Monthly Archives: November 2009

Advent & Christian Eschatology

In the Christian calendar this time of year is commonly called “Advent,” and the scripture readings in most of the major churches pertain to the so-called “Second Coming.”  In a peculiar way the Church prepares for the celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh(sarx in Greek–important as we shall see later), by meditating on a mysterious promised second coming at something called “the end of time.”  In our secular society, of course, this time of year is only a shopping season for Christmas–and here Christmas is mostly a “feel-good” time marked out by a bizarre collection of symbols that no longer are hinged to anything religious: snowflakes, candles, wreaths, eggnog, Santa Claus, reindeer, even secular angels announcing the good news of lower prices(can angels lie?), etc.  This time of year is very important to the business world, and so these symbols can be found everywhere.


If you are a Christian, please do not say, “Oh yeah, I understand: God comes to us in Jesus, and then there is the Second Coming at the end of the world.”  Trust me, you do not understand.  No one does.  These are great mysteries, and they should not be treated as if understood–but because of the repetition of the feast and its secularization and commercialization the whole Christmas season is a kind of pseudo-religious cultural cliché.


Here we will focus on the so-called Second Coming and what Christian theology calls “eschatology.”  The scripture readings point to an endtime scenario of cosmic proportions.  Read literally, as the fundamentalists do, this leads to some unfortunate conclusions–among which the mass of humanity is condemned to an eternity in hell for various reasons, and only an elite few are saved(in some readings 144,000).  Here we can use two science fiction movies as illustrations.  The first one is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  For too many Christians the Second Coming of Christ is like a Super Alien coming to an elite, select few.  It signals its coming in various ways; then it comes and  takes the select few with it; and the others, well……  Of course this caricature is preceded by another caricature that has to do with the first coming or the Mystery of the Incarnation where, in the terms of Christian theology, God is fully and uniquely present in Jesus Christ.  That caricature we may draw from another movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  For too many Christians the Mystery of the Incarnation is reduced to a kind of body-snatching on the part of God.  You know that there is this Jew, Jesus, who looks like us, seems like us, but if you look closely at his eyes, you will see something different, something strange–ah, he is not one of us afterall. It is body-snatcher christology.  The similarity between these two caricatures is that it reduces God to the Ultimate Outsider, the Super Alien.


Now there are different valid theological interpretations of the so-called second coming.  We won’t get into that, but let us explore one important aspect of the meaning of these scriptures that refer to the Second Coming.  Here we will draw on Shakespeare for some help.  Recall his play Macbeth and the soliloquy by the main character, Macbeth:


“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

………………………Out, out brief candle

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.  It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”


Someone once said that Macbeth is the first atheist existentialist.  Not sure about that, but he does articulate a view that is more common than one might realize: the ultimate meaninglessness of life.  Strip away the veneer of a facile optimism, the veneer of a surface social life where one runs around consuming and “having fun” in a prolonged sequence of moments; strip away the veneer of those “little projects” and goals in life, and one big question lurks underneath:  what’s the point of it all?  what is the meaning of all my activity? what is the meaning of life?  As long ago as Pascal and even long before that, many wise voices have pointed out that so much of human activity, especially modern frenetic activity(Thoreau’s “most men live lives of quiet desperation”–not so quiet anymore) is actually a diversion from facing head on the question of the meaning of our life.  Even religion can become merely a prop to ward off the sense of meaninglessness.  As one British author caricatured the naturalistic novel as ODTAA–one damned thing after another–so is the flow of history.   History, both personal and our collective human history, seems no more than a surface procession of events and happenings with no point to it.  Now different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this question, but here we are concerned primarily with the Christian tradition, and here there is an “appeal to God” to render life meaningful.  Very often this is a superficial maneuver when God is brought in as an explanation when one has run out of one’s own resources to deal with the situation.  God becomes a kind of conventional answer with certain emotional reassurances.  But a “cheap appeal to God” will not endure the next challenge.


