non-dual/Unity)
There is no good or evil (p. 134; = unity in the One)
Suffering/evil/cancer are not really tragic (p. 133)
Cause/effect, positive/negative are unreal
Time is an illusion (pp. 39. 119, 164)
End of Science (171)
No History (p. 140)
Life is purposeless (p. 66), etc.
Certainly the above list seems to contain definite ideas, definite views, about the world, controversial views! And doctrines. What is the reader to make of this apparent conflict? Compare the following definitions with the above list. Does this shoe not fit?
Doctrine: 1: Teaching, instruction. 2: Something that is taught b: A principle position or the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or belief.
Doctrinal: Of, relating to, or preoccupied with doctrine: dogmatic.
Doctrinaire: One who attempts to put into effect an abstract doctrine or theory with little or no regard for the practical difficulties.
Dogma: Something held as an established opinion; esp. a definite authoritative tenet b: A code of such tenets (pedagogical) c: A point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds.
There is nothing in these definitions which cannot be reasonably applied to Keightley’s controversial list of views. Contemporary philosophy insists there is no uninterpreted experience, and it is with the interpretation of mystical experience rather than with the experience that we get into trouble. By mystical experience we are referring to what in the context of the East is described as union with Brahman (there are many other views expressed by mystics which are quite non-Eastern, a matter we will return to momentarily). In the Eastern view
“It is not at all unusual for Western students of Eastern philosophy, particularly beginners, to assume that while Western philosophy is hidebound by the inflexible logical laws, Eastern philosophy is quite refreshingly free of such constraint... This is just not so and we must scotch this misunderstanding at the very beginning of our inquiry. All systems of thought, Eastern and Western, must be conceived and expressed in terms of the logical laws... This point has been belabored because there has been and continues to be a great deal of sentimental and fuzzy thinking about religious questions and particularly about Eastern religious philosophy. Nor is this a simple minded denial of the nonrational dimensions of our experience, for we are all aware of the richness and depth of experiences of beauty and love and also dread of the demonic... any attempt to reflect upon the experience, and later to articulate it to another must draw upon symbols – mental, verbal, or visual – which must always possess their own identity. Certainly, the beauty and mystery of the nonrational will remain as a major part of the content of our human experiences, but if we ever desire to think or speak about these experiences, it must be within the framework of the logical laws. No other course is possible for the intellect - East or West” (Mountcastle, William W. Jr., Religion in Planetary Perspective: A Philosophy of Comparative Religion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), pp. 36f.).
Keightley’s enterprise of taking the items listed above seriously and extrapolating them systematically commits the error of reification. His attempts to “eff the ineffable” go beyond the legitimate role of pointing others to a “transformation which is inexpressible” to the affirmation of a complex worldview which must be systematically applied across the board to every other area of human thought and existence (Death of history, Death of time, Death of science, Death of good and evil, etc.). But are not these matters within the realm of duality? Does not the reality of the Absolute negate all polarities? Only within the context of the experience of
It is for this reason that, at least in the halls of academia the idea that anything in our short list of Keightley’s views could even possibly be “free of all opinions” is just plain silly (the same is true of his claim to advocate a “religion of no religion.” etc. Such claims are simply oxymoronic).
B. FROM MYSTICISM TO MYSTICISMS: THE PROBLEM OF PLURALISM
There is another problem for Keightley’s “opinion free zone,” even more devastating than the above considerations: pluralism. Mystics include in their number theists, atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and even materialists! "Attempts to define mystical experience have been as diversified and as conflicting as attempts to interpret and assess its significance. This is not surprising, for the language used to express and describe mystical experience is richly paradoxical, figurative, and poetical. Even if at times a mystic chooses what looks like austere and precise metaphysical terms, this may be only an apparent concession to logic, for he will employ these terms in senses far from normal. Mystics... have affirmed simultaneously that the world is identical with God and that the world is not identical with God... Although we can call mystical experience a kind of religious experience, we do not discover agreement among mystics about the nature and status of the mystical goal. Christian and Islamic mysticism, for example, interpret the experience theistically... the Upanishads and Theravada Buddhism are not theistic. Pantheist, monist, and agnostic interpretations have been offered, all with some prima facie plausibility... Still more perplexingly, some mystics of great eminence speak the languages of both pantheism and theism. Eckhardt's writings give full-blooded examples of each, as do those of the Indian mystic Sankara. Even in the Upanishads, although Brahman is said to be beyond relation, featureless, unthinkable, it (or he) is acknowledged to have personal aspects" (Hepburn, ibid).
Classical Christian Mysticism has a rich heritage from the Patristic Age onwards. St. Gregory of Nyssa, the Pseudo Dionysius, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Theresa of Avilla, Hugh, Richard, and Walter of St. Victor, St. Francis of Assisi, Joachim of Floris, St. John of the Cross, St. Bonaventure, St. Gertrude, Meister Eckhardt (though his writings tended towards neo-Platonism and heresy, his disciple Suso defended his orthodoxy; there are modern defenders of this thesis as well, e.g. Copplestone, F., History of Philosophy Vol 3, pp. 181ff.), Henry Suso, Tauler, Ruysbroeck, St. Catherine of Sienna, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, John Gerson, Denis the Carthusian, St Catherine of Genoa, St. Catherine of Bologna, Thomas a Kempis, just for starters form one collective challenge (one among many other collective challenges!) to any monolithic view of mysticism as having only one “authentic” or “correct” interpretation, New Age (Keightley) or otherwise. We’ll look at one example in brief before moving on to see how this can play out conceptually.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), the most widely respected holy man of the 12th century, was a theistic mystic who “believed that in the mystical experience the soul is emptied and wholly lost in God, but he did not conceive this an actual union with the Godhead. The soul and God remain distinct in substance, although they are joined by the “glue of love. Through man’s love flowing up to God and through the downward movement of God’s grace the two become united. Bernard combined this intense mysticism with great powers of leadership” (Smart, Ninian, “Mysticism, History of,” in Edwards, Paul, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (NY: MacMillian, 1967), Vol 5, pp..425-426).
