It was not easy for me to think constructively about institutional Christianity. I had to approach it by stages. When my sister Madeleine insisted on giving me the Unsworth book, I let it sit for months. When I finally got around to reading it, it started, only started, the process of thinking thoroughly about what to “do” with institutional Christianity.
Towards A Non-Competitive Christianity
Recently I ran across a copy of Timothy Unsworth’s The Last Priests in America (Crossroad, 1991). I used to be one of those, a member of the Jesuit order, but during the past twenty-five years I haven’t been reading much Catholic literature. I’ve been looking at perspectives on spiritual growth that address the human condition as such. After all, whatever we “believe in”, we are all born and we all die, and that puts us in a common condition. But in the case of Unsworth’s book, I finally decided to read it.
When I got into these stories of forty-three priests mostly in Chicago I realized that the author was not trying to defend or conceal anything. He was just presenting the way things are. And the two things that stood out were the joylessness of the stories and the absence of Jesus.
In regard to the first matter, nobody in this book is having any real fun. They are all just hanging on. What ever happened to, “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”? In regard to the second matter, Jesus is mentioned twice I think, compared to about fifty times for Andy Greeley.
In the last twenty-five years I’ve had a chance to compare the essence of the gospel with other spiritual traditions such as Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. I find subtle differences among these methods of engaging the human condition, but I also find that each one of them makes a unique contribution to the reprtoire of tools for the human journey. I still think Jesus is the incarnation of the second person of the blessed trinity, but I also find “the holy spirit” active in all religious traditions. So I call myself a Buddhaeo-Judaeo-Christian.
I have a friend in California who used to be an Ohio Mennonite but is now a Zen Buddhist priest who has a construction company that builds Zen gardens in the San Francisco Bay area. One day he was telling me how after twenty years of satisfaction with his Zen practices he was beginning to wonder about the connection between his spirituality now and the spirituality of the Bible. I told him that if he wanted to experience that connection he could meditate on a text from the New Testament, John 20, 19: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them.”
This passage was called to my attention in 1963 by Fr. Herman Vollkaert, S.J. who taught New Testament exegesis when I was studying theology in India. When Fr. Vollkaert shouted at us “What happened!?” in regard to that passage, something fundamental shifted in my sense of my body, my sense of the relationship between the physical and spiritual in me. I got goose bumps on my soul and realized that everything I had been taught previously in my religious upbringing was quite superficial. The truth of the human condition that Jesus brought suddenly became marvelous, mysterious and open-ended. I didn’t know it at the time, but that scripture class marked the first day of the last phase of my organizational belonging.
Now, Joseph Campbell seems to think that the resurrection of Jesus story is just another renewal-of-life myth like all the other ones you find in other cultures. On this point I think his scholarship deserted him. He should have known that the Jews were not mainly myth-makers. They were real-time history tellers.
Of course the first eleven chapters of Genesis are an interpretive prologue to the historical events that start with Abraham, Job is a morality play, and there are other non-historical elements in the Bible. But when it comes to the main events, the Jews were always at great pains to record the evidence that it really happened in the linear historical time we call “life”. That is why they had all that genealogy.
Myths may be helpful but they are not ultimate. The proposition that Jesus lived and died and came back from the dead in real time and standard bodily space is of an entirely different order of reality than myth. John was at great pains to impress the challenge on us: “Something which has existed from the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes, that we have watched and touched with our hands…” (1 John 1,1). And Paul nearly had apoplexy in 1 Corinthians 15 over the report that some members of that congregation doubted the resurrection.
And this, as I understand it, is the heart of the matter. We are real. Time is real. Pain is real. Death is real. And yet there is something funny here because what Jesus was (i.e., is) brings us face to face with the extension of our self beyond time, beyond pain, beyond death. And this, as I understand it, is the Good News.
And when you get that, then you live a life of joy. Not a life without pain, but a life, with or without pain, of joy. Actually, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi put it very well when he said: “Because you think you have body or mind, you have lonely feelings, but when you realize that everything is just a flashing into the vast universe, you become very strong and your existence becomes very meaningful.” (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 103.)
So, the question is: How do you come to that realization? There are many ways, but one of them is just to take in the publicly executed Jesus sitting in a dining room eating cookies. When I meditate on John 20, 19 I realize what Suzuki is talking about and I become very strong and my life becomes very meaningful.
But if you ask me if going to Mass does that to me, then I have to tell you very straight, it does not.
I used to go to Mass. I used to say Mass. When I got to the point where I knew I was going to leave that situation, I planned out the day when I would stop saying my daily morning Mass. On that day I went to the chapel where I had been doing it, in order to see what, if any, emotional reaction I would have. The scene was on an upper floor of St. Stanislaus Retreat House in Parma, Ohio, and I was prepared for a twinge of sadness or guilt. But what actually did happen was quite different. I stood there and looked at the little altar, the chalice, vestments and missal that I was never going to use again, and what went through me was a gentle but definite feeling of relief. It was as if my body released some toxins it had been holding on to all my life.
