Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trinitarian Reflections after a Zen Encounter (Part 1).



Not too far from my apartment in Las Cruces there is a small Zen temple. It is almost a store front place, but it is well arranged. The abbot is a friendly and pleasant fellow, an American who was taught by a Japanese priest. I have an ongoing interest in Zen, and Buddhism generally, so whenever I find out there is a Zen center near by I go and visit it.

This particular Zen center has a couple of weekly groups that meet for discussion, including an Inter-faith discussion group that meets on Monday nights. The abbot invited me to come to this group, and since I am thoroughly open to interfaith discussions, I accepted. This was about a week ago now. The topic for the evening was Confucianism, and I found that overall the tone of discussion was respectful, the comments intelligent and the conversation productive.

Christianity came up only in passing, but often enough that I could get a sense that everyone there had certain fixed notions about Christianity. Two ideas in particular came up repeatedly. Christianity was contrasted with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, which, it was asserted, do not divide the world into the sacred and the profane. Christianity by contrast divides the world into the sacred and profane, or secular. What is done in Church is sacred and important. God is more present to us at certain times and places, such as in Church at the Eucharist. There is sacred and secular time (for example, the daily office).

Also, Christianity begins with the individual, and is primarily concerned with individual salvation. The starting point for Christians is: how can I as an individual escape the wrath to come? Asian religions generally, and Confucianism in particular, are far more oriented towards the group; family, city, nation, world, etc. The individual’s identity is derived from those around him.

To both of these ideas I want to say, “in a way yes, and in a way no”.
In simplified form, my responses to these critiques of Christianity are as follows.
Christians cannot divide the world simply into sacred and secular. The incarnation means that God is with us, dwelling among us. God becomes present in the everyday realities of human life, in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that there is no aspect of human life so trivial that God does not care about it, and so we as Christians must seek and acknowledge God in every aspect and moment of our lives.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion I know of in which God is a community. God is Trinity and not a monad. Part of what that means is that individualism is totally excluded. A person alone is no person; if that is true for God how much more so for his creatures.

Now, here is my answer in a more complicated, and possibly less helpful form.

I think that in orthodox Christian theology, there is a dialectal relationship between the sacred and secular, the material and spiritual, the transcendent and immanent.

John Henry Cardinal Newman said that if he had to name the central idea of Christianity, he would say it was the Incarnation, and I think he was correct. The incarnation is an inexhaustibly rich idea, with many implications. Part of what the incarnation means, is that there can be no clear dividing line between the sacred and the secular. God in his transcendence becomes present to us in our finitude. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, and God who dwells in light inaccessible, also dwells among us in the everyday circumstances of human existence.

The same God seated between the Cherubim, who was hidden from access in the Holy of Holies was also held, as a helpless child in the arms of his mother, grew up in a backwater of the Roman Empire, worked in the carpenter’s shop, got tired, hungry, sweaty and had to perform even the most apparently meaningless of necessary tasks like eating, drinking and relieving himself. I am not trying to be crass, but to make the point that even the unpleasant and trivial aspects of human life are sanctified by the incarnation.

If our lives are suffused with a deep awareness of the reality of the incarnation, then we cannot relegate God’s presence to particular times and places. God is present in everything and all circumstances, and we are called to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (ESV 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Our whole life must become a witness to the presence of God.

Anything less is frankly Gnostic, not Christian. In Gnosticism, there is not only a division but an opposition between the material and spiritual, the sacred and secular. The God of the Gnostics is blissfully unconcerned with the unpleasant realities of material existence. Not so the God of the Bible. I do grant that there are many Christians who are poorly catechized on these maters, and who don't really live in a way that fits the implications of the incarnation. That is a matter of insufficient instruction though, and not a matter of a basic flaw in Christian thought.

Why then do we have "sacred times" and "sacred places"? In Catholic and Orthodox tradition, certain objects (relics) are even understood to bring us closer to the presence of God or the saints. If God is everywhere present and filling all things, how can God be more present at some times and places? I don't have a complete answer, and as I recall St. Augustine addresses this question to some extent in the first book of the Confessions and more or less concludes that it is a mystery, and I doubt I can do better. Still, two thoughts do occur to me. They may be contradictory, or at least in tension. Judge for yourself.

First, designations of sacred time, like the practice of saying Morning and Evening Prayer, or keeping the Sabbath holy, are not intended to limit the presence of God to particular times and places. Quite the opposite. By setting aside certain times to focus on God, I become more aware of God the rest of the time. "Sacred time" is really a way of constantly returning and remembering God's presence. We have special times for doing that, partly as a concession to our weakness as human beings. Unless we have periodic reminders we tend to forget God's presence. So having sacred times does not mean that other times are less sacred, but rather all of time is sanctified by means of constantly returning and remembering God's presence. The same can be said of Sacred places.
Even Buddhists, Confucians and Taoists implicitly concede the need for this sort of constant return and reminder. After all, Buddhists have temples and sacred places, and devote a certain amount of time to meditation each day.

At the same time, while it may seem to contradict what I have just said, I think there is some sense in which God is truly closer to us at certain times and in certain places. For one thing, being material beings means that we live in time and in place. For material beings to be is to be in a given place and time. If God is going to communicate himself to his creation without violating its very nature (i.e. destroying it) he must do so in a particular place and time. Jesus Christ, the ultimate revelation of God, was a particular individual human being, born of a particular woman on a particular day.

Sometimes, people try to make the incarnation into merely an idea. I think Hegel started this trend. On this interpretation, the incarnation merely signifies the unity of the immanent and transcendent. It is not necessary, according to this interpretation, to believe that Jesus Christ, the particular individual, was the unique instance of this union. That, it seems to me is to miss the point. If the Transcendent is to be united to the immanent, the material and the particular, without simply absorbing the material and particular, it must be united at a particular time and place. Otherwise, we are back at Gnosticism and saying that the material does not matter.

And it seems to me that the only way to hold together the particular and the universal, the immanent and transcendent, is through a robustly sacramental theology and spirituality. In the sacraments God is revealed to us in material elements of Bread, wine, water and oil, precisely in their materiality. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are a sign, but they are not merely a sign. God is particularly present to us in these ordinary things, because God was really present in the particular man Jesus Christ, and because God wishes to be present to us as particular persons who are living in a particular place and time.

Now I don't think that means God is absent at other times, but it certainly means that somehow, mysteriously, his presence is first there in the sacraments. Jesus Christ is present everywhere, because he was first present in Nazareth of Galilee. Similarly, all times and places can become sacred, because certain times and places are sacred first. All our meals can become sacred and sacramental acts, but only because of the sacred meal of the Eucharist. Again, this means, that in some way there are truly sacred times and places, which are really more sacred than others, but it does not mean that the rest of time is somehow unimportant. Its importance is derivative and dependent, but not non-existent.

So far, as you may have noticed, my reflections have been more incarnational than the Trinitarian. That is why this post is only part one. Of course, the incarnation and Trinity are closely connected, with the Incarnation leading us into the Trinity. I will try to share some more explicitly Trinitarian reflections in part 2.

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