These examples raise a difficult question for Keightley. Is there something somehow epistemologically, experientially, or otherwise deficient in the vast diversity of non-pantheistic mysticisms which differ so significantly from Keightley’s? Keightley simply does not address this problem. On reading Keightley one would never know any other interpretation of mysticism than the one he presents even exists! The extreme diversity of interpretations of ineffable mystical experiences throughout history reveal a pluralism less certain than the experiences themselves. While mystical experiences can be seen to be perennial, no philosophy attached to them are. (Huxley's Perennial Philosophy thesis is untenable (Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy (NY: Harper. 1945). How experiences which cxperiences m.transcends our own individual being rather than the end of a syllogism, research program, or even any and al. Compare also Spencer,
What are we to conclude from this? As Hepburn affirms, "It is better to believe the mystical affirmation that the experience is ineffable and that all language falsifies it. We would now have a mysticism without theology. A very high value could still be placed on mystical experience, but one should be reverently agnostic on all questions of interpretation" (Hepburn, Ronald W., “Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of” in Edwards, Paul, Ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (NY: MacMillian, 1967), Vol 5, p 430). It is important to note that this is not merely a modern philosophical viewpoint concerning mysticism: Buddha himself taught the path to nirvana but adamantly refused to answer any question about deities or the nature of a life hereafter. Hepburn, “Mysticism,” p. 429. Cf also Kung, Hans, Does God Exist (NY: Random House, 1981).
Additionally, it is demonstrably that a historiography of mysticism reveals truth claims by mystics contain an immense horizontal, culture-bound, time-bound historical dimension. The origins and influences of their descriptions, are always suspiciously earthly. These remarks are not mean to disparage or deny mystical experience per se, only the logical enterprise of converting experience into conceptual absolutisms (which often paradoxically deny their conceptual nature). Mystics who become dogmatic and absolutistic about what their experience implies universally invariably look to the earth (philosophy/religion/history/ culture), rather than the “heaven” when it comes time to describe what they have “intuited.”
Epistemologically, the ideal of a Perennial Philosophy remains elusive as long as the question of how religious experiences which cannot be expressed in language or concepts can be known by anyone to be identical remains unanswered. Historically we do not have a Perennial Philosophy, but philosophies. he answers we are given are diverse. nswerable expressed in lnaguage No pantheisms, monisms, agnosticisms, atheisms, theisms, or any other –isms can be established as an apodictic, indubitable certainty via mystical encounter with the ineffable alone. To be taken seriously, justification of these kinds of positions must take place on other grounds. Two alternatives: Sheer Silence or mere symbolism of mysticism (cf. John Cage, Autobiography of Silence, etc.).
C. ZEN & THE ART OF NEUROSCIENCE: MYSTICISM AS A "GLORIOUS ILLUSION"
A recent revolution has occurred in the neurosciences has direct implications for our subject. New brain scanning technologies are allowing detailed investigation of mental processes in realtime in ways unimaginable just a brief time ago utilizing fMRI, fNMR, CT, PET, NIRS, MEG, multi-modal imaging, etc. These technologies can literally watch neurons firing millisecond by millisecond as their pathways whip rapidly back and forth across the brain. We see which modules turn on and off during a variety of cognitive conditions and are able to understand these processes on a level which is exponentially above anything done even a decade ago. As Rita Carter explains, “The latest brain scans reveal our thoughts, moods and memories as clearly as an X-ray reveals our bones. We can watch peoples brains light up –literally– in one area when they register a joke and
glow dully in another area when they recall an unhappy memory. We can see fear being generated, measure the degree of pleasure or surprise felt in response to a statement, and watch language areas sparkling as they grapple with new words” (Carter, Rita, Mapping the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999; Cf. also Restak, Richard, The New Brain (NY: Rodale, 2003). Brains that display various types of personality traits also process things in different ways that are showing up on functional scans. Examples include extremities and tendencies of obsession, depression, hot-headedness, kindness, humor, expertise, genius, forgetfulness, addiction, heartlessness, extroversion, altruism, and many others. In the picture above, the brain on the left displays significant reduction of activity in the frontal lobes (at the top) and other areas. It’s owner is a murderer. The activity pattern turns out to be very specific and typical of violent criminals. Areas associated with restraint of impulses, areas which referee between emotional and intellectual signals when they disagree, are weak in the violent brain. (Although we are drifting from our course, it is worth a pause to imagine what might happen if we could cause the “dead” areas of the murderer’s brain to come “alive” again. Our imagination is now reality. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) can stimulate, inhibit, turn off and/or turn on incredibly specific areas of the brain. This technique can permanently alter brain function. States of mind, behavior, and even personality are now considered almost entirely malleable).
