Two kinds of religion

The nostalgia for paradise.  By this we mean the desire to find oneself always and without effort in the Center of the World, at the heart of reality; and by a short cut in a natural manner to transcend the human condition, and to recover the divine condition – as Christians would say, the condition before the fall.    Mircea Eliade

Two quite different religions exist.  A religion that is the quest for transcendence; this is the religion that I have been writing about up till now. Another religion exists that is centered upon a dynamic center, and is bolstered by belief. This is what most people refer to when they talk about religion. The Catholic Church, as its teachings are most widely understood, is a very good example of a religion centered on a dynamic center and bolstered by belief.

The first noble truth, or axiom, of Buddhism is that life is suffering. The Sanskrit word for suffering is duhkha. The opposite to duhkha is sukha; sukha means ‘well-being’ but it can also mean a wheel whose axle is dead center. Duhkha, therefore, means a wheel whose axle is off center.  This off centeredness would create two centers: the center of the wheel and the center of the axle. Our inner life is similar to this. It is as though, in addition to a natural center of gravity of a situation––the self or ‘me’––a personal pivot, or an axle, is created, around which we claim that everything must revolve. We most often call this pivot ‘I.’ The personal pivot arises from the thrust of life: from the struggle to exist, through the struggle for autonomy, and then to the struggle to be unique, special, and apart.

Most of our struggles and efforts in life, most of our relationship with others, are dedicated at one level or another to establishing, maintaining, or perpetuating this pivot, this personal, unique center of gravity, around which the world must revolve.  This means, in turn, that our relationships with others include persuading, enticing, cajoling, pushing, seducing, forcing, manipulating or whatever, to encourage them to revolve around our center, what is pejoratively called our ‘ego.’  We like to have people do things the way we do them, see things the way we see them, think things in the way we think them.  If we cannot do this then we want them to approve of what we do, think or see.  Those who conform are our friends; those who stand in opposition are our enemies.

The false center is a vital necessity as it buffers us from the inner split or wound in the self. When the center is under threat we feel anxious or angry, and these can spiral inwards to terror or rage. When we first begin to practice, we hope to make this center of gravity––that we call ‘I’––more stable: more powerful.  Moreover, to make it more secure we invest it in something outside ourselves, which we might call God, Buddha, or Allah.  But when I make such an investment, I claim that it is my God. And, because I claim to be unique, my God, too, must be unique, the only true God. In this way I claim; “outside the church (my church), there is no salvation.”

To preserve this pseudo, or false, center requires constant and enormous effort.  So often situations and people refuse, oppose, or ignore our blandishments, and then we say that we are unlucky, that things are going wrong, that we are the victims of accidents; or we say that people are unjust or unkind.  We say they have betrayed us, and that we cannot rely on other people, cannot trust them.  Other people are no good, we say; “l’enfer c’est les autres,” (hell is other people) to use the philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre’s famous phrase. We see that we can no longer get others to revolve around our center.  So then we try to rationalize, or use our imagination, or we might look upon the situation philosophically, and say that one must put up with the bad as well as the good, or else claim that God is testing us.  But, all this is done either to ensure that the false center appears to remain stable, or else to deal with the tension and anxiety that arises because the center is threatened.  On the other hand when the center is stable I can maintain the illusion that things, circumstances and people revolve around it, and I feel that I am in control, I am the doer.

The center is the point of reference and orientation in our lives, and it gives us value and meaning.  If three or four people are shot in Montreal I am shocked.  For example, a man shot a number of women in a Montreal University, and the headlines of the local papers screamed in horror.  Even now, many years after the event, memorials are still held. Yet, when the same thing happens in Texas or California, the story might find a place on the back page of these same papers.  If such a thing should happen in China, we will probably never know about it.  The nearer home a tragedy is, that is the nearer to the center it is, the more disturbing it becomes.  If one person should be shot in my family, I would be devastated.

An example of the power and importance of the dynamic center is the following. Imagine that you are to make a journey through a dark forest. The journey will take you several days,  and you have no experience in this kind of travel.  You have food and all that is necessary for the journey, including a compass.  You are told, ‘Just follow the direction that the compass is pointing, and you cannot fail to arrive safely.’

