FAITH: SECURITY & RISK

Chapter 8: Unitive Faith

The temptation of Conjunctive faith . . . is to become immobilized in its compassion. The polarities of its loves and loyalties can seem to cancel each other. Persons of Conjunctive faith long for transforming newness; yet their integrity involves keeping steadfast commitments to institutions and persons in the present. They see the possibility, even the imperative, of lives lived in solidarity with all being. Yet their wills, affections, and actions manifest tension, division, and disunity. Being in, but not of the world, they feel a cosmic homelessness and loneliness. For some, this longing and discomfort become the means by which they are called and lured into a transformed and transforming relationship to the ultimate conditions of life-and to themselves and everyday existence with the neighbor. This transforming and transformed relation we call Universalizing faith.  

(James W. Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian)

This final "universalizing" stage of faith, which for reasons that will gradually become more evident, I would prefer to call unitive faith, is not a universal faith or religion as such. So let it remain a moot question, for the time being, whether any worldwide religion is possible. Instead, I will concentrate on what is meant qualitatively by a faith that would in some sense transcend the conjunctive stage.

We have already seen how conjunctive faith attempts to rise above the polarities of black and white, either/or thinking to achieve a dialectical synthesis that resolves all tensions. The problem is, however, that thinking is one thing and achieving is another. We have also seen how the constant awareness of both sides of any question can have the effect of mentally paralyzing a person to the extent that all committed action, indeed, commitment itself, ceases, and that what began with the appearance of conjunctive faith ends, at the worst, in a destructive cynicism, or, at best, in a sterile apathy.

This need not be the case. Indeed, enough persons of conjunctive faith live their lives, in a committed and active way, to provide much hope for the world and the human spirit. But is this enough?

The Perfection of Faith

As we have noted, some of Fowler's critics, even some friendly ones like Gabriel Moran (see Moran's 1983 Religious Education Development), have questioned whether such a "universalizing" faith exists, or, if it does, if it must be considered a goal for most persons. Admittedly, few do achieve it. Fowler's research interviews report to have turned up only one candidate, but that has not discouraged him from postulating that such a state exists and has been reached by a limited but significant number of examples in recent times -- among them are two in particular who, in his estimation, have achieved this state and who I think best fit our needs of comparison and illustration in this consideration of the final stage of faith.

The Indian religious leader and social and political reformer Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) and the American monk and writer Thomas Merton (1915-1968) at first may seem to have little in common except the latter's admiration for the former. But we shall soon see there is much more that they had in common, not the least of which was a great ambition to achieve sanctity and to arrive at a universalizing or what I now describe as a unitive faith.

But the question remains as to how consistently these two noted but controversial figures display all the earmarks of a truly mature faith. To answer that question, I think that there is no need to review the basic characteristics that such a faith would display. The key difference between it and a conjunctive faith, to my mind, would be the resolution, at least in terms of inward composure, of most, if not all of the contradictions or paradoxes that form the basis of the tensions that characterize conjunctive faith. Again, we also must be acutely aware that while such tensions can be theoretically resolved in one's head, the question of outward consistency often is something else.

Both Gandhi and Merton in some way transcended their origins by seeking inspiration from the opposite end of the world. Although he was raised as a Hindu, and greatly influenced by Jainism, the pacifist religion concentrated in his native district of India, Gandhi appears to have been even more strongly influenced by the Christian gospels and their radical interpretation by Count Leo Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and social reformer. Despite having only spent a few years in England as a student of the law, Gandhi's longer exposure to western ways during his years in South Africa steeled his determination to seek the truth wherever it is found, even when his return to his native India strengthened his resolve to remain a Hindu to the core.

Merton, on the other hand, was raised somewhat indifferently when it came to religious training -- mostly in boarding schools in France and England . Still, after some brief exposure to Asian religious thought, he turned to Catholicism as a young man, doing so almost with a vengeance, soon joining the strictest order of cloistered monks that the church provided. Isolated from the outside world, Merton only returned to his early interest in Eastern thought in the last few years of his relatively short life, drawn partly by its contemplative emphasis, and partly by his great concern for peacemaking and the example that Gandhi provided. But despite recurrent rumors, there can be no serious question that he also remained committed to his Christian faith and monastic vocation. So while both of these extraordinary men were, in the best sense, persons of truly ecumenical faith in the broadest sense of the word, yet each remained firmly rooted in the faith forms of his respective culture.

One thing else I think is striking. Although Gandhi and Merton became deeply committed to the moral transformation of society, both believed that the essential key to this change was within -- that one could never expect to effectively influence society unless one's own self was radically transformed. In effect, both of these men early in their life consciously decided that their primary task, above all else, was to become a "saint". Both remained deeply suspicious of reformers who appear on the scene with radical programs but who, even with the best of intentions -- or so they think -- still have not been consistently transformed from within. In Gandhi's case this was evidenced by his decision to adopt the ascetical life, with all that entailed, even while he still remained a "householder", and particularly by his determination to live in the state of religious celibacy. Nor did Merton undertake his radical choice from a state of pure innocence or naivete. Both knew that they possessed strong passions that demanded strong controls.

