Sunday, February 05, 2006

Mystics and Monotheists

In his powerful book “Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, divides the religious world into two camps: mystics and monotheists. The former uphold a nondual, nonpersonal, and trans-religious Deity that unites all beings in, with, and as Itself. The latter affirm a singular and separate personal Deity who chooses, judges, rewards and punishes based on ethical precepts and correctness of faith. For the Pope, the latter is superior, for only the latter supports the idea of one true faith and one moral code that is central to the Pope’s Catholicism. As you might expect, I disagree.

As I understand him, the Pope worries that the ineffable nature of Reality as the mystics experience it cancels the truth claims of any given religion, removes the absolute power claimed for its rituals and religious hierarchy, and makes ethics a matter of personal choice rather than divine command. He is correct about the first two points, but wrong about the third.

Mystics do see all religions as symbol systems pointing toward a common and ultimately ineffable Reality. While different religions highlight different aspects of this Reality, no one religion can grasp it in its entirety. Hence when mystics of different faiths gather, cooperation rather than competition is the norm. In addition, mystics raise personal encounter with God over ritual, and tend to question the power and authority of priests and clerics of all sorts. Hence mystics are a threat to religious hierarchies and the systems that sustain them.

Nevertheless, mystics are not necessarily anti-religion, and most come from and operate within a formal religious system. What they are against is the triumphalism and one-upmanship that organized religions often display. Mystics know they are like the blind men and the elephant, each describing a small part of the infinite. Where they differ from mainstream organized religion is that they do not mistake their part for the whole, but dialogue with others to get a better sense of what is true.

Regarding ethics the mystics’ direct encounter with God translates into a universal code of ethics that transcends time and place. This code is best articulated by the prophet Micah: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Justice and compassion are universal and timeless principles that each generation must define and refine for itself, but it is not a matter of whim, but rather rooted in the very nature of God as they encounter God. Walking humbly with you God is more than a challenge to personal hubris, but addresses the tendency of organized religions to claim unique access to the truth and to deny the truths and damn the followers of other faiths. Walking humbly with “your” God means admitting that your idea of God is just that, your idea and not the absolute truth.

Both mystics and monotheists see the world rooted in the One God, the God the mystics would called Oneness Itself, and governed by both natural laws and moral imperatives. The issue of morals does not divide mystics from monotheists, but mystics and monotheists from scientists.

While all three communities experience the wonder of reality, only the monotheists and mystic find it exquisitely moral. Working in harmony with reality allows the scientist to uncover the physical structures of the universe and apply what is learned to enhancing our physical existence. Working in harmony with reality allows mystics and monotheists to uncover the moral structures of the universe and apply what is learned to enhancing our spiritual and cultural existence.

I appreciate Pope Benedict’s categories of mystic and monotheist, but I do not find them in opposition to one another. On the contrary, mystics are the explorers of the spirit whose discoveries should be the stuff from which monotheists fashion religious systems that lift us out of religious parochialism toward diverse celebrations of God’s unity and universal ethic. Add the category of scientist to the mix, and we may have the workings of a new field for deeply spiritual and scientifically rigorous exploration.

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