Thursday, March 22, 2007

God and Monism

Having finished with Anthony Bloom's Living Prayer, I've now moved on to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Prayer. I've had this book sitting on my shelf for about three years, and only now have mustered the resolve to read it. Having read a few books by von Balthasar in the past, my experience has been that some are written with pastoral intent and are fairly accessible while others are so intensly theological that I can only dimly comprehend them. This one is a mix of both, intensly theological but pastoral.

The section I came to today particularly touched on one of my theological interests, namely the ideas of immanence and transcendence. Divine immanence is very popular these days. Everyone wants to affirm the inherent divinity within all things. Transcendence has some play too, but only in the weaker sense of mystery. Traditional affirmations about God's otherness tend to be frowned upon in many circles as awkward artifacts of the "Old Man in the Sky" sort of theism.

All this is clearly true in popular culture, particularly among the "spiritual but not religious" crowd, but I've seen it also in somewhat more academic settings (see, for example, Paul Laughlin's Getting Oriented). The prevailing wisdom seems to be that mysticism reveals that the common root of all religion lies in the experience of the Divine Oneness of all things. When it is noted that Christian, Jewish and Muslim mystics nevertheless have (sometimes) affirmed God's otherness, this is dismissed as a product of dogma imposed on these thinkers from religious institutions and not part of their genuine experience.

But what if the traditional monotheistic teaching of God's otherness isn't just dogma? What if it is an essential part of the experience of monotheistic mystics? It seems to me that this is an immensely valuable gift that Western religions bring to the table of interreligious dialogue, and it is rejected out of hand, ironically, because it clashes with implicit dogmas of Eastern religions with regard to monism.

Christians are quite willing and able to incorporate ideas of divine immanence in creation in the strongest possible terms, and we can point to testimony about this deep and constant throughout our own traditions. Nevertheless, we also insist on divine transcendence, also in the strongest possible terms. It requires, I think, a dialectical understanding.

At this point, I must quote von Balthasar. He expresses the mystical insight of God's transcendence so well.
Every awareness of existence turns into a looking up to [God], a word addressed to him, a thought of him; every situation is clarified through being related to him. It is man's anguish and his glory, his weakness and his dignity, that he must and may relate himself to God in this way; he can only be himself through God, and he can never be God. He can only affirm himself, and only then his whole environment and his fellow creatures, by uttering the stupendous No and Yes which are built into the very foundations of his being; No, I am not God; Yes, I need God as my beginning and my end. No relative being is Being, but none is apart from Being and each exists in relation and as a pointer to Being.

This is the insight that monotheism offers. Following this, von Balthasar talks about the problem that comtemplation can only lead to the insight above. We can never reach God through comptemplation. And here he brings in the Christian scandal.
There was only one way out of this impasse, namely, that infinite, eternal Being should utter its own self in the form of a relative being.

Set as it is in the context of deep mystical insight, this statement highlights what I think is the most remarkable thing about Christianity. When popular culture looks at the Incarnation, it can only see it as a product of antiquated models of God-as-superbeing who can step into another form. But that's not the Christian teaching on the Incarnation. People try to domesticate the idea and speak of Jesus as an exceptional man who was in touch with the divinity within him (and all of us), but that's not the Christian teaching either.

The Christian teaching on the Incarnation, mind-bending as it may be, is precisely that the ground of all being, Atman, the Tao, use whatever ultra-monistic term you like for the fundamental, irreducible One-ness, Is-ness, that lies behind/beneath/within all reality became a human being and dwelt among us who were not this.

1 comment:

Thomas Adams said...

Great post, Andy. I agree that immanence is currently in fashion, but if such talk is divorced from God’s transcendence it simply becomes pantheistic, New Age nonsense. That’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important. It shows how God is transcendent in his immanence, and immanent in his transcendence. Of course, the Trinity has often been dismissed by the "spiritual but not religious" crowd as mere dogma, but Christianity is pretty meaningless without it.

I’m also skeptical of any mysticism that tries to dissolve the self in the Divine Oneness, or in being-itself, or whatever. Christianity is not Buddhism, no matter what some people think. Christians are not called to transcend or negate the self, as if God did not create us as unique persons. Instead, the Christian self is “a relation which relates to itself as it own self, and in relating to itself is grounded transparently in the Power which created it” (S.K.). Like the Balthasar quotes, this provides a “dialectical understanding” of God and self that allows for both immanence and transcendence.