“-Honouring Anne’s generous and gentle spirit, grounded in Divine Love…”
Dear Members and Friends of The Contemplative Society,
I have had the great privilege of serving the society for the last 3.5 years as your administrator. Back in 2015, I was a fledgling meditator and fairly new to the contemplative side of Christianity. Since then, I have learned much and made many friends, and I am grateful to the board who have given me this opportunity to say thank you to you all.
As I pack up my things here at the office and prepare for a new chapter in my professional life, I am given many opportunities to reflect on my time with the society. From sunny board retreats on a small island off the coast of Sidney, BC to building a walkable enneagram with Cynthia Bourgeault, this job has given me so many opportunities to explore my academic interest in spirituality as well as my own personal path, and have fun while doing it! The people I have worked most closely with have mentored me and given me hope for the future, while brief exchanges with members and community members penetrated days of bookkeeping, event organising, and website maintenance with flashes of the unity we are all taught to trust in and cultivate.
I was also a fledgling at life when I started this position, already 28 but only a few years out of university and still gaining my adult “sea legs”. Two traumatic events that occurred in 2013 and 2014 respectively prompted me to spend my time more meaningfully, and it just so happened that the administrator position was opening up at TCS. I don’t think it was a coincidence. While these years have been very difficult personally, I can only imagine how cold and bleak they might have been without the love and support of this community holding me up and propelling me forward. While I probably can’t claim to be a wise adult now (I think I’ll continue to be singled out as the youngest person at retreats for a while yet!), I certainly have learned much from the society and the contemplative path to bolster me through the next stages of my life.
While I am moving on work-wise as I pursue my goal to become a clinical counsellor, I am not leaving the society behind. I sincerely hope to continue to see many of you at TCS events and retreats. In the meantime, I leave knowing that I am very much part of something cosmically good, and thank you all for showing me that.
Your generosity to the society in financial support, volunteer help, sharing resources, and loving one another is a wonderful Christmas gift to me and all those you serve. Have a wonderful holiday season and please give a warm welcome to the new administrator, Sharon Taylor, in the New Year.
Blessings and warm wishes,
Miranda Harvey, administrator
This post continues our series of bringing you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email email@example.com.
Read on for the fourth and last part of a series from our deeply knowledgeable audio ministry editor, Peggy Zimmerman. Previous posts are below:
Post 3 ended with the wisdom formula representing the movement from the Endless One to matter. Also, we have reframed the Divine Plan of making creation in order to know itself to a Divine Trajectory toward re-unification. From the reframing, with the help of Boehme and Teilhard, we can approach this formula, its extension, and the Trinity in a way that may contribute to current interests in bridging the scientific and spiritual camps.
The reframed formula depicts materialization of the spiritual followed by spiritualization of the material as it flows through the same elements in reverse order:
Endless Unity > dispersed psychic forces > spirit > energy > pre-life matter > living matter > energy > Holy Spirit > re-unified psychic forces > new humanity
The word “dispersed” captures Boehme’s vision of the implosion resulting from “the concentration of desire” — i.e., Endless Unity bringing “itself into somethingness” (HT, p. 97). His progression is: concentration of desire leads to movement (agitation), which leads to anguish from which the tension/friction ignites the fire, which leads to light/love and “now manifesting in the dimension of separability and perceptivity” (p. 110). Anguish “is simultaneously sensibility” (p. 98) or the headwaters of “perceptibility and feelingness” and “a primordial state of self awareness” (p. 109), as arranged by Cynthia Bourgeault in her first three dynamic Trinity diagrams unfolding according to the Law of Three. Interestingly, Boehme sums up the three properties of desire, agitation, and anguish in a first principle of creation that he names “fiery” or “wrathful”. This mirrors the thought in part 2 that the divine quality expected to dominate first would be wrath, as encountered by Job.
Our reframing requires departing from Boehme in the following ways:
- The Big Bang from impressure is from the internal concentration of psychic forces, not a divine desire creating something to know itself.
- What implodes outwardly are all the Unity’s diverse characteristics rather than light already in a realm of perceptibility.
- Unlike Boehme, who slips readily “between physical description and its emotional counterpart” (HT, p. 98), the energy in our reframing on the way to matter is not just light and its emotional association with love but the invisible vibrational stage of densifying psychic forces.
From our perspective, perceptibility and the primordial state of awareness entered the picture further along in the process of creation. Nevertheless, Boehme’s intuitive grasp of the proto-stage of movement and primordial implosion initiates the suggested reframing of the dynamic Trinity. From here on, the influence of Teilhard is notable.
First off, as a naturalist, rather than a physicist, Teilhard develops his description of pre-life matter (“the stuff of the universe” or its “bits and pieces”; HP, p. 11) by “sound analogy with the rest of science” (HP, p. 24) from the observable structure and properties of life. In the same way, we propose approaching that elusive subtle domain of pre-matter. Support for this approach is the idea held across diverse spiritual traditions that nature is the first revelation of the Divine.
- The “stuff” of the universe has both an outer face and an inner face, each with its own energy field, which “roughly speaking” finally comes down to being “equivalent respectively to matter and spirit” (p. 230).
- The outer face operates under the law of complexification. As the “bits and pieces” connect they transform into a more complex structure. Meanwhile, with increasing external complexity, the inside face operates under the law of centricity, an increased interiorization that evolves into higher and higher states of awareness all the way to thought and reflective consciousness.
