Weeping with the Goddess in Jake’s Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago I was dog-sitting for my friend Jake who was out of town. At one point after breakfast, I found myself prostrate on the ground, weeping and talking with an intimate stranger…the Goddess, in fact.

But before I go into all that, it’s probably helpful if I rewind a bit and share a less-known slice of my personal history with the Good Lord.

As longtime readers of this blog might know, my family and I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we moved from our native Atlanta are in 2006. We moved here with over a dozen of our friends from undergrad days at Berry College, as well as with new friends and co-dreamers from across the country to ‘seed’ the planting of an ‘organic’ expression of church life – what some variously know as house church, simple church, or intentional community. We were part of a national movement that began to come apart at the seams right around the time we moved; we lasted ‘till about 2008.

Back to me and the Goddess for a second: What caused a nice Jesus-lovin,’ evangelical-reared boy like me to be weeping in front of the Sacred Feminine on my friend’s linoleum floor, a Lassie-looking pup looking docilely on? I was going to write an original explanation of all this, but then I looked back into my ‘Writings’ folder here on the computer, and found something I shared with our house church community back in 2007, on the topic of…

What You Might Not Know About The Lord & Me

You see, our church structure (ideally, at least) was open, participatory, egalitarian and interdependent with others in our ‘family’ or network of churches. Our typical gathering was initiated by singing, and then any number of us sharing for 3-5 minutes, drawn from what we reflected on throughout the week – our “portion of Christ” as we saw it. From time to time, we were given outside direction. We were ‘planted’ and ‘watered’ by those we called ‘workers,’ what those in other traditions might call anything from ‘circuit riders’ to ‘apostles.’ (But we in the Watchman Nee/T. Austin-Sparks post-Brethren lineage that we were, we called them workers.) Our worker at the time, who had a day job as an influential financial manager in the Northeast, challenged us to get to know one another better by having a series of gatherings wherein one person would ‘take’ the majority of the meeting, sharing on What You Might Not Know About the Lord and Me. It was a rich time of hearing new facets of people who lived among – some whom we’d known for years. What follows are rather detailed notes on what I shared:

“The Lord”?

I’m sorry, but this question just lends itself to some rather shady pronouncements. Like “When I was eight, the Lord beat me up and threw me behind a dumpster…” [Dark, Mike. Dark.] But no. I appreciate the impetus behind this question. Many of us have secret pasts and presents with God; dark and mysterious and wondrous things, and it would be good to share.

The first thing you should know is that I don’t call God “the Lord,” not usually. While it’s utterly true that he is our Lord—our Master, the Maestro of the Art of Living—I find it ironic that we’ve picked up on this most formal of titles and made it our choice term of intimacy. The standard placeholder “God” works for me fine, though I also enjoy the Hebrew proper names, like the dynamic and revelatory YHWH, “I am as I shall show myself.” Or El Shaddai.

Let me say a few words about El Shaddai. It’s the most common way I address God while enjoying fellowship with God in Centering Prayer. Now don’t get the wrong impression; I don’t do this nearly as often as I want to; I don’t have a daily ritual of time ‘wasted’ with God like our brother to my right does, though I hope to soon. But when I can, I do the following:

  • I’ve chosen a name of God as the symbol of my awareness of God’s presence within, through and around me.
  • Sitting comfortably and with eyes resting, I briefly and silently introduce this name—El Shaddai—as the symbol of my consent to God’s presence and action within.
  • When I become aware of thoughts, I return ever-so-gently to “El Shaddai.”
  • At the end of about 20 minutes—I typically use a timer—I just sit for a moment or two. I might slowly say the Lord’s Prayer.

There are two reasons why “El Shaddai” is my most intimate of names for addressing God. One is that, with my proclivity toward eating God, it makes the most sense; one rendering of this name is “The God who feeds.” But there is a second reason. A deeper and more literal rendering of this name is “The God with breasts.” El Shaddai means provider precisely because she is the breast-feeding God. Also known as “The voluptuous God,” this is one of the many female depictions of God that has fallen by the wayside in popular use. (See my Appendix handout for Scriptural depictions of God-as-feminine.)

Why is this important to me? Well for one, becoming familiar once again with the many feminine faces of God in Scripture and history gives dignity and power to our sisters in Christ; it is an abandoned memory that needs to be recovered in our words, in our worship, and in our reflections on who God is in our midst.

But for me as a man this has an altogether more close-to-home meaning: recovering the eroticism of God in my devotional life. About a decade ago—first with certain songs coming out of the Vineyard movement and charismatic renewal, and then from the teachings of our itinerant church planters—I was introduced to a vigorous, full-on God-eroticism via bridal language.

Drawing from the Song of Songs and the many bridal images in both Old and New Testaments, I saw painted for me a love affair between the God of Israel/Christ and the people of God, both Israel and the Church. It was illustrated to me as a male suitor pursuing his beloved with fervor that can only be described as sexual, finally culimanating in the saucy, sensuous repertoire we see in both Song of Songs and the end of Revelation. I’ve seen how this understanding has revolutionized the devotional lives of our sisters in communities across the globe; I’ve also seen men in our churches try to get in the game, with varying results. Jesus-as-our-lover has a kind’ve mixed resonance for men because we’re men – it’s even parodied in our larger church culture by men who are uncomfortable with this level of intimacy in contemporary worship songs as Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend Music. (I wonder: Have any of these critics ever read Bernard of Clairvaux? Hildegard of Bingen? Teresa of Avila?) We recognize that “In Christ there is no male or female,” so in a real sense we too can enter into the ‘bridal experience’ and feel what it’s like to be ravished by our bridegroom via imaginative prayer and resting in divine fellowship. But for those of us who happen to be heterosexual men happily inhabiting our bodies, this is never quite an intuitive experience, is it?

So for me, seeing the sacred feminine as Sophia in Proverbs, or El Shaddai in the Old Testament, or Jesus-as-Mother in several New Testament depictions (not to mention in the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich) gives me back something I’ve never had as a man: the Voluptuous God, the female creator and nurturer who is comfortable with the space she inhabits. El Shaddai is self-possessed with a powerful, seductive eroticism, one that can both initiate and follow. When I spend time with God, she can ignite my senses with insight and proposition; she can also receive everything I have to give. When our workers encourage us to “Make love to your Lord,” guys, it’s worth reframing this!

The early Genesis poem recounts that both male and female are needed to fully bear the Imago Dei, the image of God on earth as s/he is in heaven. I have taken this to heart, and have sought to incorporate both the male and female in my multi-faceted relating to a many-splendored God.

*                 *                *

That’s what I shared in 2007. So. Many. Words. These days, words are failing me. I feel like Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, when he fell into a profound silence that lasted weeks. When prompted by one of his assistants to continue writing the thousands of pages of analytical theology had was known for, he replied: “I cannot write anymore because all that I have written seems like straw to me, compared to what has been revealed to me…”

Recently, I’ve been through a dark and challenging time in my life. It isn’t over quite yet. And no, dear readers, I will not be disclosing. Some things are best not blogged. But it really doesn’t matter: If you’re breathing air, you know what I’m talking about: The dissolution of something you once held dear, or thought was solid – perhaps in an outside relationship or job; perhaps within yourself. Changes are taking place; sometimes it feels invigorating, sometimes it feels scary.

I was in just such a place while dog-sitting for my friend Jake – doing dishes, listening to music via my iPhone dock, wondering what was next. I was specifically listening to Krishna Das, an American Kirtan singer – his album Live on Earth. Das’s voice is deeply masculine and totally enchanting all at the same time, the depth of devotion he infuses in his songs is hauntingly beautiful. I’d bought his memoir Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold at one of the liquidation sales of the late, lamented Borders, and started reading it recently. As far as coming-of-age-in-the-1960s-and-now-being-an-enlightened-superstud stories go, I enjoyed the writing and pacing of Keith Martin Smith’s A Heart Blown Open: The Life & Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi better. But still – Krishna Das’s story of finding grounding and expansiveness through a life of chanting the Names of God is inspiring – and challenging, as stories like these from varying faith traditions threaten to make me a perennialist yet.

But here I go again with words, words, words – layers of interpretation. Let’s return to the heart of the story: A song came on, Das’s rendering of the Devi Puja, or Goddess Prayer.

From the first notes of his harmonium (an instrument I first heard with powerful effect by my friend, the street-smart yogi and Kalachakra monk Kir – aka Kirantana – at last year’s inaugural Wild Goose Festival), and the repetition of the words He Maa Durga, I stopped drying a glass and froze. Then, I dropped to my knees. I knew that I was in the presence of God, but in this familiar-but-still-culturally-foreign form of El Shaddi, Ruah, Sophia…and more particularly still, Shakti, Shiva, Kali – but more generally, The Goddess.

If you’re one of those people who needs to know what the words mean, here’s an approximate translation of the Devi Puja. But I didn’t know this at the time:

Oh Goddess, you are the one who conquers all
You are the One beyond time
The auspicious One beyond time
The bearer of skulls who destroys all difficulties
Loving forgiveness and supporter of the universe.

You are the one who truly receives our sacrificial offerings
To you I bow.

I did not know, but I had the sense of this personified feminine Love, upholding the universe – and yet being difficult (or perhaps I was the one being difficult). And I was certainly bowing. I began crying – a little bit at first, and then weeping. Who was this One I was in the presence of? Somehow familiar, yet utterly foreign. Goddess. A complex swirl of thoughts, memories, and emotions began to swirl within me. Last May, I was initiated into the ManKind Project – a totally awesome secret society (we aren’t really, I just like to call us one); my initiation and subsequent, consistent time spent in a local circle of men has done wonders for digging deep into and integrating my experience of masculine energies – making peace with the idea of being both a real man and a good man. And now, it seems, that Femininity herself is knocking on the door of my heart. My integration continues.

After ten minutes or so of weeping and verbally asking questions of the Goddess, I decided to write them down. I picked up my journal. This is what I wrote:

May 22nd.

Goddess, I can’t be a man without you. 

Who are You, who’s been refracted so imperfectly through the women of my life? 


…why is Your energy so inaccessible, O cruel archetype? 

I long to know You as Mother, Lover, Friend. 

