The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. Wherein I prate of God.

The perennial philosophy.In The Perennial Philosophy, by Huxley articulates some universal themes in religion. I have added some reflections.

Monotheism. God is a divine unity, the ground of the human condition. The concept of God being a unified ground is quite different than the traditional notion of a omnipotent being. I often prefer polytheism: “When the knower is poly-psychic the universe he knows by immediate experience is polytheistic.”

The human condition is multiplicity. The self has no substance, and must be in a state of discontent or suffering, always desiring other, and idolatrous. Political monism is idolatry, causing suffering and obstructing spirituality. “The politics of those whose goal is beyond time are always pacific; it is the idolaters of past and future, of reactionary memory and Utopian dreams, who do the persecuting and make the wars.” Very Buddhist, especially if you extend monism and idolatry beyond politics to rigid narrowness of thought in general.

Morality, worship and spiritual exercises. Morality is selflessness, loving others, and vigilance to do good. Rituals can facilitate insight, or be idolatry. Spiritual exercises include contemplative prayer, meditation and silence. Miracles are not important; it is important to perform common tasks with love.

Trinity. God is immanent (a personal, inner light within each person), transcendent (trans-temporal, beyond the human condition, rulemaker), and incarnate (in the world). Huxley might agree with my rejection of the Christian concept of a fall from which humans need to be redeemed through intervention. I prefer the Gnostic notion that we can become Christ.

Unitive knowledge. The soul is identical with the Divine Ground, so we may have a direct experience of God. The experience transcends self, words, truth, even faith. Again, this fits with Gnosticism.

Two excellent quotes praising the virtue of silence: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them. And no wonder, for the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.” Huxley said that in 1945. One of my all time favourite quotes from Meister Eckhart, “Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of Him is untrue.”

Not a Tame Lion by Terry Glaspey. Patches of Godlight.

Not a tame lionNot a Tame Lion by Terry Glaspey is a biography of C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and a number of books on Christianity. This Christmas, I will be going to see the movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, despite the lukewarm reviews. I was a major fan of the Narnia books when I was a kid. Years later, I appreciated Lewis’ clever apologies for Christianity even if I did not ultimately agree with him. Despite his claims to be the most reluctant convert, I sensed he felt obliged to give reason its due course before he could permit himself conversion.

Having read several of Lewis’ books, I can recommend Glaspey’s representation of Lewis’ thought. Lewis was a romantic. He wrote fiction, like Narnia, to baptise children’s imaginations with the mythology of the gospel, to reveal the magic of the symbols so that the gospel might live for them. This was precisely my experience as a child. I wished I could go to Narnia and triumph alongside Aslan over evil. Christianity was a pronounced aspect of my upbringing, and it occurred to me that its struggles were of the same mythical proportions, offering me great adventures. Lewis is at his most brilliant when he talks about myth. “In using myth, we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.” Lewis argues the importance of desire, wonder, and melancholy in the understanding of God. No desire can truly be satisfied, which is evidence that there is more to life than we can sense, and that we belong elsewhere. Fish do complain that the sea is wet.

“We are not merely trousered apes.” I just like that line. Lewis insists on the existence of objective values. Naturalism provides no basis for objective values, he says, since there is no outside frame of reference in naturalism, and the consequence would be a morality of subjective choice. I do not find his argument compelling. Morality could be a social construct, devised for the wellbeing of the whole against dangerous individuals or small groups.

Lewis turned the Christianity I knew on its head by saying that God is the author of pleasure. In fact, evil could never invent a pleasure. Well, that sounded good. Lewis liked smoking a pipe and having a mug of beer. “I have tried to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration.” Spiritual vices like pride are much more evil than bodily vices. Excellent. He is a great writer too in describing the importance of a sensual relationship with God. “All kinds of simple experiences can awaken within us a sense of God’s reality, whether it be the call of a bird, the crisp sweetness of an apple or a refreshing splash in cool water. As our mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun, so these patches of Godlight give us a tiny theophany, a vision of God.”

I leave you with a few more choice quotes.

You would not have called to me unless I had been calling you, said the Lion. The Silver Chair

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Mere Christianity

The coarse joke proclaims that we have here an animal which finds its own animality either objectionable or funny. Unless there had been a quarrel between the spirit and the organism I do not see how this could be: it is the very mark of the two not being ‘at home’ together. Miracles

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Gnostics do not become Christians, they become Christ.

Gnostic GospelsIn 1945, an Arab peasant discovered a number of manuscripts near Naj Hammadi, Egypt. These manuscripts were eventually published and became known as the Gnostic Gospels, a set of gospels that may have been suppressed by the orthodox church of the time. The Gnostic Gospels contain many ideas that differ from orthodox Christianity. The differences are described in Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels.

According to the Gnostics, we have a divine nature or soul that is identical with God, but we mistake our ego for our true self. We recognize our ego is fragile and spend all our energy trying to preserve and promote it, denying that it will die. Our ego may mature to sense God, but we think of God as something distinct and separate from our ego. We mistakenly feel sinful or fallen because we think our ego can never reconcile with God, except perhaps through divine intervention. “Whoever comes to experience his own nature — human nature — as itself the ‘source of all things,’ the primary reality, will receive enlightenment” (pg. 144).

Our soul or divine nature is not at odds with our ego, only greater than it. Identifying with the divine makes our ego far more effective in dealing with the practical world in a meaningful way. Our ego is a vehicle of creation in the world and must be cared for, not hated or destroyed. By recognizing our divinity, we become equal with Christ, and have the ability to even surpass his achievements. Gnostics do not become Christians, they become Christ.

In the orthodox view, God is a male, suggesting male dominance in the church, part of a hierarchy leading up to the Pope. The orthodox church emphasizes the suffering of Christ on the cross, and its implication that Christians should suffer. By submitting to the Church’s doctrine, a sinner is reconciled with God. In contrast, the Gnostics observe that Mary, a woman, was the first to see Christ in a vision, not the flesh. They distinguish between the Old Testament and the New Testament God, and organize their worship in an egalitarian form, with men and women members of the congregation taking turns as leaders. The Gnostics seek a spiritual church rather than an empirical one. Christians need not suffer away but can claim the power of Christ. “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over all things” (pg. 127, quoting Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas.

The concepts described here fit nicely with the Buddhist ideas I have been exploring more recently. I prefer to avoid talking about God as an entity, but I can work with it too. Like some Buddhists, I think it is more important to advance a secular ethics and practice than to fuss about particular religious views. In the end, I subscribe to the common view of a perennial philosophy underlying both the world’s religions and humanist views.