- The outer face evolutionary process and the inner face involutionary process operate independently from each other but “they are constantly associated and somehow flow into each other” (p. 30).
- The “somehow” of the associated physical and psychical energies repeatedly shows up in the reconciling interplay of such factors as biological divergence/psychical convergence, tangential/radial energies, body/soul energies, “unified multitude/unorganized multitude” (p. 28), and mechanization/freedom.
- The “somehow” is “a kind of homogeneous primordial flux” that is “an active medium of direction and transmission” toward “the less probable direction of higher forms of complexity and centricity” (pp. 14, 13, 32).
- All the stuff of the universe has aspects of unity within and in relation to the “totality of space” (p. 16). Thus, the random trial and error of chance is a “directed chance” (p. 66).
- At certain points the evolution/involution interplay leaps creation into a new “state” or “order” of “being” (pp. 231, 237).
- The net effect is that the universe is moving from a state of the outer face predominating to the inner face predominating as humanity approaches a collective reflexive consciousness at the Omega Point.
The applications of these Teilhardian principles to the wisdom formula are perhaps already apparent. The homogeneous flux is comparable to the Divine Trajectory toward reunification. The increasing degrees of densification is analogous to the conjugation of the complexification law and convergence or centralization intensifying process. The aspects of unity in the “stuff” of the universe may be regarded as remnants of the Endless Unity essence within each psychic force as it implodes out of the antinomy in totality. The diffusion and outward movement of the psychic forces are within the flux of the “totality of space.” And those leaps into new creations are indicated by the formula’s arrows. As we adapt the formula to a reframing of the Trinity, the leaps may be likened to that Law of Three alchemical reconciling power bringing about a new arising.
The reframed Trinity presented here follows the four ground rules of the Law of Three stipulated in Holy Trinity and the Law of Three (p. 131). Also, we will make use of the Law of Three principle that the quality/nature of the third or neutralizing force can change (HT, pp. 28-30). (Note: in linear format, the triangle looks like first force > second force > third force > new arising.)
First Triangle: Unity > impressuring antinomy > Big Bang > psychic forces
Unity (the Absolute, Divine Source, God, etc.) is totally “other” and transcendent. Its undifferentiated antinomy due to the immeasurable power of its centric state implodes out into separated psychic forces. The Big Bang separating movement relieves the tension and amounts to a creation of space and time. Instantaneously, Teilhard’s “somehow” goes to work. It brings about a space that is a whole in itself — “universal space is the only space there is”; i.e., “we have no choice but to admit that this immensity represents the domain of action common to all [that is in it]” (HP, p. 16). The “somehow” or homogeneous flux, as noted earlier, is the divine trajectory toward re-unification. The psychic forces are moving, thus entailing duration and, therefore, time, within a space of homogeneous flux.
Second Triangle: Unity > Big Bang > psychic forces > spirit
Psychic forces are now in the binary/dualistic dimension of space/time. Space, although seemingly infinite from our scientific lens, functions as a container preventing endless outward dispersion. The random yet directional psychic forces diverge and converge and thus condense into spiritual flows.
In Teilhardian terms, the outer and inner “faces” (in evolutionary and involutionary fashion) function independently but are “associated” by both being within the flux of space. In the alchemical moment, impressure is transformed into a centrating function and the totality of the antinomy is transformed into a complexification function.
Third Triangle: Unity > psychic forces > spirit > energy
Spirit takes the reconciling position as the new field of play of conjugated outward and inward forces. It junctions as a “holding field” or stabilizing environment for alchemizing Unity’s rest and the psychic forces’ movements into a vibrating structure, namely energy. All this may be seen as preparatory to the emerging particle/wave paradox. With the new vibrating expression of the psychic forces, the potential for primitive felt sensation and awareness (perceptivity) is set up.
Fourth Triangle: Unity > spirit > energy > matter
As the pivotal triangle, with three before and after it, it is packed with happenings. Two key ones are the movement of pre-life matter into living matter (inorganic to organic) and the rise of thought from rudimentary communication to Darwinian instinctual communication, and then to self-reflective consciousness.
Not delving into pre-matter matters, Teilhard summarily describes a “phase of granulation which abruptly gives birth to the constituents of the atom, and perhaps the atom itself” (HP, p. 18). We can only speculate here by extending Teilhard’s principles into pre-matter times that the universal complexification and centric forces are involved. At any rate, the granulation process now provides substantiality. In short, the new arising finally is matter existing in a dualistic dimension. Moreover, with this new creation comes the element necessary for perceptivity and communication, for exchanging information.
For Teilhard pre-life matter is in a pre-conscious state yet primed with the universal “powers of synthesis” (HP, p. 34), the conjugation of complexification and centricity. In the unique case of earth, the outer faces of elements follow the process of “ultracondensing and intercombining” all according to the first two paradoxical thermodynamic laws of the conservation of energy and entropy (p. 20). Meanwhile, the inside face becomes more and more interiorized until it is no longer just lining the outer face but a psychic center: “What was still only a centered surface became a center” (p. 113).
