The following paper was given at the ‘Light Within’
conference of the Chesterton Institute in Houston in 1999, and appears
in the February 2000 issue of The
Chesterton Review, which is devoted to the theme of the conference,
namely the issues raised for Christians by some aspects of the New Age
Ever since the days of Madame Blavatsky (which
were also the days of Chesterton’s youth), there have been various attempts
made to assimilate Christianity to one or other model of ‘world religions’,
from the fantasies of the Theosophical Society itself through Jungian
and transpersonal psychology to the sociology of religious experience. As others have noted, something
very similar has been going on throughout history, starting with the
mythological systems of Gnosticism in the first and second centuries.
Yet authentic Christianity has always resisted such assimiliation;
for at its heart is something irreducible, unassimilable and essential.
We are called at this time in history, this
millenial moment, to a very challenging work of discernment. The cultural crisis that we are
living through is unprecedented, although hardly unpredicted. It fits quite well the traditional
descriptions of the ‘Last Times’ or the end of the Kali Yuga. The very evidence that was the basis
in the last century of the optimistic Victorian myth of progress and
cultural evolution can be read in an exactly opposite sense, as evidence
of a degeneration that can only end in barbarism.
How are we to read the signs of the times aright, and what is
to be our response? These
are questions that the New Age movement poses to us.
In this paper I want to begin by taking a brief look at two of
the more notable modern assimilationist movements, one quite crude and
the other extremely subtle, and in response to attempt with Chesterton’s
help a sketch of what it is that makes Christianity a ‘sign of contradiction’.
The United Religions
I will begin with an article by Cornelia R.
Ferreira that was published in the January 1999 edition of Homiletic
and Pastoral Review, entitled ‘The One-World Church Emerges’. This article directs the attention
of Catholics to the imminent establishment (in June 2000) of a global
organization called the United Religions - a kind of more ambitious
successor to the failed World Council of Churches. The UR was devised as an equivalent
to the United Nations by such figures as Bishop William Swing of the
Episcopal Diocese of California, and is supported by the Gorbachev Foundation,
the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the World Congress of Faiths
and the Temple of Understanding.
It is to be a ‘permanent gathering center where the world’s religions
engage in daily prayer, dialogue, and action for the good of all life
on this earth’, where they will make peace among themselves and ‘work
together for the healing of the earth’.
The Draft Charter of the
UR includes such statements as the following.
‘We respect the uniqueness of each religion and faith tradition,
value voices that value others, and believe that our shared values can
lead us to act for the good of all.’
‘We unite to support freedom of religion and belief and the rights
of all individuals, as set forth in international law, and to witness
together to the wondrous spirit of life which embraces all our diversity.’
‘We unite to celebrate the joy of blessings and the light of
wisdom in both movement and stillness.’ ‘Religion is concerned with the
relationship of human beings with their spiritual Origin.
We believe in the universality and eternity of the Spirit.
We believe that all religions derive their wisdom from that ultimate
Source. Therefore, the
religions of the world share in common wisdom, which can be obscured
by differences in religious concepts and practices.’
It is hard to object to
many of the sentiments expressed here.
But a few questions might possibly suggest themselves to someone
of a suspicious and dogmatic turn of mind. For example, by uniting in support
of a politically negotiated list of human rights, do not the signatories
of this Charter forfeit their right to judge the secular world
and the entire political order in the name of divine law?
What if these basic human rights guaranteed by ‘international
law’ turn out to contain the ‘right’ to an abortion, to a genetically
engineered child or to homosexual marriage?
Secondly, does not the mention of the obscurity brought
about by ‘differences in religious concepts and practices’ suggest that
what is really being encouraged here is a bland ‘common denominator’
wisdom, rather than the ‘uniqueness of each religion and faith tradition’
that the Charter professes to respect?
Cornelia Ferreira certainly
takes a dim view of the Charter and the organization it represents. She sees it as in direct continuity
with the aim of the early New Age leader Alice Bailey for a ‘Church
Universal’, a union of occultism, Masonry and Christianity, which Bailey
predicted would begin to emerge at the end of the (twentieth) century. Ferreira ends her article by quoting
her trump card, Cardinal Ratzinger (from a 1989 interview in 30 Days
magazine). Ratzinger says
that the Church should not join meetings of world religions on the theme
of peace because the Church ‘should not transform herself into a sort
of political peace movement, in which the achievement of everlasting
world peace would become her reason for existing’. In other words, the Church must
not be made a means to an end - certainly not a worldly end. Ferreira adds that in her view war
is a product not of religious differences at all, but of sin
and injustice. Uniting
the religions will therefore not bring peace: it will only dilute the
one true Faith that can foster the justice that could being peace. The velvet glove of the UR, she believes, clothes the iron
claw of the Antichrist, whose aim is to destroy Catholicism, preferably
by mere indifferentism, but if necessary by violence against those he
will soon enough brand ‘fundamentalists’ (and later perhaps ‘terrorists’?)
for obstructing the greater good of world peace.