But the comparison between Gandhi and Merton should not stop there. Although both were men of keen intellect, neither had much patience for purely abstract thinking. Gandhi's determination, his "vow" even, to pursue the truth in a lived "experiment" was paralleled by Merton's own determination to withdraw from academic and literary society to live solely for God. Yet despite their high ideals, each in his own way had his feet of clay. Gandhi's rather harsh treatment of his wife and his virtual disowning of the son he hoped would follow in his footsteps, as well as his self-administered tests of his chastity, were cause for consternation. Merton's reappearing weakness for alcohol, along with the revelation of the love affair that he suffered through for some months about two years before his death, also came as something of a shock to those who knew and admired him (see Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton).

What are we to think about such flaws or apparent inconsistencies in such exemplary men? Erik Erikson, from whom Fowler has taken much of his original inspiration, has this to say about Gandhi's often puzzling life:

As to the Mahatma's public private life, all we can say is that here was a man who both lived and wondered aloud, and with equal intensity and depth, about a multiformity of inclinations which other men hide and bury in strenuous consistency. At the end great confusion can be a mark of greatness, too, especially if it results from the inescapable conflicts of existence.
    (Erikson, Gandhi's Truth, p. 405)

If this inconsistency seems baffling to find in a person like Gandhi, who sought to convert people by the example of his own life, it is no less so in Merton the writer, whose apostolate had become, to no small extent, bound up with the disclosure of his private self to his readership around the world.

Thus we find that the "final integration" -- Erikson's last stage in his scheme of human maturation -- does not always point to perfect harmony within. Nor does Jung's notion of "individuation" as involving a "coincidence of opposites" smack of tensionless existence. Although both Gandhi and Merton evidenced a truly universalizing or universalized faith vision and faith commitment, both to some extent failed to achieve the perfect harmony or integration that they sought. Ironically both ended up, not entirely by coincidence, coming closest to accomplishing this through what Erikson, in an earlier book, gave as representing the two extreme solutions of "the last problems" -- martyrdom or solitude (see Erikson, Young Man Luther, 1958, p. 261). If Gandhi's assassination was hardly self-willed, still it culminated a whole life marked by what seemed at times to be an almost self-destructive urge to sacrifice self for others. And if Merton's almost constant battle to be allowed the solitude of the hermitage could be legitimately seen as a longing for what represents the purest form of the contemplative life, still the reappearing of what had seemed long-settled interior conflicts proves the truth of what the ancient desert fathers so often warned -- that the call to solitude includes the call to confront the forces of evil head-on, and to discover that these forces lie deepest within one's self.

So a major part of the challenge of universalizing faith is to arrive at a stage of final integration. Neither are the major characteristics of this final stage of faith to be found in different beliefs or ideals, or even in higher ethical standards as compared to conjunctive faith, but rather, as Fowler points out, in terms of the perspective from which these are viewed or acted upon. Yet this new perspective is not simply one of a broadened world-view or horizon. Instead, a truly "universalizing" faith is most of all marked by a "decentration from self". Thus one's perspective or horizon becomes not only detached from the limitations of class, ethnic, or even religious background, but takes on a cosmic dimension that strives to view all things from God's point of view. It is in that sense both a highly contemplative point of view, and, at the same time, one that demands the ultimate in self-sacrifice (see Fowler, 1985, pp. 68-70). It is for this same reason that Richard J. Sweeney, in his treatment of the subject, calls this final stage "sacrificial faith". And it is because of the immense difficulties involved in this self-transcending, yet self-fulfilling effort, the seeming contradiction of total integration of the self by forgetting self, that we must now confront these paradoxes directly.

The Risks of Sanctity

If I have concentrated on these two proffered instances of universalizing or unitive faith rather than tried to give a fuller clinical definition, it is because Gandhi and Merton, in their successes and failures, their consistencies and inconsistencies, illustrate both the challenge and the dangers of arriving at this goal better than any outline or list of qualities ever could. In the move from conjunctive to universalizing faith we see not so much any change in the description of faith as far as its abstract qualities are concerned, as instead we see more of a radical change in the person in question, a change that is hard to describe in any terms other than the difference between a good, even outstanding person and what, for want of a more globally all-inclusive term, we generally call a " saint".

But here I must also stress that a person can only "arrive at" sanctity rather than "achieve" sainthood. One can, to be sure, aim at becoming a saint. The question remains, however, whether this is possible through will-power alone. There can be no doubt that both Gandhi and Merton consciously set out to be nothing less than saints - - yet each of them failed in rather glaring instances to fully achieve this goal. Nor should we be surprised, because this is where the paradox most of all lies, between intention and accomplishment. According to Christian doctrine, although we must will to cooperate, it is only through God, or the influence of grace, that this result can occur. Although I do not wish to get into the reformation controversy over the supposed difference between grace viewed as "justifying" (the more Protestant -- especially, Lutheran -- view, which seems to lie behind much of the sharper disagreement with Fowler's concept of "faith stages" to begin with) and grace as "sanctifying" (strongly defended by the Roman Church and by Fowler's own Methodist tradition). But there is more than just a little at stake here. Sainthood, according to the oldest tradition, is not just a matter of being "saved", as important as that may be. It is a matter of becoming "like God" or of theosis or "divinization" -- to use the theological term of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Thus grace is seen not only as sanctifying but even as "deifying".