The first day passed and you feel very confident.  You had to make several detours in order to avoid obstructions and to cross a river but you have not been disturbed, because the compass always showed you the way to go.  Halfway through the second day you suddenly begin to wonder whether the compass is still pointing true North. You start to worry.  Then you worry about the fact that you are worrying. You lose your orientation and all faith in the compass goes.  You start to panic.  As long as the dynamic center (North) was stable you were confident and safe; start doubting the stability of the center and panic surges up. While the center is stable you can maintain the illusion that things, circumstances and people revolve around it, and you feel that you are in control, you are the doer.

Another example of the importance of a dynamic center is the need that we have for one leader.  It is common knowledge that a group can only have one leader.  But it is equally common knowledge that a group must have a leader if it is to remain together. If two leaders arise, a struggle for dominance also arises.  I have written about this in the book I am therefore I think.

In this same bookI said that some psychoses arise when one is unable to maintain a stable dynamic center.  I gave an example of what it feels like.

Psychosis leaves you with fear; you lose all sense of yourself as a person among other persons. You feel yourself dissipating; your distinctiveness vanishes. No voice in the universe sounds like your voice; yet all voices sound like your voice. You see yourself as a vast multitude; and all these millions in the multitude become you. This voice, this multitude that is me, has a detached quality to it without substance or body. This multitude drowns me; it swallows me up. With its persistent hollowness, the voice blots out any sense of an I and this hollow sound, like drums beating in a huge cavern, encircles me and paralyzes my thoughts. (Emphasis added)

The mythologist, Mircea Eliade, emphasized the importance of the center, when he said,

 Every human being tends, even unconsciously, towards the Center, and towards his own center, where he can find integral reality – sacredness.  This desire, so deeply rooted in man, to find himself at the very heart of he real – at the center o the world, the place of communication with Heaven – explains the ubiquitous use of “Centers of the World.”

In earlier societies the false center or “I” was communal. Many tribes had their cosmic center––a tree, holy mountain, temple, or idol. Itwas the axis mundi, the world center, around which all revolved. The Christmas tree is a relic of the ancients’ cosmic tree. The center was the navel of the world, and, in ancient times, each city was the world’s center, the world’s navel, the point, the still point, around which everything revolved.  Now, each of us carries within ourselves that still point. Some people, however, invest the center in God, Allah, or Buddha. Because the investment is based on an illusion, the illusion of uniqueness, God, Allah or Buddha becomes likewise unique.  Because it is based on an illusion this kind of religion must be constantly bolstered by beliefs.

As I said at the beginning of this posting, Christianity is an example of religion centered on the dynamic center. Basic to the ceremonies of the Church are two credos, or statements of belief, the Apostolic creed, used at baptism, and the Nicean creed, used during the Mass. Both credos begin in more or less the same way, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.” They both go on to add similar refinements of this basic belief, but the Apostolic creed adds, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” This kind of belief spelled out in the credos is felt to be incontrovertible and based upon the highest authority.

The Catholic religion is not only based upon beliefs, but also upon the assurance that it is unique.  The uniqueness of Church was reaffirmed as recently as 2007 when Pope Benedict XVl approved the clarification made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the meaning of the credo. This clarification was given in its Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.  This document makes it quite clear that the Catholic Church is the only true church of Christ.  It is written in the form of five questions and responses.

The beginning of the response to the second question, “What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?” states Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone [my emphasis] are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted” “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.”

As is now well known, the teaching of the Catholic Church has not flowed in a single stream from mouth of Jesus, through Peter, to the modern congregation. On the contrary the teaching is the result of much discussion, argument, acrimony and violence. Much of what we know as Catholicism is a consequence of the activity of Emperor Constantine who convened what has become known as the Council of Nicea.  Elaine Pagels in her book Gnostic Gospels, gives an excellent account of the origins of the Church as we now know it.

One thing is certain, Catholicism was, in its origins and in its subsequent development, as much a political force as a religious one. In Constantine’s day religion and politics were not separated as they are today. He convened the council of Nicea in order to bring unity and harmony within his realm, and to bring an end to the disputes and conflicts between the many Christian factions.  Politics is the process of subsuming or subduing competing centers of power (centers claiming uniqueness) under one dominant supreme unique center.) The history of the Church has been studded with acts of violence aimed at eliminating competing centers.

Gnosticism, which had its origins in Egyptian and Jewish traditions as well as Christian, was for a long time a target of the Church.  Gnosticism is a term that covers a wide range of beliefs and practices. Among these is the quest for transcendence.  The quest was particularly anathema to the Church, and was virtually eliminated as a way. However, a number of texts including those written by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Desert Fathers, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Meister Eckhart and others show that the quest for transcendence was never entirely suppressed by the Church.  Since the sixties, because of the influx of Eastern religions aided by writers such as Thomas Merton, the quest has come to assume importance even within the teachings of the Church.  Even the Pope, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a letter to the American Bishops On Aspects Of Christian Meditation.