Unfortunately for those
who might wish to go along with her, Ferreira spoils her case by the
slipshod way she convicts by innuendo and association. Everyone who has ever said anything
polite, let alone enthusiastic, about the UR’s aim of promoting peace
through dialogue is guilty either by association or naivety, including
Mother Teresa, Cardinal Arinze, Cardinal Etchegeray and by implication
the Pope. (Arinze, by the way, is quoted as
denying his support for the UR, but because he does not simply
condemn it outright he is still regarded as culpable.) The Vatican is castigated for hosting
the Assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace in 1994,
because it included speeches by Gustavo Gutierrez and Hans Kung. Milan’s Cardinal Martini, who was
one of the speakers on that occasion, is crudely labelled a ‘friend
of Masonry and supporter of women’s ordination and married priests’.
The Focolare Movement which helped to organize the meeting (Chiara
Lubich is Honorary President of the WCRP) is dismissed with the one
Even more seriously, perhaps,
Ferreira claims a close link between the UR and the Gorbachev Foundation
set up in San Francisco’s expensive Presidio district. Gorbachev’s own brains trust, the
‘State of the World Forum’, reflects the influence of Hans Kung and
his so-called ‘Global Ethic’.
This Ethic consists in a set of politically correct values on
which the world religions are expected soon to agree, including the
idea that the ecological crisis can be solved by cutting the world’s
population ‘by 90%’ (according to the published summary of one Forum
meeting). Ferreira draws attention to the
close and well-known association of many UN and UN-style initiatives
with the International Planned Parenthood lobby. Less well substantiated references
to ‘Masonic funding’, and long lists of speakers and attendees including
Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Matthew Fox, Shirley
MacLaine, Sonia Gandhi and Vaclav Havel, all further contribute to the
impression that here is a genuine and dangerous conspiracy by world
leaders and financiers to prepare the reign of the Antichrist by means
of a syncretistic and pantheistic pseudo-religion.
Ferreira’s style is well displayed when she writes that ‘thanks
to the carefully staged “death of Communism” [this phrase is in sneer
quotes], Gorbachev, operating in the world’s chief anti-Communist country,
brazenly organizes Western leaders in fine-tuning the universal socialist
state.’ The finance for all this is coming,
she believes, from leading Capitalists such as George Soros and the
what are we to make of all this?
The tone is alarmist, the tone is that of propaganda rather than
reasoned argument. Nevertheless, the dangers of well-funded,
syncretistic attempts to co-opt the world religions in the interests
of world government seem to be real enough. Certain links with New Age spirituality and leading New Age
writers are also clear. Ferreira might have mentioned in
this connection the World Wide Fund for Nature, and its equally ‘brazen’
and manipulative attempts to engineer an alliance of world religions
in support of ecological causes. On the other hand, I happen to believe
that the ecological cause is a good one, even a vital one - as is the
cause of world peace and inter-faith dialogue. Am I a dupe of the Antichrist because
I am convinced that the Pope has struck the right balance here, and
is engaged in his own delicate attempt to ‘co-opt’ the valid intuitions
and intentions of the New Age, without compromising the Catholic tradition? At the inter-religious prayer meeting
in Assisi in 1986, he made his position quite clear in his welcoming
address: ‘The fact that
we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious
consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions
can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly
project which would surpass them all.
Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because
every human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience
with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth.’ The intention, he said in his concluding
address, was to pray and witness before the world, ‘each according to
his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace’, a transcendence
based simply on the universal ‘inner imperative of the moral conscience’
and on the acknowledgment that ‘its source and realization is to be
sought in that Reality beyond all of us.’ ‘I humbly repeat here my own conviction,’
he added: ‘peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.’
