Monthly Archives: February 2017

Toward a Christian Advaita, Part II: The Gospel of John

Continuing our reflections on the possibility of a Christian version of advaita, nonduality. Here we will focus on one of the most fundamental documents of Christian identity and thought: the Gospel of John. While there are also many parts of Paul that could be helpful in this regard; and while the other Gospels can also be brought into a coherent harmony with a nondualistic vision, it is John who is most important and most critical for our purposes. Our guide in all this is of course Abhishiktananda.

“In the beginning was the Word”….such is the opening of the Gospel in most translations. We have to be attentive to the multiple nuances and rich layers of signification of each word, especially in a deep ancient language like Greek. And so here we run into a problem–every translation, no matter how good, ends up flattening to a more or less extent the nuances of the original. Here the Greek reads (in transliteration): En arche en ho logos. The word “arche” here is usually and correctly translated as “beginning,” but this beginning is not simply the first element in a sequence. Like if you have the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., you just have a series of elements and “1” is simply the first, or the “beginning” of this sequence. But when John starts “en arche,” he is not pointing to a sequence but to something that is “first” or a “beginning” in the sense of being fundamental, the ground on which all else is built you might say. The first principle of it all. And this is, according to John, the “logos,” weakly translated as the “word.” But this is not the fault of the translators because it is impossible to get into English or any other modern language the amazing richness of meaning that “logos” has. If you look it up in the famous and comprehensive Greek dictionary by Liiddell & Scott, you will find several pages on this word alone. It is one of the most ancient words in the Indo-European family and it has a long history of numerous associations and nuances. It was a very important word for Heraclitus, for Plato and Aristotle, and into modern times when Heidegger reflected on the Greek roots of Western thought through a reflection of the nuances of this little word. Just to scratch the surface, logos can mean the following: that by which the inward thought is expressed, that which is said or spoken, a word, language, a saying, speech, discourse, a story, a conversation, report, history, a narrative, a proposition, a principle, rationality, thought, reason, an account, and much more. You can see this word appearing at the roots of many modern words, like anthropology and theology, the logos of anthropos (or human beings), and the logos of theos (or God).

So you can see that John is plunging us right into the depths with the very first words. In a sense he is saying that the foundation of all that is is a kind of “self-expression”, an implied relationality. There is the Source; then there is “that by which the inward thought of the Source is expressed,” and made manifest, the Logos. So we are also seemingly plunged into a vision of a kind of “twoness” or dualism. John tells us: kai ho logos en pros ton theon–translated as, “and the Word was with God.” Here we need to note two new important terms: theos = “God,” but immediately note not to imagine or think you know what this word refers to. All images of “God” must be cast aside at this point; all notions of “someone” or “something” “out there” are not it–a kind of mental idolatry that is purged by whatever serious spiritual path we take until we meet the real Mystery of the One we call God. We misread the Scriptures almost always by a kind of lazy familiarity with the words and think we know what is being said to us. And the next word is even more critical for our purposes: pros = “with” in the translation, but in actuality the primary sense of pros is “toward” or “to” and “with” is a kind of derivative sense. So the underlying meaning is that there is this “to-ness” to God, that the Logos is “toward” God in the fullest meaning of that, a dynamic of relationality that is turned to this Reality. You see that the word “with” is a weaker notion in that it connotes merely proximity in a sense: the Logos is with God; but in reality the Logos is totally turned toward God. All this of course seems to imply a fundamental dualism before there is even any creation.

But the very next sentence throws us into the paradox and mystery of this Reality: kai theos en ho logos, translated as “and the Word was God.” So we have a real dilemma here. The Logos is not only “with” “God,” or “toward” “God,” but also and at the same time equivalent to “God.” So in normal language all of this looks like we have “2” of something–“2” of God. Later, when we are introduced to the “Holy Spirit,” we seem to be saying there are “3” of these called “God.” But it must be emphasized right away that this is not “normal” language or language in its everyday usage. This is not a “counting” situation. All classic traditional Trinitarian theology of all the main traditions recognizes this. The Trinity is a total Mystery. There seems to be a “threeness” there and at the same time a “oneness.” How this can be is totally beyond our capacity to conceptualize or explain. But there have been attempts to precisely do that and they are called heresies: conceptualizations that mislead us from the truth. One was called tritheism: basically this said that the Logos, or later called the Son, and the “Father” and the Holy Spirit are three enumerated and separate entities, in other words, “three gods.” This absolutizes multiplicity and dualism right within the Divine Reality. As crude as this sounds, I am afraid that a lot of popular piety and popular religious thought is very close to this because it doesn’t take the mystery aspect seriously enough. There are these “3” and three they are, and a lot of popular religiosity has this feel about it. And this can have a devastating effect on spirituality and the religious life.