As Eric Fromm pointed out in his provocative study, You Shall Be As Gods, this is a most dangerous idea. Truly, God has created us to be like himself -- "in his image and likeness" according to Genesis 1:26. But is not this that same ambition, that hubris or pride which in the Greek myths inevitably leads to the human downfall? Yes, so it is, yet in Fromm's point of view, it is not this goal that constitutes the core of human sinfulness -- the origin-al nature of sin, if you will -- but instead the self-deception involved in thinking that we can do so on our own terms. It is this underlying problem that explains some of Gandhi's and Merton's inconsistencies.

Granted that the ambition to become a saint is not an unworthy one, and that without a persistent quest for this goal few if any except a few of the more sudden martyrs will arrive at genuine sanctity. But again, desire is one thing, and accomplishment is another. According to Catholic-Orthodox theological tradition, some persons are "predestined" to achieve eminent sanctity, while others are not. So this amounts to saying that no matter how hard we may desire to become a "Saint," (here the capital "S" implying a publicly recognized or "canonized" one) it is still ultimately a question of God's will.

This means, more radically, that we must purify our ambitions in a way that, as Fowler says, "decentrates" our center of concern from ourselves and enables us to undergo a kenosis or "emptying out" in the biblical sense of the word. This is not a popular theme in an age dedicated to self-fulfillment -- if indeed it ever was. Even in medieval times this pitfall in the quest of sanctity was recognized. Thus St. Bernard of Clairvaux's division of the life of contemplation into two stages: the first being our consideration of what is God's will for us, the second being what is God's will in itself. Or again, the reason for Meister Eckhart's emphasis on the necessity of erlassen, a "letting go", is the need to free ourselves not only from our worldly concerns but even from excessive concern for our own perfection.

This insistence on freedom from even the consuming desire for sanctity is quite easy to understand from the viewpoint of Frankl's basic dynamic. Sanctity or sainthood, viewed as a goal for ourselves to achieve, easily becomes another form of self-idolatry. It can become so in one or the other of two ways. We see it either as a goal to be sought for the consolations it will bring or else as a means of achieving self-mastery or self-realization.

Probably the first deviation, which is the Freudian pleasure principle in spiritual dress, appeals more to passive personalities, especially those drawn toward mysticism; for these, particularly, the lure of security in the form of feeling loved by God is the major risk. The second deviation, which amounts to the Adlerian goal translated into religious terms, is less security-motivated, but provides the perfect cover for the more power-oriented person who would see himself or herself as prophet-reformer, a spokesman or agent of God, a privileged calling that's made to order for the classical causa sui project --that of making oneself into one's own God.

It is for this reason that some philosophers and theologians have objected to the great patristic theme of theosis often expressed in the classical dictum about the incarnation: "God became man that man might become God." This theme, however, should not be taken literally but should always be modified in the scriptural sense of our intended "likeness" to God. But even that qualification aside, I think the key here is a question of emphasis. Irenaeus and those after him used this saying primarily to stress that in Jesus, God became totally like us, save in sin, in order that we might become as fully as possible like God. Theosis, in this scheme of reasoning, is totally subservient to, and reversely analogous to, the incarnation. Created in God's "image", we are called to live in the likeness of Christ, who "is the image of the invisible God" ( Col 1:15). But granted the reality of the call "to be perfected, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48) -- the key word here is teleos, meaning "perfect", "complete", "fulfilled", "mature" -- the mere idea of sanctity, even a hidden sanctity, like the human desire for fulfillment, in itself has a subtle ability to corrupt the purest of human intentions. The causa-sui or "self-god" project, then, remains the final and most perilous of the deviations that are possible in the life of faith. It is the hidden trap that awaits those who would achieve the final stage of faith.

Fortunately for us, God's grace is not easily cheated. Those whom God has called are also given the means to avoid this or at least to overcome its grip. In the concrete, these preventive or corrective factors may differ greatly in their shape or form. But underneath they share a single, common denominator, one that at the root is directly connected with the central dynamism of the whole religious quest -- the never-ending challenge for a continued growth and deepening of faith.