But You are aloof – You play games with me.

The absence of You divorces body from soul, heart from access and flow.

In my life, I’ve idolized You, and I’ve hated You.

I want neither.

Instead, I want to flow into You – to be lost in Your warmth, intoxicated in Your sensuality, recognizing and honoring Your essence in all things.

I also want to feel like a man in Your presence, to give you my essence and have it received, with gratefulness and joy. 

In many ways, my journaling strikes me as being like a Psalm – structured in complaint and collapse into Love. Clearly, I have some issues with feminine energy – and clearly, I long for her. At times, I am misogynist and feminist: This is my confession. Both are true.

The Devi Puja ended, and so did the experience. But she has lingered.

In so many ways, I’m at a crossroads of life and experience. While composting the best of my past, I feel like the first-century church at Pentecost, watching and waiting for the Spirit to hover over the face of my waters. And sometimes, this Spirit comes to me in distinctly feminine form. My prayer – for healing, wholeness, integration, and fresh creation in the world – is summed up in many ways by this song from the band Live at the turn of this century:

Sitting on the beach
The island king of love
Deep in Fijian seas
Deep in some blissful dream

Where the Goddess finally sleeps
In the lap of her lover
Subdued in all her rage
And I am aglow with the taste

Of the demons driven out
And happily replaced
with the presence of real Love
The only one who saves

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
The karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace
I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

The stillness in your eyes
Convinces me that I
I don’t know a thing
And I been around the world and I’ve
Tasted all the wines
A half a billion times
Came sickened to your shores
You show me what this life is for

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
the karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace

I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

We would not face
We would not face
We would not face…

See also my “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture

Recommended Reading if you want to explore the feminine imagery of God more fully:

In Memory of Her by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Feminist)

Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God by Paul R. Smith (Evangelical)

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess: A Radical Call for Spiritual Sanity  by Carl McColman (Episcopagan)

Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock (Womanist)

Revelation of Love  by Julian of Norwich (Contemplative Catholic)

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Feminist)

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (a general literary-historical investigation)

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd (Post-evangelical, post-Mainline)

The Maternal Face of God by Leonardo Boff (Catholic-Liberationist)

The Unknown She: Eight Faces of an Emerging Consciousness by Hilary Hart (Perennial)

Sunday Devotional: Matthew Fox, Cosmic Mass

Note: This post will make a lot more sense if you read The Nine ‘O Clock Service: The Vibrant, Troubling Birth of the Emerging Church first.

Today’s Sunday Devotional is sure to raise some ambivalence – but no one processing religion, faith, and spirituality in a post*(everything) world can afford to ignore Matthew Fox – tempestuous, flamboyant, inventive; priest, artist, liturgist and theologian. The defrocked Catholic-turned-Episcopal priest was (with the unlikely influence-pairing of Vineyard revitalizer John Wimber) responsible for inspiring what was arguably the first ever emerging/postmodern congregation in the mid-1980s – the brilliant, controversial, combustible Nine O’ Clock Service. Inspired by a Wimber prophecy at St. Thom‘s in Sheffield and nurtured by Fox’s Creation Spirituality amongst working-class rave culture, the NOS was a potpourri of influences and expression.

The message is as straightforward as it is apparently elusive to many “spiritual leaders” today: The person and message of Christ and the Christian mystery must be not only applied to, but interpreted by, the Janus-faced Crises/Opportunities we face today: political, economic, cultural, and ecological. When we mine our Scripture, tradition, poetry, and luminaries on the one hand, and nature, art, science, and global cosmologies on the other hand, real magic can happen.

Even after it’s untimely demise, the NOS’s ‘Planetary Mass’ idea – shades of Teilhard de Chardin‘s Mass on the World – re-caught the attention of Fox himself, who brought it back to the US as a ‘Techno-Cosmic Mass.’ To this day, there are many interested in applying the ideas of Original Blessing and Creation Spirituality to communal expressions, as well as many of wide variety of theological persuasions interested in alternative worship expressions.

“Eyes on a page are not really a way to open the heart up,” says Fox. To see footage from his Cosmic Mass in Oakland, see this video here. If you’re part of a worshiping community, join me in considering: How can we bring more beauty and awe into our worship, drawing from the deep wells of our tradition, from ecology, and from postmodern culture? 

For a compendium alt.worship resources, go here. Also see Fox’s YouTube channel.

If you’re interested in exploring the myriad of ways in which apprentices to Jesus can navigate change in the 21st century – in our worship, our spiritual formation, our way of engaging the crises and opportunities we face today – I hope you join me at Co-Creation 2012, happening this April 12-15. Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, and Integral Christianity author Paul Smith will be joining with the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina and a half-dozen artists and musicians to bring a truly unforgettable, interactive experience. To register, click here; to read more about this in an in-depth blog post, go here.

Portions of this were originally posted on February 7, 2010. 

Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden

Evolution. The very word struck fear into the hearts of 1980s homeschoolers everywhere – myself included. I remember my first encounters with the term, in an Answers in Genesis video series that our Douglasville-area homeschoolers association banded together to purchase and watch. Kids 4-17 huddled together in the Prays Mill Baptist Sunday school room, adjacent to the gym, to watch long, sweeping caricatures of evolutionary theory dismissed with two refrains said derisively-yet-sweetly by Australian creationist Ken Ham (who still had red hair back then):

It’s only a theory!   and,

Were you there? 

This video series (and the accompanying subculture) were all we needed to realize that the universe was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago, with carbon dating a sham and evolution a Satanic plot to discredit the bible and promote abortion, homosexuality, and one world government by the same godless people who took prayer out of public schools and watch Susan Sarandon movies.

Fast forward to college around the turn of the century. A philosophical young lad and fellow student turned me on to Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, with his argument that the Big Bang and an old earth/universe was indeed compatible with the biblical narrative of Genesis. I took to Intelligent Design like a duck to water – it was refreshing to not have to believe that God made rocks and stars appear old as a test of faith (as SBTS president Al Mohler apparently believes). It turns out some friends in my Atlanta-area house church were Hugh Ross fans, and indeed he was invited to speak at the school where one of them teaches – so I joined them there one night for a lecture from the man himself. While I was more convinced than ever of the scientific arguments for an old earth and cosmos, I learned that night Ross did not extend the same courtesy to biology that he did to physics – he rejected ‘macro’ evolution outright, seemingly on theological grounds.

It wasn’t until 2007, when I with TheOOZE helped put on Soularize in the Bahamas, that I heard a clear, passionate, positive articulation of the relationship between science and faith – in one Michael Dowd, pastor and author of Thank God for Evolution, curator (with his wife, scientist Connie Barlow) of the Evolutionary Christianity interview series. From Dowd I discovered Bruce Sanguin, author of Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological ChristianityThe Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal,  and the beautiful, poetic, prayer/worship book If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Finally, thanks to my buddy Tripp Fuller, I discovered the dizzyingly brilliant heart and mind of Philip Clayton, whose insights on evolution and Christianity are many and substantial. I really want to read his The Predicament of Belief : Science, Philosophy, and Faith, coming out in a few days!


From their insights (and the many antecedents they point to), I began to see the evolutionary impulse as emergent nested creativity, a divine spark that is ever-expanding in complexity and empathy, bringing us, quite possibly, to an approximation of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin‘s idea of an Omega Point, where the universe is becoming conscious of itself (vis-a-vis us) and all of reality is forming the cosmic Body of Christ. Celebrating the gifts of the scientific community, these thinkers and idea-leaders embrace science with zest as (to put in Augustine’s terms) God’s other Sacred Book – nature.

More recently still, I’ve been reading some more cautious, but equally vital, works of scholarship: Peter Enns‘ magisterial Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and Christopher Southgate‘s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.

A Tale of Two Trees 

With all this as preamble, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about the second creation narrative in Genesis 2-3 – with Adam, Eve, the Serpent, two Trees, God and the garden. I’ve been pondering its significance, and how certain epiphanies in this narrative have led me to substantially re-imagine an eleven-year personal writing project. I’m currently staying in a lovely rural house with friends about 40 miles outside of Raleigh, on a writing ‘semi’ sabbatical. In addition to serving my many clients (don’t worry folks – I am still working!), I’m looking to at long last complete at least the ‘First Act’ of my Four-Act book. The book – and this is the first time I’ve said this publicly in 11 years – is titled Eat God, provisionally subtitled Taste Heaven, Party like a god, and Save the World.

Yesterday, my e-friend Shane Crash asked a pitch-perfect setup question via Twitter and Facebook – the kind of thing that primed the pump for me to road-test some ideas for the book. Here it is:

“People who believe God is punishing humanity because a chick ate an apple. Why?” 

There were some fun answers, which you can read if Shane’s privacy settings are sufficiently low (I’m not sure). Here’s what I said, edited slightly for better coherence:

I’m not always fan of Augustine, and I’d like to get away from the idea of “The Fall,” believe me. I enjoy Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, and I think he makes some compelling arguments for the original and sustaining goodness of creation, affirmed in Scripture and our experience. And yet, I can’t believe that humanity was just blissfully enjoying life when one day some grumpy religious people made up the myth of Eden and the rotten fruit. No…we must have felt something happen, some kind of existential shift, and then told this story of a primal human pair, two trees, and a tragic dietary choice.

Do I believe that God is ‘punishing’ us? No way! Do I believe a literal piece of fruit was ‘eaten’ by some first woman? That is highly debatable. But here’s what I think happened:

For some 200,000 years, homo sapiens enjoyed a pretty good life. Far from being ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short,’ a growing number of today’s anthropologists and archaeologists are pointing to a quite new vision of our deep pre-history. During the paleolithic era, we seemed to enjoy a deep sense of connection to our own bodies, one another, our natural environment, and our sense of the sacred (the last one of which seemed to include a High God/Creator, an immanent sense of the ‘spirit-ness’ of everyday objects and things, plus an ongoing communion with ancestors who have gone before us). We can see this way of living mostly neatly glimpsed in the rare, surviving aboriginal cultures on our planet today.

