r m p




God, Zen, and the Mystery of Being

Text: Psalm 8
Jainist text

You have just heard two very different scriptural texts addressing the question of the astonishing grandeur of the universe and the possible relation of it to a divine Creator. Whichever you agree with, I think you'd have to admit that they are both at least getting first things first! As a famous philosopher put it, "The first question of philosophy is, Why is there something rather than  nothing?" That is what another called the primary experience of "ontological shock."

If you have never experienced even a touch of the shock I am talking about, I dare say it is because you have never paused from your round of busy activities to notice that, yes, you are alive in this world when in fact you might not be, and that there is in fact a world, a reality, for you to be alive in, when, for all you know, there might as well not be! 

You are alive, but you have forgotten to notice. There is a world, but you have not noticed. Like the disciples of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, you have taken the very first item of business for granted. They approach Jesus and ask him, "Tell us what our end will be." He replies: "Have you indeed discovered the beginning that you ask about the end? He who stands at the beginning will also know the end." And the disciples had not done this.

It's like being lost and seeing a map. It is of no help if you do not know where you are standing! If you know the beginning of the journey you have to take to find the exit, you can find the exit.  But if not, you're stuck. 

Socrates found that his contemporaries had also thought themselves to have advanced along the path to their end, to their destiny, to fame and wisdom, but in fact they had never found square one, and so had never stood upon it, had never even begun the race they thought they were winning. 

So we must not neglect the beginning. Why is there something rather than nothing? The ontological shock is the beginning of both religion and philosophy. From this point will emerge many doctrines of cosmogony and creation. The Bible contains several of them. So do other scriptures. But not so fast! It is possible to start at the right place and yet start off on the wrong foot! 

I believe that all doctrines and theories of the divine creation of the world are spiritually dangerous, essentially anti-religious. Please note that I am not simply saying that religious fundamentalists have no right to ignore and suppress science in the name of biblical myths. I do believe that.

But I am making a rather different point this morning: those who insist on a creation doctrine are sinning not only against science but even against religion! 

For the believer in divine creation, even if the doctrine be a sophisticated one like Aquinas's or that of the latest liberal Protestant theologian, the open question of the Mystery of Being is like an open ­wound­! It stings and gapes, and the believer cannot rest till it be healed up, closed up, smeared with the soothing balm of an answer.

But I say every supposed answer to the Mystery of Being is not a healing balm but rather a sedative, even a blinding dose of spiritual poison. For the minute you fill in that blank you are exorcizing the chief source of religious awe. What once one gaped at in astonishment and  unbearable awe, now one relegates to the file drawer of solved cases.

The Bible and the Koran both picture us gazing at the great dome of the heavens, sprinkled with stardust, yawning with untold worlds and nebulae, and just as quickly the scriptures choke off the precious sense of wonder with a fairy tale.

"Oh, you're wondering how to account for such a grand thing? You're puzzled? Dumbfounded? Well, friend, don't worry! It's really pretty simple! You see, the world was made by an invisible watchmaker named God. See? Now don't trouble your head about it again. From now on, you can take it for granted." 

Well, of course, to think you've explained anything by saying "God created it" is absurd. It's like Erich von Daniken "explaining" the mystery of the Pyramids by saying space aliens built them! You can't "explain" one enigma by an even bigger enigma! It's like the old Hindu myths in which the world rests on the back of an elephant which rests on the back of a tortoise, which rests on the back of something else... 

But that's not the real problem. When you think you can account for the origin of the world by chalking it up to a creator, don't you see that you're draining away the wonder of the thing? You're just giving yourself an excuse to take the whole thing for granted and sink into a worldly stupor in which you can actually get bored! Imagine! Bored? In this world? Is it all so pat, so old hat to you? Ennui overtakes you? If it does, it's because you have already benumbed yourself. 

Let me read you a bit of Wordsworth's "Ode:" [I, II, V].

Once we sported in the glory and wonder of the Mystery of Being as a dolphin in the sea foam! But then "a glory faded from the world." The prison walls of adult perception, rote perception, dull perception, began to close in, and it is hardly perception at all! What happened? Or rather, how did it happen? I think the Russian Formalist critic Shklovsky put it well: 

as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic... In this process, ideally realized in algebra, things are replaced by symbols... Habitualization devours work, clothes,furniture, one's [spouse], and the fear of war. 'If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such     lives are as if they had never been.' And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone ­stony­. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique is to make objects 'unfamiliar'... Art removes objects from the automatism of perception.