So there is another “threat of meaninglessness” that challenges any and every easy “appeal to God.”  Here let us bring in Dostoevsky and his novel Brothers Karamazov.  Dostoevsky has one of his characters, Ivan, relate a story of how an innocent child was torn to shreds by dogs that a rich baron set upon the  child for a trivial reason.  Ivan throws out a challenge to his monk brother, Alyosha:  how can this happen in a world created by God?  what is the possible meaning of claiming there is a good and loving God?  Ivan doesn’t even contest or argue with Alyosha about his faith–he simply “turns in his ticket to this universe.”  He calls this universe ultimately absurd and meaningless if such things are possible, and so he implicates the God that Alyosha believes in, the God who has created this universe.  In a sense Dostoevsky has anticipated the questions raised by the events of the Holocaust and all the genocides through the centuries.  The postmodern thought world, where everything, even religion, has become a commodity to make you feel good, and we are all happy consumers, the postmodern verdict on all this suffering would be: “In the grand scheme of the universe  your suffering is utterly meaningless–life and all that comes with it has no transcendent meaning or value.”  Of course it is never put so directly or so openly–more like it would be: “Shit happens”; “Bummer.”


It is interesting and important that Alyosha does not answer Ivan or argue with him.  We cannot answer the hard questions that someone who is a bearer of such suffering presents to us.  Certainly not by a cheap appeal to God, as if we had a grasp of what we are really claiming to know.  Again, the different religious traditions have different ways of dealing with this situation, but suffice it to say that we can DO the following 3 things:

  1. We can try to prevent victimization as much as it is possible within our power even at great cost to ourselves and our own security.
  2. We can stand WITH the victim in his/her suffering–not as some outsider who brings in the notion of God more to reassure ourselves that everything is really ok.
  3. We can abide in faith.


This last thing needs some explanation, and here we return to our reflection on Advent and Christian Eschatology.  This is the point of all those varied “end of time” scripture readings.  They are meant to empower us in a symbolic way to abide in faith in the most “un-faith-filled” situations in the course of history.  Now let us consider this line of poetry:


for thirty pieces of silver he sold him


This is actually not the full line–we left off the last syllable–here is the full line:


for thirty pieces of silver he sold himself.


In the first quote we had left off the last syllable, “self.”  With the addition of that last syllable the whole sentence is transformed from a brute fact of history into a revelation of an inner meaning of that fact.  But it is only when you get to that last syllable that you understand. This is an interesting illustration of the situation. So history is experienced as this flow of  “one syllable” after another, offering us one naked fact after another, but what Christian eschatology claims is that 1.) there is a “last syllable” that transforms the meaning of it all; and 2.) that this “last syllable” is both “at the end of time” and within our hearts already.  This is due to the fact that when the Divine Logos became flesh, in the traditional translation, it entered history, that which human beings create–and the second coming will be a kind of completion and fulfillment of what began in the Incarnation. The Greek word is sarx–the Word became sarx–that is the flux and flow of human existence, the transience and impermanence of the human reality, in Buddhist terms, samsara.  The “last syllable” of history is now both within history already and “at the end” of history.  The scripture readings, then, point in two directions:  first, that there is a great(indeed, a cosmic) significance to history–history is not just “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”– and the collective history of the human family is significant and not just our own personal holiness or realization and that we as community and as human family share in the unfolding of this meaning, and so the suffering of every man, woman and child, no matter how obscure, is now not lost in the sequence of events but connected to that “last syllable” and therefore part of that which will render history meaningful; and secondly that there is a great significance even to the smallest human activity within history–nothing is “not meaningful”–even offering a drink to a thirsty stranger is now of great significance and meaning because “you did it to Me.”  These eschatological scripture readings, then, empower us, in a symbolic way,  to abide in faith.  Even in the darkest situation, even in the most incomprehensible events, even when all resources for meaning are helpless, we abide in the mystery of faith, not with cheap solutions, but within the silence of our hearts where we sense the presence of that “last syllable,” and beyond the horizon of our history where we look for the manifestation of that “last syllable.”  We abide in the faith that leads to boundless love and transcendent meaning.


Interreligious Dialogue

 In a sense interreligious dialogue is nothing new.  People from various traditions have been talking to each other for many centuries and borrowing ideas and practices from each other to enrich and expand each tradition.  It has been said that St. John of the Cross borrowed some ideas from the Sufis, and the Sufis imported some practices and methods from the early Christian monks.  Hindus and Buddhists seem to have reached the ancient Hellenistic world and had exchanges with the Neoplatonist thinkers and mystics in the West. Also, Buddhism borrowed stuff from the native shamanic religion of  Tibet, and so on, and so on.  However, in the 20th Century, interreligious dialogue takes on a new intensity and scope, and there is a felt need to engage “the other” as never before.  We might attribute that to the simple recognition that we all better get along if we are to have a truly liveable planet.  This might be called an “ethical dialogue”–we discover we need to talk to one another and to cooperate on many levels if we are to ward off the dehumanization of our lives by war, violence,  famine, technological and economic manipulation, and finally global warming.  It is the recognition that truly “No man is an island.” 