During most of our history, we shared everything. And there was abudnance – enough. We lived on a relatively ‘virgin’ planet, and population was much lower, for instance. Women were equal to men, and organized warfare was unheard of. I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, but read some Jared Diamond or Jetha and Ryan’s Sex at Dawn. It’s astonishing, the new consensus emerging about our original culture.

But then…something happened around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture – there’s debate about which factor(s), but there’s a clear demarcation in our collective psyche, beginning in the Fertile Crescent and radiating outward along trade paths and weather patterns. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but ‘suddenly’ in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers. Psychologists call this until-now-unheard-of process self-reflexive consciousness.

Self-reflexive consciousness, the ability to reflect on ourselves “as though” from the outside, turned out to be a burden as well as a blessing. Over the milennia it’s given us planes, trains, and automobiles, but also war, pestilence, and famine. It’s given us art and ache, innovation and envy. This development of the ego is fundamental to all that is recognizably human. And yet, it is what gives us this undeniable feeling of four-fold alienation: from God, self, others, and our environment.

I think that the Hebrew bible and it’s narrative arc is wise beyond it’s years, but of course we (whether fundamentalist or modernist) over-literalize and argue about details. In its broadest strokes, though, I think that the break with ‘oceanic,’ interconnected ways of knowing to this four-fold alienation is “the fall.” I think that the Tree of Knowledge represents self-reflexive consciousness, dualistic thinking, and discursive reasoning, whereas the Tree of Life represents a kind of non-dual seeing, a holistic living in the present moment that embraces all of life as it arises.

This ‘Tree of Life’ consciousness, which is more a practice than anything (a practice I call eating God), is both backward-reflecting on our deep-time roots as humanity and forward-looking to our aspiration of integration: Taking the best attributes of our recent 10,000-year adolescence in division, judgement, and Fruit of Knowledge indigestion, putting us on a Tree of Life de-tox regimen so that unripe knowledge is purged from our systems, making way for the ripened fruit of the Wisdom we need before it’s too late for us as a species or an ecosystem.

[As a parenthesis, the story of Cain vs. Abel is the story of ascendant complex agrarianism (on its way to nascent urbanism) clashing with hunter-gatherers and simple pastoralism. God prefers the worship-connection of the hunter-gatherers over those of the upstart agrarians – the violent farmer knows this, and murder is born. For more on this perspective, see Brian McLaren‘s novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, and Daniel Quinn‘s fascinating Ishmael trilogy]

I think that Christ can point the way, or even BE the Way, if we ‘eat Christ‘ and take him as both Life and the Wisdom of God. Seeing what Jesus sees, and knowing what Jesus knows, is the route out from the dead-end of small-egoic consciousness and the on-ramp to four-fold re-connection with God, self, neighbor, and ecosystem.

Moby is a fan of ‘Eat God’…don’t you want to read?

Eat God: Act 1 (‘taste heaven’) transfigures the classical Christian mystical stages of ascent – illumination, purgation and union – into tasting, de-toxing, and digestion – and looks at how to make this practicable every day. It should be juicy. But in the meantime, if you’re interested in these concepts, I’d recommend you check out The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History. It’s not from a ‘Christian’ perspective (which is fine by me though the author missed some obvious, rich literary material) and the guy could’ve used an editor, but the research he pulls together is pure gold.

Eat God: Acts II – IV weaves all of this together with spiritual practice, Jesus’ subversive meal-sharing habits, and our contemporary food and water crises as a clarion call to a new way of being spiritual and human in the 21st century. It’s rooted in the deep tributaries of the Christian tradition, but incorporates science, poetry, and a good deal of strategic foresight and systems thinking as it applies to our food and water systems.

I’ll close with a gem from Joesph Campbell‘s Thou Art That which has deeply informed my thinking and intuition:

When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result, he finds himself out, in exile. The two cherubim placed at the gate are there representative of the world of the pairs of opposites in which, having been cast out of the world of unity, he is now located. You are kept in exile by your commitment to that world.

Christ goes past that – “I and the Father are one” – back into the realm of unity from which we have been expelled. These are the mysteries. Here is an echo and a translation into another set of images of what we ourselves are experiencing. What comes forth now with the grain, as particles of that one life that informs all things, is the revelation of the spiritual unity in all its aspects.

Adam and Eve are separated from God and they are aware of this break in their sense of oneness. They seek to cover their nakedness. The question becomes, how do they get back to the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.

Jesus says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the recognition of all life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one’s culture, or one’s particular personal religion. These are not easy tasks.

The Problem with Pietism: Why Nondual Mystics and Awestruck Atheists Get It Right

So an increasing number of my friends these days are atheists.

I don’t mean that I’m going to Atheist Meetup Groups to make new friends (though that would be fun, I’m sure); I mean that alot of my Christian friends are beginning to conclude that seeing God as an anthropocentric being ‘out there’ is no longer cutting it for them. They’re not (primarily) getting there via Dawkins or Dennett or Harris or Hitchens, though that might be side-reading. They’re getting there more via Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Pete Rollins’ The Fidelity of Betrayal or Insurrection – or Zizek or Badiou or Caputo or…you get the idea.

They’re also getting it from life – a lifetime spent doing the things that good (typically evangelical and charismatic, but also mainline and Catholic) Christians are taught to do. The virtue/prayer formulas taught in Deuteronomy or Proverbs (or even by Jesus) don’t seem to be working. The next thing you know, they start reading Mark’s gospel kinda like this, and Ecclesiastes, and voila! Atheist Christian.

What is an atheist Christian, you ask? Well, perhaps I’ll ask Ted Troxell to write me a guest post, but for now I’ll say this: An atheist Christian is a materialist who sees Jesus‘ (and, in many cases, Paul’s) ideals and programme under some soft of social-utopian lens, languaging a relational order in which all are given dignity. The theistic language that accompanied such visions is a necessary fact of the times in which they lived, but need not signify a core part of their ideology, as many of their other ideas (such as the smashing of idols, or the death of an incarnate God on a cross) are actually critical of and subversive toward overt religious claims.

I think I’d go so far as to say that I have more ‘atheist Christian’ friends these days than I do ‘uncomplicated’ Christian friends. How about you? Apparently this is not just a trend among emergent types, as even evangelical publishing house Tyndale has published The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living As If He Doesn’t Exist addressing this trend, though I’m not sure if  Craig Groeschel‘s prognosis (which seems to be double-down and try more of the same) is really going to cut it with growing numbers of my friends. Atheist Christianity seems here to stay.

In many ways this trend disturbs me – too many of my atheist Christian friends have a nihilistic streak in them a mile wide. If “you shall know them by their fruits” is applied to their deconstruction of faith, well, in many cases their depression, anger, cynicism and disintegrating family life speaks for itself.

On the other hand, you have happy, well-adjusted atheists like Alain de Botton and Carl Sagan. To hear them talk they sound more like mystics, in awe at an interconnected universe. They don’t particularly believe that there’s an underlying, transcendent, conscious intelligence behind said universe, but they’re definitely reverent when it comes to What Is.

Compare this to the pietisms of the world – in Christianity, Pietism has Lutheran, Weslyan/Holiness, Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical flavors. Puritanism is a close cousin of pietism too. Pietism says that God is a God “out there,” but if you please Him enough (through faith, devotion, good works, discipline, or any number of other requirements), you can feel God in you, transforming you.

Pietism is powerful – a lot of people report feeling God. In the same twentieth century that brought on the Death of God movement, birthed in an Atlanta pub that I’m sure hosts theological conversation to this day, there’s also been an explosion in Pietism as manifested in Pentecostal, charismatic, and indigenous ‘Spirit-filled’ churches throughout the global south and two-third world. Marked by passionate worship, fervent evangelistic preaching, ardent expectations of signs & wonders, (often) prosperity teaching and (usually) the Second Coming of Jesus, these churches are growing by leaps and bounds. It’s estimated that one out of two congregations on earth are one of these types.

I can see why. I grew up in them. There is much to commend about their palpable sense of the reality and goodness and availability of God.

And yet…there is trouble in Pietism.

I began to see this trouble when I started reading mystics when I took off for college, in the late 1990s, and started trying to do what they recommended doing – ie, savoring Scripture slowly in lectio divina, chanting Psalms, or sitting in openness before a God who’s rendered unknown at the very site of revelation. I’ve tried and fumbled at these practices as an individual, as well as in groups, ranging from Quakers to house churchers

Now, at first blush, Christian mysticism is like Pietism on crack. If pop pietism can effuse ‘Jesus is My Boyfriend‘ Top 40-style worship songs, mystics can pen toe-curling erotic poetry to each member of the Trinity. If Pentecostals go to get their Jumpin’ Jehovah & Jesus fix twice a week (Sundays and Wednesday nights!), mystics expect some kind of daily encounter of the availability of God (though many are quick to caution against excessively showy manifestations, which they call ‘consolations’). But there’s a difference: In general, Christian mysticism or the contemplative path is far more subtle than Pietism, with its entire sanctifications, second blessings, and fast-tracks to an explosion of God’s palpable presence. The contemplative programme typically involves a lot of sitting, a lot of awareness, much letting go and a lot of quietly-cultivated love.

The end result of a life lived from this transfigured point of reference: A sense that God is everywhere even if God isn’t terribly overt; a weak God who looks like Jesus (strength made perfect in weakness) who is, nonetheless, All in all. A God in whom we live, move, and have our being – a ubiquitous God who defies description, even descriptors like ‘presence’ or ‘existence.’ It’s a deep ‘down and in’ consciousness of divinity, in which Spirit shows up disguised as your life.

Here’s where an extended quote from Jewish lawyer, activist, and spiritual teacher Jay Michaelson – author of Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism – is going to be awesome: Because I’m thinking is that deep-rooted nondual mysticism and awe-filled atheism are practically the same – at the end of the day, a God who is nowhere and a God who is everywhere might be merely a difference in semantics – a joy-filled word-play that we can each have fun with, riding the dialectic to a happier and more connected life. So here’s Jay:

To many people, spirituality is about having certain feelings, and spiritual practices are those actions which bring the feelings about. Light the candles, and feel “connected.” Pray, and become inspired. One does these practices in order to have certain feelings, or mindstates, to which one may attribute a range of mythic or psychological meaning. Conversely, if a practice isn’t working for you – that is, if you don’t get the desired feeling – drop it.