In our reframing language, along with all the other psychic forces, the split antinomy of unconsciousness and consciousness is now subsumed in energy (HT, p. 126). In this reconciling position, it gets pricked — Yahweh meets Job face to face. How does this pricking happen? And where have Sophia (Wisdom), Logos, and evil been during all this creating? Answer: the Biblical and Wisdom traditions have assured us that Sophia and Logos have been functioning behind the scenes ever since the Big Bang. With visible matter, they can be observed as they come increasingly to the fore. Logos and Sophia are present hand-in-hand as the ordering and directing principles, respectively — the universal synthesis on a re-unification trajectory.
In energy’s vibrating field, Logos (encapsulated in words) is sound carrying Wisdom’s messages. The suggestion here is that evil provides the situation (as held by Jung and others). Logos is the means, as each microcosmic kenotic surrender of the second force opens it to a new way of being. And Sophia is the catalyst for the way of re-unification in each leap to a new arising. The leaps are characterized as being abrupt and out of nowhere, which is how we experience hits of wisdom — those “aha” moments of suddenness and “surprise, satisfaction, elegance” (HT, p. 43).
One other key happening needs recognition. Through the first three triangles, the transformation of psychic forces as emanations of the Unity has been predominant. Yet, within these emanations (the stuff of the universe) is a remnant of Unity’s essence as aspects of unity in each element as well as in space as a whole as a universal flux as discussed earlier. With the appearance of matter in the fourth Trinity formation, immanence overtakes emanation as the operating system. Yahweh must be his creation (see post 3).
Fifth Triangle: Unity > energy > Jesus > Holy Spirit
Because we are regarding the Trinity being modeled here as a Christian icon, the dramatically evolved matter in the fourth triangle is represented now as Jesus, a life form of matter with a highly evolved consciousness operating out of non-dual perception. Recalling that consciousness is communication which, when undertaken as an intentional give and take for the good of the whole, we can equate Jesus’ consciousness with love. He is in the position to reconcile the transcendent, at rest in Unity with the split psychic forces manifesting in matter and energy. The outcome of his five roles is the pervasive presence of the Holy Spirit.
Sixth Triangle: Unity < > humans < > Holy Spirit < > re-unified psychic forces
Immediately apparent here is the addition of the two-way flow of the arrows. This indicates the now direct communication with the divine provided by the Paraclete. Thus, the shift from a covenant to a consciousness relationship is established.
A second crucial addition is humans are now in place of Jesus as representing the highest evolved organic matter. When humans operate out of a non-dual perception open to the Holy Spirit a new arising occurs. The Holy Spirit mediates between the self-reflective consciousness of corporeality and the non-conscious no-thingness Unity. As a result, for every evil (life-denying, divisive, tense, closed off, etc.) situation in this dualistic world the Christosophanic means and way carried in the Holy Spirit transforms the separated materialized psychic forces. The new arising is re-unification of the Divine’s qualities — the living expression of Unity in a space/time dimension.
Seventh Triangle: Unity < > Holy Spirit < > One New Humanity < > Oikonomia
Under the assumption that humans as a whole put on the mind of Christ, sixth triangle new arising of re-unified psychic forces moves into the reconciling position as the One New Humanity. The push-pull tension between Unity’s absolute unity and the Holy Spirit’s re-unifying promise can only continue to be reconciled through the medium of One New Humanity, the body of Christ. This is Oikonomia: the realization of the Unity’s essence in diversity, the consummation of the Divine Trajectory. In Teilhard’s words “cosmogenesis has become Christogenesis” (HT, p. 80; HP, p. 213) The spiritualization of matter is complete, including perhaps a transfiguration of the physical body, which is a subject for a separate discussion.
This overly succinct reframed journey through the dynamic Trinity stages has avoided Boehme’s associative leaps and employed Teilhard’s synthesis. It is offered to stimulate thought about ways to bridge science and spirituality. It also demonstrates once more not only the versatility of applying the Law of Three to the Trinity, but also how it all finally comes down to us, the microcosmic pinnacle on earth. Let’s pray that the macrocosmic journey through billions of years has not been for (to borrow a word from Satan) “naught” (Job 1:9).
Peggy Zimmerman has been as a technical editor, environmental and urban planner, university instructor, mental health counsellor, and human resources manager. Since retiring sixteen years ago, she has participated in environmental activist work. In that time she also rediscovered her Christian roots and set out on deepening her spiritual life, largely through a personal study of the Christian wisdom tradition. She arranged for the introduction of Centering Prayer to the Comox Valley, facilitates a weekly sit at her church, initiated and continues to facilitate a monthly Taizé service.
- Alden, Robert L. Job. Vol. II in The New American Commentary series. Broadman & Holman Pub., 1993.
- Anonymous. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Robert Powell, trans. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 1985, 2002.
- Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. NY: Random House, 1993.
- Barr, James. “The Book of Job and Its Modern Interpreters”. Lecture delivered in the John Rylands Library, 10 February 1971. Available at www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk.
- Boehme, Jacob. Genius of the Transcendent: Mystical Writings of Jakob Boehme. Michael L. Birkel and Jeff Bach, trans. and eds. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
- Boehme, Jacob. The Way to Christ. Peter Erb, trans. Toronto and NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. (HT) The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2013.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. (MMag) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. Teilhard for Our Times. Spirituality & Practice, 2016. Available at https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/ecourses/course/view/10182/teilhard-for-our-times.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. (WJ) The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind — A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2008.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia. (WWK) The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
- Bruteau, Beatrice. God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World. NY: Crossroad, 1997.
- Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993.
- Delio, Ilia. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.