The Night of Faith

Alan Watts, the late religious philosopher of the hippie era, asserted that for the Oriental Christian tradition, there was no such thing as the so-called "dark night of faith". No doubt this phrase itself, and attention to the phenomenon to which it refers, only became widespread relatively late in the west. It was Watt's theory that this was because the eastern church tradition had always laid an equal stress on apophatic theology or the so-called "via negativa" as it had on kataphatic theology or the "via positiva". In the latter, the "positive" mode prevailing in the western tradition, we ascribe all the superlatives we can to God, then say that God is immeasurably greater than even that. ln "negative" theology, on the other hand, we are content to say only what God isn't and concentrate on leaving more "space" in our minds, so to speak, for attempting to grasp what can never be adequately expressed.

The result has been that in the east the "creeds" were taken less literally and more symbolically from the beginning. Indeed, the Greek term for "creed" is symboulion -- literally, something that has been “brought together" as it were, to serve as a mark or sign. But in the west the prevailing tendency has been to turn to the "negative" mode of expression only out of desperation and through a process involving a near loss of faith in the sense of "beliefs". This process is so traumatic that it can be accurately described as a "dark night", according to the sixteenth century Spanish mystical writer John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes, 1542-1591).

Although Watt's diagnosis is an oversimplification, particularly as a judgment on more sophisticated western theological discourse, still when it comes to spirituality and piety, our human tendency is to hang on to the positive approach as long as we can. For whatever their insufficiencies, beliefs still give us a "handle" of some sort to which we can cling. Without the security afforded by our beliefs or faith convictions, we fear suffering psychological and theological vertigo. This is understandable enough, but should we put off this confrontation with the limits of human thought to the very last moment as we generally do? Is this wise theologically, or even pedagogically? How many persons have been lost to Christianity when no alternative was offered them after they began to see the manifest inadequacies, not just of symbolic phrases like "seated at the right hand of God", or "heaven above", or the like, but also of the analogical use of terms such as "person", and "nature" as applied within theological constructs?

There is more at stake here than just mental confusion. There is the whole matter of the core dynamism of faith as such. If convictions are a necessary part of faith, still convictions that are too readily expressed in symbolic terms easily run the risk of becoming idols with all the bigotry, self-delusion, and other related dangers we have seen associated with such an objectification of the transcendent dimension of reality. When this happens, the commitment itself tends to become distorted. Too often the apparent security offered by the creeds, for all practical purposes, has taken the place of God.

Is there a way around this trap? I believe there is -- but Christian readers will have to be patient with me, for to best understand it would be helpful to take a serious look at Asian religious thought, and particularly those forms of Buddhism which so fascinated Merton -- much to the consternation of some of his Christian readership. I suggest this because, to my mind, this ancient tradition addresses this problem more directly and thoroughly, even if, to western eyes, too extremely, than any other religious and philosophical tradition.

Historically, all that we know for sure about the fabled sixth century B.C. Indian prince Siddartha Gautama, now known as "the Buddha" or "the enlightened one", is that, after searching for the meaning of life, of suffering, and of divinity, he had come to the conclusion that the various religious doctrines and most of the ascetic practices of classical Hinduism not only fail to bring enlightenment but only serve to prevent us from truly experiencing ultimate reality. Instead Gautama sat down under a tree near Banares and vowed not to rise until he found the answer. What that answer was is contained under the "four noble truths" and "the eightfold path", none of which say anything about the nature of ultimate reality, but instead attempt to tell us how to reach that reality. The four truths are simply:

To live is to suffer.
The cause of suffering is desire.
This desiring can be overcome.
The way to do this is to live according to the eightfold path.

The eightfold path, in turn, is first of all a mental-volitional discipline of "right thinking" or correct ideas, and "right aim", secondly, an ethical discipline of "right speech", "right action" and "right occupation", and, finally, a spiritual regimen consisting of "right effort", "right mindfulness" or attentiveness, and "right concentration" or mediation. This program, which Gautama and his disciples considered a "middle way" of tempered asceticism, was structured within a monastic life lived in simplicity, poverty and celibacy. Theraveda or "The Way of the Elders" (sometimes called Hinayana or the "Lesser Vehicle") Buddhism in Southeast Asia still stresses this original and largely monastic form. Mahayana, or the "Greater Vehicle" Buddhism that predominates in the rest of the Far East, is much more adapted to full lay participation. Despite some deep doctrinal differences, particularly regarding the attitude taken toward the Buddha himself -- for the Theravedins he is a saint, but, for Mahayanists, an incarnation of the Divine itself -- what both major groups as well as all their many subdivisions have to a large extent in common is a generally "apophatic" or negative approach to ultimate reality. In contrast to that theologically developed Hinduism which speaks of the Atman as the higher, imperishable spirit at the depth of our existence and its identity with Brahman or the divine essence, Buddhism contrasts the doctrine of anatta or "selflessness" (an-atman or "no-soul") where the transient self reaches enlightenment in the form of nirvana or nibbana -- which literally means a "blowing out" or "extinguishing" (as of a lamp or candle), or as it were, in a sense, "annihilation" within the formless, infinite void.