Now the other heresy, which I believe was called “modalism,” reduces the Mystery in the other direction: oneness. The “three” are merely aspects or appearances of One Reality. “Threeness” here is merely a function of a certain difference in the “showing” of the Divine Reality. In both cases what we have is a collapsing of the Divine Mystery into one or the other of its poles. Very difficult to maintain both poles when we have such a deep drive to rationalize and explain reality. And even though we are speaking only of the Divine Reality, this has a paradigmatic effect on the whole dualism/nondualism argument. You see, if multiplicity is the very nature of the Divine Reality then there is no question that dualism is the more proper way of conceiving our relationship to the Divine Reality. We stand before the Trinity in prayer as the “fourth” enumerated element. On the other hand, if oneness is the very nature of the Divine Reality then we are drawn into what is called “monism,” everything is really only One, multiplicity is only an illusion, maya. Certain strains of Indian religious thought are very strong on that. Abhishiktananda knew that was a crucial wrong turn in the spiritual road, that claiming that all multiplicity in reality is only maya, would never allow Christian nondualism to be discovered. Yet he also had his undeniable advaitic experience of the Divine Reality. He found a promising path in plunging ever deeper into the fundamental Christian Mystery of the Trinity and then reinterpreting the Jesus story in a more untraditional way.

So in the very first sentence the Gospel of John has immersed us into the depths and exposed us to a deep conundrum. The next sentence practically repeats this and emphasizes this line of thought: “He was in the beginning with God.” This repetition is striking and not without a purpose. Then the next sentence opens up a new door: “All things came into being through him”–meaning “through” the Logos. Well, this brings all of “creation” or, if you will, all of reality into the picture. Everything, all, absolutely nothing excluded except the “beginningless” Divine Reality, exists only “through” the Logos; and what this “through” means is kind of the “crown jewels” of the Gospel. Everything, like one blade of grass or your very self, exists only because of the Logos; and it’s important to see this correctly, not as the “clockmaker” God of the Englightenment Age deists who looked at the Divine Reality and creation in a mechanical relationship: this God makes the universe like a clockmaker making a clock and then he sets it “there” and it goes by itself. This is a very crude kind of dualism. But the implication of the text and the deepest Christian theology and mysticism would say that the Logos is present “in” every created reality as the one keeping that reality in existence–apart from the Logos it would go out of existence. And the text finishes this line : “and without him not one thing came into being.”

There are a lot of other points to be made in the next few lines like all that language about “light” and “darkness” which seems to point to another symbol of dualism but in actuality all that does is make a kind of distinction that our Buddhists friends tend to make: the difference between being “awake” and “not awake” to reality; but we will skip all this and proceed to something of absolutely crucial importance: “And the Logos became flesh.” I especially want to avoid that usual translation of “Logos” as “Word” because that is a weak rendering whose real meaning we are totally numb to. The Greek word for what is translated as “flesh” is “sarx,” and here again the radical nature of this statement is not at all apparent. Sarx does not just mean “flesh” as what you have on your bones; that image really stands for the whole human condition, human finitude, human fraility and limitation, etc. To borrow something from the Buddhists: sarx is the human situation viewed through samsara. You have to realize that in the Greek-thought world of that time, which would have included all the writers and readers of the Gospel of John, the logos as located within the Divine Reality cannot possibly have anything to do with sarx. They are at opposite poles as it were and imply a radical dualism. The Gospel, thus, makes this radical claim that the Logos “became” sarx. Wow! The whole Gospel is engaged in this delicate dance between dualism and oneness, and here it seems as if the dualism is totally overcome. But of course the key word here is “became,” which then turns into quite a bone of contention over the centuries leading to many different kinds of heresies and different kinds of traditional interpretations and including Abhishiktananda’s radical reinterpretation which may or may not cohere with Church teaching. Abhishiktananda wanted to look at this statement through the eyes of Advaita Vedanta, through the eyes of the Upanishads, through the eyes of the rishis who had this experience of advaita. I am not sure if the Church will ever be able to do that in any serious way.

Be that as it may, what we want to do now is simply appreciate the radical nature of this statement. It is even deeper and more fully needing exploration than even that profound Buddhist realization: samsara=nirvana, the elimination of the final duality within the human mind. In a future posting we will continue to ponder this delicate dance within the Gospel between dualism and oneness, and we will bring in explicitly Abhishiktananda’s words.

To be continued…..