- Gospel of Thomas. Lynn Bauman, trans. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004.
- Hart, David J.H. Christianity: A New Look At Ancient Wisdom. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 1992.
- Jung, C. J. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
- Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. NY: Vintage Books, 1995, 1996.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Michael D. Coogan, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. (HP) The Human Phenomenon. Sarah Appleton-Weber, trans. Chicago, IL: Sussex Academic Press, 1999, 2003, 2015.
- Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York, NY: Image Books Doubleday, 1990.
Dr. Rudy Hwa Rudy is an emeritus professor of Physics at the University of Oregon as well one of my one of my senior Wisdom Students, both chronologically (we’ve been traveling this path together for nearly two decades now) and in his recognized eldership in the scientific and Wisdom communities. This delightful blog post seamlessly weaves together his scientific rigor with his passion for music. It’s a delight and a privilege to share it with you here.
~ Cynthia Bourgeault
At a symposium held many years ago on a day between the performances of the third and fourth operas of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the musical director of the Ring said in answer to a question about Wagner, “Music without Wagner is like physics without Einstein.” That statement struck such a chord in me that I have been exploring its implications ever since. As a physicist I know Einstein’s work more than I do about the works of Wagner and Teilhard [de Chardin]. But my love for music, especially for Wagner’s operas, and my journey in spirituality put me at a place where I can enjoy a panoramic view of all three. My words to describe that view, however, will be inadequate, like any description of something beautiful or profound.
Richard Wagner was not just a musical genius but also a unique dramatist. He described the realm beyond worldly experiences through his musical dramas in ways that have never been done by anyone before nor afterwards. He wrote the poetic libretto of his operas himself. His Ring of the Nibelung, which consists of four operas that add up to more than sixteen hours, is conceptually connected to his last opera Parsifal in the context of redemption. The Ring is about the greed for power and the cleansing of that corruptive human inclination by love through self-sacrifice, but the redemptive process is not completed until the fool Parsifal gains wisdom through compassion in the next opera. Parsifal is a mystical journey of deep spirituality described in ethereal sublime music. The transformation that occurs in the five-opera sequence Ring/Parsifal is an outward manifestation of the change in Wagner’s own inner life, at the later stage of which he turned favorably to the Christian belief in redemption through suffering and love. Actually, he was more influenced by Buddhism than by the traditional Christianity ruled by a hierarchical church: he saw the failure of nineteenth-century Christianity in restraining industrial Europe from its greed for power. Wagner used art to rescue religion by creating a musical cathedral on the theme of suffering and compassion in the spirit of the Gospels. He willed that Parsifal not be performed outside of Bayreuth because he did not want this opera that he regarded as sacred to become a theatric amusement. Thirty years after his death Wagner’s family finally authorized its performance elsewhere, and more than 50 opera houses in Europe put it on in the first eight months of 1914 before WWI temporarily ended its universal appeal.
Einstein is probably best known for his energy-mass equation, E=mc2, the significance of which is transformative in physics. At the root of that equation is the theory of relativity, whose role in revealing the nature of the universe has cosmic and religious implications. In simple terms Einstein unified time and space. Energy and momentum are similarly unified in such a way that mass may turn into both energy and momentum. More difficult to imagine is that large massive stars can warp space-time. Without Einstein’s fundamental contribution to our understanding of nature, cosmologists would not have been able to determine from modern observations the properties of the universe at its beginning when even the notion of space and time is not well defined.
Concerning space-time, it is interesting to note that in Act I of Parsifal, the young fool who does not even know his own name finds himself in the forest of the knights of the Grail without feeling that he has trekked a long distance. The wise old man, Gurnemanz, explains to him, “You see, my son, time here becomes space.” It is amazing that Wagner thought of the unification of time-space thirty years before Einstein, though for a different reason. He wanted to lead his followers on a redemptive journey to a realm beyond ordinary consciousness in ordinary space-time. One has to be like Parsifal in not knowing anything to enter the domain that is timeless and of no specific space. It is not self-degradation here to become a fool. In wisdom tradition that means one empties the mind in order to be open to transcendent consciousness. Wagner dared to compose music that represents timelessness on a stage that offers nearly no motion for long periods (in theater time), yet holds the audience spellbound and transported to a realm where suffering is not just feeling of pain, but a part of the kenotic process of redemption.
Whereas both Wagner and Einstein were broadly recognized in their lifetimes for their achievements, Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, was forbidden by his Jesuit superiors to publish his anti-establishment writings. He was a paleontologist and theologian, and saw the necessity to synthesize Christian faith with evolution because he did not believe in the literal interpretation of the Genesis story of creation. That did not go well with the Roman Church, and many philosophers and most scientists on both sides of the schism. In his view spiritual and physical evolutions are not in conflict but follow the same movement in consonance with each other, so he unified incarnation and cosmic/biological evolution in his Christogenesis through four phases, which Cynthia Bourgeault calls the four Cs: cosmogenesis, complexifcation-consciousness, convergence, and Christ-Omega. To a reductionist Teilhard’s work may sound as repugnant as what the music of Ring-Parsifal does to a non-Wagnerian. But for one who is on a spiritual quest, the Teilhardian synthesis provides a refreshing alternative to the traditional dogmatic theology; more significantly, it offers a pathway to the mystical field of unitive awareness of the Oneness beyond space and time. That is transformational. It has been suggested that Teilhard is the fourth major thinker of the western Christian tradition, after St. Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas.
