We will spend a few postings during 2017 reflecting on the possibilities of a Christian advaita, a Christian nonduality. This will not be a scholarly or theological exercise, but we do want to rely on real knowledge and serious theology. The use of one’s intelligence is important in approaching spirituality lest one fall into the trap of fundamentalism. Our main resource will be the writings of Abhishiktananda, especially the letters and the diary. There he was uninhibited in his own reflections and explorations since it wouldn’t get him into trouble with the Church authorities. A wise move considering what happened to other Catholic thinkers! We do have one problem in that a new edition of both the letters and the diary are planned for the near future, with the diary apparently containing some previously unpublished material. We may have to revise our conclusions after that comes out!
Another very important resource is Eckhart, but he is more difficult for us since his vision is couched in the language of medieval Thomism. We will make sparing use of him. More central and more important is simply the Gospel of John, the foundational document of Christian mysticism; and somewhere Abhishiktananda called it the “Christian Upanishad.” Interesting. The Hindu Upanishads are, of course, the text, the scripture that bears witness most acutely to the advaitic experience with the One we call “God.” It was Abhishiktananda’s deepest wish and his deepest sense of mission or vocation to draw this experience into Christianity and to re-express it in Christian terms. More than that, he was trying to find advaita within the heart of Christianity, and for him the Gospel of John was going to be a key element in this endeavor. I really believe that Abhishiktananda was onto something here, and so our own reflection will proceed with one eye always on these resources.
Now before we take our plunge, there is one major problem to confront: Christianity’s seeming aversion to advaita. No doubt about it, basic Christian thought and basic Christian piety is very much dualistic. There is the creator-creature distinction; then there is Jesus over there and here I am–and even where this kind of outlook gets very spiritualized as a “presence” within one, or as in Eastern Orthodox spirituality, where one is “divinized,” the fact is that you and Christ are treated as “two,” as “separate,” and as finally united by a very fragile bond in that “twoness.” Finally, there is the sense of a remote God, the Father, and maybe even the whole Trinity as a kind of fearful remote reality, so one turns and focuses on some saint or Mary. Sadly this becomes the basic spirituality of way too many Catholics and other Christians. (I am totally ignoring Protestant fundamentalists, who would be a caricature of the above-stated and so not even worth our consideration here.) But if we turn to some Christian mystics and if we become conversant with a truly developed theological outlook, we might find it all not necessarily or simplistically dualistic.
The person we will find to be most helpful in this regard is Jacques Dupuis, a Jesuit theologian who taught in India for many years and became friends with Abhishiktananda in the last years of his life. Dupuis was deeply interested in the encounter of Christianity with the great world religions, and because of his life in India this was mostly focused on Hinduism. This encounter very much is shaped by what we believe is the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. And in this regard Dupuis is an expert, and we will consult his authoritative book: Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions. Dupuis is very sympathetic to Abhishiktananda’s ideas and very respectful of his spiritual experience, but he is also not uncritical of what he believes to be some questionable aspects of Abhishiktananda’s formulations or whether Abhishiktananda can reconcile his articulated spiritual experience with traditional Catholic Christology. We will consider what he has to say–it is important to our consideration of the possibility of a Christian advaita.
Now to start off let us clarify what is a not uncommon misunderstanding: that advaita necessarily implies monism. “Advaita” means “not two”; so the usual supposition would say, “Well, then, advaita means “one.” That would indicate monism. That would mean that “I” and “God” are one substance really–thus “monism.” Dualism is simply the affirmation that “God” and “I” are distinctly different and thus “two.” Advaita says: Not so! But does that necessarily force us to say “one” in the sense of monism? I am afraid that a large number of Hindu sages and also Western intellectuals seem to believe that is the case. Certain people with mystical experience of advaita, both Hindu and Christians like Abhishiktananda and Eckhart, seem to indicate that the situation is much more nuanced and that there is another choice of sorts here. In a very real sense, Christian advaita would prefer to say, “not one, not two”; this would be the Christian version of the “neti, neti” of the Upanishads.
Lets approach our problem in another way. Christianity and Christian mysticism is fundamentally and deeply relational. The ground of all relationality is the relationality within the Trinity. Then there is the relationship of Jesus to the one he calls Father. Then there is the relationship of Jesus to his disciples. And finally, there is the relationship of the disciples among themselves and to the rest of the world. All this “relationship” stuff seems to point in another direction from advaita: dualism. Afterall the disciple prays to Jesus; the disciple “returns” to the Father, etc. And “I” am I, and “you” are you. The “other” is still and always the other. Even Buber’s attempt at creating a deeper sense of union within the Judeo-Christian perspective with the “I-thou” formulation still does not escape the sense of “otherness.” Advaita, on the other hand, seems to obliterate all sense of otherness. Here is Abhishiktananda giving us a sense of the problem we face:
“Not allowing myself to locate God anywhere outside me, but recognizing that within as well as without there is only He alone. For if there were God plus an ‘other,’ he would no longer be God, the Absolute! Nothing is left but he who says : I AM! Then what does it matter where I ‘myself’ am? It is his business! But how to say ‘Him’? ‘Who’ is there to speak of ‘Him’? Nothing is left but He who says ‘I’ ‘aham,’ from eternity to eternity. OM is precisely the word of the one who in the presence of the mystery can do no more.”
Abhishiktananda will be our guide in future postings on this topic as he both articulates the crucial nature of the problem most forcefully and at the same time he shows us a way out of our dilemma. Let’s be clear at the outset: there is no solution to our problem in the sense of any conceptual understanding or any systematic thought. There is only a hint, a faint scent, a glimmer of light that we can catch in all our symbols and stories and language and theories. If we have the proper preparation of a certain kind of religious experience, then we might find out how advaita and our Christian identity will cohere. But trust me, this is not an easy matter–Abhishiktananda is a witness to that! Our little reflections will be merely a “preparation of the ground” for the real work of the heart.
So our plan, then, will be first to focus on the Gospel of John, then we will focus on what Abhishiktananda has to say as our “Master Teacher,” and then we will listen to Dupuis and his appraisal of Abhishiktananda’s presentation. Finally, we will, perhaps, present our own appraisal of Dupuis. So that’s it for now.