But much more than that has also been unfolding in interreligious dialogue.  Perhaps for the first time there is a felt need on the part of many people in various traditions to encounter and engage “the other” precisely as “other.”  No longer, it is felt, that we can stay within the “fortress” of our own tradition, aloof from “the other.”  Nor is “the other” to be seen as a threat or an entity to be swallowed up or conquered.  No, that very “otherness” is to be respected and maintained and held in a kind of positive tension.  “Difference” is now seen as a gift which needs unpacking and unfolding until we discover its real Truth.  To borrow a term from Eastern Christian iconography, the “difference” between me and you is now to be seen as “the space of the heart.”  It is in this space, which is “our difference” that we sense the discovery of our One Heart.



Those of us who are members of the Christian West need a deep moment of profound repentance before we can truly engage in this kind of dialogue.  We have not dealt well with “otherness” or “difference.”  When Christian Europeans discovered the New World and encountered “the otherness” of the native peoples, they debated whether these people were to be considered as human beings.  Then they enslaved them or exploited them if not totally exterminating them.  Ultimately this shows a profound fear of “otherness” and a deep-seated arrogance at the heart of Western Civilization that most Westerners even today do not recognize.  It comes covered over with a thick veneer of benevolence dished out from a seeming position of a superiority engendered by all our marvelous gadgetry. It will take profound humility to even recognize this arrogance.  Now whatever problems other traditions carry that might impede this dialogue, their adherents must assess that themselves.



Interreligious dialogue has taken place on several levels.  On one level people from different traditions have come together to share and exchange views on matters of life experience, on matters of practices and methods, on solutions to practical problems, etc.  This is very good and it fosters friendships and collaborations that are very helpful.  But there is a level that is also very difficult: that of teachings, doctrine, claims made, historical statements, etc.  Here we run up against some interesting problems.  Again we will address the issues only from the Christian side.  Those from other traditions have to address these issues in their own way.



First of all we will just skip the problem of fundamentalism–it fears dialogue; it wants no part of dialogue.  Now institutional official Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism have fostered dialogue, but it seems so often that a “conversion dynamic” is at work deep down in these well-intentioned encounters.  What happens is that the “otherness” of “the other” is seen as only a kind of preparation for “our message,” and in a friendly way “the other”, given enough time and effort, can be transformed into a mirror image of ourselves. The actual theological position is of course more complicated and more multifaceted, but the gist of it is still a kind of reduction of the “otherness” to a surface reality. Strangely enough a similar problem lies at the other end of the dialogue spectrum.  Here also “the otherness” of “the other” is a surface reality, but in this case we can easily skip “that otherness” because it is merely in words or language, and then we move to a premature proclamation of oneness.  No transformation is needed because we are already one no matter how different and contradictory the teachings may seem.  Here also many are well-intentioned, but in attributing “difference” to mere word play or in the mere inadequacy of any tradition to “grasp the whole,” they miss the point:  “difference” is neither a superficial reality, nor a negative reality, but a gift with which and within which  we should abide together in love and freedom.


There probably is a need to mention some lived examples of the above.  Very well known is Thomas Merton.  Much, much less well known is Rabbi Ariel Bension.  He was a Sephardic Jew born in Jerusalem, and he was one of the first Sephardi to study in a modern European university.  He wrote a book that is also not well-known: The Zohar in Mulim and Christian Spain.  Rabbi Bension had intimate knowledge of both Kabbalah and Sufism.  During the last phase of his life he was a rabbi in Manastir, a Sephardic and Sufi center in the Balkans, where Jews frequented the Sufi assemblies of their Albanian and Turkish Muslim neighbors–that is before the Nazis and the Serbs massacred both.  Rabbi Bension died in 1932.