Teilhard did not build a bridge between science and religion that leaves the schism as deep as it ever has been. Like the unification of space and time, he amalgamated the physical and spiritual realities such that a seeker from either side cannot find a clear line separating the empirical and the transcendent. But one has to want to seek in order to find what he offers. Teilhard said it better:
You are not a human being in search of spiritual experience.
You are a spiritual being immersed in human experience.
The amazing feeling I get in reading Teilhard’s writing is that he was so immersed in the wholeness that he could move effortlessly from space-time to non-space-time to describe that intimate union at the gut level where the mind is truly in the heart. In his treatise The Human Phenomenon the word God cannot be found anywhere until the epilogue. Yet the universality of the love he envisioned is clear in his statement, “A love that embraces the entire universe is not only something psychologically possible; it is also the only complete and final way in which we can love.”
That’s great, but how do you do that? This question reveals my awareness of my being at a particular point in space-time attempting to do something. Loving in finite space-time will always be contingent. To transcend that one has to love not as an act of doing, but as a state of being. Doing is carried out by the mind; being resides in the heart. In all wisdom traditions the practice is to let go of thinking through contemplation. That is to become like Parsifal, the innocent fool, who responds to suffering. In a loose analogy that compromises the rigor of physics thinking, it is like mass in matter converting to kinetic energy that transmutes into love energy.
With Wagner’s music I can be passionate; with Einstein’s physics I can be dispassionate and explain what I know. But with Teilhard’s theology I can do neither. It requires both thinking and believing, which are hard to do simultaneously, much like particle-wave duality. Indeed, the Teilhardian synthesis is just like quantum physics, that unifies seemingly incompatible classical properties. I admire his passion and ability to use love energy to integrate his profound thoughts and experiences into one coherent description of the Wholeness.
Wagner, Einstein, and Teilhard: all three of them were visionaries, using different languages to express different yet similar transformative experiences. Feeling, thinking, and believing are what mathematicians would call orthogonal functions, which all of us have in varying degrees. The world has been enriched gloriously by what these three giants have shown us on how these three functions can harmoniously be combined to beautify the Whole.
This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the seventh in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“, the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, the fifth is “Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“, and the sixth is “Fullness of Life“.
As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised). Here we go:
The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps – confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology – the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.
This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation – and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life – are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-life – not merely “pro-birth” – implies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.
- Compassionate speaking
As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary – “soul”, “life”, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos – language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking.
Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation – not merely denotation – is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime.1 To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions – which also terminate a life – always presume malevolent intent?
At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide”. My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing – not simply anger and blame.
- Acknowledging the shadow
That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure”, let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.
Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.
- Safeguarding legal access
While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance of all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” system stipulating that included among the fundamental “first tier” rights is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.
Beyond that baseline – at what I’ve called “second tier” – adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding.
- Creating a wider ethical forum
Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic, or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange: “Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground”.
It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum – beyond an internet blog series – where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?
Traditionally, issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality and, given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress – “Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Who is my neighbor” ,“Is there anything beyond self-interest?”, “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?” – are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.
The vacuum is lethal – filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.
This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale – against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?
Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering – that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.
Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?
- Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.
This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the sixth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“, the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, and the fifth is “Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“.
A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.
The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?
God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):
Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.
We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.
From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.
When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.
It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?
“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”. But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.
So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.
Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!
Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.
Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.
This is the first post in a series by Cynthia Bourgeault. The second post, “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal” was posted July 26, 2017 and the third, “When Does Life Begin?”, on August 23, 2017.
Both my spirits and my hopes have been raised by the recent appearance of an important and already game-changing new article in the most recent edition of La Civiltà Cattolica. This is a prestigious Jesuit publication, whose contents are personally vetted by the Vatican Secretary of State and which can thus be seen as a bellwether if not a de facto mouthpiece for papal policy. Entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, the article is the first attempt I have seen to drive a significant intellectual wedge into the murky moral alliance between conservative Catholicism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism that helped to catapult Donald Trump into office and is still a cornerstone of his support.
The article created a well-deserved stir when it first began to circulate widely on the web during the week of July 9-16. By the end of that week internet access had been severely curtailed (presumably at the instigation of the publisher), while at the same time the remarkable analysis offered here began to catch the attention of the international news media. I am glad I printed myself out a copy before it disappeared from public sight; certainly it has already been a rich stimulus to my own creative thinking. Over the next two or three blog posts, I’ll share some of the reactions and implications it’s been stirring up for me.
In this learned yet accessible article, co-authors Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa (a Roman Catholic and a Presbyterian pastor, both of them respected editors and close friends of the Pope) trace the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, exploring its major doctrinal assertions and detailing its increasing infiltration into American politics. They conclude with a sweeping rejection of these doctrinal claims as antithetical and dangerous to authentic Catholic belief. The article’s “blockbuster” assertion (understandably receiving wide play in the social media) is that there is basically no ideological difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam: both draw their juice from an identical “cult of an apocalypse”, featuring a final confrontation between good (“us”) and evil (“them”) which will destroy the planet as we know it and usher in the reign of God.