Now I want to examine another, more subtle
perspective than Ferreira’s, which is also highly critical of the New
Age, but which raises a different set of problems for the Christian
reader. I will be quoting
(with the author’s permission) from an unpublished manuscript called
The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and
the New Age by Charles Upton, an American-born Muslim and dervish
of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order.
Upton’s book examines each of the major streams of contemporary
New Age teaching, and refutes them in the name of a perennial metaphysics
which he believes throws light on all the major religions – though not
to the point of superseding their own essential doctrines.
(As he readily admits, the maintenance of this distinction is
a whole spiritual labour in itself, fraught with pitfalls; for any explicit
formulation of a transcendent truth separate from the formulations which
are the world religions themselves can be misused by those with
an interest in undermining those religions.)
Taking his cue from the title of a book by the late Frithjof
Schuon, Upton calls this approach ‘the transcendent unity of religions’. It must be distinguished from any attempt to create a new world
religion or even a common metaphysical doctrine. The unity claimed here is ‘transcendental’ in the sense that
it lies through and within the religions of the world.
Upton writes: ‘The false
ecumenism of Neo-Pagan, New Age culture is the seed-bed for that “world
fusion spirituality” in which fragments of every spiritual tradition
are promiscuously thrown together, to their mutual corruption.
True ecumenism on the other hand - the outer expression of the
“esoteric ecumenism” of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, which understands
the very uniqueness and particularity of the authentic religious traditions
as the transcendent basis for their unity - is not a syncretistic amalgam
or a diplomatic glossing-over of doctrinal differences, but a united
front against a common enemy: that unholy alliance of scientism, magical
materialism, idolatry of the psyche and postmodern nihilism which is
headed, with all deliberate speed, toward the system of Antichrist.’
Upton defines the polarization
we have already seen between the exponents of the ‘United Religions’
and their critics, such as Cornelia Ferreira, as the manifestation of
a conflict between ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ (Rev. 20:7-8).
The one side exalts the immanence of God at the expense of his
transcendence, the other his transcendence at the expense of his immanence. The one expresses itself in what
he calls ‘the universalism of the global elites’; the other in ‘the
violent self-assertion of the fundamentalist “tribes” oppressed and
marginalized by those elites’. ‘If all possible alternatives to the struggle between globalism
and tribalism disappear from the collective mind, then Antichrist has
won. He can use economic and political
globalism and the universalism of a “world fusion spirituality” to subvert
and oppress all integral religions and religious cultures, forcing them
to narrow their focus and violate the fullness of their own traditions
in reaction against it. He
can drive them to bigoted and terroristic excesses which will make them
seem barbaric and outdated in the eyes of those wavering between a global
and a tribal identification, and set them at each other’s throats at
the same time. Unite to
oppress; divide and conquer.’
In Upton’s analysis, someone
like Cornelia Ferreira would fit into the ‘tribalist’ camp, reacting
against the postmodern globalism which threatens the integrity of her
tradition. What he proposes instead is a ‘middle
path, or third force’. Religions can come together, ‘not by virtue of their relative
comparability, but on the ground of their incomparable uniqueness’. On the one hand, the widely-observed
fact ‘that the doctrines of all religions become more and more alike
as their respective mystical centres are approached’ proves the reality
of a common Origin, while the fact that the doctrines of the religions
‘never actually meet this side of the Absolute’ proves that ‘this Origin
is truly transcendent, and entirely beyond conception’ (for example,
Ibn Arabi remains quintessentially Muslim, Eckhart thoroughly Christian).
Upton agrees with Ferreira that the United Religions is a ploy
by the Antichrist to destroy the essence of true religion. But he claims there is an alternative ecumenism which
is based precisely on the integrity and uniqueness of each faith which
is threatened here - threatened by the attempt to merge them together
and subordinate them to a common purpose.
Upton’s esoteric ecumenism
is made more plausible by the demonstration by modern scholars such
as the Dominican theologian J.A. DiNoia[i] that the apparent doctrinal contradictions
of one religion by another are often nothing of the sort: the goal and
methods of Buddhism are so different from those of Christianity, for
example, that to apply a common language to them (salvation, liberation,
etc.) is to distort our understanding of both. For Upton these are paths up the
same mountain, not totally different mountains; but while a climber
on the north face and a climber on the south face of Everest are both
travelling upwards, their journeys and their experience may have very
little else in common. Furthermore, a map of the north
face would be of little help to a climber on the south, and vice versa. Even the view of the surrounding
scenery from each side is very different.