Westerners, when they first begin to understand Buddhist thought, are often shocked, for there is no clearly identified personal "God" in Buddhism; indeed, except in some popular Mahayanist sects, the use of the terms "God" or "gods" is generally avoided, so that in a certain sense Buddhism is "atheistic". But it would be more accurate to say that Buddhism is characterized by a reverent agnosticism. Thus in its substitute term for the ultimate, nirvana, according to most Buddhists, the "blowing out" or "extinguishing" is not to be taken literally but as symbolic of the ultimate reality that can be approached only through total self-forgetfulness which at the same time will bring us to total enlightenment and self-realization.

However, as we shall see, the main point is that to reach this state, one must resolutely reject all attempts to define it. To try to define or describe the ultimate self, the ultimate state, or the divine ultimate, or to even say for sure that they exist, is to endanger the whole process in a fruitless effort of trying to avoid the absolute necessity of unconditional and unsupported faith or trust.

The reason I have gone into this whole matter of Buddhism, trying to simplify a very complicated matter, is because I think it is essential to follow the logic of this thinking when it comes to understanding the "decentration" of self demanded by a truly universalizing or fully unitive faith. The Buddhist approach may seem extreme, but, psychologically speaking, I don't think it is necessarily any more so than the teaching of St. John of the Cross. It is striking that this sixteenth century Spaniard's most famous set of maxims summing up his doctrine also exhibits an almost Buddhist-like avoidance of the all-too-familiar use of the word "God." Instead we find:

To reach satisfaction in all,
   desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all,
   desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all,
   desire to be nothing.
To come to the knowledge of all,
   desire the knowledge of nothing . . .

and

To come to the knowledge you have not,
   you must go by a way you know not.
To come to the possession you have not,
   you must go by a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not,
   you must go by a way in which you are not.
      (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book I, Chap. 13.11)

Admittedly there is much argument about these verses -- which I have abbreviated somewhat. But I've certainly given enough to convey their shocking emphasis on the apophatic way of negation, which is even more evident in the original Spanish, with its frequent use of the double negative ("no quieras...nada") -- this in contrast to the overwhelming totality of the divine "all" (todo). Although the double negatives should be normally translated as a single negative in English, the problem is how, and with what emphasis; for example, are we being advised "to desire to know nothing" or "to not desire to know anything" (or literally, "anything in [about?] nothing")?

This may seem like academic quibbling, but the key problem here, as I see it, just as in the Buddha's "four noble truths" is the question of desire. The word tanha in the Pali dialect that Gautama spoke meant simply that. But as the revered Zen philosopher, D.T. Suzuki, insisted, this hardly makes sense when taken literally. Without the desire to be enlightened and to escape pointless suffering, a person would hardly bother to try to follow the Buddha's way. So most commentators believe that Gautama was talking only about selfish or egocentric desire, often translated as "craving". But on the other hand, the Buddhist doctrine of anatta or "no-self" seems to indicate that it is more than the simple (but never easy) matter of purifying one's desires. Rather, as we shall see, it is the very concept of "self" that seems suspect.

John of the Cross, however, the paradox is even more consciously emphasized. To begin with, he appears to have no hesitation in exploiting the power of human desire, seeing it as a God-given life impulse, particularly when turned toward the goal of self-fulfillment. But just as surely he then turns around and seems to stress the negation of this same desire. But again, if we see this simply as an attempt to purify desire rather than diminish it, why then the jarring use of the double negative? We are told not just to avoid desiring what is relatively "nothing", but really to let go of desiring as such. Why? Because the more we try to eliminate our selfishness, our self keeps getting in the way, and all the more so the harder we try.

Probably this is the best explanation of why in many, if not all, Buddhist philosophies, the doctrine of anatta is taken with great metaphysical, and not just psychological, seriousness; the living, thinking self is considered to be an illusion, the result of a mere conglomeration of bodily functions, thoughts, and cravings. For once you have eliminated the belief that you really exist, then you have undercut the tap root of all selfishness. Christianity, of course, cannot go this far. Like the Hindus, Christians generally believe in an indestructible, immortal self or soul. Hence the problem faced by John of the Cross and other Christian thinkers: how best purify the self from selfishness without reinforcing self-consciousness and self-concern, and, with it, self-centeredness?

But there is one other possible interpretation of the Buddhist approach to this perennial problem. It is to be found in one of the major Mahayanist schools known as Madhyamika or "Middle Path" Buddhism -- not to be confused with Gautama's own claim that his was a "middle way" of moderated asceticism. Founded by the Indian teacher Nagarjuna around the beginning of the third century of our era, it employs an elaborate dialectic to psychologically break down any reliance on doctrines, particularly regarding such matters as the immortality of the soul, the permanence of the world, and the nature of the ultimate. Nagarjuna resolutely refused to allow for intellectual solutions to these questions, apparently seeing them as the greatest barrier to direct intuitive experience. This whole approach, which I suspect probably comes closest to recapturing the original intent of Gautama's teaching, has obviously also had a strong influence, along with the Chinese philosophy of the Tao, on Zen Buddhist thought.