The article represents a significant intellectual milestone and augurs a significant potential wind-shift in Vatican political activism (no doubt this is what has most caught the media’s attention). It is worthy of close study and discussion in our Wisdom circles if folks can get their hands on it (you can still sometimes get in by going directly to the La Civiltà Cattolica website and clicking on the Italian version of the article; an English language option will appear at the end).
While there are few surprises here for those already familiar with American religious history, the most welcome surprise is the message clearly being signaled here that the Vatican is finally waking up to the theological implications of this “surprising” alliance that a significant segment of American Catholicism has found increasingly tempting and is now taking a firm intellectual stance against its three constituent threads: the aforementioned “cult of an apocalypse”, the “prosperity gospel” (which has deeply influenced several US presidents including our current one), and a particularly distorted notion of religious liberty which sets the Church in permanent mortal combat with the presumed secularity of the state. The article powerfully calls the question on the present “ecumenism of hate”, as the authors name it, and lays out in contrasting detail Pope Francis’ vision of impartial and active engagement with the secular state in the hopes of securing a sustainable future for all humankind.
I applaud their work here because it lays a firm theological foundation for articulating the dangers implicit in the growing entanglement of the Catholic Church in American rightist politics. The article sets out clear standards by which, for example, self-styled über-Catholic Steve Bannon (specifically mentioned in the article) is in fact peddling a dangerously distorted version of Catholic teaching. It lays out clear benchmarks by which Catholics can sort through the confused rhetoric of evangelical fundamentalism and name its widening drift from classic Catholic doctrine. While the authors could have done more to clarify that evangelical fundamentalism represents a perversion of Protestantism as much as of Catholicism (not merely another of Protestantism’s myriad confusing expressions), their analysis is nonetheless a solid intellectual milestone. It is also reflective of the Pope’s strategic way of thinking: his preference for first building a solid theological and historical foundation for reflection and action, rather than simply leaping in with rhetorical or knee-jerk responses.
But the elephant in the room remains…
While I am deeply gratified for the breakthrough this article represents, I must say that I find it naïve to expect that it will shift a single stone in the present Catholic/fundamentalist political alliance. Because, in a glaring omission from the presentation, the real basis for this alliance is not fully exposed; hence, the analysis remains incomplete and its practical applicability limited. The article mounts a strong case theologically, but in so doing it manages deftly to sidestep the crucial point: that the real basis for the alliance is not theological but strategic. Nor is this merely a minority viewpoint, to be laid at the doorstep of a small subset of Catholic ultraconservatives; it represents the united “bottom line” of the Roman Catholic Church in America: the vast majority of its bishops, seminaries, and the message percolating into the parishes. The real root of this alliance, I believe, lies in the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing fixation on the abortion issue, together with its lesser but ever present and now vigorously reemerging sidekick, birth control. This is the practical motivation behind the devil’s pact with fundamentalism; if it takes casting one’s lot with a “cult of the apocalypse” to ensure that Roe vs. Wade is legally overturned, well, that’s the unfortunate cost of doing business.
It seems unfortunate that in an article otherwise so thorough and scholarly, this rather sizable elephant in the room escapes mention. The article thus creates the impression that all we have to do is wake up to the theological errors inherent in the alliance with Protestant fundamentalism, and Catholics will come streaking back to a more inclusive and life-affirming version of the gospel. Well, maybe. But if you think this translates into any significant flipping of the Catholic vote in 2018, don’t hold your breath.
To their credit, I am not sure that from the European (or even South American) perspective, the Vatican can really understand the ferocity of the way in which the abortion issue has enthralled the popular American Catholic imagination. It’s a quintessentially American stew, comprised in equal doses of high principles and sentimentality run amok. One need only to drive the interstate almost anywhere in the American South or Midwest and see the fully emblazoned billboards with a flat-lining EKG announcing “ABORTION STOPS A BEATING HEART” to begin to appreciate the pungent mix of sentiment and sentimentality that makes this particular issue such a moral flash-point. I personally know many Catholics (in fact, probably the majority of my Catholic acquaintances) who, although good, solid, thoughtful people, not otherwise inclined toward hysteria, feel so strongly that this issue is so essential to their practice of Catholicism – and so underrepresented by any other advocacy group – that they will reluctantly sacrifice the entire rest of the gospel’s “pro- life” teaching (as it might apply to immigrants, Muslims, accessible medical care, gun control, capital punishment) in order to secure this one point. It is this “unholy alliance” that really has provided the undefended back gateway – in fact, sluice-way – by which unethical politicians can continue to occupy their seats in congress, pawns in a game whose real movers and shakers are in fact the Ayn Rand-style kleptocrats (such as Paul Ryan, The Koch brothers, the Trump dynasty) or apocalyptic Armageddon-mongers such as Steve Bannon.
My continuing hope – which I have alluded to in articles and posts before – is that our brilliant and committed Pope will move increasingly in the direction of giving issue-specific theological guidance and direction to begin to confront this Gordian knot in a way that is both respectful of Catholic tradition and profoundly responsive to the desperate need of our one planet, trembling on the brink of environmental and social collapse.
In the face of this unprecedented global crisis, it is not enough merely to name and proclaim the ways in which the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism represents a perversion of Catholic doctrine. It is not enough merely to repeatedly denounce those currents in American politics fueling radical isolationism and environmental irresponsibility. It is not enough simply to continue to decry the Muslim ban, or lament the moral corruption of our present executive and congressional branches. These stances are all good insofar as they go. But we need to connect the dots. What is really needed – and comprises, I believe, the real Catholic moral priority of our time – is to develop specific guidelines for faithful Catholics detailing how, when push comes to shove, to weigh priorities and difficult trade-offs so that abortion does not become the tail wagging an increasingly rabid and dangerous dog.
