Dear Donagh, I'd like to hear your views on eastern spirituality. There seems to be a lot of it around these times in bookshops and workshops and everywhere you look, and I've heard different views on it. I've heard it called a threat to Christianity, but if it is, why can you find it in Catholic bookshops and retreat houses? In other words, is it as good or as bad as it’s cracked up to be? - Joe Nagle
Dear Joe, thanks for your letter and your wide-open question! It leaves me with a lot of choice on how to reply.
The first point I'd like to make is this: Christianity itself is an Eastern religion. But to approach your question from that side would take us into things you are not asking about. I’ll just refer you to an introductory book on that subject, The Spirituality of the Christian East: A Systematic Handbook, by Tomas Spidlik, translated by A.P. Gythiel (Cistercian Studies Series: # 79, Cistercian Publications Inc., Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1986).
What you are asking about, I think, is Eastern non-Christian religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism….
We know more about our neighbours now than ever before. The sacred books of all the world religions, along with shelves of commentary, are available in bookshops almost everywhere, as you noticed. This must be very bewildering for many people, giving the appearance of a religious supermarket; and the ‘local shops’, so to speak, don’t like it. A Catholic journalist recently headed his piece “Spirituality: religion without the effort”. But such reactions, while revealing a great deal about the writer, say nothing at all sensible about spirituality, either Christian or non-Christian. These neighbours are here to stay. Call them immigrants if you wish! Here they may appear to be fringe elements, but at home they are part of an ancient culture.
From the beginning, Christianity has borrowed massively from other sources. This is another vast subject, and again I will refer you to a very accessible book, The Study of Spirituality, edited, by C. Jones, G. Wainwright and E. Arnold, SPCK 1986. Take just two instances. Referring to the work of the Greek philosopher Plato (428 BC - 347 BC), one of the contributors, Anthony Meredith, writes, “It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of such language on all the Christian mystical tradition from Origen [b. 185 AD] onwards.” It would be equally hard to exaggerate the influence of Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) - famously on St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas.
But here lies the key, perhaps. Ultimately it may require saints and scholars of their stature - or something like it - to make profound dialogue with these religions. The Christian dialogue with Buddhism and other Oriental religions is in its early stages, but it has begun. It is interesting that it is through monasticism on both sides that the most promising advances are being made. See for example the Bulletin of the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commissions (DIM/MID). If religions are to move closer and talk to one another, it must be through their most contemplative voices.
It is easy to notice lines of convergence and even similarities of expression, but this is just the beginning of an acquaintance. It is like meeting some strangers and finding to your delight that you can understand a few words of their speech. There is a long way to go before they become your soul-mates. The Dalai Lama often refers humorously to people’s attempts “to put a yak’s head on an ox.”
It seems to be a universal rule that when you try to make two groups of people into one, you end up with three groups! There will be the new ‘unity’ group, and there will always be people on both sides who refuse to move: that makes three! I think there can never be a question of unifying even Christian denominations in that way, let alone world religions.
It’s not a question of merging; initially it’s not even about agreement. It’s not so much about unity of mind as unity of heart: mutual respect and appreciation. Without these there is no way forward. Last year, sadly, Cardinal Ratzinger gave the world an example of how not to do it: in an interview published in a French magazine he referred to Buddhism as “a form of spiritual auto-eroticism.” What in heaven or on earth could be gained by insulting 300,000,000 people?
But there is a positive way. It is when I meet a real stranger that I find out new things about myself. Someone said that Buddhists are the first real strangers Christians have had to talk with. They can show us our blind spots (even without intending to) precisely because they are strangers. Many Christians have discovered depths in their own religion through contact with Buddhism and other religions.
But some go further. When Western people abandon Christianity and embrace a non-Christian religion, they cut their own spiritual roots and leave themselves open to being lost between two worlds. What they get from the Oriental religion is what a Western person can get, which may not be what the Oriental religion has to give. (I still remember an American saying to a group of us, many years ago, “You with your Western mentality….”) But only God can follow what happens in people’s spirits at that level.
As for superficial borrowing: I'm reminded of the story of the actress who invited George Bernard Shaw to marry her, “Our children would have my looks and your brains.” Shaw replied, “But what if they had my looks and your brains?” There is no guarantee, when it comes to mixing anything, that we will get the best of both. It’s even chances that we will get the worst. In matters religious the chances may be considerably less than even. A religion is a deep and subtle mystery, and only its great mystics get to the bottom of it - but they are the very ones who say they know nothing. The rest of us, not knowing that depth, will look for similarities. But if we are forever looking for similarities we will eventually live in a very boring world! - and that’s the worst of both.
Let’s come out at the really shallow end. Part of the problem may be shelving! I've found the Vedas and the Tao Te Ching in the ‘New Age’ section of several bookshops! The earliest Vedas - Hindu Scriptures - date from between 1300 BC and 1000 BC; and The Tao Te Ching is from about 500 BC! Yes, we’re inclined to put the deepest things in the shallowest bag!
(You might also want to look at the reply to Arthur M. [April-May])