Among a host of other applications, these new methodologies have been applied to the study of states of transcendental consciousness in subjects including advanced Tibetan monk practitioners and others (Newberg, Andrew, Why God Won’t Go Away (Ballantine Books, 2000); Persinger, M. A., “Vectoral Cerebral Hemisphericity as Differential Sources for the Sensed Presence, Mystical Experiences, and Religious Conversions,” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993; cf. Carter, Rita, Exploring Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002). The experience of higher consciousness, it turns out, has specific biological correlates. Newberg’s study of Tibetan monks showed (1) Some results which are common to relaxed states in general (unusually calm amygdala, increased hypothalamic dampening of the central nervous system/fight or flight mechanism/ inhibition of sensory input, and reduced metabolism). (2) Some differences specific to the transcendental state including “changes that indicated prolonged orientation (fixation on a particular target, the “what is it” reflex. “Holding orientation on a single, not very interesting thing, like a mantra is unnatural, and it usually takes a lot of practice to achieve” Exploring Consciousness, p. 284); an increase in frontal lobe activity (up to 20 percent, especially right frontal), and a startling decrease in parietal activation. We will quote Rita Carter’s account of what is going on in the brain during meditation at some length, after which we will return to her personal account of her own Experience, for before she began writing about the neurosciences she was a practicing Buddhist who experienced transcendental consciousness personally. But first, her account of the brain mechanisms during meditation:
“Normally, attention is rarely so narrow and focused that we 'lose ourselves' in its target entirely. Even when we are absorbed by something (and fail to hear someone addressing us), the body maps which monitor our physical boundaries keep humming, so the concept of the physical self is maintained, however faintly. In meditation, however, the cranking up of prefrontal activity through prolonged orienting may be so extreme that even this concept is lost as the brain area responsible for it closes down. As a result even the unconscious recognition of one's physical boundaries might disappear.
“Without the normal conceptual boundary the sense of self usually contained by it bleeds outwards, like vapor, to incorporate everything. So instead of seeing the world from 'inside' the person feels that they see it from all sides. They are everywhere and nowhere - and instead of being separated from everything else they feel they are it.
“At first, in focused meditation there is a 'target' perception to merge with, but after a while meditators report that even this single 'blip' of content disappears.
“This is not, actually, surprising because attending to a single object means that a small subset of neurons fire in a characteristic pattern for much longer than normal. As a result the neurotransmitters which seep out of their axons and keep the electrical activity going become depleted. So gradually their firing rate diminishes until it drops below that required for consciousness. This process is known as habituation.
“Yet now we have an odd situation. The brain has been coerced into shutting off its usual generation of perceptions by saturating its consciousness with a single object. And now the object has disappeared. It would follow - given the vacuum-abhorrent nature of the brain - that the competing stimuli which were previously kept out by the target would now flood back into consciousness. Yet they do not,
“What seems to happen in meditation, then, is that the frontal brain areas that are normally busy turning first-level representations of objects into higher-level, conscious representations, are dissociated from the brain areas that create the low-level representations. The knowledge is still in the brain (Newberg's scans showed quite high activity in the primary sensory cortices) but consciousness does not - if you like - 'embrace' them.
“The physical concept of self is, as we have seen, already inactive due to parietal shutdown. In addition, the disconnection between the front and back of the brain disrupts the feedback that produces the normal sense of ownership. And the system that produces a sensation of agency is brought to a standstill by physical and mental stillness. (You have to move - externally or internally - in order to generate thoughts and actions, and meditation techniques inhibit movement.)
“Sensory stimuli therefore no longer has a self to own it. Although it is present in the brain it floats there as a micro-consciousness - available for action should it be required, but not experienced in the normal consciousness-with-self way, so the individual does not sense it to be part of their consciousness, even though it could be argued that it is, in itself, conscious.
“Now, normally there would be no consciousness in this state, because unowned consciousness does not have a subject to be conscious of it. Attention therefore has nothing to lock on to and 'amplify' to consciousness. In meditation, however, the attention mechanism remains on, and in the absence of other things to illuminate it, it latches on - if you like - to its own workings. In other words, 'pure' consciousness is not exactly consciousness of nothing but consciousness of consciousness - the brain listening to itself.
“This conclusion is, of course, very similar to the one arrived at by meditators themselves. Except that they would say it was mind listening to mind rather than brain listening to brain” (Carter, Rita, Exploring Consciousness (
It is particularly fascinating hear Rita Carter contrast this modern scientific viewpoint (mystical experience is brain listening to brain) with the view of the Tibetan meditators since she as a practicing Buddhist experienced Mystical Union herself on multiple occasions: “The first occurred, unsurprisingly, during meditation. There were a few years when, fancying myself treading the path of enlightenment, I sat down twice a day and intoned a mantra for 20 minutes in the hope of replacing my usual cacophony of thoughts with quiet inner peace. And one day it happened. Five or so minutes into my usual routine I felt what I can only describe as a sensation of falling, quite swiftly upwards. My body felt light, as though some weighty cloak had been removed from it, and I was aware of entering an infinitely vast, luminous space that was, paradoxically, also velvety blackness. The last of a train of thoughts bubbled up, out and away and, for once no more followed. The very noting of what was happening also evaporated, and my mind –for the first time ever, as far as I know- felt utterly silent. I know in retrospect that I spent 15 minutes in this state, but to describe it from within is impossible because ‘I’ in the sense that ‘I’ usually experience myself, was not there. There was no sense of time passing, and, although I am tempted to use the word bliss, there was no emotion of the usual sort and certainly no visceral ‘thrill.’ In fact I was not aware of my body at all, nor of being in a particular location. All there was, it seemed, was awareness itself.” (Exploring Consciousness, p. 279). In the photo on the previous page, the boy holding mirrors creates the illusion of infinity by the way two mirrors and the camera are positioned. Could mystical experience be a similar kind of cognitive illusion? At the very minimum it at least might be! “The materialist explanation of these types of experience is that they give a no more ‘true’ view of reality than any other state, just a rather unusual one. The meaning-ladenness of spiritual experience therefore suggests that it is more rather than less illusory than normal – the opposite of the traditional Eastern idea. I have absolutely no idea which of these explanations is true. The awesome ‘knowing’ I felt when I personally experienced altered consciousness is now long gone, and I am inclined to assume (though no longer with utter certainty) that it was just a glorious illusion rather than a glimpse of some sublime reality beyond the material” (Exploring Consciousness, p. 281).