Somewhere Jesus in the Gospels says: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  This is a radical statement as it stands in its naked simplicity–not very comforting to the spirit of our times, nor of any times actually.  But let us broaden this saying even a bit more in the context of what we are discussing.  Each of our traditions is loaded with riches–we are rich in rituals, practices, teachings and doctrines.  Paradoxically enough these may become a real obstacle to our entering “the kingdom of God.”  Here let us listen again to the Sufi Bayazid Bastami: “The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.”  In a sense we have to pass “through the eye of the needle”–this is what it means to encounter “the other” (and of course from the theist perspective the Ultimate Other is God!).  As Jesus says, for man this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.  And that means giving ourselves to the process and letting it carry us to a place we never foresaw.  Now that does NOT mean jettisoning doctrines, teachings, etc. when they become inconvenient for what we think is unity.  But it does mean that we begin to feel that we need each other; that we need “the other” precisely as other; that what “the other” brings to the table begins to open up new dimensions of understanding of our own tradition.  This is only the first step.  We take it.  Then we see where the next step will be. We learn to live with “the otherness” of “the other”; we dwell with the “mystery of the difference” even as we open our hearts to “the other.”  Perhaps we will have some hard questions for “the other”; perhaps he/she will have some hard questions for us.  This is where we must not be impatient We may even discover that our own tradition is actually a mystery that needs to be rediscovered by us!  We may find a very big question lying at the very center of our heart, a question about our own identity(cf. Abhishiktananda).   Let us listen to the great German poet Rilke who was writing to a young beginning poet, but whose words are very applicable to our situation:


 “I would like to beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”









Paradox & The Language of Spirituality

Lao Tzu:

Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long,

true power seems weak,

true purity seems tarnished,

true steadfastness seems changeable,

true clarity seems obscure,

the greatest art seems unsophisticated,

the greatest love seems indifferent,

the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.

Yet it nourishes and completes all things.”





T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets:

(summing up the whole program of St. John of the Cross)

“In order to arrive at what you do not know,

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess,

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not,

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

And what you own is what you do not own.

And where you are is where you are not.”



Abu Said, “Sufism is glory in wretchedness and riches in poverty and lordship in servitude and satiety in hunger and clothedness in nakedness and freedom in slavery and life in death and sweetness in bitterness…”



No matter what tradition you are following, if you are on the monk’s way, you will be familiar with the language above–it is the language of paradox and contradiction, and it is the only way that one can really speak of the deeper realities.  Now there are at least two critical mistakes to avoid when encountering such statements.  One mistake might be called “fundamentalist”; that is, one takes such statements in a kind of simplistic, literalist sense; one uses them as formulas or recipes in a spiritual cookbook.  The other mistake might be called a “liberal fallacy”–one takes such language as mere wordplay, or logical nonsense, or as a kind of manipulation of language which amounts to saying nothing.  But what is striking is that no matter what tradition you are following some form of this paradoxical language will be there.  No matter how that tradition uses that paradoxical language, it inevitably points to the “ungraspable” nature of the ultimate reality that the tradition is trying to open up for you–that is, it is ungraspable by the rational mind and the ego self.  Because the Ultimate Reality is not another thing in a world of things, the ego self experiences it as nothingness–there is “no thing” there to grasp, to possess, to manipulate, etc.  Yet this Ultimate Reality fills all, sustains all, is manifest by all, and finally it pertains to your deepest identity.



In Christianity we find many of its mystics and spiritual writers resorting to such paradoxical language as sampled above in the T.S. Eliot quote.  St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing are just a few of the more illustrious examples.  But what is important is that we find paradox right at the heart and origins of Christianity–in the Gospels and the New Testament.  There we learn that to be “first” one must seek out the last place; that to be “first” one must be the servant of all; that to save your life means you will lose it, and to lose one’s life means to save it; that to be the “greatest” one should be the “least”; that wealth is real impoverishment; that real blessedness can look and feel “real bad”; etc. The average Christian seems numb to the provocative nature of this language–in a sense it has been “dumb downed” to a general “feel good” message. Such language now takes its place among the other cliches and platitudes of pop culture–like Be Yourself…etc….