 Many commentators on the Bible have noted the contrast between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, and many have been puzzled or troubled by this contrast.  However, the God of the Old Testament was a Dynamic Center, and was a product of exclusive Unity.  This is brought out starkly when He says, “For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” The God of the New Testament is a product of inclusive unity and is a God of love. A web site has been set up giving quotes from the Old Testament showing the destructiveness of “God”  These quotations simply show to what extent we will go in the name of our uniqueness.

The God of the New Testament is a product of inclusive unity and is a God of love.

Religious skeptics attack religion in the name of reason or spotlight awareness. But reason plays a very small part in the drama of life, and, as any one who practices Zen––or any other form of the quest for transcendence––realizes, most of our reasoning is but rationalization, and, as someone remarked, few of us think:  most of us rearrange our prejudices.

It is said that if we eject Nature through the front door, she returns through the back window.  The attacks on religion have been counterproductive.  Mostly they have failed because, while they may have emptied the churches, they have provided the way for the entry of ideology: the new Apostles Creeds.  Among the more pernicious of these has been Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism.

The dynamic center has been created as a bulwark against the crises of life.  The more it is attacked, or even threatened, the stronger the need for it becomes. Fundamentalism is the result. Where the attacks have been successful, depression, anxiety and the sense of alienation is the result.  As Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived the Nazi concentration camps pointed out in his book, Man’ Search for Meaning, without meaning and purpose, of which reason knows just theories, we are lost in a world that is nowhere.

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33 Responses to Two kinds of religion

  1. Annie Manseau says:

    Merci, c’est très intéressant.

  2. Dear Albert,
    You try to do with words what I have tried to do with actions (perhaps too abruptly) my entire life, and that is to sabotage the center by flying away from it. But we are drawn to the center as to a vortex that incessantly shapes our quest into something it is not, erasing itself in our very approximations. One day, perhaps (I don’t know), the aspirant composed of words and actions will dissolve on some distant horizon like a migrating flock of birds into the sky. Perhaps. I don’t know!

    • Albert Low says:

      I wonder whether we are using the word ‘center’ in the same way. I use it to refer to a basic and essential component of the self. The dynamic center is invested in a form, the most frequently used of which is ‘I.’ Whatever it is invested in appears to acquire, among other attributes, value, meaning, importance and charisma. I say ‘appears to acquire’ because these attributes belong to the dynamic center and not to the form. I have written at length about this in I am therefore I think.’
      Because the center is both essential and basic, I cannot as you suggest, “try to sabotage the center with words by flying away from it.”

      • Thank you, Albert.
        The dynamic center is not the attributes as they appear in the forms invested with this center- is that right?
        Then what is writing about it?

  3. Monique D says:

    How to see that an illusion is an illusion? Why don’t we see the illusion “I am the doer?” Why are we so blind? Why are we so immunized against the ridicule? Why must is it so burning, burning, burning, O Lord, to earn the gift of laughing?

    Upon a sandy, uphill road,
    Which naked in the sunshine glow’d,
    Six lusty horses drew a coach.
    Dames, monks, and invalids, its load,
    On foot, outside, at leisure trode.
    The team, all weary, stopp’d and blow’d:
    Whereon there did a fly approach,
    And, with a vastly business air.
    Cheer’d up the horses with his buzz,–
    Now pricked them here, now prick’d them there,
    As neatly as a jockey does,–
    And thought the while–he knew ’twas so–
    He made the team and carriage go.

    • Marcel DesRosiers says:

      Why are we so blind you said, why must is it so burning to earn the gift of laughing? We need to ask for everything since we are born, with all efforts that it requires. Who is questioning, who’s trying to give answers? For myself, it needs me a big deal of humility to recognize and accept that limited human condition, one nobody asked for. Why is it so? I believe something greater exists outside and inside of me. But who is myself, who am I, from who could that be said? There is no suffering for me to ask and not knowing answers, because I am convinced those unknowable answers exist somewhere also unknowable. Your questions give that dynamic impulse necessary to find a meaningful sense of Who am I and What is Life, it points out the constant vigilance needed to fight the illusion that we are the doer that makes the team and carriage go.