Alan Keightley maintains that transcendental mysticism intuits the only One Reality against all else including the material world is illusory en toto. These claims are simply not as certain as they are made to sound by Keightley. It has been urged that mystical experience alone, however profound, cannot establish the burden of such a claim in the 21st century. Justification of mysticism is incomplete unless it can be augmented on other grounds. Yet for Keightley there are no other grounds by definition! Mystical Ground is affirmed by Keightley to be the only Single, True, Reality. From where else then can he “ground” or augment his argument? From where else can he find justification to urge that alternative interpretations are false?? For him there is nowhere else, nothing else, that is Real, therefore he has nowhere else to turn. Indeed there literally is no where and there are no things according to Keightley. There is a strong neurobiological basis to think that at least the possibility of a physical explanation of mystical experience is valid. Alan Keightley presents a highly complex worldview which must be systematically applied across the board to every other area of human thought and existence (Death of history, Death of time, Death of science, Death of good and evil, etc.). There can by definition be no good reason to think that Keightley’s absolute certainty is a better option than Rita Carter’s uncertainty (or e.g. Bernard’s theism etc.) Was his experience “better” than hers or countless other mystics who have not taken the conceptual road he has?
Materialistic, agnostic, atheistic, and theistic mystics do have other grounds to argue their worldview/epistemological claims for none of these categories deny there is or might be a real world where something real does or could exist, where real arguments might exist (so do some pantheists & panentheists whose arguments go beyond experience alone). Without a real world, Keightley has no real arguments; and his Experience, however real it may indeed be, is insufficient for the burden that he places upon it. He is adrift without a boat or a sea or an ocean, or a world. He has nowhere to stand, and his claims have no standing. He uses logic to deny logic, duality to deny duality, he communicates with language to illustrate the futility of language to communicate anything real (“...Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!” (Alice, in Lewis Caroll’s, Through the Looking Glass); he proclaims the death of history while making sure the reader is impressed by his academic history, he publishes books in a world where there are no things, he purposes to demonstrate there is no purpose, he considers Western philosophy mostly false and Eastern philosophy mostly true though he denies the reality of truth. Keightley is a living oxymoron.
Do not be mislead here. Keightley is not merely saying there is an experiential Realm that is beyond logic, duality, language, history, time, etc He is claiming on the basis of Experience that it is impossible that these things have real existence anywhere! Once again, in no way should any of our statements be taken to deny or demean his (or anyone else’s) mystical experiences themselves, or the idea that life is larger than logic (one would be hard pressed to find a serious contemporary thinker who would deny this. Keightley’s implications to the contrary are nothing more than a straw man argument. The same nonsensical claim saturates much contemporary New Age literature. No one has argued this since the gradual but eventual death of the
E. THE SEDUCTION OF RATIONALISM
Many mystics, though by no means all, fall into this enticing temptation, the seduction of rationalism, to come up with a “theory of everything.” Pantheistic Monism in the final analysis is not a mystically intuited essence of the world as it “really is,” but just another instance of what Eliade calls “the need felt by human reason to unify the real through knowledge” (Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return or Cosmos as History (Princeton University Press, 1971), p. 155). Their thematizations are invariably sociologically/historically/ philosophically/linguistically time-bound. Furthermore there is a great deal within this and similar systems of thought that is pervasive among all societies/cultures/religions (except Christianity – see Eliade), e.g. cyclic history, eternal return, etc. –this is not an indication of truthfulness (= logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum) but an indication that this is a very human way of thinking about the world, experience or no. Similarities of Keightley’s though with that of the pre-Socratics (whose cosmological speculations were driven by a similar desire to reduce the multiplicity of the universe to unity and discovering the nature of ultimate reality) is not an accident: both are at the bottom a product of reasoned reflection about the world, not intuited experience (at best the attempt is to closely mirror intuited experience. Historically this attempt leads to pluralism). Similar reflections abound in philosophy, particularly concerning the ontology of being developed purely by an exercise of the intellect with no claims to experience. It is at least suspicious that a great deal of this kind of thinking came from non-mystic persons who arrived at the position (with greater and lesser degrees of coherence, complexity, and etc.) from the rationalist tendencies mystics insist will lead us nowhere. In the final analysis, Keightley’s doctrines are simply human, all too human.