I am not a moral theologian – or even a Catholic for that matter, so I recognize that I will have no standing in that particular conversation. But as a Christian Wisdom teacher and a concerned planetary citizen, I know that it is important for this conversation to be taking place and for imaginative new thinking to be invited from all quarters. Deliberations on this all-important topic so far left in the hands of the Catholic experts have yielded us no appreciable results; they’ve merely solidified the impasse. This is a human dilemma, and it is as a human family that will solve it.
And so I propose here to engage this conversation among our Wisdom Community, asking us all, from our collective data banks of spiritual insight and life expertise, to engage this crucial impasse and see if the act of intelligent conversation can itself generate a bit of third force. Over the next two or three blogs (writing not yet begun but intention herewith signaled) I will attempt, first of all, to lay out a potential pathway toward a new social contract with regard to the abortion issue, a pathway which, though admittedly a compromise, might be one that both Catholics and non-Catholics could live with. In the following, more extended blog, I will reflect on what light the Wisdom tradition has to shed on the beginnings of life and the nature of the soul, both key components in the present gridlock.
A good start has been made in this article, and I commend it to you all for deeper study and reflection. But in accepting its conclusion that joining forces with a distorted Christian fundamentalism is not an option, the next step is to move courageously to confront the “root of the root” of this nefarious allegiance and speak directly of – to – the elephant in the room.
Cynthia Bourgeault has been leading a Lenten e-course from Spirituality & Practice titled, “Becoming Truly Human: Gurdjieff’s Obligolnian Strivings”. As Easter approaches, we offer a brief excerpt of Cynthia’s commentary from that course in the midst of Holy Week. To purchase the entire e-course (available on-demand soon), please visit Spirituality & Practice.
The fifth Obligolnian Striving: “the striving always to assist the most rapid perfection of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up to the degree of the sacred ‘Martfotai’; that is, up to the degree of self-individuality.”
It’s one thing to be willing and able to help a fellow being: to send them strength, reassurance, even an energetic boost. But is it possible to actually change places with them so that we take the weight on our own shoulders and they are permanently set free?
Definitely not, most spiritual traditions say. In the words of my Sufi teacher, a butcher’s son: “Every mutton hangs by its own leg.” Assistance, yes; baraka, blessing, clarity, counsel, and strength: in all these ways we can help. But spiritual liberation itself is non-transferable. You can’t become conscious unconsciously, by someone else doing it for you. It is the fruit of your own inner work.
I raise this point, obviously, because we are now less than a week out from the beginning of Holy Week. And during that week, Christians universally will be staring straight into the face of the claim that Jesus did precisely what most of the other sacred traditions see as impossible: that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the World.”
The usual way in which Christians have come to hear this statement, however, is through the distinctly dark filter of “atonement theology.” In its starkest version, God is seen as being angry with the people of Israel for their repeated backslidings; He requires a human substitute to pay the price. (In Christian fundamentalism this is often languaged as “Jesus died for your sins”.) The roots of this theology lie in the Old Testament temple ritual, where each year a compulsory scapegoat was sent out into the desert, carrying on its back the collective sin of the Hebrew people. Early Christians simply took over this metaphor and Jesus became the cosmic scapegoat.
The English mystic Charles Williams was working from a whole different model when he brought forward his notion of substituted love, a teaching which had actually been present all along in Christianity, but under-emphasized. Essentially, it overrides the idea of victimhood, that punitive mainstay of atonement theology. Rather than passively enduring a victim’s death at the hands of an angry God, Jesus steps up to the plate and voluntarily offers himself in an intentional act of “lightening the burden of our Common Father” – i.e., taking on his own shoulders a bit of that collective burden of suffering that weighs so heavily upon the human condition.
Fundamentally, for Williams, it’s all about carrying another’s burden. It can be as simple as carrying the shopping bags for an elderly neighbor or as wildly fantastical as taking upon yourself an attack of black magic aimed at your companion (the plot of his own spiritual masterpiece, All Hallows Eve.) It is widely celebrated in C. S. Lewis’s well-loved fantasy, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when the innocent lion-king, Aslan, voluntarily offers his life in payment of the debt incurred by the wayward Edmund. But it is also as concrete and historical as civil rights activist Jonathon Myrick Daniels stepping before the gun of a deputy in Haynesville, Alabama, and taking the bullet aimed at his black companion.
These actions make no sense in the world of formal cause and effect. Nothing really changes; the carnage still goes on. And yet, from each of these examples, there rises a certain fragrance, a deeper and more mysterious scent of what it might mean to be a human being. Precisely situated on the line where kenosis (self-emptying love) crosses “exchange” (“love your neighbor as yourself”), they speak powerfully of a love which is deeper than human origin, and hence, not bound by finitude.
When a candle is snuffed out, it sends up a final plume of smoke, bearing the fragrance of all it has been. When Jesus died on the cross, according to the gospels, the fragrance of his being, rising like incense, knocked the Roman centurion on guard right off his feet. “Truly, this man was the Son of God,” he proclaimed. And the strength of that fragrance still lingers in our world to this day; in fact, it continues to rise.
