How Spiritual Is Christianity?
This knowledge in unknowing / is so overwhelming / that wise men disputing / can never overthrow it, / for their knowledge does not reach / to the understanding of not understanding, / transcending all knowledge.
—St. John of the Cross, from “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation”
These things thou must not disclose to any of the uninitiated, by whom I mean those who cling to the objects of human thought, and imagine there is no super-essential reality beyond; and fancy that they know by human understanding Him that has made Darkness His secret place.
—the Pseudo-Dionysius, from “The Mystical Theology”
I have never been a Christian—not in this lifetime anyway. Christianity never made much sense to me as a child, and after I became old enough to understand it, I simply found some of the central tenets to be unbelievable. For example I’ve never been able to take seriously the notion that a Hebrew carpenter turned miracle rabbi who lived in the early Roman Empire, and who was gruesomely executed on political charges, was somehow the Creator of the Universe—and Christian doctrine does have the Son, the Logos, the manifesting power of God, creating the Universe and not the Father Himself. In Milton’s Paradise Lost it is Christ who creates the world and Adam and Eve, and who participates in the whole drama of Genesis with the fruit, the snake, expulsion from Eden, and so on.
But despite my insistence on being a misbegotten child of darkness and sin, a true heathen, I have read the Bible from cover to cover, from Genesis to Revelation, twice (both ironically as a Buddhist monk living in a cave), and have read some parts several times—I especially like the Book of Ecclesiastes of course (futility of futilities, all is futile), I think the general epistle of James comes about as close to Buddhism as any book in the Bible, and my favorite gospel is Mark. In my youth I even tried my hand at interpreting Revelation in accordance with modern events, although now I consider it to be mostly a false prophecy dreamed up by a very hysterical prophet.
Also I have read a lot of history and can appreciate the fact that Christianity and the Bible have had a radically profound influence on western civilization. That makes it worth studying in and of itself. The history of the late Roman Empire contains one hell of a lot of the history of the early Church, too; and the medieval west was profoundly Catholic, even though the priests, bishops, monks, and popes were often extraordinarily corrupt. And I have taken a few teachings of the New Testament to heart which are not much emphasized in the Pali Canon, like doing acts of merit in secret, and not making confident assertions regarding one’s future state but always adding a proviso like “God willing.” Assuming that the Buddhist idea of rebirth/reincarnation is true, I consider it likely that I have been a Christian, even an ordained one, in past lives.
In addition to all this, I’ve been thinking about Christianity a bit more than usual now that I am living in a conservative society in a Republican majority state, with a number of my coworkers being church-going Christians. Just recently at work I walked into the manager’s office and he was sitting there at his desk reading the Bible, and the owner of the company is a true blue Evangelist. Consequent to all this, I would like to go over, not entirely for the first time, my understanding of the spiritual, transcendent value of the erstwhile predominant religion and belief system of western civilization.
There are two main reasons why I never became a Christian. First, the religion requires belief in a rather implausible story that cannot be proven (even setting aside the notion that all the suffering in the world was caused by a man made from soil and a woman made from a bone being tricked by a snake into eating a certain type of fruit). And second, I was always very unimpressed by the conduct of the overwhelming majority of Christians; the conduct of Christians compared with the instructions given in the New Testament are like night and day. “Gather not up your treasures upon the earth” is one of the main, big ones that the overwhelming majority even of devout Christians conveniently ignore, just to mention one of many. I watch a YouTuber named Steve Turley who is a personification of all that I found fault with among Christians and conservatives when I was younger: he is a devout Christian and up until recently was a teacher of theology…yet he shamelessly chases money and is extremely worldly in his point of view. I cringe at his thoroughly ungodly money-grubbing and his feeble attempts at “cool” (“Check out my awesome merch!!!”), but he does say interesting and occasionally useful things, so I put up with it all.
Anyway, Buddhism allows that virtuous people who are not Buddhist or even particularly religious can go to heaven…but heaven doesn’t last forever and is not the highest possible goal. The highest a devout Christian is even allowed to hope for is the Beatific Vision, or being in heaven NEAR God; there is no full realization or merging with the Absolute as is the case in eastern spiritual systems.
But I may be getting ahead of myself because very few Christians, comparatively speaking, get anywhere near to a Beatific Vision in their spirituality. Most of them of course are thoroughly secular, and hardly any different from atheists in their outward conduct. I would guess that, going with a statistical approach, a believing Christian in the west is somewhat more likely to have relatively high moral principles, and somewhat less likely to be a vice-ridden fool, than a secular atheist; but this is pretty much the same with ANY religion that is not a mandatory monoculture incorporating the entire population of a culture. At least Christians have moral precepts, even if all of them are not followed—how many sell all that they have, give the money to the poor, and take up their cross? But moral principles are not the same as genuine spirituality, and even thoroughly samsaric normies can be good and upright people.