Charles Upton’s perspective
is by no means a simplistic New Age one.
He analyses and carefully demolishes the whole range of New Age
proposals from Carlos Castaneda to the Course in Miracles. Just as firmly as Cornelia
Ferreira, he argues that we are up against the Antichrist.
But whereas she states flatly, ‘In the eyes of God, only Catholicism
is authentic’, Upton believes that all the great world religions
are from God. For Ferreira,
Upton must probably be regarded as a particularly dangerous New Ager. From his own perspective, he is
simply a Muslim: a practising believer, and a mystic who respects the
integrity and value of every religion. It is worth taking a few more minutes to get to the bottom
of this difference.
The Return to Metaphysics
The ‘perennial metaphysics’ which Upton refers
to has been expounded by a group of writers in our century called the
from Frithjof Schuon - a Swiss Muslim who chose to live in Bloomington,
Indiana, and became increasingly (and somewhat bizarrely) involved with
the North American Indians before his death in 1998 - the leading figures
of this group are (or were) former Occultist René Guénon (who was a
convert from Catholicism to Islam), and the distinguished Hindu scholar
Ananda Coomaraswamy. One of the best known living representatives
is Seyyed Hossein Nasr at Georgetown University, whose Gifford Lectures
under the title Knowledge and the Sacred form a valuable introduction
to this perspective. There are (I should note in passing) close links between this
group of largely non-Christian authors and the decidedly unecumenical
followers of Archbishop Lefèbvre - an apparent paradox explained by
the fact that both subordinate the authority of the Pope and bishops
to the authority of Tradition, and both reject the tendency of the modern
magisterium to accommodate perspectives derived from the Enlightenment
and the Reformation.
The writings of the Traditionalists
transcend any single religious exotericism, while insisting that such
forms can be transcended only from within: each revealed religion remains
unique and precious in all its details, and must be accepted and practised
as the condition for spiritual realization.
Ananda Coomaraswamy exerted a strong influence on the craftsman
and writer Eric Gill and later Thomas Merton, while T.S. Eliot wrote
of Frithjof Schuon’s first book: ‘I have met with no more impressive
work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religion.’
The English Thomist writer Bernard Kelly, a contemporary of Gill’s,
wrote of another work by Schuon (Spiritual Perspectives and Human
Facts): ‘The book has a fullness of light which we have no right
to find in the twentieth century, or perhaps any other century.’ To Kelly, Schuon’s approach seemed
to hold out the hope of a genuine dialogue with the Oriental or Asian
cultures at their most profound level: ‘Neither the nineteenth century
nor our own possesses a philosophical language able to render metaphysical
truth with precision. The
attempt to find words for exact metaphysical terms has baffled the translators
of St Thomas no less than of the Upanishads. There is however a difference, for
while the translators of St Thomas may be presumed to have one traditional
intellectual discipline at their fingertips, the translators of the
Upanishads who needed to have two generally had neither.
It has been said, with some justice, that they appear to have
taken their philosophical language from the newspapers.
The Hindu texts are not the cause of confusion, but the occasion
for its display.’ He goes on to say that while this
fact was demonstrated in an incomparable way by Coomaraswamy, the necessary
‘common metaphysical language’ was developed primarily by Guénon and
Schuon. The three figures
taken together - and notwithstanding what Kelly already perceived as
their failure to appreciate certain key teachings of Christianity (a
point I will take up below) - have played a key role in reopening the
‘luminous eye’ of each tradition ‘towards the source of its light’. They are ‘situated far above the
syncretism of an Aldous Huxley or a Gerald Heard’.
In recent years, these same
writers have continued to have a growing influence on religious studies
at both the popular and the academic level, through such figures as
Alan Watts, Huston Smith, Jacob Needleman and Ken Wilber. I myself was brought by these writers
to the point of conversion to Christianity. As I understand it, the Traditionalists are what used to be
called (in the Middle Ages) ‘realists’, as opposed to ‘nominalists’. They believe in the reality
of the universals, which for most of modern thought are no more substantial
than verbal labels attached to the truly real things, that is,
individual, material substances. Charles Upton writes: ‘The Platonic
Ideas or Names of God are often thought of as abstract categories, partly
due to the fact that, on the plane of language, the most particular
images are necessarity the most sensual. Language anchors our sense of the particular to the sensual
level; the words we must use for higher-than-sensual realities become
more and more abstract as we ascend the Great Chain of Being. This, however, is not true of the realities themselves: a Platonic
Idea is not an abstract category, in other words, but a higher level
of particularity.’ In other words, ‘Ideas are not pale
abstractions but higher orders of particularity, realities which are
more concrete than matter, not less’.
