By Peter Corney
There has been a profound change in the way many western people understand themselves in relation to God, spirituality and religious concepts. In short God and the self have blurred into one. The forces that have brought about this change are complex but here are three key factors in the process.
First, out of the Renaissance and the Reformation there emerged a form of Christian humanism. Following and flowing out of the Renaissance the Enlightenments influence gradually disconnected humanism from its Christian roots. What eventually emerged was what we have come to call secular humanism.
Secular humanism encouraged the idea of the autonomous individual who, independent of God, possessed within themselves alone the power to discover, to understand, to create and control whatever they determined. The rise of modern science accompanied and reinforced this process. By the late nineteenth century the philosopher and radical thinker Friedrich Nietzsche had declared that the idea and necessity of God was dead. These processes laid the ground work for the change by over inflating reason and the self. As a result the western idea of the self began to gradually break free from its biblical theological frame work and Christian world view. The idea of the autonomous self was born.
Second, is a little known today, but highly influential thinker called Feuerbach, another nineteenth century German. He began by studying theology but turned away from Christianity to become a hostile critic. Feuerbach put forward the idea that God is the outward projection of mans inward nature, a wish fulfillment, a projection of our own aspirations and desires on to a non existent divine being. “God,” he said “is the realized wish of the heart.” “Knowledge of God is nothing else than the knowledge of man.” He was very hostile to the idea of revelation which he described as a “poison that destroys the divine feeling in man.” These ideas were promoted in his book “The Essence of Christianity.” (1)
Feuerbach had a deep influence on a group of thinkers and writers who have profoundly shaped the modern world: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the intellectual source of Marxism/Communism who together wrote the Communist Manifesto, and Sigmund Freud the father of modern psychiatry. Freud’s research, ideas and terminology attempted to describe the self in new terms and in the process succeeded in reshaping the modern view of the self. Many of the ideas and ways of describing and understanding ourselves that we commonly use today are influenced by Freud and his disciple Karl Jung. (2)
At the time of its publication (1841) Engels said of Feuerbach’s book “One must himself have experienced the liberating effect of this book to get an idea of it. Enthusiasm was general; we all became at once Feuerbachians.” Interestingly it was Feuerbach who first said “Religion is as bad as opium” a phrase later echoed by Marx, “Religion is the opium of the people.” Another quotation from Marx reveals Feuerbach’s influence, “Religion is only the illusory sun, around which man revolves until he begins to revolve around himself.” Freud treated religion as an illusion or wish fulfillment, an idea that has influenced so much of psychology and psychiatry in our times.
This is not only the beginning of the psychologising of religion it is the beginning of the grand inflation of the self. We are now the creators of God! God is just a projection of our own imagination, fantasies and wishes. Of course if we created him then we can also dismiss him, which was indeed the final result of the enlightenment experiment and announced by Nietzsche. That is what makes the next step in the process so paradoxical and contradictory – turning the self into God! If we have now decided that God is just a projection of our wishes and imagination, and an idea we have outgrown, why would we make the self divine? But that is exactly what we have done.
The reasons are deeply theological – our overweening desire to inflate the self to the place of independence from God. It’s beginning, described in the powerful mythic language of Genesis, has now reached its climax. In offering the great temptation: The serpent says “You will not surely die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5)
In the West, given where we had arrived at through the Enlightenment, we achieved this next paradoxical step by embracing a new, at least to the West, and very exotic influence, Eastern Mysticism (EM). This is the third force in the reshaping of the western mind.
As the West tired of secular materialism in the 1960’s and 70’s the counter culture flowered and the Baby Boomers embraced Eastern Mysticism. The Beatles went to India and everyone followed! The interest has continued but the result is not what anyone who really understands Eastern Mysticism might have expected.
At the heart of Eastern Mysticism (EM), particularly in its Buddhist form, is the question of how to solve the problem of suffering. The East’s solution is detachment. Our suffering, it is claimed, comes about through our attachment to our desires in this world. If we break our attachments we can free ourselves from that which is the source of our suffering. So the teaching and practice is geared towards this process of detachment and disengagement from the world. The ultimate step is to become detached from the conscious self, to become the “not self”, where individuality is extinguished in the “great deathless lake of Nirvana.”
Whereas Christianity is about incarnation the central idea here is excarnation – disembodiment, the annihilation of the self. The mental and physical disciplines of EM are part of the means to this end. The aim is to realise your oneness with the cosmic oneness or consciousness as a pinch of salt is absorbed into a glass of water. This is certainly not about the inflation of the self!
Closely related to this is the idea of transcending the material plane of the illusion of difference and absorption into the one, the great unity. This idea from EM is more associated with forms of Hinduism and is seen as the solution to what is believed to be another aspect of our suffering and burdens in this world. These are the troubles that arise from our insistence on the differences around us, differences of human and animal, plants and insects, race and religion, health and sickness, material and spiritual, rich and poor, etc. These differences are said to be an illusion that we need to transcend. The task of the spiritual journey, they say, is to transcend the plane of illusion and realize our unity with the one. (This and the above idea have a common source in the East’s pantheistic world view that God and nature are one and there is no distinction between them. This is described philosophically as Monism – from mono meaning one.)