F. SIMPLE SYMMETRY?
Some people are attracted to pantheism by sheer virtue of it’s symmetry, and simplicity. If it cannot be derived from experience, might it not be the philosophy of choice by virtue of reason? But the simplicity of pantheism is only apparent, e.g. rationalistic pantheism can be seen to contain the infinity paradox: If God has infinite capacity to create, can He create a reality other than Himself? If not, his capacity to create is finite; what was claimed to be infinite is limited. If yes, the door swings open to theism. Multiplication of similar examples are beyond our context. Suffice it to say that the philosophical pantheist can never sure whether their bailing with buckets can exceed the travails of the holes in the bottom of the boat (cf. Copplestone, History of Philosophy), 9 vols.
G. ASLAN IS TASH, TASH IS ASLAN
“Aslan is Tash, Tash is Aslan.” These words appear on the coversheet to this paper and are an excellent illustration of the Keightley/Watts view of religion. What do they mean? They come from the final episode of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, The Last Battle, where Shift the Ape bamboozles the beasts into equating Tash, the devilish deity who is one of Narnia’s enemies, with Aslan, the Christ-like lion whom the Narnians love. Says Shift, “Tash is only another name for Aslan... Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know who... Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan, Aslan is Tash.” The name “Tashlan” is later coined to confirm the identity. But when Tash and Aslan appear, embodying ferocious cruelty and lordly love, respectively, it becomes plain that they are distinct—and as different as can be.
What Lewis’ story reflects is his view of the attempts of liberal theologians of his day to assimilate the world’s religions and religiosities into each other. As in the twilight all cats are grey, so at the dawn of the twenty-first century many still claim that all religions must be substantially the same, however different their outward forms. This claim is, however, in its final agonies of death taken as a whole.
Trajectories in Comparative religion for some time sought to combat claims that any religion is unique and synthesize/syncretize all religions into a non-dogmatic whole from S. Radhakrishnan’s Eastern Religions and Western Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1940, 2nd Ed.) to W. E Hocking’s The Coming World Civilization (NY: Harper, 1956) until Robert L. Slater, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions proclaimed the attempt dead on arrival (Slater, R. L., World Religions and World Community (NY: Columbia University Press, 1963): “Slater notes that the early widely held belief that all the great religions are essentially the same has given way to a suspicion that they may really be quite irreconcilable... He adopts the notion [of]... neither displacement nor synthesis but a rediscovery in each religion of what is most essential” (Mountcastle, William W., Religion in Planetary Perspective: A Philosophy of Comparative Religion (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), pp. 34-35; cf. pp. 21-42).
The religionsgeschichte (“history of religions”) school is a reflection of this attitude of taking each religion in its own terms: “Unlike the approach which seeks to reduce all experience and reality to a few basic ingredients or principles, this newer perspective strives to grasp a given reality in its own terms, in its own uniqueness, and in its own context. Basic similarities are not stressed at the expense of particularities or differences” (Eliade, Mircea, and Kitagawa, Joseph, Eds., The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology (
Although in the halls of academia syncretism is sickly and virtually dead, it is very much alive and well in the New Age movement and a good deal of Eastern philosophy (primarily pantheistic/monistic varieties which are philosophically committed to the unity of all things including all things religious as a first principle). Like the Borg of Star Trek fame such thinkers are convinced they must assimilate all which lay in their path and proclaim “Aslan is Tash; Tash is Aslan!” “Jesus is our Savior/Avatar!”
Easterners telling Christians their Bible and their Savior “really” teach Buddhism, Hinduism, etc (“rightly understood;” Watts and Keightley both do this continually) are as absurd in their own unique way as a Christian would be in claiming to find the discovery of DNA, the television, microwaves, and the bicycle predicted in the book of Revelation.
In the view of John Hick, who wrote the introduction to Keightley’s book, the syncretic impulse collapses into an uncritical reductionism at best, and deception/ propaganda at worst. Hick affirms an irreconcilable difference between Eastern and biblical religious claims and emphasizes the dishonesty of trying to homogenize them (especially, according to Hick, regarding three basic teachings: A. Creation/Creator distinction; B. The spirit of total malignant cosmic evil; and C. The uniqueness of Christ).
Keightley exemplifies the uncritical syncretistic trend. Jesus is replaced by an Aquarian Cosmic Christ who experienced enlightenment with the pantheistic Unity and really (yes, really!) taught nothing else. One encounters this eisegetical malaise ad nauseum in the New Age movement as a whole, yet when one reads the author is a “philosopher,” images in the mind are conjured of critical acumen, logic, ability to intelligently separate fact from opinion and fallacy from validity. This impression would be wrong. Like a host of self-styled “Aquarians,” (cf. references to “the Aquarian frontier” (p. 23), “Aquarius the bringer of water in a parched and dying wasteland” (p. 20) etc. and the glowing references to arch-Aquarian Marilyn Ferguson (Cf. Ferguson, Marilyn, The Aquarian Conspiracy (London, 1982), the bible of New Age Pantheism), Keightley affirms that what is important about Jesus is his “state of consciousness.” (Keightley, p. 32. Cf. also Arild Romarheim. The Aquarian Christ. Jesus Christ as Portrayed by New Religious Movements, (Hong Kong: Good Tiding, 1992) and R. Rhodes. The Counterfeit Christ of the New Age Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990). His Personhood, says Keightley, is unimportant. Reverencing the person of Jesus is a “potentially alienating experience” which transmutes Jesus into “a religious freak” by putting him on a religious pedestal, distracting seekers from seeking the same “higher consciousness” he discovered (Keightley, p, 32). To those skeptical of the modern “Aquarian” remolding of Jesus it might seem unusual that, 2000 years after the fact the real and only import of Jesus is his realization of a “higher consciousness” though neither Jesus nor any of his earliest followers are anywhere recorded to affirm any such thing. His personhood according to Keightley is irrelevant, though both Jesus, his earliest followers and virtually all Christians throughout the centuries affirmed precisely the contrary. We have returned to “Schliermacher’s well,” where Keightley as a theologian is peering down the deep well to find a glimpse of the “real Jesus,” only to mistake his own reflection in the water at the bottom of the well for the image of the Savior. As for most Aquarian/”New Age” interpreters of Jesus a lack of real evidence gives him no pause. Jesus is about higher consciousness and nothing else about him matters.