This gives us the key to
a great deal of what the Traditionalists say both about the modern world
and about other religions, but it also establishes a serious basis for
conversation with the Catholic tradition. For this aspect of their thought
is not some weird form of Sufi Gnosticism; it is in fact something very
close, in some ways, to Catholic orthodoxy. Here I will invoke G.K. Chesterton.
Read, for example, his wonderful account of the realists vs
the nominalists in his book William Blake (published two
years after Orthodoxy, in 1910).
‘Metaphysics must be avoided,’ he begins; ‘they are too exciting.
But the root of the matter can be pretty well made plain by one
word. The whole difference
is between the old meaning and the new meaning of the word “realist”. In modern fiction and science a Realist means a man who begins
at the outside of a thing:... In the twelfth century a Realist meant
exactly the opposite; it meant a man who began at the inside of a thing....
If he saw an elephant he would not say in the modern style, “I see before
me a combination of the tusks of a wild boar in unnatural development,
of the long nose of the tapir needlessly elongated, of the tail of the
cow unusually insufficient,” and so on.
He would merely see an essence of elephant. He would believe that this light
and fugitive elephant of an instant, as dancing and fleeting as the
May-fly in May, was nevertheless the shadow of an eternal elephant,
conceived and created by God. When you have quite realized this
ancient sense in the reality of an elephant, go back and read William
Blake’s poems about animals, as, for instance, about the lamb and about
the tiger. You will see
quite clearly that he is talking of an eternal tiger, who rages and
rejoices for ever in the sight of God.... He meant that there really
is behind the universe an eternal image called the Lamb, of which all
living lambs are merely the copies or the approximation.
He held that eternal innocence to be an actual and even an awful
thing’ (pp. 136-41). ‘All his animals are as absolute
as the animals on a shield of heraldry.
His lambs are of unsullied silver, his lions are of flaming gold.
His lion may lie down with his lamb, but he will never really
mix with him’ (pp. 135-6).
There is no doubt that Chesterton
is speaking here out of the same profound metaphysical intuition as
Plato and St Thomas. (We recognize it also in our century
in the writings of the Inklings: I think immediately of The Place
of the Lion by Charles Williams.) This does not mean, however, that
Chesterton’s metaphysics can simply be identified with that of the Traditionalists. Where he parts company with them
is over the interpretation of the Asian religious traditions. They read these in terms of the
same universal metaphysics, albeit somewhat differently expressed. He by contrast tends to dismiss
them as so many forms of ‘Oriental pessimism’.
Now it has to be said that Chesterton’s knowledge of the East
was slight. The Traditionalists,
I suspect, are more reliable as guides to the inner meaning of Indian
or Chinese religions. Nevertheless,
in the hands of Chesterton, even caricatures can suggest a profound
truth. In this case, whatever one thinks
of the carelessness with which he dismisses whole civilizations, the
fact is that his remarks do reveal a fundamental truth about Christianity. It seems to me that this truth points
to Christianity as in some sense transcending even the so-called ‘transcendent
unity’ of religions, and this brings me to the heart of what I am trying
to say in the present paper.
The Scandal of the Incarnation
The admittedly heretical Blake, says Chesterton,
‘was on the side of historic Christianity on the fundamental question
on which it confronts the East; the idea that personality is the glory
of the universe and not its shame; that creation is higher than evolution,
because it is more personal; that pardon is higher than Nemesis, because
it is more personal; that the forgiveness of sins is essential to the
communion of saints; and the resurrection of the body to the life everlasting’
(p. 209). The truth at issue here is the Christian
emphasis on personality, which derives ultimately from the mystery
of the Incarnation and the revelation of God as Trinitarian love.
The Incarnation has always been hard to take: a ‘scandal’ to
the Greeks - that is, to Gnostics and to the followers of other religions
alike. The Christian emphasis on a particular
man of flesh and blood, his gruesome death and empty tomb - unless interpreted
as a purely symbolic narrative - strikes them as absurd or even unwholesome.
Yet it is this emphasis on the physical Incarnation that is the
foundation of all Christian mysticism.
