The Unity of Spirituality

I get a lot out of reading The Bible and The Bhagavad Gita. Similarly, I get a lot out of praying to Christ and to Krishna. Sometimes I pray to one, and sometimes I pray to the other. I feel no tension in this, as both are to me different forms of the divine. I believe there is a common truth to Christianity and Hinduism, and that common truth is the essence of religion and spirituality. It is the same common truth I find in spiritual atheism such as in Buddhism, Stoicism and Taoism.

What is this common truth? In Christianity and Hinduism, it is: Surrender to God in all things.

Usually when discussing this kind of view, the focus runs to “God”, and what we mean by that. People who don’t believe the common truth view (be they religious or atheist) dismiss it on the grounds that “obviously” Christ and Krishna are different: where they were born, the miracles they did, the way they spoke. In the same light, it is said: “obviously” Christians and Hindus practices and beliefs are different: how they pray, what they attribute to God, the religious books they read, the buildings they pray in and so on.

In dismissing the common view, there is then an immediate reductive understanding of God. In Christianity, God is how Christians understand Him and how they worship Him. Similarly, in Hinduism, God is how Hindus understand him and how they worship Him.

Surely, this is putting the cart before the horse, as if the Christian God is determined by how Christians act. As if Christ and Krishna must be different because many Christians and Hindus insist on arguing with each other.

How Christian and Hindus understand God or the cultural practices of worship they use to communicate with God cannot define the religions, since in both religions – as in all religions – it is foundational that God is beyond human understanding.

Now, if no matter what you say, I say, “God is mysterious” and so you should listen to me and not question my understanding, that is surely cheating. So there are good and bad ways of recognizing that God is beyond human understanding.

The point isn’t to have a blanket “God is mysterious” response whenever you are challenged by anyone. Rather, it is to recognize God’s mystery as a way of surrendering one’s deepest anxieties, fears, anger, frustration to Him, as opposed to venting them towards other people, or even towards oneself. 

There is no belief one can point to as the common truth of Christianity and Hinduism not because there is no common truth, but because the common truth isn’t a belief. It is a mode of practice. And the practice itself isn’t cultural or ritualistic. Nothing you can point to, nothing like praying this way as opposed to that way, and say, “That – doing that always is the essence of Christianity.”

The lack of common belief doesn’t mean Christianity and Hinduism are incommensurable. In fact, many Christians don’t have any common belief or even religious practice in common with each other. And same with Hindus. The illusion of an essential property of Christianity, which sets it apart from Hinduism, is created not because all Christians have some prior thing in common (belief, practice, dogma, history, causal chain, etc.), and the same with Hindus. The illusion of an essential property is created precisely because one sees Christianity in terms of a we over here versus a them over there.

Separating oneself from the Other gives rise to the feeling that there must be something which defines us differently than what defines them. Once this move is made, then all the umpteen differences in beliefs, practices, histories, skin colors, geography present themselves as just more and more confirmation that yes, the foundational move of separation was correct.

Usually in response, proponents of the common belief water down what is meant to be in common, such that it starts to seem less and less spiritual. So it is said what all religions have in common is that we should be good people, should love one another, should not steal, etc. But this renders the essence of religion so mundane that it raises the point of religion at all. Instead of seeming like Christianity and Hinduism are both saying something amazing, it seems as if both are saying the same good, but pedestrain thing.

The unity of religions is not a belief to be argued for. It is an experience to be cultivated. 

I wouldn’t go around telling people, who are not wont to believe it, that all religions are the same. Because that mode of interaction constrains the message which can be communicated. You cannot beat someone down to prove to them that peace is the only way.

Once the experience is cultivated of the unity of religions, the same applies to between religions and atheism.

Are Christianity and Buddhism radically different? Again, certainly, if taken in some of their textual, cultural forms. But no so different at all, if one experiences the world as they suggest – to live beyond the finite mind into the infinite. What they have in common is the mode of living which their best practitioners instantiate, and the energy which is transmitted in the inspiration through which their texts were written and their lives were led.

Here we get a deep link between the issues of living a spiritual life and debate, both  academic and everyday debate. For example, as with ancient skepticism or, in the 20th century with Wittgenstein, that moving beyond a particular debate is sometimes as important and essential as answering the debate from within the terms in which it is set.

We don’t always have to take debates as they are given to us. New, productive moves don’t have to be made only by accepting the framework of the ideas. Often, and in the deepest instances, the necessary move is to move beyond the debate – to grow into seeing the world in a new way such that the categories of the debate become transformed.

The unity of spirituality is like that. The unity is not something that can be shown through debate. It is, first and foremost, to be experienced. Which is not to say that one just sits around passively for the experience. Nor that it is something mystical and unsayable. But is unsayable if one accepts ordinary frameworks, which are set up presupposing there is no unity, and that different spiritual frameworks work in a zero sum environment.

Live the unity. Breath it in. Experience it. See God as Christ and Krishna. See reality as God and also as the Universe, the way an atheist sees it. Live without being wedded to one conceptual framework over the other. Live in the ecstacy and openness of not being hemmed in by concepts and frameworks which are passsed on without reflection. Live into the open, unknown possibility inherent in the present moment. Be like Christ. And Krishna. And Buddha. And in being like them, you will feel the unity of their being.