Secular critics of this type of spirituality (which often is derided as “New Age”) complain that it is narcissistic. Essentially, it’s just another thrill – and one which is then overlaid with delusion. At best, these pleasant delusions are rather pathetic balms. But they may also be deeply counterproductive, as the happy spiritual practitioner blissfully ignores her own problems, and those of the world. At worst, if the spiritual practitioner actually believes Allah, or Jesus, or whoever, is speaking to him, the delusions of the New Age are little different from the fundamentalisms of our era.

Within religious circles, surprisingly similar criticisms are leveled against ‘New Age’ spirituality. First, religious critics argue that New Age spirituality puts the individual before God. Some argue that it improperly values experience over authority, or over ethics – it is immodest, indulgent, and perhapsjust too much fun.

A less common critique comes from within the world of spiritual practitioners itself. Here, the complaint is neither impudence nor egotism but theological error. From a nondual perspective, spiritual practice is not about having a particular feeling, but about waking up to the shocking reality that your conventional self only exists as an appearance, a mirage. Like the Big Dipper, it is “there” in some sense, but not in the deepest sense; it’s not a structure of reality, but merely a way reality appears when looked at from a certain way. Spiritual and contemplative practice, in the nondual view, exist to wake us up from that “certain way,” which also happens to bring about all kinds of suffering, selfishness, and violence.

To do so, nondual spiritual practice must be all-pervasive. If you suppose that God is only present in the pleasant stuff – on a summer’s day but not in a cancer ward, when you’re feeling relaxed but not when you’re tense – then you’ve still making the same dualist error: God is here, but not there. In fact, the best spiritual practice might be one that neither provides the allure of the present nor the expiation of the difficult – but one which is utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available. (Much more here!)

Michaelson is one of the most fascinating spiritual/religious thinkers, practitioners, and teachers today, precisely because he’s asking how the Western monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might be potentially just as nondual as eastern traditions of Taoism or Advaita Vedanta. Now, for my more traditionally-minded Jesus-following readers who might feel like I’ve completely jumped the shark, don’t worry – I’ll get to my lens and my caveats in a moment. But first, let’s come back to Michaelson, in another article, this one on Prayer and Nonduality:

Nonduality may be understood in at least two ways. First, and traditionally, it proceeds from the theological tenet that God is infinite (Ein Sof in the Kabbalistic locution). Logically, if God is infinite, then every thing is God. “Do not look at a stone and say, ‘that is a stone and not God,'” wrote the sixteenth-century rabbi Moses Cordovero, one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time, “for you have dualized — God forbid. Instead, know that the stone is a thing pervaded by Divinity.”

Nonduality may also be understood from the bottom up (from our own experience), as well as from the top down (from the perspective of theology). The bottom-up inquiry proceeds not from a theological tenet but from a very close observation of our perceptions. Where, for example, is the “essence” (Platonic or otherwise) of the chair on which you are sitting? Take it apart mentally: is it in the wood? The legs? Its property of holding you up — which, if you inquire more closely, has nothing to do with the “chair” and everything to do with molecular properties, strong and weak nuclear forces, and all sorts of other things you and I do not understand? Really, “chair,” and everything else, is an emergent property that usefully describes reality as we experience it, but doesn’t really describe its actual truth. As Joseph Goldstein likes to say, it’s like the Big Dipper — it describes something about how things look from a particular perspective, but we all know there is no Big Dipper really, right?

It’s possible, if the mind is quieted and slowed by meditation, to notice how thoughts pop in and out, how they are all conditioned by other things, and how the idea of the “self” in which all of us are so invested is, like the Big Dipper, just a useful label that describes how things seem from a particular perspective — not how they are. In actuality, to speak of chairs, selves, and other things as existing in their own right is useful but not entirely accurate.

But if there’s no self, what is there?

That question is where pantheism and atheism shake hands, where nonduality in its specifically religious forms becomes quite interesting. God, we might say, is what is left when the self is subtracted from everything else. A Buddhist would say everything is an empty play of conditions: your decision whether or not to keep reading is due not to some homunculus inside your brain but to a myriad of causes, including genetics, what else you have to do today, how well I’m writing, learned behaviors, and so on. A nondual Jew or Christian uses the word “God” to refer to those conditions. (emphasis mine)

If God is All there Is, we can stop looking for the miracle – life is the miracle. We can also stop trying to explain away truly extraordinary, unusual happenings like the spontaneous healings and spot-on ‘words of knowledge’ and bizarre manifestations I’ve witnessed – because everything is God. This does not mean that there is no room for improvement, or that genuine evil and atrocity do not ‘exist’. Indeed, as Ram Dass said, “The world is perfect as it is – including my desire to change it.”

Or as Ken Wilber said (and as we recounted right here on the blog last month),

If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.

But it’s not always fun.

Well, yes and no. The manifest world is a world of opposites—of pleasure versus pain, up versus down, good versus evil, subject versus object, light versus shadow. But if you are going to play the great cosmic Game, that is what you yourself set into motion. How else can you do it? If there are no parts and no players and no suffering and no Many, then you simply remain as the One and Only, Alone and Aloof. But it’s no fun having dinner alone. (The whole piece is well-worth reading if you haven’t already)

Now – there’s only one piece of this that doesn’t work for me as a relatively ‘orthodox’ Christian. It’s not God being all-pervasive, which I think is compelling, nor is it the difficulty this entails with ‘the problem of evil,’ which I think all cosmologies share – no, it actually shows up in the subtle-but-huge difference between Wilber and Michaelson’s depictions of nonduality: For Michaelson, ‘God’ often seems like a descriptor we give to the All – ‘God’ is a figure of speech. Eastern paths – and Western paths that tend to be over-accommodating to them – tend to elevate the impersonal over the personal as the highest insight possible. But for Wilber – in this piece at least – God has agency, and personality.

For me – and perhaps this is a weakness of mine, or perhaps this renders my nonduality and atheist-friendliness to be the thinnest of artifices – God must be personal. And God must be ultimately good – or, love – in the ways in which our deepest intuitions imagine goodness and love to be. Which is why I’m so taken by Jesus, and the imaging of God he depicts – ‘the exact representation of the Father’s being.’ Owning that yes, of course ‘Father’ and even ‘Person’ are projections and anthromorphisms, I can affirm that whatever ‘God’ is,

God must be more than personal – but I can’t agree that God is less than personal.

How can I get all of this to hang, cosmologically? Well I’m not sure, but let me throw a sketch out there, that my most theologically-astute friends can hopefully help me or rebut me on: You know how in Walter Wink’s theology, there’s a ‘spirituality of institutions’? How he posits (in The Powers that Be and everywhere) that “the Angel at the Church of Sardis,” et al, is referring to the collective identity of a particular congregation, which has a kind of suprapersonality that includes but transcends the sum of its parts? And you know how Wink proposes that ‘the demonic’ is similarly institutionally personal – an ‘Angel’ who has turned against its reason for being? So that everything from the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex to Coca-Cola to the Church of Peter, Paul, and Mary and #Occupy is a principality and a power – either angelic or demonic, for good or for ill? (If you aren’t familiar with this way of thinking about the biblical witness concerning ‘the powers,’ read Wink‘s books! They’re borne out of both personal experience with the demonic in helping end South African apartheid, as well as careful scholarship. They’re life-changers.) A corporation or a congregation or a popular mass movement seems to exert actions or behaviors that sometimes override the wills of individual members within it – even those who supposedly occupy influential or top-ranking positions within them. It’s as though the sum total of these groups have a will of their own, in a way that projects an aura of personality that transcends the organizational life of the collective.

Well, what if God is like that, relative to the Universe? If the universe is greater than the sum of its parts, the Personality thus generated is God. This could be a very specific God, revealed in one of the great world religions or philosophies, or perhaps fragments revealed in all of them – including atheism. (Sociologist Rodney Stark explores this possibility in Discovering God). This God could exhibit traits intelligible to humans, and could decide to manifest in one or more of any number of ways.

There are, as I see it, epistemological difficulties with this A-Personal-God-is-a-Projection-of-the-Universe idea. Namely the charge that this is simply pantheism writ large – God IS Reality, albeit personal (whereas most pantheists, like most deists, conceive God as most philosophers to – non-personal). Therefore, the pre-existence and transcendence of God is toast in this view. This need not be the inevitable conclusion, however. Because if time, as I understand Einstein, is a byproduct or  co-extensive effect of space, then a God who transcends and includes the sum of the Universe’s parts need not be constrained by all of its strictures. Put another way, words like ‘eternity’ are themselves human creations, and we tend to associate ‘time’ with them when ‘depth’ is closer to their original meaning. Given all that we don’t really understand about quarks, super-strings, and holographic physics, we live in a strange and wonderful Universe that could bear or be borne by a strange and wonderful God.

This is not a ‘God of the gaps’ theory, relying on some sloppy appeal to ‘mystery’ and ‘what we don’t yet know’ to substantiate it. Ultimately, I’m deeply okay if God = The Universe (pantheism), or if God, even while being the personality generated by the Universe, turns out to be in some way outside its strictures and thus ‘transcendent’ over/beyond it (panentheism). Either way, God is All in All, as my Christian Scripture attests in its brightest moments. And either way, a God who emptied Godself in kenosis, and who died rather than seek revenge, who is resurrected nonviolently – this is a God whose ‘weak force’ is strength in a way where ubiquity might as well be non-existence, as ‘existence’ is a category too paltry to contain the Beloved. Instead, we have a Way who empties himself of easy certainty, a pathless path that is co-extensive with life itself. The realization of union with God (which need not come with bells and whistles – only the simple, trusting/experimental acknowledgment) yields a way of seeing in which God is everywhere, and manifest in everything – which might be the true meaning of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity,’ a path that is “utterly transparent, colorless, and thus always available.”

Pietism, then, is a frustrating half-measure – a God who is neither everything nor nothing, and is thus a bridge to nowhere – a dead-end of unmet religious longing leading to dangerous fundamentalism on the one hand and impotent liberalism on the other hand. Could it be that the God revealed in Jesus is a God willing to be broken and poured out , and in Pyrrhic resurrection negate into ubiquity, becoming tastable and handle-able by each of us, power distributed to the whole of us rather than a Power-Narrative all too easily abused by the strongest of us?