I am convinced that the non-Christian Traditionalists, even despite
their sensitivity to the different ‘languages’ of grace, do not take
this all-important fact sufficiently seriously.
Right from the start, of
course, the Jewish religion attributed great importance to history.
It was after all founded on history: the Covenant and its periodic
renewal; the liberation from slavery in Egypt; the giving of the Law
through Moses. The Jews also believed that history
would come to a conclusion: the restoration of David’s kingdom
by the Messiah. For Christians, the life of Jesus
of Nazareth was the continuation, and the beginning of the fulfilment,
of Israel’s long history. The precise Christian claim is easy
to state, but difficult to grasp: that Jesus, who was the long-awaited
Messiah, was a human being, a man, but also God: a divine Person, the
Second Person of the Trinity. In him, the Creator of the cosmos
became (and will eternally remain) a man of flesh and blood like us. ‘The Christian is immersed in wonder
at this paradox, the latest of an infinite series, all magnified with
gratitude in the language of the liturgy: the immense accepts limitation;
a Virgin gives birth; through death, he who is life conquers death forever;
in the heights of heaven, a human body is seated at the right hand of
the Father’ (John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, 1995, n. 10).
The paradox is scandalous
because it means that Jesus is more than any Jewish prophet; more than
(to use the Indian term) an ‘Avatar’ or Manifestation of God. The Supreme Reality has not merely
revealed itself on earth as though in a mirror, but has stepped, like
Alice through the Looking Glass, inside the very world of the
mirror. This simple fact
changes our destiny. Our highest aspiration is no longer
to be liberated from the body in order to merge our particular spirit
with the universal Spirit. There
is now a higher destiny than nirvana: it is ‘salvation’, the
Beatific Vision, the marriage of heaven and earth. When the Church Fathers wrote that
‘God became man so that man might become God’, they did not mean that
we will one day awaken to the fact that we were God all along.
They meant that we are not God, but may become so: God
by grace not by nature. Once divinized through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the
divine nature in which we share remains undivided, and yet we remain
eternally distinct from every other person, whether human or divine.
Losing ourselves in the contemplation of the Beloved, we receive
an eternal identity in the Communion of Saints.
Notice in particular how,
if the cosmic relationship of Self and Other, of Subject and Object,
is to be transcended, as Asian religions and the New Age believe, ‘eternal
life’ must consist of extinction - the extinction of a raindrop in the
ocean. This is a unity
of absorption: the Lover is absorbed into the Beloved. But at that point love itself comes
to an end: loves turns out to have been merely a longing for unity with
God, which is now satisfied. There
is no Lover any more: only the Beloved, who contains everything that
was of any value in the Lover.
But while a Christian may agree that duality - the separation
of Self and Other - is not the end of the story, he knows a happier
ending than the one proposed by Asia.
The Incarnation has revealed a distinction within the Godhead
between Father, Son and Spirit. The message is that Lover and Beloved can ‘live happily ever
after’. Love does not merge with the Self
into the Other, but preserves them in relationship. In place of the unity of absorption,
Christianity places a mystery of unity without confusion, and proclaims
that love need never come to an end (1 Cor.13:8). Our relationships are the most important
things about us; love is the way, the only way, to enter into eternal
A Christian Gnosis
This, then, is my attempt to formulate as succinctly
as possible the uniqueness of Christianity among the world religions. It is a position that I came to only after I had been baptized
(as an adult) into the Church, and had dropped my allegiance to the
Traditionalist writers under the influence of Newman, Chesterton, Hans
Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II. I have tried to develop it in more
theological depth elsewhere,[ii] arguing that the true uniqueness
of Christianity is denied by Traditionalists even as they claim to value
every religion in its own sacred particularity. The question seems to come down
to this: does metaphysics transcend theology, or theology transcend
metaphysics? Of all modern Catholic authors,
it is Balthasar who seems most to have thought through this question,
and for him the answer is clear.
Whereas for Schuon and company, intellectual intuition must transcend
theology - as it transcends all human words, and indeed the formal realm
per se - for Balthasar and those who follow him, the Christian
faith must transform the very first principles of metaphysics. Without it, the highest principle we can know is undoubtedly
Unity, the One - or else the Unknown which transcends the One in silence. With faith, however, that One has
revealed itself as Trinity, and the inner life of the Unknown itself
is made known, not in human words but in the language of God himself
(which we do not grasp but which grasps us), as an eternal Love beyond
both compassion and desire. The failure to receive this truth
in faith leads the Traditionalist authors to a distorted understanding
of Christianity, as they try to fit it to the Procrustean bed of a universal
metaphysics that the Christian revelation transcends.