Regardless of the worldliness of the majority of Christians, it is my understanding that there will be wise and saintly people born into any culture, and spiritual geniuses have been born into Christian societies. (An argument similar to this can be used against Christian fundamentalists insisting that the ONLY way to be saved and go to heaven is through believing in Christ: good people doing their sincere, conscientious best are born all over the world, including in societies that are not Christian or even significantly exposed to Christianity. So, would a good and just God create these people just to damn them to hell despite their honesty, generosity, love for their neighbor, and all the rest? I don’t see it.) I even suspect that it is possible for a Christian to become fully enlightened in a Buddhist sense—in spite of some of the rather limiting teachings of their religion, and in spite of the fact that full enlightenment is foreign to the world view of virtually all Christians. But then again, enlightenment is only a theory to most Buddhists also.
My favorite example of a possibly enlightened Christian is Saint John of the Cross, San Juan de la Cruz, patron saint of Spanish poets and the Mystical Doctor of the Catholic Church. I have read all of his extant works and consider the man to be POSSIBLY more wise and more spiritually advanced than even the Hebrew founder of his own religion. (It is very difficult to say just how advanced Jesus of Nazareth was, largely because most of his followers, including the authors of the New Testament, apparently did not understand him very well.) I think John of the Cross would have made an excellent Buddhist, even a genuine Buddhist sage…but of course a person living in 16th-century Spain had little choice but to be a Roman Catholic. To his credit he was persecuted by the Holy Inquisition, and before his final illness he was planning on moving to Mexico as a missionary in order to get away from the ecclesiastical madness of his homeland.
It fascinates me that a Roman Catholic saint could follow a radically different theory, but at the same time could follow essentially Buddhist yogic practices and arrive at arguably Buddhist advanced spiritual states. And his explanations of advanced spiritual states, though interpreted through a lens of Christian dogma, can be seen to be strangely parallel to Buddhist explanations of what may be presumed to be the same states. For example his Catholic explanation of “high contemplation” is very similar to the Theravadin explanations of the higher jhānas—and I consider St. John to have been a master of fourth jhāna, despite his Christianity. Mindfulness as well as concentration was practiced by the monks and nuns of Catholic contemplative orders, and what Buddhists call mindfulness, based on the Pali word sati which also means “memory,” is called recollection in Christianity, which also can mean “memory.” St. John even discusses a threefold division of the human race in accordance with spiritual mastery: the beginner is the common worldling who does not practice, or who at any rate has not mastered, contemplation or jhāna; the adept who has mastered contemplation; and the “perfect” who has not only mastered contemplation but has mortified his self-will and no longer acts in accordance with personal desires. This is very similar to the Buddhist classification of the puthujjana, sekha, and asekha—the common worldling, the one in training who has glimpsed Nibbana but has not become fully enlightened, and the asekha who is no longer in training because he has attained full enlightenment. And the asekha in Buddhism also no longer acts in accordance with self-will and consequently no longer creates kamma/karma, which is will. It is interesting that St. John describes the perfected Christian as a kind of egoless puppet of God, who acts only in accordance with the will of God; a Buddhist of course would have to define such a person differently, although the person may be the very same. I was very surprised to read St. John’s ideas about the perfected soul, considering that even Jesus claimed that nobody is perfect; and St. John even talks of such a person “being God through participation,” which ordinarily would strike me as more of a Hindu concept than a 16th-century Spanish Catholic one. And as I say, Saint John of the Cross apparently was teaching based on his own experiences, not simply on established dogma.
I really like his explanation of contemplation and “dark faith” also: in his instructions to his disciples he would instruct the more advanced ones to dismiss anything from their mind that is not God. God cannot be sensed with the worldly senses, so they are to be dismissed. God cannot be understood through reason, so reason is dismissed. God cannot be imagined, so imagination is dismissed…in fact God cannot be know through ANY mental states, so all mental states are dismissed, resulting in a mind that is silent and still, yet still wide awake. And when one has attained this state of having dismissed all mental states from the mind, one realizes that there is still something there…which St. John identifies as the Spirit of God. This realization of the Absolute through mysticism is called by him dark faith, and also true poverty of spirit.
Anyway, it is not hard to see why the man was persecuted by the Holy Inquisition. But some Pope had the wisdom to recognize the wisdom of Juan de la Cruz and to have him canonized, so that now everything the man had to say on the subject of mysticism is authoritative Catholic dogma.
Some Buddhist fundamentalists may consider the idea of a fully enlightened Christian to be Pernicious Wrong View, especially considering that Christians believe in an immortal soul, in a Creator God, in salvation only through worshiping a deified Jewish person, etc. etc. But I have long been of the opinion that the words of a religious system are largely irrelevant, especially at the more advanced levels of progress. If one practices wisely, one transcends (or dismisses) the fundamental dogmas of even the wisest religions. This is what dark faith is about. The highest truth cannot be held in words anyway, and as Ajahn Chah used to say, even Right View becomes Wrong View if you cling to it. It is the clinging that makes it wrong. Ultimately we have to loosen our grip on our religion, just as we loosen our grip on samsara in general, because ultimately all religions are manifestations of samsara. The Dhamma is just a metaphorical raft made of convenient rubbish (“skillful means”) that we throw away after we cross the flood with it; and although it may be harder to cross the flood on a Christian raft because it is less seaworthy, still it is not totally impossible. Even a raft constructed of Right Views lashed together has to be left behind eventually.