Now if we transpose this last approach from Madhyamika Buddhism to the doctrine of John of the Cross, what do we have? I think, if I am right, that we suddenly arrive at an insight into why the final dark night in John's description of the spiritual ascent is a night of faith -- that is, a darkening or obscuring of all the sureness or security given by religious doctrines or dogma. Such doctrines are meant to be nothing more than pointers toward the divine. But once they are taken too seriously or too literally, they become idols which obscure the divine. And the transposition from this understanding of Buddhism to Christianity works both ways. It is significant that Suzuki told Merton, much to his surprise, that Merton's early book, The Ascent to Truth -- a book Merton very much disliked -- was read with much appreciation by Japanese Zen students who considered its exposition of the basic doctrine of John of the Cross as an exemplary western insight into Zen -- this despite Merton's uncomplimentary remarks about "Oriental mysticism" at the time.

So what are we to think about these austere doctrines, whether in their Buddhist or in their Christian form? Perhaps it is not every Buddhist's cup of tea, and even John of the Cross admitted that what he wrote was not necessarily offered to everyone but rather to those who wished to advance more quickly. But I wonder if, in the end, we can escape it. Lay Buddhists -- and, I suppose, tired monks -- are tempted to hope it can be put off until another life. Catholics conclude that the final stripping of self shall, in most cases, may have to wait for purgatory. Both sentiments are probably quite realistic in terms of what most of us hope to achieve in this life. Yet the gospels seem to challenge us to much more than this. To those who wonder what advantages faith provides them in this life, Jesus urges us "to seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else will be given to you besides" (Mt 6:33). For those who seek immortality: "He who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will save it" (Lk 17:33). It seems there really is no escape from this inexorable law. It is not some exclusive principle of spiritual growth that we are dealing with, but instead what is a fundamental and universal law of nature: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit..." (John 12:24). Is there any reason to think that the life of faith itself is an exception?

Here I'm reminded of the story about St. Therese of Lisieux, a young Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897. It is related that in the months just before her death the other sisters, in an effort to cheer her up, would exclaim to her how wonderful it must be to know that she would soon be in heaven with God and the saints. Her answer was on occasion most disconcerting -- when she tried to think of such things, she confessed, she was assailed by doubts whether heaven or even God exists! Or as Watts put it: "The incredible truth [is] that what religion calls the vision of God is found in giving up any belief in the idea of God." (See Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, p. 27 -- emphasis mine.) Our ideas, our beliefs, are too often our idols.

Faith Beyond Beliefs

What then? Does the final stage of faith lead to nihilism, to loss of faith? Often it may seem so at the time. The "dark night" can be an extremely frightening thing. There are many ways that these nights of faith can come upon a person, not all of them intellectual. The suffering of difficulties of one type or another, sometimes as a result of family and occupational problems, losses by death, the onset of illness, or simply even the caprices of mood swings -- all these can be the occasion of a "night" in the broad sense of a period of trial that often turns out to be the catalyst of interior transformation. Consider this following account supplied to me by a correspondent who had been going through a prolonged period of physical exhaustion, psychological depression, and doubts about his faith.

To get away I had gone fishing but had fallen asleep alongside a stream. Instead of waking up refreshed, I awoke with a great sense of oppression bearing down on me. Then all of a sudden -- I can't explain it -- I seemed to be lifted up, not physically, or anything like that, but it was like I was being cradled in someone's arms, but not those of a tangible or visible person, but by an engulfing, loving presence. At that point time seemed suspended and I realized that alive or dead, it is all the same. I was given to know that we all exist as part of a vast totality within which our puny individual existence means little in itself and yet is infinitely precious in the eyes of this loving being. After what seemed an hour, but may have only been a few minutes, I got up, walked back to my car and drove to a friend's cabin where I tried to write an account of what had happened. But all descriptions eluded me. I only knew that in some way I no longer had to merely "believe" that God exists -- I had experienced God first-hand!

Undoubtedly this account reflects what Abraham Maslow called a "peak-experience", in Maslow's estimation not an unusual occurrence for many persons. Such experiences seem to manifest a distinctively mystical dimension -- if we mean by "mysticism" that in such events in some way one encounters the ultimate ground of our existence or experiences a sense of unity with the divine.

No doubt, the attempt to express what this unity is, and the person or power with which one feels united, varies vastly according to one's cultural or theological background. The Asian religions seem to stress the notion of identity or total absorption of the individual in the divine or the ultimate. Western religion, with its strong sense of the divine "otherness" or transcendence of God, more typically expresses such a relationship in terms of "vision" or person-to-person encounter. But the overall pattern is unmistakable; it is an overwhelming conviction of creaturely union with the divine -- hence my preference for the term "unitive faith".

I am struck by one other thing, and that is the similarity of the effects of such distinctively theological or mystical "peak-experiences" to the so-called "near-death experiences". This is not in the more commonly reported visual representations, such as viewing one's own body as it were from above, the passage through a "tunnel", the approach of an overwhelming light, and so on, but in the specifically religious effect that such experiences seem to have in common with the unitive type of mystical peak-experience.