My friend Kabir Helminski once observed, “Two stones cannot occupy the same space, but two fragrances can.” I offer that image as a way of picturing, perhaps, how this fragrance of substituted love at the heart of the Paschal Mystery might mysteriously intertwine, interpenetrate, and ultimately enfold our sorrowful planet in the at-ONE-ment of its embrace.
This letter comes from Cynthia Bourgeault in a time when many are celebrating new hope, while others are struggling to barely hold on. Her words of wisdom, drawing on Gurdjieff’s Law of Three and the Teilhardian Synthesis help us to remember that we are all united in the universe’s unfolding of consciousness, that this time is for all of us.
Dear Wisdom friends,
I want to thank you all for the beauty of the work you are collectively doing around this election. There have been torrents of words already, and I am loathe to contribute to the stream, particularly so many of you have spoken so eloquently and succinctly about it. Honestly, I think Bob Sabath pretty much nails it in his short reflection: that combination of courage, openness, forgiveness, renewed commitment, and compassion that will be required of each of us as we pick up the pieces and move ahead.
I am so grateful to be working with you all in this bandwidth, with the tools and perspectives we have been gradually developing in our wisdom work over the past years. From Teilhard, we have the reassurance that evolutionary change flows over deep time. Events which, viewed at the wrong scale (i.e., too close up), look like devastating upheavals, actually turn out to be relatively minor systemic adjustments. Beneath the surface ripples and rapids, the river itself is still flowing smoothly in its channel. Hope does not divert course.
From Gurdjieff we have the Law of Three and a powerful set of tools for processing and applying (a.k.a., invoking, channeling, mediating, etc.) third force. Many of you are already doing this. It seems clear (to me anyway) that by election night, the Trump candidacy carried the affirming force (i.e., pushing, initiating); the liberal progressive establishment carried the denying (i.e., resisting, holding back, status quo). From a Work perspective (i.e., through identifying lines of action), my initial take is that Donald Trump carried third force, breaking up the political logjam and achieving forward movement again. It seems that he also did this in a classic way: by reversing the lines of action. What had heretofore been the “conservative” or “denying” force was suddenly catalyzed as the affirming in a paradigmatic Law of Three upset – and remember, these forces are lines of action in and of themselves morally neutral. That’s where we come in.
As of November 9th, we are all in a new ball field. Now that the shake-up has occurred, it is our Wisdom calling to use our heads and hearts in a broader, Teilhardian sort of way, to look at what is needed now and how we might collaborate with it.
The vision of a single, unified humanity burns as strongly as ever as these tectonic plates of consciousness and culture grind up against each other. I sense very clearly that my own work calls me strongly to continue to work in this task of strengthening and deepening the international and interspiritual aspects of my teaching work. It was very meaningful to be in the UK on election night, to meditate with a group of nearly 300 seekers in Bristol, and to reaffirm palpably the power and presence that quietly unstoppable Christ-Omega, drawing us along to that fullness of love that has been the trajectory, the sole trajectory throughout these 14 billion years. That is the corner of this vineyard in which I feel personally the most impelled to work.
Back in our home turf, am I totally off-base in my intuition that the missing, underlying third force has something to do with SAFETY? Remember the example I give in The Holy Trinity and The Law of Three of my friend Jane before the grant adjudication board, recognizing clearly that the scarcity base had to be transformed into an abundance base before anything could shift? Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left-field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. For more than fifteen years now – the whole lifetime of three of my four grandchildren – the country has struggled under a pervasive sense of vulnerability, impotence, and helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the “gout de vivre” as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, in the addictive power of realityTV, and, in the more privileged classes, with the neurotic hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s “Make America great again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to fear. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper…
At least a basis on which to begin…If we could quit calling each other idiots and “deplorables” and begin to deal with the deep terror, the desperation and helplessness which is felt across the board, we might begin to sense the ways to draw together….
What will be required of us all working in this particular wisdom bandwidth, I believe, is that old quality metis, which Peter Kingsley described so well in his book Reality. It really means an alert, supple shrewdness – like Jesus, when cornered by the question, “Must we pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s an ability to be present in our bodies and in our hearts, to live beyond fear and judgment, and because of this non-identification, to be able to use the materials immediately at hand in the moment to see what must be done – again, immediately in the moment.
If anything has been the victim of this election, it’s pluralistic consciousness: the “mean green” sense of sanctimony, moral rectitude, urgency, and judgmentalism that has infected so much of the liberal progressive culture where so many of us have tried, with the very best of intentions, to do our work. Weighed in the balance, alas, and found wanting. We have to learn to work from a more skillful place, reading the signs of the times, trusting love, finding our voices once again to “speak truth to power”.
Yes, a lot of precious sacred cows are about to be slaughtered, I fear. We will see social and environmental benchmarks we have worked for for decades summarily undone. (I don’t need to enumerate; WAY too depressing.) We must understand this in advance and not let every defeat become an Armageddon, a reason for falling on our swords. The earth herself has a will, and the one body of humanity has coalesced too far to be deconstructed. They will be our partners. They have intelligence and resilience we can draw on, if we can only not lose the way in fear and despair.
And so, Wisdom crew, “Allons!” Let us go forward. There is work to be done; prayer, joy, courage, and strength are deeply needed. And we DO know the way there. This is Wisdom’s hour.