It seems that the declared end result of EM is the shedding not just of self consciousness but of our unique personal identity. This has been critiqued as really the annihilation or suicide of the self.
Annihilation of the self is not very congenial to the Western mind shaped as it is, first, by Christianity’s view of the value of each human person made in the image of God which is reinforced by the incarnation of Christ in human flesh. Then, second, by the enlightenment and the forces we have described above. Years of humanist thought that celebrates the uniqueness and importance of the individual and their creativity and power and right to decide and choose and shape and control the world does not give up so easily. We are prone not to the annihilation of the self but to its inflation!
So we have adapted Eastern Mysticism and adopted it’s ideas selectively to achieve the very opposite of its declared goal. We have used EM not to annihilate the self but to further inflate it in the most grandiose inflation of all, to transform the self into God!
We have done this by taking from EM those things that are congenial to the Western mind and life style and ignored or flirted superficially with the rest. The things that are congenial to the Western mind are: The idea of unity. Western culture has been promised so much by material progress through the industrial and technological revolutions, by science and modern medicine and yet now finds itself in a confusing and fragmenting society. International migration has created multicultural societies where once a more mono culture and uniform national identity was assumed. This has caused significant tensions. They are acutely aware of the growing disunity of their world, the fragmenting of marriages and families, the loss of community, the environmental crisis and the divisions of the world through international conflicts. In this environment the unitary idea of EM is immensely attractive.
We invite the Dali Lama to visit the West and listen approvingly as the rather exotic figure talks about world peace and unity. His lectures on Tibetan Buddhism are also well attended but much less understood and quoted in the press as they take one into the more opaque labyrinth of Eastern thought.
As the West has become a more pluralist culture it has embraced moral relativism in its ethics and syncretism in its approach to religion – the “blender” view. It is also increasingly influenced by post modern subjectivism in its evaluation of spiritual and religious ideas. For these reasons the idea of pantheism is attractive because it supports the notion that all religions are really just different expressions of the one. It requires no hard thinking or difficult decisions about what might be true or false, reasonable or nonsense, consistent or illogical. The fact that some of the fundamental ideas of different religious systems are mutually exclusive and logically contradictory is either brushed aside as too hard to think about or, as in most cases, not even considered out of shear ignorance. These days the West likes its religion lite!
We flirt with detachment from our materialism with expensive eco tourist retreats and high tech costly push bikes and lycra riding outfits. We borrow some of the meditation techniques and go to Yoga classes to ease our stress and keep our bodies in shape. But not to really detach from our frenetic work and entertainment but to refuel to re-engage more energetically! Our engagement with EM is at best simplistic and naive and at worst cynical and dishonest.
Another idea in EM that is congenial to the western mind is the notion that there is a divine spark in all of us. The idea is that because we are all part of the one, potentially we are all little Gods. Our task is to realise the divine light in ourselves, realise our divinity and our true unity with the one. To go thus far with EM is very congenial to the Western tendency to inflate the self – the self has now become divine! ( A brilliant recent analysis of this trend is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free Press, 2012, see chp 7)
Some eastern teachers are fond of quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 17:21 “The kingdom of God is within you” to reinforce their ideas with a biblical phrase still familiar to some western ears. This gives the impression that essentially EM and Jesus’ teaching are the same. The context of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus makes it quite clear that what Jesus meant by these words is in fact the complete opposite to what EM teaches! (3) Jesus, standing in the midst of the crowd, is saying: ‘The kingdom of God is entered by an inner act of faith and trust in me its King. I am here in your midst now and if you want to enter my kingdom you must submit to my rule, obey and follow me.’ Jesus is not found within us he must be invited in and submitted to and we must first turn away from our inflated selves and seek forgiveness for our pride and independence.
In John 10:1-18 Jesus takes the metaphor of the sheepfold and the shepherd and says that only those who come into the fold via the shepherd are members of the flock of God. The shepherd sleeps across the entrance to the fold. Any one trying to enter the sheepfold some other way is either a thief or a wolf! (4)
In the Christian faith when a person is encountered by God in Jesus Christ and they respond and submit to him in repentance and faith the image of God in which they were created is restored. They are not absorbed and their identity and personhood annihilated or lost, they in fact find it renewed. (5) They have now entered into a union with Christ who became incarnate, took on human flesh, lived, died and then rose from the dead. For Christians the resurrected body is a real body, renewed, but in continuity with our former body. Christianity is about incarnation not excarnation! Christians are about the renewing and perfecting of the self in the image of Christ not its annihilation. (6)
It is very instructive that the development of hospitals, orphanages, and modern medicine did not develop in the East but in the West influenced by the Christian teaching of the value of the individual life, the body, and the importance of the physical world. The physical world is to be respected and enjoyed but not worshiped for it is not God. It was made, like us, by God and reflects his glory but it is not God. These distinctions lie at the heart of the difference between EM and Christianity. (7)
- ‘The Essence of Christianity” by L. Feuerbach 1841. See also The New Dictionary of Theology” IVP 1988 p258 -259.
- See “The Empty Self” Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity” by J. Satinover Grove Books no. 61 1995.
- See Romans 1:18-25. (NIV) Note the clear distinction between the Creator and the created order.
- Phil. 3:7-14
- Rom 1:18-25. Psl.19:1-4