Dr. Raymond Moody, the main compiler of near-death experience data, recounts in his most recent book The Light Beyond that typically persons who have had such experiences, whether previously religious or not, inevitably seem to undergo a "conversion" that results in a markedly deepened dedication to their own spiritual growth and their relatedness to God or the pursuit of ultimate meaning in life. But even more striking is his observation that overtly religious people, those who have been long affiliated with a particular church or faith, almost to a person report that their previous faith has become relativized -- or should we say universalized? -- at least in the sense that they are now convinced that their particular faith formulas or convictions are now seen to be more or less inadequate, and to some degree no longer necessary.

This last point interests me greatly. The relativization of faith statements, which are patently symbolic in nature, is one thing. In some sense we have arrived at a state of faith beyond reliance on any particular beliefs. But are we here being told that to some extent the person has passed beyond the necessity for faith itself ?

In some ways this appears to be the case, especially when faith is taken to be a set of convictions or beliefs accepted on the authority of others. The person quoted above said that after his experience, he felt that never again would he have to "believe" in God -- that now he "knew" first-hand that God exists. Probably it is more accurate to say that, in the first place, belief in the existence of God is not so much a belief at all but more like the result of logical reasoning. So for many persons, the real issue is not whether this "first cause" or "ground of being" exists, but whether it exists as a loving, caring "father"-like or "mother"-like "person". What happens in such unitive experiences as we have described is that these persons no longer have to be convinced, by logical arguments, that God is this loving, all-encompassing entity, or, on the other hand, simply trust that is so. Instead, they have had, they are convinced, an actual experience of such a God or divine presence and ultimate meaning.

Does such an experience eliminate the necessity of faith? Not certainly in the sense of commitment -- on the contrary, the typical result of such unitive experience is deepened commitment. But again, according to Moody, part of this commitment is to learn more (even academically -- many recovered "near-death" subjects reenroll in school) and to search ever more assiduously for a total integration of their lives in service of humanity and continued experiences of the divine.

But most of all, what we see is a profoundly grounded sense of confidence, especially among those who have had this experience in a near-death context. They simply no longer fear death any more -- indeed one of the more common hallmarks of the experience is a sense of their either having been given a choice to "come back" to life in this world or to stay on the "other side" or else having been told that they couldn't stay but had to return, no matter how reluctantly, to this world to accomplish the rest of God's will for their lives. Many who claim mystical experiences report much the same. Recall the gospel accounts of Jesus' "transfiguration" where Peter wanted to set up "three shelters" for the principals in the vision: Christ, Moses, and Elijah; instead the apostles are brusquely brought back to normal consciousness (see especially Mark 9:1-7).

Does all this mean that a person who has had such an experience will never have a doubt again or waver in his or her commitment, or ever suffer any fear or loss of confidence? Again, if the subsequent history of Peter and the other apostles as pictured in the New Testament is any indication, such a total transformation is hardly guaranteed. A momentary unitive experience does not guarantee sanctity by any means. But in the long run it is a help or incentive in that direction. Few people honored as saints today seem to have been without one or two such experiences during their lives, while a lucky few seemed to live in an almost constant state of union with God.

Maslow, in his new introduction in a later edition to his now-classic Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, made several important additions or corrections to his earlier observations. Maslow wrote that in addition to an expanded view of peak-experiences that would include near-death and other "nadir" experiences, he also must take careful note of so-called "plateau-experience" as described by such researchers as R. Johnson or the "easy state" of Asrani, which is "serene and calm . . . [having] a poetic and cognitive element . . . far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will" (emphasis mine). Furthermore, Maslow went on to say:

...plateau experience can be achieved, learned, earned by long hard work. It can be meaningfully aspired to. But I don't know of any bypassing of the necessary maturing, experiencing, living, learning. All of this takes time. A transient glimpse is certainly possible in the peak experiences which may, after all, come sometimes to anyone. But so to speak, to take up residence on the high plateau of Unitive consciousness, that is another matter altogether.
   (As quoted by Margaret Gorman, Psychology and Religion, p. 306)

Contrasted to the momentary "grace" of a peak-experience, Maslow stressed the great effort necessary to achieve this "plateau" of higher consciousness. Although some of the saints and mystics seem to have been gifted from the start with this more permanent sense of union with God, still this grace or gift more generally seems to have come only after a long period of purification, both self-administered as well as by trials permitted by God. But there also seems to be no question that, even apart from sainthood, such unitive consciousness can be to some extent achieved by dint of hard work. Yet there can be no sure-fire techniques, magic formulas or psychedelic short-cuts to genuine unitive consciousness.

Yet if there has been widespread confusion over this matter, perhaps this only serves to underline the difference between higher states of consciousness and sanctity as such. It is hard to imagine sanctity existing without this consciousness and the effort that it takes -- sanctity being, to my mind, a conscious and consistent effort to live out the full implications of such a unitive state. No doubt there have been real saints whose faith in some ways fell somewhat short of this unitive and universalizing level, but I would suspect that now, in the light of eternity, their vision has become expanded. So while the ability to live on a "plateau" level of unitive consciousness does not necessarily translate into sanctity, or vice versa, still without such an expanded vision or the effort to achieve it, I doubt few saints are made.