2 thoughts on “The Unity of Spirituality

  1. You write: “The point … is to recognize God’s mystery as a way of surrendering one’s deepest anxieties, fears, anger, frustration to Him, as opposed to venting them towards other people, or even towards oneself.”

    This is helpful to me. But it does take me back to something we discussed in a previous post, about the naturalistic conception of God (the cosmic force that makes us aware that we are a speck in the universe) vs the anthropomorphic conception of God (Krishna, Jesus, etc). If we think of the act of praying as a form of surrendering our deepest anxieties, fears, anger, and frustrations to Him, then we can ask what makes prayer effective for attaining piece of mind: an answer under the naturalistic conception could be that prayer gives relief to the spiritual atheist because the surrendering “to Him” is a way of acknowledging the fact that they have no control over the situation; whereas the answer under the anthropomorphic conception is not only that we have no control over the situation, but also that God knows best, and that however things turn out, even if painful in the short term, He is looking out for us, and so we will be okay (or even better for it) in the long term.

    The act of surrendering our anxieties, fears, etc., is so much more liberating under the second paradigm than the first, even though I’m intellectually more sympathetic to the first than the second. I understand that you are suggesting that the whole notion of two paradigms is artificial, and needs to be dissolved. Which is exactly what I’m struggling with.

    Then you write: “Live the unity. Breath it in. Experience it. See God as Christ and Krishna. See reality as God and also as the Universe, the way an atheist sees it. Live without being wedded to one conceptual framework over the other. Live in the ecstacy and openness of not being hemmed in by concepts and frameworks which are passsed on without reflection. Live into the open, unknown possibility inherent in the present moment. Be like Christ. And Krishna. And Buddha. And in being like them, you will feel the unity of their being.”

    When I’m captured by my anxieties, fears and frustrations (which is rather often), I need the comfort of the second (anthropomorphic/religious) paradigm, and I know that this is what I’m surrendering my troubles to (though at that moment, intellectually I’m giving a nod to the naturalistic paradigm, as if to say, “You are probably the correct conception of “God” but you can’t help me right now; I’ll come back to you once I get through this.”) Maybe one way to think about your post is that there’s no need for me to feel guilty or hypocritical for needing one paradigm over the other in specific circumstances. It may take painful personal circumstances for me to recognize the necessity of the second paradigm, but that doesn’t invalidate the first paradigm, and perhaps setting aside the guilt of appropriating both paradigms (depending on the situation) is the first step to experientially recognizing the artificiality of this two-paradigm distinction. I’ll have to try it.

    You write: “There is no belief one can point to as the common truth of Christianity and Hinduism not because there is no common truth, but because the common truth isn’t a belief. It is a mode of practice.”

    I assume that the “mode of practice” you are referring to above is the act of surrendering our fears, anxieties, etc.?

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    • ” an answer under the naturalistic conception could be that prayer gives relief to the spiritual atheist because the surrendering “to Him” is a way of acknowledging the fact that they have no control over the situation; whereas the answer under the anthropomorphic conception is not only that we have no control over the situation, but also that God knows best, and that however things turn out, even if painful in the short term, He is looking out for us, and so we will be okay (or even better for it) in the long term.”

      I think the naturalistic and anthropomorphic conception come to the same thing.

      It’s not that the naturalistic = we have no control. And the anthropomorphic = we have no control + God is in the control + He will take care of us. In the latter, “He will take care of us” is so undefined, so inclusive of all pain (the pain of being on the Cross) that what it means that God will take care of us is nothing like what we normally mean by that phrase. There is no guarantee that God will give us money, health, fame, a home, a life without chronic pain, a family. He might at any moment make us sick, poor, alone, disabled, depressed, let alone the constant stream of more day to day disappointments. “But”, one might say, “surely He will take care of us in Heaven!” Then, what is heaven? I would say, it isn’t where our desires are fulfilled, but when we fully embrace God irrespective of what He gives us, or gave us; when our relation to God is altogether independent of our asking for protection because we are so convinced of His Grace in the world that we instinctively accept all as His doing and for the best.

      Conversely, the naturalistic conception isn’t a shorter path to overcoming the ego. Often, with the naturalistic conception one might accept pain by thinking that life is meaningless, there is only Nature which no one controls, and that is that. But this isn’t the height of spirituality, but can be a kind of resignation. The key is to embrace that we are not mainly in control, without giving up hope. Guarding against pain isn’t the only goal. A serenity of mind and body and spirit is the goal of the spiritual life, and that requires more than just accepting we have no control. It requires accepting we have no control even as we engage in the day to day interactions with fellow human beings, which presuppose some conception of control and will. Balancing between the two gives hope even in the face of a world in which we are but a speck.

      Yes, as you say, there is no point to guilt in favoring one paradigm over the other. In my experience, guilt usually comes from conflating Faith in God with institutional features of faith, as in, “perhaps by embracing God, I am reenforcing bad religious institutions and practices”. Or the other way around, “perhaps by embracing a naturalistic view, I am reenforcing a nihilistic tendency in society.” But neither are true. Embracing God or Nature is, first and foremost, about your relation with the Infinite, and not to social conditions of how others understand the Infinite. When you relate to the Infinite yourself, without worrying about society, you lead the way, for yourself, and by the by (without having to intend it), for society. But when you think of the Infinite as mediated by your relation to society, then your relation to the Infinite, as God or Nature, is thereby more limited.

      And by “mode of practice” I meant surrendering fears, etc.

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