I can hope. Or at least, wonder.

Recommended Reading:

Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words by Brian McLaren
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler-Bass
Integral Christianity:  The Spirit’s Call to Evolve by Paul Smith

Not conincidentally, all three of these authors will be sharing at a most unique gathering: Co-Creation 2012: The Great Emergence & The Spirit’s Call to Evolve, hosted by the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina! They’ll be joined by world-class artists and musicians, as well as participants from across the country; come on out and see us this April 12-15th! Register here.

Other good reading on this includes The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics by Bruce Sanguin, and Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd.


Other Posts of Potential Interest:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’


The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery 

Sunday Devotional: Authentic Mystical Experience by Richard Rohr

Bernard McGinn authored a fourvolume study on the history of Christian mysticism.  He says mysticism is “a consciousness of the presence of God that by definition exceeds description and … deeply transforms the subject who has experienced it.”  If it does not radically change the lifestyle of the person—their worldview, their economics, their politics, their ability to form community, you have no reason to believe it is genuine mystical experience.  It is usually just people with an addiction to religion, which is not that uncommon, by the way.

Mysticism is not just a change in some religious ideas or affirmations.  Mystics have no need to exclude or eliminate others, or define themselves as enlightened, whereas a mere transfer of religious assertions often makes people even more elitist and more exclusionary.

True mystics are glad to be common, ordinary, egalitarian, servants of all, and “just like everybody else,” because any need for specialness has been met once and for all.

Adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate

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And illustrating this theme nicely is ‘Chain Reaction’ by Cloud Cult. Enjoy.

You have eyes like mine
Are we strangers or am I you, are I..?

Put your face on mine
Put your face on mine…

What you feel makes part of what they’ll feel
It’s a chain reaction
Put out fear and they’ll feel fear
It’s a chain reaction
Put out love and they’ll feel love
It’s a chain reaction

Put your face on mine
Put your face on mine…

Dancing ‘Round the Tree of Life: Two Poems

“We clasp the hands of those who go before us,
and the hands of those who come after us;
we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,
and the larger circle of lovers
whose hands are joined in a dance,
and the larger circle of all creatures,
passing in and out of life,
who move also in a dance,
to a music so subtle and vast
that no one hears it except in fragments.”
– Wendell Berry, Healing IV, from What Are People For?

Can poets (can men in television)
Be saved? It is not easy
To believe in unknowable justice
Or pray in the name of a love
Whose name one’s forgotten: libera
Me, libera C (dear C)
And all poor s-o-b’s who never
Do anything properly, spare
Us in the youngest day, when all are
Shaken awake, facts are facts
(And I shall know exactly what happened
Today between noon and three)
That we, too, may come to the picnic
With nothing to hide, join the dance
As it moves in perichoresis
Turns about the abiding tree.

– W H Auden, Compline, from Horae Canonicae


Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity

perichoresisAs usual, my blog readers are brilliant. My last ‘spirituality’ post, on Panentheism, Interspirituality, and Jesus invited a ton of insightful comments – and, as is about to be made abundantly clear, a new post. So here it is, response-style:

Nathaniel, you’re calling me a Calvinist! I don’t know whether to feel honored or slapped in the face. :) Taking it from your vantage point, I’ll consider it an honor. I get what you’re saying about the ‘slipperiness’ of the term ‘panentheist;’ though I didn’t qualify it with hypens, I think the strong subtext of my post was that I’m not for a squishy, one-size-fits-all pluralism. Specifically, I said “I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” With that said, true disclaimer: in the intervening years since writing the piece, I am more inclined to nod in Dena‘s direction, that when Einstein or Hawking are sensing the permeating divine, they’re sensing and touching something real – more Way Three than Way Two (in my previous post).

Bert, I hear you! Theodicy (‘the problem of evil’) is with us almost no matter what we believe, and panentheism does not come out unscathed – indeed, it’s even more vulnerable, I think, because (unlike Deism or a highly ‘Sovereign’ removed God concept), panentheism seems to implicate God rather intimately in life’s hurts as well as joys. It’s one thing to say God is in the sunset, dancing in the rays of light; its quite another to say that God is holding the molecules together in the rapist’s knife blade. I want to avoid what I see as the weakest link of Hindu & Buddhist cosmology, that is, “Evil is just illusory,” but I am open to CS Lewis’s idea (developed in The Great Divorce) that evil is perspectival; that all truly will be made well once we have a new way of seeing. The jury’s out for me in how evil fits into panentheism – and yet, I can’t get away from the ‘All in all’ language in Scripture. I think that process theology will have a lot to teach us on this in the coming years. For now, I go back to some of Ken Wilber’s insightsthat kicked off Nondual Week here on the blog:

…that is exactly the core of the answer given by the mystics the world over. If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.

Hi Bram – I know I probably focused on immanence here, but a robust, biblically-informed panentheism certainly includes God’s transcendence. God is ‘the Beyond in our midst,’ a Mystery even in self-disclosure. Jesus of Nazareth obscures as much as he reveals, I think. Dena, I love your thoughts here. I think you hit on something key when you said “Christ is the focus for me … and *yet*, I notice that the goal of Christ is to bring us to the Father — to show us the Father.” I’d personally stop short, though, at saying “Ultimately, it’s all about the Father.” I think I’d say “Ultimately, it’s all about perichoresis, a five-dollar word for the relationship within the Godhead, expanding to embrace humanity & the cosmos. That is to say, when Jesus speaks, he’s always speaking of the Father. But when the Father speaks, he’s always speaking of the Son. And the Father sends the Spirit to reveal the Son, so that we might connect to the Father; the Spirit is our Comforter and our Truest Self, inviting us into the divine fellowship. At least, that’s my read. And it needn’t be so technical – to me, it’s all about the Triune relatedness of God as depicted in The Shack or in the work of Baxter Krueger:


Jesus and the Undoing of Adam P1 – Dr C Baxter Kruger from Perichoresis Australia on Vimeo.

(See this recent poem, You Are the Dance, and the song it inspired.)

Ross, absolutely! Starting in the 1960s, when the West began discovering Eastern cultures & meditation practices – that’s when Christians (and possibly Jews too, though I can’t be certain) began rediscovering their own contemplative traditions – don’t let anybody call ’em ‘New Age,’ either; they’ve been around in one form or another for at least 1700 years – and arguably, embedded in the culture of those engaged in penning Holy Writ itself. I think that one of the greatest losses of our time is that of ‘contemplative mind,’ the ability to both focus and enjoy the spaciousness of God’s unfolding present moment. There are many more comments here, linking panentheism to Jesus-inspired anarchism as well as Trinitarian spirituality. You’ll have to read these for yourself. Truly an awesome conversation!

David, are you saying that Jesus’ divinity is too much or too little involved in the panentheism discussion? I think that Jesus’ divinity is one of those pesky spiritual themes that panentheism handles exceptionally well, better than contemporary so-called orthodoxy or anemic liberalism. Lemme explain.

Contemporary self-confessed (Western, propositional, truncated, radio) orthodoxy sees God – and by extension God’s self-disclosure in Jesus – as someone (?) to be admired, and trusted in for God’s benefits, sure – but pretty much kept at a remote pedestal. Jesus is the ‘only’ Son of God, who did certain things on our behalf (namely, changing the Father’s mind about us, supposedly) and we worship him in response. This produces a lot of gratitude but very little life-change in my experience. And eventually, the gratitude (read: ‘worship’) turns to boredom.

‘Progressives,’ on the other hand, in attempting to correct the problems with the above view, fall into the opposite ditch – they pit ‘the Jesus of history’ against ‘the Christ of faith,’ placing the Synoptics against John’s Gospel, and emphasize (their interpretation of) ‘The son of man’ against ‘The Son of God’ and certainly against ‘God in the flesh.’ Now don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for most of the scholarship that’s come out of historical Jesus studies – in particular, related to the socio-political culture of Jesus’ day (both Roman and Jewish), which sheds amazing light on both Jesus’ message and the unique set of circumstances that led to his death. I love me some ‘The Human Being by Walter Wink (for instance). But at the end of the day, a confused, solely-human Jesus who’s vaguely ‘connected’ to ‘Spirit’ only to die ignominiously and benefit from a dubious ‘spiritual’ resurrection isn’t too exciting to me. While it might be easier to follow such a Jesus, one isn’t quite sure why or where to follow him!

A third way, it seems, has been with us from the beginning. If Rita Brock and Rebbecca Parker are to be believed (and I think their work speaks for itself), the earliest Christians had “a high Christology and a high anthropology,” summed up in Athanasius’ maxim “God became man so that man might become God.” (He meant you too, ladies!) Panentheism says that Jesus is the uniquely begotten son of God, not the only, echoing Scripture’s affirmation that Jesus is the firstborn among many sisters and brothers of God.  Jesus is glorious, divine, and there are certain unique and unrepeatable things Jesus does on our behalf, but overall, the earliest Christian spiritual thrust was one of participatory divinity. We, too, are to realize full divinity amidst (and because of) our full humanity – just like Jesus. The divinity of Jesus Christ is real – but he’s not hoarding. We all get to share in the love, being fashioned from stardust and becoming partakers of the divine nature just as sure as we’re breathing.

This might sound like ‘New Age’ quackery to the modern ear – but in ancient Christian faith, this was known as theosis or divinization – participation in God via the activity of God in perichoresis – that is, the intent of the Father, the work of the Son, and empowerment of the Spirit. Through theosis, we are partakers of the divine nature – we become incorporated into the very life of ever-flowing Godhead, a dance that goes on from eternity to eternity. If the terminology makes you uncomfortable, think what we might mean by ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ – only giving much more glory to God and to a full-awakened humanity. If this all sounds rather airy-fairy pie-in-the-sky to you, consider that, historically speaking, the vast majority of temporal transformation happens when people are inspired by, and anchored in, a sense of the transcendant. (For a good read on this, see Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions.) The recovery of a this-worldy, suffering-servant son of man who nonviolently confronts the Powers is a desperately needed image and motivator – this is the gift of liberation theology. But a revelation of the Son of God, vindicated by the Father in peaceful, powerful resurrection, and inviting us on the same path of death and rebrith, this is the gift of the Eastern church and the mystics. Perhaps the call we’ve so often framed as ‘discipleship’ or ‘sanctification’ can be helpfully re-adjusted as a life. Let us embrace both of these gifts fully – they are our inheritence.