The Bible is by far the most analyzed book in human history. Biblical scholarship of all varieties expends enormous, painstaking research in philology, rhetorical analysis, hermeneutics, sociological, historical, and philosophical backgrounds, textual criticism, historical criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, etc.; one could write several paragraphs just listing the sub-disciplines! The conclusions range from radical to conservative, yet it is unheard of in our century to merely pontificate about who Jesus was, what he sought to teach, and what the biblical text says with utterly no attention to context with the exception of one group of interpreters, all of the Eastern/ New Age variety. In this sense, Alan Keightley does not disappoint (perhaps it is more accurate to say he does disappoint). No informed reader will take him seriously.
Note: other writers have attempted to place the gnostic view of Jesus which emerged in the second century AD on an equal plane with the NT documents thus arriving at a view of Jesus commensurate with New Age/Eastern views. As this issue has not been raised by Keightley it will no be investigated here, though the present author has dealt with it extensively elsewhere. A very solid beginning for critique of that thesis can be found in the still unsurpassed work by Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston: Mellen Press, 1988). The discerning reader will also note the impact of the structure of Religious Studies departments in the contemporary University setting on the increase of religious biases from an Easterly direction (too seldom noted or discussed) on the academic interpretation of Christianity and Biblical Criticism, etc.
H. HOW IS KEIGHTLEY’S PHILOSOPHY CHRISTIAN?
“A Christian philosopher looks to Alan Watts and the East” is the subtitle of Alan Keightley’s book Into Every Life a Little Zen Must Fall (London: A Wisdom East-West Book, 1986). Conceptually and philosophically there is nothing in Keightley’s book that is not Eastern or remolded entirely to fit Eastern views. Given the author’s self reference to himself as being a “Christian philosopher” is not unreasonable for a Christian reader to ask what kind of Christianity Keightley affirms. As a Christian, Keightley is by his own admission at best a cracked one:
“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to. Cracks start to appear in the shell of their known world. My own shell cracked at eighteen while reading a book by the theologian Paul Tillich. It has cracked several times since then... The Christian shell has broken for many people in our lifetime; there’s nobody here but us chickens” (Into Every Life, p. 11).
We will turn briefly to Tillich’s influence upon Keightley in the next section. Whatever may be found of Tillich here is in any case not the primary influence. He is, however the only self-designated “Christian” who seems to have any influence on Keightley’s discussion. Tillich’s Christianity is far from the traditional variety, but not as far as Keightley’s. Although Keightley calls himself a Christian philosopher the informed reader will find the concepts presented to be exclusively Eastern (including his use of Wittgenstein). He never bothers to explain why or how he uses the term Christian to describe either himself or his philosophy. Most Christian readers will likely conclude that his claim to be Christian is at the very best in some way symbolic (perhaps in some Tillichian-sense? Since Keightley also uses Ludwig Wittgenstein as a touchstone, it is fair to point out that he is being very un-Wittgensteinian in calling himself “Christian.” Rare indeed is the Christian who uses the term Christian in the sense intended by Keightley.). This is also true, for example, of Keightley’s view of Christ as an avatar/yogi. Judgment will have to be left up to the reader.
I. THEOLOGIAN OF SYMBOL
The reference to the late Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the famous “theologian of symbol,” is telling; it is not surprising to find a few Tillichian views emerge, with little modification throughout the book. One key Tillichian theme resurfaces in Keightley and Alan Watts: “Symbol and myth are two of the most important categories in Tillich’s thought. He rejects all literalistic interpretation of the biblical witness. The ultimate cannot be expressed directly, Tillich emphasizes, because the infinite is beyond the finite, and every infinite picture we use can be employed only analogically and symbolically (this would be true only if such analogies are demonstrably equivocal analogies). But he also rejects any reference to a particular Christian doctrine as ‘only a symbol.’ Symbol and myth are the highest forms of religious speech, and a true symbol participates in the reality which it symbolizes. As such, a symbol becomes a bearer of revelation; a self-manifestation of the infinite” (Marty, Martin, and Peerman, Dean, Eds., A Handbook of Christian Theologians (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p. 496).
For Tillich, Christian theology in toto is symbolic in that it claims to be a formulation of faith. Christ is understood as a symbol, and “faith” is man’s attempt to assert that the unconditional, i.e. God, cannot be expressed in conditioned language. Symbols do not provide us with objective knowledge; they point to reality. Phenomenological, Tillich’s God is “ultimate concern;” Christ points man to his “ultimate concern.” We cannot here give more than passing attention to Tillich’s views (Cf. especially Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1967); The Shaking of the Foundations (1947); The Courage to Be (1952); The Religious Situation (1956); The New Being (1955); Dynamics of Faith (1957); etc.) other than to note that some indebtedness is there (cf. also Watts). The emphasis on symbolism and analogy will be familiar to the reader familiar with Alan Watts and can be seen in Keightley as well.