Now perhaps the most powerful of all paradoxes in all the world religions is not in the realm of language but in the realm of symbol: the cross, or in the Catholic tradition, the crucifix.  Here we may note in passing that there are different theological interpretations given to the cross vs. the crucifix.  Suffice it to say that the crucifix is more dramatic and concrete–the image of a man nailed to slabs of wood, dying a horrible death.  The cross can seem a bit more abstract and open to more abstract “readings.”  Before we go any further, it needs to be acknowledged that this symbol has been coopted for absolutely terrible uses.  Afterall the Crusaders carried the cross while committing slaughter of Moslems, Jews and even other Christians.  The Grand Inquisitor carried out his duty of leading people to torture and execution under this sign.  The Conquistadors did their dirty deeds while accompanied by priests carrying this sign.  Right in our own time in Serbia, right in the shadow of churches bearing this sign, Christians(so-called) massacred their Moslem neighbors.  Nevertheless these horrific distortions and betrayals, the cross, or the crucifix, carries the unconcealment of a Mystery that only the language of paradox can approach.


When one enters a Catholic church anywhere in the world, what strikes one is the centrality of the crucifix.  It is unmistakeable and unambiguous that whatever this reality speaks of is at the center of that community of worship.  And whatever be the different theological interpretations given to this symbol, it does point to the importance of this one man’s concrete, historical death by execution.  And Christian theology, whatever its various interpretations of this symbol, would always agree that the historical moment this symbol encapsulates is a most profound manifestation of the nature of the Ultimate Reality, which we call God.



Right from the beginning in the New Testament there are different theological readings of the significance of this man’s horrible death by execution.  But perhaps the most fundamental one and most important one brings us to the heart of the paradox that this moment signifies: God is totally present in the “most ungodly” place and situation.  Everything else flows from this fact–including the Christian Mystery of the Resurrection.  God is within this “nightmare and hell”–not outside as some external agent.  In the place and situation that seems most abandoned by God, in the darkness in which there seems not a trace of divine light or any kind of light, in the moment in which there is not a speck of happiness or hope, right there is the fullness of God present.



Louis Dupres has reflected most deeply and eloquently on this fact.  He has reminded us of that old American slave hymn, “Were you there when they crucified my lord?”  The slave sang this with his/her lips and knew in his/her heart that truly they WERE there because they ARE there–HE is truly being crucified in them, in their misery and wretchedness.  He is THERE where they are.  But Dupres does not stop with this observation–he brings it home to all of us.  Let us listen to him:


“Christian piety has always sought an intimate presence to Jesus’ Passion rather than a mere commemoration of the past….  To be with Him in the present of His agony and rejection when no triumph was in sight, that is to be where he really was.  But to be present to His hour means more than to be present there in feeling.  It means entering into the dark reality of my own suffering, lonelines and failure.  Only in the brokenness and pain of life am I with Him where he continues to live His agony….  Does it ever go beyond the pain of thin-skinned selfishness, the disappointment of vulgar ambitions, the frustration of unpurified desires, and the loneliness of self-inflicted isolation?  How dare I call what possesses so little dignity “suffering”?  Whenever I lift my eyes to the crucified Savior it is mostly to move away from my private misery, certainly not to move into it.

“Nevertheless, Christian piety teaches that very suffering of mine, however despicable and even sinful in its origins, is Jesus’s agony in me.  Comparing my pain with Jesus’s Passion may seem blasphemous.  But all suffering began with a curse.  His as well as mine.  Whether pain has its roots in private weakness and failure, or whether it is inflicted by an entire universe of weakness and failure, the effect remains the same.  To him who suffers, suffering means always failure.  Jesus’s words on the cross–My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?–do not express the attitude of one who is performing a clearly understood, effective sacrifice….

“Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?”  Was I there in my suffering?  For that is where He is being crucified–in me, not in Jerusalem….  In this world there can be no grace but through redemptive suffering.  To encounter God’s agonizing grace I must walk into the bleak desert of my private pain and humiliation.  Perhaps I shall be able to accomplish no more than silently to accept my inability to accept.  But not more is expected: to confront my bitterness, rebellion, greed, jealousy, rage, impatience is to encounter Jesus’ agony in my own.  I must find Jesus’ agony also in those private worlds of suffering around me, which I am so reluctant to explore and so unable to comprehend.  Here also I am invited to accept, without understanding, Jesus’ agony in the uncouth, the uncivilized, the unlovable.  On Good Friday failure itself has become redemptive.  That Jesus fails in me is the joyous mystery of the union between God and me.”




Here paradox has seemingly reached its limits within the Christian tradition.  But Meister Eckhart will take us further–another time.