Other posts in the Nondual Week series:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?

I want to follow up yesterday’s Ken Wilber interview with this blast from the past – something I wrote for the previous iteration of TheOOZE, right after Jasmin and I got married six years ago. Carl McColman & I have become quite good friends since then, and some of my inclinations & language have doubtless changed. But I think I’ll preserve it as-is for the sake of its integrity, to be followed up with fresh thoughts this week.

panentheism logo

This is my response and interaction to wonderful and incisive questions raised by Carl McColmnan’s post, Notes on Manifesting a Truly Interfaith Spirituality. (You should definitely read it first) I hope that I can respond as an “interfaith-friendly post-evangelical.” In Carl and I’s correspondence, he mentions that “a core issue for me personally is the ongoing question of where the balance point is between the old-Pagan-me, the new-Catholic-me, and the overall-Christian-me,” and I suppose it is very much the question of where does pantheism stop and panentheism begin–a core dilemma of Christian mysticism.”

Panentheism In Brief

It is indeed a core dilemma! I think of myself as a panentheist, and probably have for the past half-decade or so. I first encountered the notion through the post-denominational contemporary Christian mystic, Norman Grubb. If you’ve never read Grubb you really should; he’s fascinating (I’d recommend starting with Who Am I? or Yes, I Am). He began his life as a missionary, biographer and publisher. He never really left these passions, but lived them all out from a Center of what he would call “fixed awareness of union with Christ.” In the last several decades of his life he was a wanderer. He’d go anywhere and life for awhile, with anyone who would have him–he spent years with house churches, Messianic Jewish synagogues, all-summer camp retreats, and I learned a few years back that he spent several years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, Georgia where I went to school! His life exemplified his conviction that God was truly present in all things as the All in all.

I have more recently encountered the panentheist message in the writings of Marcus Borg and others, such as in books like The God We Never Knew. And I appreciate these writings, I truly do. But I suppose a significant difference between the vision of panentheism that lives in my heart and the interspiritual vision that informs Marcus, Matthew Fox and others is that I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

[Ouch! In the intervening years I’ve read both Borg & Fox more, and have to interject that this statement is rather unfair. While I don’t align with either of them ‘jot and tittle,’ they are both committed to the person and spirituality of Jesus.]

Like a good post-evangelical (Over the cultural and political commitments of this particular epoch but cherishing Scripture and good news nonetheless) my panentheism is biblically informed. I see unmistakable cadences of the all-inclusive Christ in such passages as (you’ll forgive me for not citing precisely) –

“I am God, there is no other,”
“God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike”
“There is a Light which enlightens everyone”
“God is the all in all”
“Christ will be the all in all”

…and of course that pagan poem that Paul quotes to pagan friends at Mars Hill in Acts, appropriating for Jesus Christ–“In Him we live, move, and have our being.”

This break with functional Deism came to me as liberation–very good news indeed! Not only did Christ’s spirit indwell me (a message which was good news enough after hearing from Calvinists that God only “positionally” indwelt a regenerate person–whatever that meant–and the Pentecostals who seemed to treat the Spirit like a rather elusive guest), but God was in everything in some sort of real and compassionate way. I like panentheism because it emphasizes immanence while still preserving transcendence and awe. Certainly many of my conservative Christian brethren squirm at such an understanding but I have to to go with what I’ve discovered.

Interspiritual Relevance

CoexistBut now I’m afraid that some of my progressive Christian and interspiritual brethren and friends might likewise squirm at my working understanding of “panentheism.” I know how much well-intentioned people wish to see panentheism as the vehicle for all interfaith dialogue and even interfaith worship, as some Great Core Spirit that, when you get right down to it, is shared by all the great faiths or life-paths. But I think this is more of a deus ex machina than it might at first appear, and I hope that I can respectfully explain why I feel this way.

I think that dialogue, learning, and appreciation among faiths, spiritualities and religions is crucially needed in our day and age–I will elaborate more in a moment. I am significantly less comfortable, however, with co-worship and integration as it seems to transgress something, and disrespect all faiths involved. Further, syncretism of this sort seems as if it would have the fruit of only further dividing people, giving them yet another religious option (interspirituality) to embrace or reject.

Does this make sense? You get a bunch of nice, open-minded progressives together to share their hearts considering their journeys as Pagan, Christian, Sufi, Unitarian, Buddhist, or Snake-handling sex cultist. Wonderful. But then if someone says, “These are all vital emanations from the same Source,” many in the room nod solemnly, but a few people look up like “Wait.” Then what? A new multifaith dogma has just formed in the room, and everyone has to either accept or reject it. Call it the curse of Martin Luther’s endless fragmentation.

Education and mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue might seem a whole lot more modest (read: lame) than constructing a bold new interspiritual outlook, but I think its small gains can do much to build mutual esteem and trust in our shakily pluralistic world, all without going the “all roads lead to the same path” route.

Getting back to the internal integrity of one’s faith, and speaking from my “Jesus-y” (as Anne Lamott puts it) perspective, where does fidelity to God come in? I consider myself thoroughly postmodern, but do postmodern people of faith always need to put ironic, self-effacing quotation marks around everything they “believe” to be “true”? I am personally struggling to live life through the Jesus Way–not the pop culture, American Jesus, but the Jesus I see in the Gospels and New Testament and mystics and marginalized church history through the ages. One thing I’ve come to discover is that Jesus loves everyone but he does not agree with everyone. He embraces and forgives the Woman at the Well but–before acknowledging the universality of the coming eschaton where God can be known everywhere, in Sprit and Realit–he engages her in a little Jewish versus Samaritan debate about the appropriate place for Temple worship!

My friend Brian McLaren says something like this: “Jesus is the Way to God and abundant life, it doesnt mean he stands in the way to divine access!” I believe that “Jesus is the savior of the world,” whatever that ultimately means, I can only speculate and hope. I cannot limit the meaning of this to a particular model of atonement, or a particular scope of redemption. All I know, based on Jesus’ revelation of God’s character and intention, is that the Godhead loves his enemies, forgives those who persecute, and practices restorative justice. I have every confidence, with Julian of Norwich, that “all will be well.” Please keep this in mind as you read, knowing that I’m not coming at this to Bible-beat dissenters into submission or condemn anyone to eternal flames! I’m simply talking about faithfulness to the light we’ve been given, and how that light might be unintentionally dimmed or blurred.

Clearly Carl feels more free than I do to “play with the poetry of an interfaith spirituality,” no doubt owing to your diverse background. On an intrafaith scale I am similar–I grew up equal parts Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian, and was always more willing to integrate the best of each of these denominational traditions. What was effortless to me in this regard always seemed like a huge sticking point to some of my friends, who grew up in a particular denomination. Perhaps because of this, there are ways that I can appreciate a “humble model” of interfaith interaction:

I value interfaith dialogue because it’s educational. So many people of all faiths are fearful of “the other.” We have no idea what our neighbors hope for, believe, or practice, and we tend to draw the worst possible conclusions because they’re not following Jeee-suz (or ‘the Prophet,’ be it Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or Elizabeth Clare). In an integrated society with a pluralist public square, this simply will not do. I love to participating in interfaith sharing times–whether formal sessions or conversations with friends and neighbors–to gain understanding about the diverse religions of the world.

Models of Pluralism in Christian Perspective

ConnectionFurther, I believe that I can truly learn, spiritually, from the world’s religious traditions–things that Zeus or the Vishnu decreed can give me an altogether fresh perspective on an obscure passage of Scripture or way that I reach God. But this is a qualified learning. I was talking about this with a good friend of mine in ‘church life,’ aka house churching. Right now he’s reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Because she’s coming from an “apophatic” contemplative perspective, she quotes freely from what she’s gained from her Buddhist background. As I was talking to my friend, I asked:

“I’m curious: Do you, personally, feel put off by Bourgeault’s references to Eastern spiritual practice? I personally feel like she’s simply giving credit where credit is due: she has a background in these practices and she feels like they have wisdom to illuminate the Scripture and our own tradition. I don’t feel like she ever says “Buddha is just as important/relevant as Jesus Christ,” or any such thing. It’s fascinating that, as people of different faiths began getting to know each other, you see this “borrowing of wisdom” take place. You see it all over Merton as well. It seems like there are several different ways professing followers of Christ have related to those of other faiths:

  • Way One: All other religions are simply false. (Their “gods” or philosophies are nonexistent and irrelevant.)
  • Way Two: All other religions are demonic. (Their gods or philosophies are real and dangerous to body and soul)
  • Way Three: All religions contain shades and gradations of the Truth. (Their gods or philosophies are incomplete revelations, tainted by the humanity’s fallen and fractured state, that nonetheless contain glimmers of the story of Christ)
  • Way Four: All religions lead to a singular (or at least similar) path. (There is a beneficent Force governing the cosmos that none of us can quite grasp; this Force communicates to people in different times and cultures in different ways, but there’s no significant qualitative difference between them)”

I then continued, “As for my .02, the First and Fourth Ways seem too black and white and simplistic, though they stand on opposite poles. Even though later Judaism seemed to view all gods who weren’t YHWH as nonexistent, Jesus makes much of genuine spiritual forces who were nonetheless malevolent. And of course in Daniel you have the angels doing battle with the Prince of Persia, etc… The Third Way, advocated most notably by CS Lewis, is the one I want to believe most–that God has not just communicated in symbols and shadows not just to the Hebrew people, but to all times and cultures (See, for instance, the contemporary East Orthodox book Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.

Common sense and experience, though, suggests to me that Way Two is frequently the case– humanity being what it is sometimes, faith becomes so twisted as to be demonic and dangerous, as is the case with televangelists and Vodou and fundamentalist Islam.”