  4. Low Albert says:

    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.
    God must have fallen off his chair laughing when he heard Henley say that

  5. Randy H. says:

    Sorry for the length of this. It seemed necessary…
    FAITH IS WHAT THE MIND TAKES HOLD OF: I was raised in a rural farming community, attended Sunday-school, and grew up with very literal Christian beliefs. God was the center of our lives and I remember there being a great deal of comfort in believing this. But there was also great fear. This loving God would just as gladly toss us into hellfire should we dare to doubt His word or look to other religions for answers. These simple beliefs were tested as I became better educated. But at some level the fear remained.
    As I grew older, however, I found myself inextricably drawn to contemplative practice, particularly to those of Zen Buddhism. But I was also deeply troubled by this. “The idyll mind is the Devil’s playground!” the priests had warned. But sitting cross-legged, following the breath, I found no devil, just a wonderful sense of being on the right track! Surely this could not be wrong! And yet… Then one day, peering at a patch of blue sky through rustling leaves, I knew there was nothing beyond them – no God, nothing to be afraid of. The God of my youth was a thought, an idea my mind had accepted and taken hold of. For the moment at least, I was free! They say you don’t have to change your religion to practice Zen. But I would add that Zen will change your religion for you – thank God!

  6. Bruce Wilson says:

    Dear Albert,
    You write, “The false center is a vital necessity as it buffers us from the inner split or wound in the self. When the center is under threat we feel anxious or angry, and these can spiral inwards to terror or rage.” If the center is false, why is it so vital? How is it that every human is afflicted with the need to hold to a false center? Did Mother Nature make a huge mistake? More importantly, how can one manage the terror, rage, or depression when the false center is threatened? One cannot live life like a blind man who has had his staff taken away, spun round and then tossed to the ground. For some of us, the price to pay for transcendence is so very steep.

    • Low Albert says:

      “True self is no self.” That means no form or substance. Even so we invest [clothe] the self, or center, in forms and substance. This is also known as idolatry. We do this because we feel that what cannot be experienced is unreal. We believe that we need the idol to protect us against the inner rift or wound, the basis of suffering. “How can one manage the terror, rage, or depression when the false center is threatened?” This is what zazen is all about. “For some of us, the price to pay for transcendence is so very steep.” As T.S. Eliot would say, “It is A condition of complete simplicity/(Costing not less than everything)”

  7. sandraolney says:

    Aha! Aha! This is truly brilliant. Now I understand why Albert insists that we not allow ourselves to centre on Zen, or Buddhism, or even our beloved Teacher. Now I understand why we under-play our ‘social’ community, and the rituals that might comfort us. This helps me bear the barrenness, the loneliness, the longing.

  8. Andrejs says:

    Thank you Albert, this was helpful. I had thought of religion as in your second sense and have always associated religion with institutions, hence with politics and the structuring of society. In what sense is the first, the quest for transcendence, a “religion”.

    • Albert Low says:

      “In what sense is the first, the quest for transcendence, a ‘religion’.” I think the question might more readily be “In what sense is the second, the quest for a secure investment of the dynamic center, a religion? Or, more directly, in what sense is Catholicism a religion?” The religious feelings of awe, wonder, reverence, and devotion are present when we relinquish the need for comfort, security, certainty and peace, the stock in trade of traditional religions. A seven day sesshin will be enough to confirm this!

      • sandraolney says:

        What worries me most from a ‘world’ perspective is how difficult it is for any person in modern society to find a ‘way’, even to know that the signs of a way are feelings of awe, wonder, reverence and devotion, and a disregard for security, comfort, certainty and peace. How can they come to this discovery when there are so few formal ways to lead them there?

      • Andrejs says:

        Even the word “religion” invokes a barrier of distaste. The word carries a lot of baggage for me beyond those of “religious feelings” and I have no label for my attempts at practice nor do I particularly feel the need for one. Seeing my-off-centered-self, even hypothetically, as religious is humiliating, as though I have capitulated to superstition, myth and the institutions of social control. I know that this is grist for the mill but the barrier is really high.

  9. Low Albert says:

    Is it, perhaps, that your religion is science and your church Academia? In this case your distaste might be the result of a clash between the two! If you are going to reject religion, why not reject it all?

  10. Randy H. says:

    Mr Low, you say we need this false centre. Losing this sense of self, of being centre of the universe, creates insecurity, even bringing on psychosis. And “Psychosis leaves you with fear; you lose all sense of yourself as a person among other persons.” But this description sounds a lot like what many people think of as transcendence – seeing through or giving up this false sense of being an individual. “True self is no self.” What of that?