In any event the viewpoint that all biblical material is at bottom symbolic analogy of religious experience (especially if it is claimed such experience reduces to mysticism!) is considerably difficult to square with the confrontational nature of Yahweh in scripture. Eastern mystics are diametrically opposed to St. Thomas Aquinas’ insistence that the prophets were acted upon rather than acting (this does not entail they were utterly passive; cf. the “Princeton Theologian” view of congruence, etc.). Exegesis lends support to Aquinas. It is the rule rather than the exception in the Bible that God’s followers invariably end up doing what they not only least want to do, but doing what would be quite inconceivable aside from God’s command for them to do. Abraham, for example was told to sacrifice his son, not the kind of thing one would just make up at the drop of a hat merely to explain one’s concept of God, or ala
Many authors from Feurebach (theology is reducible to anthropology) to Tillich (religion is analogizing/symbolizing) have viewed Jewish and Christian portrayals of God as mere human symbolizing; the Bible itself speaks of such a process, but bequeaths to it a different term: idolatry. Biblically only God can reveal God. He is personal and transcends our own individual being, presuppositions, syllogisms, research programs, or even any and all experience of Him.
J. CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY AND THE EAST: PIVOTAL CONTRASTS
1. Creation -- Genesis 1-3. Christian view of creation of both time and matter are opposed to both classical Greek and Hindu thought. Greeks viewed physical universe as a world of shadow, less real and less knowable the unattainable transcendent ideal which was beyond knowledge. The Bible presents the only cosmology prior to Einstein which affirmed the absolute origin of the universe ex nihilo (“out of nothing.” One interesting exception was a controversial mention in the ancient 47 century old
Yet after big bang cosmology the position for the first time has universal viability. Non-Biblical cosmologies affirmed the eternality of matter, or eternal cycles, or both (cf. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (
Why? Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brilliant observation explains why all intellectual and religious positions other than Christianity avoid the idea like the plague (or, pre-Christian, never conceive of it in the first place): Creation comes from void. If man tries to philosophize beginning, it is never anything other than ground of being. In the biblical revelation of creation God himself speaks. Man’s speaking of a beginning would be to speak a lie. No question can penetrate behind God’s creating. No one can speak of the beginning except the one who was at the beginning. We cannot speak of the beginning. We can conceive of it if at all only temporally, but creation was freedom. Only from Christ, says Bonhoeffer, can we know the beginning.
The doctrine of creation emphasized the distinction between creature and Creator, the dependence of creation on God, and the goodness of creation. Creation ex-nihilo was not explicitly affirmed until Maccabean times. It is affirmed explicitly in the book of Hebrews, and is clear implication of creation by word in Genesis. Eastern thought denies this distinction between creature and Creator and thereby the doctrine of creation. The enticement is similar to the ontological enticement in philosophy and is primarily a rationalization (despite claims of some mystics to the contrary all thematizations of mystical experience are sociologically/historically/philosophically/linguistically time-bound, and relativized by mystics who provide contradictory cosmologies).
For example, ontology seeks to analyze immovable structures of reality; being itself is non-historical by definition; ontology speaks of being-itself as the ground of all which exists and the one substance from which everything is made; ontology affirms the identity of the infinite with the finite; ontology affirms the center of all finite being as “being without limit;” the depersonalization of ultimate reality in stating being as behind all multifarious expressions of reality, the swallowing into Itself the Logos who became flesh into the Universal Logos, the extended generalization of everything to the destruction of individuation, particularity, and personality, and consequently ethics which are dependant on the appeal to individual persons to decide ethically, the absorption of good and evil into a unitary principle, everything. Revelational theology opposes these ontological considerations at every turn. This is why Pascal was led to exclaim “Not the God of the philosophers, but the Living God of Abraham! The God of Isaac! The God of Jacob!”
Reference to creation in the New Testament is considerable; one cannot dispense with the doctrine of creation without discarding the Creator-Redeemer; Christ will ultimately suffer the same fate as the doctrine of creation.
It is worth noting that a god reduced to the status of nature, as in the pantheistic equation "God = nature" would be facing a rather serious cosmological problem: entropy! Since the usable energy of the physical universe is running down (via heat death), it would seem that the god of pantheism is headed for paralysis.
2. Time -- Ephesians 3:11. The Bible affirms linear time and a historical view of reality. All other religions/cultures/societies affirmed cyclical time. Christianity alone affirmed linear time (see Eliade). All modern historians who affirm linear time are borrowing from Christianity, but without God the loan is now coming due (historicisms find meaning in events only in their realization –“it happened that way.” Relativism is the result, which leads to nihilism, and to despair of the “terror of history,” for as Heidegger realized, man had no hope of transcending time/history because his being is historical & time-bound (from Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 147-154).