So, to recap: I think that I can learn about communion with God from a Buddhist or a Sufi, but I inevitably see God’s clearest speaking in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not always negate the spiritual experience of other faiths, but–and this seems unkind and un-PC for interfaith dialogue–he sometimes does. When Christ calls us to conversion, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He bids a man come and die.” We’re called to die to different things–different ingrained mindsets, different patterns of being, different destructive religious and cultural beliefs. I am not comfortable dictating what beliefs and practices are to be abrogated by people whose cultures I do not belong to–that is between them, God, and their Christian community.

Thank God for Pagan Christianity! :)

Born Again PaganFor this reason I don’t have any beef – sacrificed to idols or no – with Carl engaging in “folkloric Irish practices (that have been practiced by Irish Catholics for centuries) that are clearly Pagan in origin.” I believe that when the Holy Spirit came to Ireland, God wasn’t pissed at the Irish for being who they were. Since I believe that Jesus’ call to make apprentices of the Kingdom of God applies to all people and cultures, and don’t think any culture has imperialist preference in YHWH’s book. God’s great transition was from one chosen people to “every tribe, tongue and nation,” and so when the Spirit brooded over Ireland, God lovingly extricated the Irish people from harm and embraced, and transformed everything else. God loves the beauty of worship from every tribe, people group and culture. This is, though, a break with a certain pluralistic orthodoxy that insists that every region will have their own inherent cultural religious expression, and that expression should never be tampered with. At this point any attempt at sharing another point of view becomes verboten from the start; I simply don’t think this is fair.

Of course I realize that missionary history has a definite dark side, where financial opportunism and cultural imperialism can run rampant. But what many of my non-Christian friends (and even some Christians) might not know is that missional or apostolic work among indigenous people can and does take place with care and respect to the cultures involved. I’d recommend reading Roland Allen, Leslie Newbingin, or even my own church’s planter Gene Edwards’ The Americanization of Christianity to see how Christ can incarnate into a culture in an authentic way.

Anyway, at this point your many readers of other faiths are reading all this talk about conversion and Jesus coming into other cultures and you’re either offended or colossally disinterested. “When will this exclusivist bigot be finished?” you tire. Okay, well let me see if I can bring this to a close and earn just a bit of your continued interest. Carl asks, “What are workable, creative boundaries for interfaith spirituality?” Can a “druid with a rosary” really work? How can we all be “friendly” to faiths with which we might (and indeed must at some point) disagree? And, “Where is my ultimate loyalty?”

Sharing Faith

Clasping the ShadowsI resonate with shunning the “smarmy sales job” of snake-oil evangelists out to sell a quick conversion. And yet…I’m not averse to sharing Good News, or the conversion of heart and priority that may result. I suppose, working with my appreciation of interfaith dialogue, I always respect the space that I’m in. To me (like a good Calvinist) conversion is God’s job, and being open and engaged with others is my job. Because of the love of Christ within me, I’m naturally drawn to hang out with people and spend time with them, with no particular agenda. But the Spirit being who s/he is, I am “always ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope,” as the first-century church planter Peter encourages (in 1 Peter 3:15). I don’t necessarily think I’ve earned the right to knock and a stranger’s door and bombard them with a plastic gospel. As my favorite faith-sharing group, Off-the-Map, says, Christians should “count conversations, not conversions.”

I agree whole-heartedly with what Carl says about not selling people with chaos and fear. And yet! I affirm this even as the purifying fires of hell could be relevant, and God just might care about how we relate to others with our genitals. I like living in this tension. In another paradox that I’m going to have to chew on and digest, Carl says:

“As a Christian, I am in fact called to be an evangelist; but I understand that to mean that I am called to spread good news. And in today’s world, and especially among Neopagans, talking about the Christian religion is the quickest way to subvert “good news,” instead sounding like a tired old purveyor of religious negativity.”

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that Jesus would agree with this completely. In fact, in one popular translation of scripture, Jesus says:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

When you talk about being faithful to your values, I feel you…obviously you don’t want to embrace so-called “spiritualities” that are hurtful, selfish, or unloving. I feel like a lot of Christians don’t understand that God doesn’t care about “Jesus” as some sort of abstract cosmological category; Father is in love with his Son because of his beauty and character. Jesus said “Whoever is not against me is for me.” When some people at the end of their lives stand confidently before the Big J and read off their religious resume, he tells them “I never knew you.” I think the Christian family’s views on “who’s in” and “who’s out” are out of sync with an intimate knowing of the risen Christ.

I like what Carl said about cultivating the positive and embracing the contributions of other faiths. Forgive me for pushing back a little, though: is there ever a place in interfaith dialogue to loathe aspects of faith–starting with your home faith to be sure–and repent, or turn from these patterns of being? I mean, in the physical realm most of us have no problem telling a friend they’re engaging in destructive and life-threatening habits, from “You should really quit smoking” to “self-immolation is not the way!” Yet if the realm of spirit is at least as real as the material realm, couldn’t certain cosmological choices have dire consequences?

Carl closes his reflection with the statement “I am free to love.” It echoes my interview with Anne Rice a few months back, a Gothic horror writer-turned eclectic Catholic. When I asked her what she’d like to share with fellow Christians, she told me:

We need to stop being so afraid that the devil is winning. The devil’s not winning–we are winning. Jesus is winning. God is winning. We have the strength and the time to open our arms to absolutely everyone. Rushing to judgment, condemning whole classes and groups of people–that is not in the spirit of Christ that I see in the Gospel. I can’t find that spirit. I see the spirit of love, taking the message to absolutely everyone.



Well, that wasn’t the final word, thankfully. Carl had a great follow-up, and Jon Trott did too. Here are the comments from the original Ooze post. It also opened me up to a fair bit of heresy-hunting, which I’ve covered extensively. I interviewed Anne Rice again shortly after she renounced Christianity. Carl has re-published a classic of his dealing with all of this material, titled Spirituality: A Post-Modern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship with God – I highly recommend it, as I do his recent article in the Huffington Post, Interspirituality: A Meaningful Alternative to ‘Spiritual Not Religious’. One of the most significant voices I’ve discovered in the intervening years exploring panentheism (and its implications for science & spirituality) is Philip Clayton of Transforming Theology. Since writing the above post I’ve discovered both the Interfaith Youth Core and Faith House Manhattan, which are living experiments in putting flesh on the bones of interspiritual engagement.

Enough rambling by me, past or present. What do you think?

Other posts in the Nondual Week series:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’

This week I want to explore – through guests posts and my own – a provocative claim: That to be spiritual and authentically in the world, one ought to consider a nondual outlook on life, the universe, and everything. In this post, I present an interview excerpt with developmental map-maker Ken Wilber that has a fresh take on “Why would a good God create a world with evil and suffering?” It’s one of best answers to this question I’ve ever read, and I think even a mystically-inclined Calvinist (a la the Puritan Jonathan Edwards) would find resonance with it. You be the judge.

PATHWAYS: Why does Spirit bother to manifest at all, especially when that manifestation is necessarily painful and requires that It become amnesiac to Its true identity? Why does God incarnate?

Ken Wilber: Oh, I see you’re starting with the easy questions. Well, I’ll give you a few theoretical answers that have been offered over the years, and then I’ll give you my personal experience, such as it is.

I have actually asked this same question of several spiritual teachers, and one of them gave a quick, classic answer: “It’s no fun having dinner alone.”

That’s sort of flip or flippant, I suppose, but the more you think about it, the more it starts to make sense. What if, just for the fun of it, we pretend—you and I blasphemously pretend, just for a moment—that we are Spirit, that Tat Tvam Asi? Why would you, if you were God Almighty, why would you manifest a world? A world that, as you say, is necessarily one of separation and turmoil and pain? Why would you, as the One, ever give rise to the Many?

PATHWAYS: It’s no fun having dinner alone?

KW: Doesn’t that start to make sense? Here you are, the One and Only, the Alone and the Infinite. What are you going to do next? You bathe in your own glory for all eternity, you bask in your own delight for ages upon ages, and then what? Sooner or later, you might decide that it would be fun—just fun—to pretend that you were not you. I mean, what else are you going to do? What else can you do?

PATHWAYS: Manifest a world.

KW: Don’t you think? But then it starts to get interesting. When I was a child, I used to try to play checkers with myself. You ever tried that?

PATHWAYS: Yes, I remember doing something like that.

KW: Does it work?

PATHWAYS: Not exactly, because I always knew what my “opponent’s” move was going to be. I was playing both sides, so I couldn’t “surprise” myself. I always knew what I was going to do on both sides, so it wasn’t much of a game. You need somebody “else” to play the game.

KW: Yes, exactly, that’s the problem. You need an “other”. So if you are the only Being in all existence, and you want to play—you want to play any sort of game—you have to take the role of the other, and then forget that you are playing both sides. Otherwise the game is no fun, as you say. You have to pretend you are the other player with such conviction that you forget that you are playing all the roles. If you don’t forget, then you got no game, it’s just no fun.

PATHWAYS: So if you want to play—I think the Eastern term is lila—then you have to forget who you are. Amnesis.

KW: Yes, I think so. And that is exactly the core of the answer given by the mystics the world over. If you are the One, and—out of sheer exuberance, plenitude, superabundance—you want to play, to rejoice, to have fun, then you must first, manifest the Many, and then second, forget it is you who are the Many. Otherwise, no game. Manifestation, incarnation, is the great Game of the One playing at being the Many, for the sheer sport and fun of it.

PATHWAYS: But it’s not always fun.

KW: Well, yes and no. The manifest world is a world of opposites—of pleasure versus pain, up versus down, good versus evil, subject versus object, light versus shadow. But if you are going to play the great cosmic Game, that is what you yourself set into motion. How else can you do it? If there are no parts and no players and no suffering and no Many, then you simply remain as the One and Only, Alone and Aloof. But it’s no fun having dinner alone.

PATHWAYS: So to start the game of manifestation is to start the world of suffering.