    • Low Albert says:

      Practice requires great courage. This is why it is so hard, and why so very few people persevere with it. Anxiety and fear are necessary companions on the Way.

  11. Marcel DesRosiers says:

    You say: ‘’Duhkha, the Sanskrit word for suffering, means a wheel whose axle is off center and that would create two centers on that same wheel’’. Such a wheel would need only one center to roll well, to feel a ‘’well-being’’ condition. From this analogy comes two kinds of religion, two kinds of thoughts, one to survive, to be unique, the other to transcend that vital imperative. This is my understanding of your posting. When suffering is the result of not being at the center of my life, it is useless and non-sense to me, a waste of time and energy. But when suffering is issued from the ambiguity created by the consciousness of having two centers, the second being transcendental, it is the only way I can give a meaningful sense of what is life and who am I. Buddhism, the way you understand it, is a second kind of religion, one that can rescue the meaningful definition of the word Religion, also of the word love.

  12. guylaramee says:

    A friend of mine once said :
    “There are two kinds of people : Those who classify the world in two, and those who don’t.”

    There is a moment when even the nicest explanations (and there are certainly the nicest to me), even this won’t do. Then what…

    The wind in my window.

  13. Low Albert says:

    Please do not see what I am writing as an explanation but as a finger that is pointing to the moon.

  14. Tony Swan says:

    Mr Low, I have a question. What is the point of trying to come to “awakening”?

    In traditional Buddhism, normally the reason given to pursue a spiritual life is because of the terrible consequences of sinning during this lifetime. I’ve read Buddhist texts that describe terrible hell realms. According to them, we’re all on our way there unless we follow the 8 fold path.

    Zen is different though is it not? I’ve never heard you use reincarnation as the reason why we should practice. Indeed, I don’t even think that you believe in reincarnation, although I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about your beliefs, that’s just the impression I get.

    If when we die, we die for good (which is what I think happens), and Zen doesn’t give us anything, either in this life or after it, then what is the point of practicing it?

  15. alain says:

    Idolatry! I as the idol.
    An idea gathers what we look at (view) with what we look from (viewpoint) into one flowing coherent and meaningful whole. It is verb, process, open, a whole vista unfold and as one walks along, the vista opens up, bringing endless opportunities. Ideas are functional illusions; they are an investment we make in a dynamic center.

    An ideology tends to bend what we look at to that by which we look from, or vice versa, it is ‘nouns’, static, sort of mirroring each other, being self referential. Ideologies are dysfunctional illusions; they are an investment we make in a false center. I being one of those false center. I as what I look from and/or I as what I look at.
    The way I see things, is that Zen practice tends to erode this sense of self; No self or thing by which to look from or at!

  16. Jacqueline V. says:

    While I have read some of your other work on formal religions or belief systems I had not quite made a distinction between the quest for transcendence and the ‘dynamic centre’ of religious belief. Many of your respondents’ comments touch upon the apparent paradox of needing the centre in order to survive (whether through formal religion or by some other faith or belief) while at the same time pursuing a quest that means destabilising and even detaching from the centre in order to ‘transcend’. It seems as though what you are saying is that while we need the centre (in order to survive daily life on earth) it is not enough. Our struggles to construct and maintain the self at the centre limits us and brings suffering. But yearning for and following a path to transcendence does not require or result in abandoning the centre: if I understand you, the struggles remain to keep the centre in place while a slowly ripening awareness of the way beyond develops. What is important is to see, I mean to see into ….?

  17. Low Albert says:

    Yes, you are right. The invested center is a servant, it serves to guide us morally and geographically in a social world. Unfortunately for most people it has usurped the role of ruler, often with disastrous results. We do not practice to kill the servant, but to restore it to its rightful place.

  18. Eric Best says:

    Hi Albert and fellow respondents. As a fairly regular church goer, I was thinking about the dramatic structure of the mass in relation in relation to your post. Particularly the later parts where, through various acts, the dynamic centre is potently invested in the bread and wine. Then, the sacralised elements are consumed by the community. This last bit is interesting because it seems ambiguous. In consuming the sacred bread and wine, does this carry the sense that my centre is being divinised, or does it carry the message that the centre must surrendered “that all may live”? Some folk talk about how “the Witness” must first disidentify from all that is witnessed before it can collapse into all that is witnessed. Evoking (invoking?) a sacred centre and then dispersing it seems to hold some parallel, perhaps?

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