Eliade further affirms that “Christianity is the ‘religion’ of modern man and historical man, of the man who simultaneously discovered personal freedom and continuous time (in place of cyclical time)... Basically the horizon of archetypes and repetition cannot be transcended with impunity unless we accept a philosophy of freedom that does not exclude God. And indeed this proved to be true when the horizon of archetypes and repetition was transcended, for the first time, by Judeo Christianism... In fact it is only by presupposing the existence of God that he conquers, on the one hand, freedom (which guarantees him autonomy in a universe governed by laws or, in other words, the ‘inauguration’ of a mode of being that is new and unique in the universe) and, on the other hand, the certainty that historical tragedies have a transhistorical meaning, even if that meaning is not always visible for humanity in its present condition. Any other situation of modern man leads, in the end to despair. It is a despair provoked not by his own human existentiality, but by his presence in a historical universe in which almost the whole of mankind lives prey to a continual terror (even if not always conscious of it).” (Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History (
The Bible clearly presents God as timeless (Jude 25: pro. panto.j tou/ aivw/noj: “before all time”); 2 Tim 1:9; Titus 1:2; Col 1:17: "before time began"; cf. Eph 3:21; Is 44:6; Rev 1:8, 21:6; 22:13 (note: contra the attempted reduction of eternity to “time without end,” see Hans Kung’s rebuttal in Justification (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1981), pp. 285-301). God answered Abraham's servant's prayer "before I had finished praying in my heart" (Gen 24:45). God's omnipresence indicates his immanence within time (He is not restricted from time); His transcendence is such that time is not a necessary attribute of His being). The biblical God is neither wholly other or wholly immanent, but rather transcendent/immanent
All post modern/Asian religions hold that time is an illusion. Man’s time sense engenders a conception of periodicity (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9), which is essential if historical events are to be significant and ultimately purposeful. (See T.S. Eliot’s examination of time as a motionless point at the hub of the revolving wheel of life: “At the still point of the turning world.” This is the “eternal now” of the mystical vision of life (“Burnt Norton”). If time is unreal, then history is unreal, and historical purpose/progress is an illusion. The consequences of the denial of the reality of time entails the rejection of finite creation (= time/space matrix), thus, the influence of Eastern cosmic humanism in the West. Compare J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress and M. Elide, The Myth of the Eternal Return; cf. 19th century historicism, relativism, sociology of knowledge, and radical post modern contextualization. Contemporary post modern Gnosticism is just as opposed to historical events as bearers of our salvation (cross/resurrection, etc.) as was classical Hellenistic and Judaic Gnosticism. History is thus a place of terror where only our shamanism can free us from our temporal bondage (cf. compare Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism). This is why, as Schlossberg wrote, "Eastern mystics... devalue history, regarding events as particularities in which they have no interest and instead preferring to contemplate the unity from which they believe the particularities derive their meaning. That is why as G. K. Chesterton said, it is fitting that the Buddha be pictured with his eyes closed; there is nothing important to see."
If “time and history” are unreal, then historical/psychological evil, suffering and death are unreal. If this trinity is unreal, then the Christian Gospel of salvation from sin and death is nonsense, i.e., illusions caused by dependence on our senses.
The death of time is also death to science (the reader will recall that Keightley hailed the end of science). As the brilliant physicist and historian/philosopher of science Stanley Jaki observes, “The consequences of such a position [death of time] are disastrous not only for ethics, but equally so for the meaning and interpretation of scientific laws, since these must aim at discovering persistent patterns in things and among things. This is why when one tries to answer in a meaningful way the question on continuity through time, one has to steer a middle course between the monism of Parmenides and Spinoza and the strict pluralism of logical atomism espoused by not a few modern philosophers. Over such rigid extremes, common sense ultimately prevails…” (Jaki,
K. OTHER PIVOTAL CONTRASTS
3. Sin -- II Corinthians 5:l7f; Acts ; Hebrews ; I John.
4. Jesus Christ -- I Peter 1:20; John l:lff; Colossians ; Lk. 24:44ff; I Cor -6.
5. The Scriptures -- II Timothy 3:16.
6. Prayer and Meditation -- Matthew 6:9-13; Psalms 1:2; 63:5-8; 119:15, 97.
7. Salvation -- (e.g. Eastern Re-incarnation).
L. SELECT RESOURCES ON THE NEW AGE MOVEMENT:
Bloom, William, The New Age: An Anthology of Essential Writings (London: Rider, 1991).
A Catholic Response to the New Age Phenomenon Irish Theological Commission, 1994; cf. also John Paul II, Encyclical letter Fides et Ratio (
Benjamin Creme. The Reappearance of Christ and the Masters of Wisdom (
Matthew Fox. The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).
Glock, C, and Bellah, R., The Religious Consciousness (Berkeley: Univ of Calif, 1976)
Hanegraaff, Walter, New Age Religion and Western Culture. Esotericism in the Mirror of Nature (New York: Brill, 1996). Extensive bibliography.
Heelas, Paul, The New Age Movement. The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).
“The New Age Movement in
Maranatha Community The True and the False New Age: Introductory Ecumenical Notes (Manchester: Maranatha, 1993).
Melton, J. Gordon, New Age Encyclopedia (Detroit: Gale Research,1990).
Miller, Elliot, A Crash Course in the New Age (Eastbourne: Monarch, 1989).
Moore, R. Laurence, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1977).
Pelphrey, Brendan, “I said, You are Gods. Orthodox Christian Theosis and Deification in the New Religiou Movements” in Spirituality East and West, Easter 2000 (No. 13).
Raschke, Carl A., The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and The Origins of The New Religious Consciousness (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1980). Excellent.
Stark, Rodney, and Bainbridge, William S., The Future of Religion. Secularisation, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
Sutcliffe, Steven and Bowman,
Schur, Edwin, The Awareness Trap. Self-Absorption Instead of Social Change (New York: McGraw Hill, 1977).