All this raises another question: saints or not, do such persons of unitive faith tend to become alienated in any way from ordinary religiosity and belief? Maslow also admitted that his earlier view was too one-sided in its individualism at the expense of "groups, organizations, and communities"- in other words, in following Jung who claimed that such experiences were essentially "outside the church" ("extra ecclesiam"). But occasionally we see examples of where such apparent alienation has taken place -- for example, we are told of one of the famed early "desert fathers" who lived on the Egyptian-Palestinian frontier. He could only be persuaded with the greatest reluctance to leave his hermitage to even make one pilgrimage to the holy places in and around Jerusalem. He finally did so, it seems, more out of fear of causing scandal than any wish to see the revered shrines. But on the whole what I think we see more often is an ability to see mystically through belief and custom to the essence of things. Yet occasionally the effects of such experiences are devastating. We can see this in the story of the most famous of the medieval theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas. After a great mystical experience toward the end of his life he is said to have refused to dictate another word and to have told his secretary, Brother Reginald, that compared to what he had experienced, all that he had written was as so much "straw".

If this is the case, what then of doctrine, ritual, and the other externals of religion? Does it all become, to some extent, "relativized"-- or, to put a more positive term in its place, "universalized"? Perhaps so, in the sense that while one remains rooted in one's own tradition, at the same time the doors and windows are opened to take in whatever one finds of value in the traditions of others. Here one finds oneself drawn increasingly beyond the limitations of one's own faith and constantly looks for a higher synthesis, which, even if it can't be articulated, one is certain that it exists. Thus a unitive faith to some degree is almost always bound to be universalizing in its effect on a person's horizons -- both on one's intellectual outlook and the scope of one's love.

Conclusion

We have seen, then, that this final "unitive" stage of faith not only tends to relativize "beliefs" but to some extent, in its breakthrough to religious experience, it appears even to minimize the need for faith itself -- at least in any sense but renewed commitment to living out what one has to some degree already experienced. But this seeming transcendence of faith is only apparent. Not just reliance on "beliefs" but our faith commitment itself will be severely tested. But how?

Despite what Maslow had to say about the discipline required to attain "plateau experience," or what the saints taught about the desirability of this state of conscious union with God as an incentive toward a life of holiness, neither this experience nor more occasional "peak-experiences" can be safely willed as ends or goals in themselves. Like sanctity itself, such experiences must remain subservient and secondary to the quest for God and the accomplishment of God's will. The security or consolation that such experiences represent can just as easily become a trap that frustrates any genuine development or progress in spirituality as can any attachment to a lesser good. Just as a deliberate courting of "near-death" experiences could be disastrous to one's physical health, the desire for mystical states or an active quest for ecstatic experience could prove fatal to one's spiritual growth.

John of the Cross is relentless in his doctrine of the way of faith; complete renunciation of all egocentric quests for consolation cannot be escaped. For as he wrote:

When you turn toward something
   you cease to cast yourself upon the all.
For to go from all to the all
   you must deny yourself of all in all.

      (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, I. 13.11)

The quest for mystical or ecstatic experience for its own sake is the hallmark of a false and self-centered mysticism, the quest to "have it all" for oneself apart from the divine will. This is true just as much as -- or even more than -- the employment of such self-delusionary agents as hallucinogenic drugs or other questionable means. As dangerous as these false paths to ecstasy are, the self-intoxication or the narcissism they merely represent remains the most insidious drug of all. Even genuine religious experience, when it is pursued for its own sake, will prove an obstacle to growth. The role of the "dark night" of faith is not just to purify us from over-reliance on beliefs and other symbolic props. God will see to it that "dark nights" will recur whenever we attempt to substitute anything, even the authentic experience of the divine, in place of the pure reliance on God in faith alone.

Thus we must conclude, when all is said and done, that faith, informed and energized by love, remains, in one form or another, the foundation and mainstay of all spiritual growth or development. Love may well outweigh faith in merit, and in the end supplant it, while hope points toward its fulfillment. But in this life there is simply no way around it. What else can a fully human life be in this insecure world but a life lived in the risk of faith?


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Can you think of any other candidates for an outstanding example of a   "universalizing" or unitive faith?

2. Give an example (preferably from your own life) where the attempt to be perfect    resulted in just the opposite. What was your reaction to this discovery?

3. How explain or justify religion's appeal to selfish motives like "saving one's soul"
   or escape from suffering? How can (or should) religion try to rise above this?

4. Can you recall (and possibly share) your memories of a "peak experience" that you    feel was, in some sense, a personal encounter with God? To what extent should such    experiences (or the level of "plateau experience") be pursued? Why or why not?


Proceed to Epilogue

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