 I am sure this is right, both the diagnosis and the prescription.  What has happened to us? We no longer perceive, because we have learned to know, to recognize. We are mostly like a surveillance camera, like a computer that apprehends data, thus "knows" it, but does not know that it knows, does not perceive. It does not experience  that it knows something. And neither do we. Oh, once we did. When we first fell in love, and we delighted in the charms of our beloved which were new every morning--at least for a few mornings, and then that little smile, that gesture that once so charmed us, it becomes routine--and thus invisible. It is filed away in the memory bank. 

Have you noticed that we hardly even hear sentences spoken to us? All we look for, and all that registers, is the gist. We cannot remember the wording of a text we read because we are reading for the gist, and if it is a literary text, where style is supposed to count for something, we have missed the whole thing. 

The Zen masters say we fail to perceive the world anymore because it has become habitual. We let words and concepts substitute for things. It is like the changeover from barter to currency exchange, exactly like it. We used to exchange actual things, squealing goats, pungent herbs, fabrics smooth or rough, things we could see and feel and hear--and could not help but seeing, feeling, hearing. But then all we do is exchange coins and bills that stand for value. And then it is checks, then plastic credit cards, soon computer clacks. 

And this might not be bad, but it is the same for our whole lives! As Shklovsky said, habituation devours everything! And our whole life is scanning a text. We are inured to everything, numbed to everything. 

Shklovsky prescribed art, literature, as the cure, art that strips away the blindfold of familiarity and forces us to perceive again the things we know.

Perhaps this is why Jesus is depicted in the gospels not as some dull pulpit preacher (like me), feeding his audience with more concepts, more sleeping pills, but as an artist, a reciter of poetic couplets and a spinner of riddles. When asked why on earth he didn't just use straight talk, he said, "Because having eyes they see not, and having ears, they hear not." In other words, like Shklovsky said, the truth is so familiar to them, they're so habituated to it, that they can no longer see it at all. Familiarity breeds invisibility! And so Jesus must use the language of artistry to make the stone be perceived again as stony, the soul as soulish. 

This, of course, is why the novel and the film The Last Temptation of Christ were roundly condemned, hotly denounced. They took the too-familiar gospel and shook it up, really deconstructed it, and unleashed it in something like its original shocking colors. It had once again become what Paul said it had been in his day: a scandal and a stumbling block. 

Bultmann spoke of the need to "demythologize" the gospel for the benefit of modern man. But I think Shklovsky and Tomashevsky were closer to the truth. We need to "defamiliarize" the  gospel. 

I am a firm believer in the spirituality of blasphemy. I believe that only in the experience of shock and startlement can one be jolted out, shaken out of one's lethal complacency. When in Last Temptation one of the clerics rebukes Jesus, he says: "That's blasphemy!" Jesus responds: "Didn't they tell you? I'm the saint of blasphemy!" Yes! That is the Christ-figure that has meaning for me. The Last Temptation is a true Gospel to me, just as much as the official four. 

But Jesus was not the only saint of blasphemy. The Zen masters, too, were expert in the art. Think of the famous image of the Zen mystic who tears up the scroll of scripture, another who casts holy icons into the fire as kindling!

Since concepts and words merely substitute for the Real, the Zen masters knew they had to find some ­other­ way to strip off the veil. So they taught with slaps in the face, sermons of silence, teasing riddles designed to force you to reason's dead end. 

If we want to learn to see again, even if for a moment, the glory that has faded from the world, we must seek the paradox, the volatility, the unstable explosiveness, the inherent absurdity of our religious myths and symbols. If we do this, they may be able to help us. Otherwise they will only get in the way. They are only ladders to be climbed up and then jumped off! This is why I am in the habit of treating sacred things with levity, lest they become idols. 

Those psychologists who study sleep patterns tell us that people get the most irritated when deprived of sleep. When they are trying to grab a few needed winks and the experimenter prods them awake, they get surly fast! And it has been my experience that the same is true in the spiritual realm. When the alarm clock of some new religious shock goes off, people don't want their "dogmatic slumber" (as Kant called it) disturbed! They grab the clock and, with a cry of "Heresy!" or "Blasphemy!", they pitch it out the window! You probably remember throwing a few clocks out yourself! I know I have. 

Awe at the Mystery of things is the key to a religious attitude. It is the source of freshness of perception. Do not kill it and nail it into a coffin called "God." Do not even mummify it in a mummy case called "the Mystery of Being"! Because it is not an "it"! That's taking the first step to labeling it and filing it away!

Robert M. Price


CopyrightŠ2004 by Robert M Price
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