KW: It starts to look like that, doesn’t it? And the mystics seem to agree. But there is a way out of that suffering, a way to be free of the opposites, and that involves the overwhelming and direct realization that Spirit is not good versus evil, or pleasure versus pain, or light versus dark, or life versus death, or whole versus part, or holistic versus analytic. Spirit is the great Player that gives rise to all those opposites equally—“I the Lord make the Light to fall on the good and the bad alike; I the Lord do all these things” [MM note: I think Wilber is conflating Isaiah 45:7 with Matthew 5:43-48 – but his point still stands.] —and the mystics the world over agree. Spirit is not the good half of the opposites, but the ground of all the opposites, and our “salvation,” as it were, is not to find the good half of the dualism but to find the Source of both halves of the dualism, for that is what we are in truth. We are both sides in the great Game of Life, because we—you and I, in the deepest recesses of our very Self—have created both of these opposites in order to have a grand game of cosmic checkers.

That, anyway, is the “theoretical” answer that the mystics almost always give. “Nonduality” means, as the Upanishads put it, “to be freed of the pairs.” That is, the great liberation consists in being freed of the pairs of opposites, freed of duality—and finding instead the nondual One Taste that gives rise to both. This is liberation because we cease the impossible, painful dream of spending our entire lives trying to find an up without a down, an inside without an outside, a good without an evil, a pleasure without its inevitable pain.

PATHWAYS: You said that you had a more personal response as well.

KW: Yes, such as it is. When I first experienced, however haltingly, nirvikalpa samadhi—which means meditative absorption in the formless One—I remember having the vague feeling—very subtle, very faint—that I didn’t want to be alone in this wonderful expanse. I remember feeling, very diffusely but very insistently, that I wanted to share this with somebody. So what would one do in that state of loneliness?

PATHWAYS: Manifest a world.

KW: That’s how it seems to me. And I knew, however amateurishly, that if I came out of that formless Oneness and recognized the world of the Many, that I would then suffer, because the Many always hurt each other, as well as help each other. And you know what? I was glad to surrender the peace of the One even though it meant the pain of the Many. Now this is just a little tongue taste of what the great mystics have seen, but my limited experience seems to conform to their great pronouncement: You are the One freely giving rise to the Many—to pain and pleasure and all the opposites—because you choose not to abide as the exquisite loneliness of Infinity, and because you don’t want to have dinner alone.

PATHWAYS: And the pain that is involved?

KW: Is freely chosen as part of the necessary Game of Life. You cannot have a manifest world without all the opposites of pleasure and pain. And to get rid of the pain—the sin, the suffering, the dukkha—you must remember who and what you really are. This remembrance, this recollection, this anamnesis—”Do this in Remembrance of Me”—means, “Do this in Remembrance of the Self that You Are”—Tat Tvam Asi. The great mystical religions the world over consist of a series of profound practices to quiet the small self that we pretend we are—which causes the pain and suffering that you feel—and awaken as the Great Self that is our own true ground and goal and destiny—”Let this consciousness be in you which was in Christ Jesus.”

PATHWAYS: Is this realization an all-or-nothing affair?

KW: Not usually. It’s often a series of glimpses of One Taste—glimpses of the fact that you are one with absolutely all manifestation, in its good and bad aspects, in all its frost and fever, its wonder and its pain. You are the Kosmos, literally. But you tend to understand this ultimate fact in increasing glimpses of the infinity that you are, and you realize exactly why you started this wonderful, horrible Game of Life. But it is absolutely not a cruel Game, not ultimately, because you, and you alone, instigated this Drama, this Lila, this Kenosis.

PATHWAYS: But what about the notion that these experiences of “One Taste” or “Kosmic Consciousness” are just a by-product of meditation, and therefore aren’t “really real”?

KW: Well, that can be said of any type of knowledge that depends on an instrument. “Kosmic Consciousness” often depends on the instrument of meditation. So what? Seeing the nucleus of a cell depends on a microscope. Do we then say that the cell nucleus isn’t real because it’s only a by-product of the microscope? Do we say that the moons of Jupiter aren’t real because they depend on a telescope? The people who raise this objection are almost always people who don’t want to look through the instrument of meditation, just as the Churchmen refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and thus acknowledge the moons of Jupiter. Let them live with their refusal. But let us—to the best of our ability, and hopefully driven by the best of charity or compassion—try to convince them to look, just once, and see for themselves. Not coerce them, just invite them. I suspect a different world might open for them, a world that has been abundantly verified by all who look through the telescope, and microscope, of meditation.

PATHWAYS: Could you tell us….

KW: If I could interrupt, do you mind if I give you one of my favorite quotes from Aldous Huxley?


KW: This is from After Many a Summer Dies the Swan:

“I like the words I use to bear some relation to facts. That’s why I’m interested in eternity—psychological eternity. Because it’s a fact.”

“For you, perhaps,” said Jeremy.

“For anyone who chooses to fulfill the conditions under which it can be experienced.”

“And why should anyone wish to fulfill them?”

“Why should anyone choose to go to Athens to see the Parthenon? Because it’s worth the bother. And the same is true of eternity. The experience of timeless good is worth all the trouble it involved.”

“Timeless good,” Jeremy repeated with distaste. “I don’t know what the words mean.”

“Why should you?” said Mr. Propter. “You’ve never bought your ticket for Athens.”

PATHWAYS: So contemplation is the ticket to Athens?

KW: Don’t you think?

PATHWAYS: Definitely. I wonder, could you tell us a little bit about your own ticket to Athens? Could you tell us a little about the history of your own experiences with meditation? And what is “integral practice” and what does it offer the modern spiritual seeker?

KW: Well, as for my own history, I’m not sure I can say anything meaningful in a short space. I’ve been meditating for twenty-five years, and I suspect my experiences are not terribly different from many who have tread a similar path. But I will try to say a few things about “integral practice,” because I suspect it might be the wave of the future. The idea is fairly simple, and Tony Schwartz, author of What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, summarized it as the attempt to “marry Freud and Buddha.” But that really just means, the attempt to integrate the contributions of Western “depth psychology” with the great wisdom traditions of “height psychology”—the attempt to integrate id and Spirit, shadow and God, libido and Brahman, instinct and Goddess, lower and higher—whatever terms you wish, the idea is clear enough, I suspect.

PATHWAYS: As an actual practice?

KW: Yes, the actual practice is based on something like this: Given the Great Nest of Being—ranging from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit—how can we acknowledge, honor, and exercise all of those levels in our own being? And if we do so—if we engage all of the levels of our own potential—won’t that better help us to remember the Source of the Great Game of Life, which is not other than our own deepest Self? If Spirit is the Ground and Goal of all these levels, and if we are Spirit in truth, won’t the whole-hearted engagement of all these levels help us remember who and what we really are?

Well, that is the theory, which I realize I have put in rather dry terms. The idea, concretely, is this: Take a practice (or practices) from each of those levels, and engage whole-heartedly in all of those practices. For the physical level, you might include physical yoga, weightlifting, vitamins, nutrition, jogging, etc. For the emotional/body level, you might try tantric sexuality, therapy that helps you contact the feeling side of your being, bioenergetics, t’ai chi, etc. For the mental level, cognitive therapy, narrative therapy, talking therapy, psychodynamic therapy, etc. For the soul level, contemplative meditation, deity yoga, subtle contemplation, centering prayer, and so on. And for the spirit level, the more nondual practices, such as Zen, Dzogchen, Advaita Vedanta, Kashmir Shaivism, formless Christian mysticism, and so forth.

Read the rest of this interview with Wilber over at Integral Life, or check out One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality. Also see Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright here on the blog, and my series on The Way of the Heart with Cynthia Bourgeault.

And tell me, dear reader: Does this way of seeing the interplay between divinity and the world resonate with you? God manifesting reality so as to “not have dinner alone”? Why or why not?

Other posts in the Nondual Week series:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery

This continues my series on Cynthia Bourgeault‘s recent day-session at the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro. You can start reading right here, or scroll below to see the previous sessions. 

Jesus stands in the lineage of the prophets and fulfills God’s promise to Ezekiel:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 11:19)

Jesus takes his place in the succession of the prophets. He initiates a greater interiority; a way of knowing the relational heart of God. This is what some call Interiorized Monasticism.

Jesus comes as the Master Cardiologist, taking away hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh.  A heart of stone is simply one that is incapable of hearing & participating in the living, and interdynamic umbilical field of human hearing and divine response, and vice-versa. Since the stone heart can’t hear, it sets its knowing on sterner stuff – reified law, covenants, dogma, et al.

Jesus comes to do the surgery – centering prayer, everyday kenosis, is the surgery.

Bruno Barnhart (free talks here) speaks of recognition energy. A holy contagion. (“Master, where do you dwell?” “Come and see!”) When people see Jesus, they see two things simultaneously: Not only “Oh wow, what a divine specimen” (this too), but they see their own power, dignity, and divinity. The blind man doesn’t only see, but he speaks. In the presence of Jesus, you see the luminosity of your own divine face. Fully human, fully divine, fully united in the heart. (See Second Simplicity: Toward a Rebirth of Wisdom)

The Gospel runs on recognition energy. “I have seen the Lord!”

The people most resistant in that are the most invested in ordinary knowledge – the “rich,” not only in material resources, but in spiritual and intellectual resources.

The recognition drama goes on ‘till the very end of the Gospels – one thief on the cross gets it, one doesn’t.

“Poor in spirit” is beginner’s mind.

To be continued…to see where Cynthia’s going with this, I recommend checking out her books The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and MindCentering Prayer and Inner Awakening,  The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, and The Wisdom Way of Knowing.

If you’re interested in exploring the myriad of ways in which apprentices to Jesus can navigate change in the 21st century – in our worship, our spiritual formation, our way of engaging the crises and opportunities we face today – I hope you join me at Co-Creation 2012, happening this April 12-15 in the same space where I saw Cynthia. Brian McLaren, Diana Butler-Bass, and Integral Christianity author Paul Smith will be joining with the Servant Leadership School of Greensboro, North Carolina and a half-dozen artists and musicians to bring a truly unforgettable, interactive experience. To register, click here; to read more about this in an in-depth blog post, go here.

In This Series:

The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Speaking of Life Divine
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery
The Way of the Heart Part 9: Christ is Living in Our Midst