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” http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/cruelty/long.html 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.