That was a powerful experience and I have lived off it ever since. But I didn’t understand why it happened, and that bothered me. I’m one of those people who wants to understand. So I kept the matter on file until my mind could catch up with it. That process took about twenty years.
A couple of years ago I ran across the work of Ken Wilber. He has written a dozen or so books about spiritual growth (Transformations of Consciousness, The Atman Project, Up From Eden, A Sociable God, etc.). They all combine studies by western developmental psychology and eastern schools of thought (Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist). Wilber finds that West and East agree on most points, but that the West is more complete in its study of childhood and the East is more complete in its study of “higher” states of consciousness, what in the West we usually call mysticism.
The key point is that spiritual growth has stages, and each stage requires different inputs to nurture our movement on to the next stage. For instance we now know that mirroring is very important for the healthy development of the baby from birth to eighteen months. We need the facial reactions of adults to teach us that we are loved and that we are relating to the outside world in a useful way. If we don’t get mirroring, we get a little lost and don’t grow properly. And when we get enough mirroring we stop looking for it any more and move on to the next project, e.g., language. So at each stage we need something different. The instruments of our spiritual growth are “stage-specific.”
In this view, the Mass and sacramental rituals are stage-specific technologies for spiritual growth. They are pedagogies that help form an ego open to wider spiritual perspectives. Forming an ego is essential for our growth and at one stage it helps to have symbolic focal points for our attention, as in a “real presence” doctrine.
But then, the theory says, once the ego is formed, we move on. In particular, when our reasoning minds possess sufficient information (the role of science), we realize that we also have the capacity to experience reality that is beyond reason. We start realizing that we are more than just our egos and that what Jesus was showing us all along was that everything is a flashing into the vast, loving universe. And so we start to cultivate practices that awaken that realization. These practices extend our “christianity” into a larger awareness.
Thus there is a respectable theory out there that says the Mass and the sacraments are a blind alley beyond a certain stage of growth. Now, this theory might be wrong, but it also might be correct. Therefore any one who really cares about the spiritual growth of human beings will check it out.
Developmental theory would also explain the frustration of the last priests in America. They are involved in a growth process that they have shut off at an intermediate stage. Catholicism as an institution is developmentally fixated. No wonder their lives are painful. A set of spiritual practices open to full growth would produce significant healing and joy.
It seems to me as I reflect on the Bible that the ministry of Jesus was about healing: body, mind and spirit. The Mass and the sacraments were state-of-the-art healing when they were invented about 1500 years ago. There is currently a revolution going on in the field of inner growth that has made them no longer state-of-the-art. Developmental theory would suggest, in fact, that the Mass and the sacraments as they are presently conceived and practiced are the very source of the enervation and confusion in the Catholic Church.
Recent developments in personal growth center around the issue of staying awake. We are discovering that we are all partly asleep. So, a starting point of the process is to know when you are awake versus when you are in trance, and it turns out that this is not always easy. One you become aware of that difference, however, the next stage is to enjoy being awake more than being in trance. Wakefulness is an inclusive state of awareness. It does not leave anything out. It befriends darkness as well as light. “Higher consciousness” is a completely normal condition whose watch-words are wholeness and integration: be all that you are, bring all the parts together.
The basic practices that support increasing wakefulness are: relax, breathe, move, touch and conversations of self-acceptance. When people use programs that include these practices, they experience deeper and deeper releases of old emotional patterns. These releases are sometimes felt consciously, but they just as frequently occur without the intervention of the conscious mind. As people experience these releases, they grasp in their whole bodies a connection between spiritual and physical energies. The state of well-being that results is not a set of thoughts, but a whole-body experience. It is very much on the road to exactly what Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross described as their fullest spiritual experiences.
If Christianity is somehow the continuation of the ministry of Jesus, then it seems logical that it should be about healing: body, mind and spirit. The meaning of Jesus is that he made the unity of the universe clearer than any regime of meditation or preaching can do alone. The condition of being “Christian”, therefore, does not have to mean belonging to some exclusive club with its own little rules and customs. It could just as well simply mean being fully human. Holiness is wholeness. This non-competitive Christianity would delight in communion with all those who seek to deepen the level of compassion in the world. In this view, the distinctive contribution of christianity is the paradoxical valuing of the body that results from the experience of the resurrection of Jesus (not, we must note, from the idea of the resurrection). The basic practices of christianity would then simply be the practices universal to the project of spiritual growth: relax, breathe, move, meditate, hold conversations of compassion and nurture.
A community of spiritual growth, it seems to me, will increase anyone’s sense of communion with the prophets, the gospels and people of any tradition who are opening themselves to our common human destiny. When I go deeply into any religious tradition I find the same truth I find in John 20, 19. So, it is not necessary for any follower of Jesus to the last of something. They all have a pristine opportunity to be part of the growth of all.