We are challenged by our
religious leaders to a ‘new evangelization’: to find new ways of presenting
this vision and of opening others to its reality.
We must ask ourselves, why does the truth does not radiate to
so many of our contemporaries? In this final section of the paper
I want to address that question. And it seems to me that the challenge
is increasingly similar, as many others have said, to that faced by
Christians in the late days of the Roman Empire. Despite all the changes of historical
circumstance between then and now, despite the fact that a Christian
civilization has since flowered, corrupted on the branch and fallen,
forgetfulness of the faith is now so great and so widespread that it
is almost like being once more at the beginning. The Roman tyranny was no less tolerant
and pluralistic, no less diverse in the vices and fantasies it allowed
and encouraged, than our present hedonistic technocracy. In both civilizations, the most
attractive alternative to Christian belief is not, in fact, plain atheism,
but rather the mystery religions with their elite priesthood (which
today may pretend to be a scientific priesthood), and a Gnosticism that
promises secret initiations without humility.
In the Gnosticism of today,
like that of yesterday, the great scandal of creation is explained away
by emanation, or rather by the evolution of nature from itself. The teeming mythology of cosmic
spheres and powers which so fascinated the ancients ‘tried to make God
into a knowable object’ (as Balthasar says in his little book Does
Jesus Know Us?), as though the human mind could enfold the Absolute
and understand even itself. The
same mistake is repeated today by modern Gnostics from Madame Blavatsky
to Richard Dawkins. But in fact we are not able to see
so much as that in our own light. The light with which true sight
is possible, and in which we may see God and yet live, comes from elsewhere. There is another Gnosis, a Christian
Gnosis, quite contrary to the perennial heresy of Gnosticism. It was taught by Clement and Origen,
and by many other saints and mystics.
It is based on the fact, not that we discover God, but that God
reveals himself, and consequently it is bought only at a ‘price’
that too many are not prepared to pay, the price of a kind of humility,
a receptivity, too childlike for the ‘grown-ups’ that we have become.
For the New Age is always convinced that it has finally come
of age, when to grow old in cynicism is really to have departed
We speak about ‘blind faith’,
but faith is not blind; it has eyes. The Spirit that gives us faith opens
these eyes in order to reveal to us the spiritual form of Christ - first
of all in the saints, in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church,
and secondarily throughout the natural cosmos.
God’s light, says Balthasar, ‘which “shines in our hearts” (2
Cor. 4:6), shines so that we may know the Son; but it also shines through
him who makes the radiance of this light possible by dying in the world
God’s death of love and by purging through his atonement the darkness
in our hearts.’[iii] G.K. Chesterton, in The Defendant,
mentions General Gordon’s speculations as to the original site of Eden,
commenting: ‘Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.’ We know the Beatitude that the ‘pure in heart’ shall see God.
The eyes of Eden, the eyes that saw Paradise, and the eyes that
will see God, or that perhaps can see him even now in the world of men,
are the eyes of a pure heart, a heart not attached to anything but God,
a heart that loves him. (But purity is not the watchword
of this civilization.) Love, says Balthasar again, ‘is
the creative power of God himself which has been infused into man by
virtue of God’s Incarnation. This
is why, in the light of the divine ideas, love can read the world of
forms and, in particular, man correctly.
Outside of this light, man remains an incomprehensible and contradictory
hieroglyph. Cross and Resurrection, understood
as the love and glory of God, bleeding to death and forsaken, render
man decipherable’ (ibid, p. 424).
Balthasar calls faith born
of love a creative power. The implication seems to be that
the act of seeing truth correctly is akin to the act of creation. The true Christian Gnosis is not
simply an intuitive grasp of intellectual principles, of noetic contemplation. It follows the track of God as the
One who created the world of cosmic images and then became human within
it. It is creative, original, imaginative,
in its submission to reality.
The world of the soul is, after all, the world of memories and
sensory experience, not just the world of pure ideas.
It is this world that the Spirit of love penetrates, functioning
as a key to interpret the meaning of the cosmos.
The eye of the heart is open in the centre of the soul,
in the primary imagination, transforming it into an organ for perceiving
truth, interpreting symbols, recognizing divine intentions; capable,
therefore, of prophecy as well as poetry.
Many New Age groups begin
with the idea that the Christian Church lost, or suppressed, something
vital in the early centuries. This goes along with the claim to
have redicovered or preserved the missing or ‘esoteric’ dimension of
Christianity: to have discarded the dry husk for the kernel of living
truth. Professor Jacob
Needleman in his popular book Lost Christianity (Doubleday, 1980)
claims that the official guardians of Christianity have taught only
what Christ wanted us to do, but without transmitting the vital
intermediate teaching that would have given us the power to do
these things (to love one another, and so on). As a result, Christianity has been
reduced to the promulgation of moral rules impossible to obey, hardened
by a desperate stridency on one side, and softened by a vacant sentimentality
on the other. His own allegiance (somewhat disguised
in the book itself) is to the ‘work’ of the Middle Eastern teacher G.I.
Gurdjieff. Others who share
this view of Christianity have been caught up in something much less
intellectually interesting. But all the versions of Esoteric
Christianity seem to appeal to what C.S. Lewis (in The Weight of
Glory) called the human desire to be part of an ‘Inner Ring’: in
other words to a kind of spiritual snobbery, which is very much a Gnostic
trait. They also ignore something rather
important: the fact that what they claim to have found has never actually
been lost. It is called grace, and is
available through the sacraments of the Church.
If I may quote Balthasar
once more, ‘Even so truly a “Chuch of the People” as the Catholic Church
does not abolish genuine esotericism.
The secret path of the saints is never denied to one who is really
willing to follow it. But who in the crowd troubles himself over such a path?’[iv] In fact the New Age Gnostics are
quite correct: the ‘secret’ of Christianity, the secret path of the
saints, is indeed hidden.
But it is hidden by being placed precisely where it is likely
to be ignored and despised by those who not worthy of it: that is, in
broad daylight, under everyone’s nose. Such an ‘open’ secret will not appeal
to those who want to raise themselves above the common herd. [v] What makes it so impossible to
find, and to walk, is the fact that it involves a moral struggle before
the intellectual one. Every
step along the path of the saints requires humility.
The various alternatives base themselves on the opposite vice
– hence the almost tangible arrogance so evident in many of these groups.
With this I am at the end of what I want to
say. Chesterton once wrote
(in The Catholic Church and Conversion) that ‘Paganism was the
largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger; and everything
else has been comparatively small.’
The heart of Christianity is a mystery that is bigger than paganism.
It is not in conflict with the other religions; it is just bigger
than them. It includes
more truth. Christianity is not, ultimately,
assimilable. It cannot be assimilated to a set
of moral values, or subordinated to a ‘Global Ethic’. It cannot be assimilated to an aesthetic
myth, or a myth that embodies truth solely at the level of the imagination. It cannot be assimilated to psychology,
as though we could explain it as some kind of projection from the needs
of the psyche. Nor can
it be assimilated to a metaphysics of the Logos, of the one Truth which
shines at the heart of every created reality like sunshine in a cave
of mirrors. It can never be assimilated, with
the best of intentions, because Christ cannot be assimilated. In him, God has done something new
and different. Yet at the same time, aesthetics,
mythology, psychology and metaphysics are not left behind. I believe it is a task of the new
millennium to reintegrate these with Christianity.
Those who have been searching for them in the New Age discover
that Christ is the cornerstone of a structure that includes all these
things, just as he saves body and soul along with the intellect. Like Chesterton’s adventurer rediscovering the coast of England,
those of us who have discovered Christianity in this way see it as if
for the first time. Can
we yet find the words to make people realize that, for all their wisdom,
for all their knowledge of history and psychology and mythology and
philosophy, they have not yet understood the simplest thing about the
faith of the Church that has been preached to them for two thousand
Good news, Chesterton wrote in his notebook in the
but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path;
It is a door set open.
[i] See his The
Diversity of Religions: A Christian Perspective (Catholic University
of America Press, 1992).
a Deeper Ecumenism’, Sacred Web: A Journal of Tradition and Modernity,
4, forthcoming (publication address: Suite 1750-1111 West Georgia
Street, Vancouver, B.C. V6E 4M3, Cananda).
[iii] H.U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol.
1, ‘Seeing the Form’ (Ignatius Press and T&T Clark, 1982), pp.
156-7. My emphasis.
[iv] H.U. von
Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1, ‘Seeing the Form’
(Ignatius Press and T&T Clark, 1982), p. 34.