Monday, November 19, 2012

We're (not) All The Same

The path of the Asiatic religions seems logically consistent and religiously profound: they start from the ultimate identity of the ‘I’ which is in reality not an ‘I’, with the divine ground of the world. Here prayer is the discovery of this identity, in which, behind the surface illusion, I find my own serene identity with the ground of all being and thus am liberated from the false identity of the individualized ‘I’. Prayer is letting myself be absorbed into the what I really am; it is the gradual disappearance of what, to the separate ‘I’, seems to be the real world. It is liberation in that one bids farewell to the empirical, experienced world with its chaos of illusion and enters the pure nothingness  which is truly divine.

There can be no doubt that this is a path of impressive proportions; moreover it appeals strongly to man’s painful experience, which causes him to wish to abandon what seems to be the illusory surface of being. Only a radical abandonment of being, in favor of nothingness, seems to offer hope of real freedom. It is no accident, therefore, that the way of Asia presents itself as the way of salvation wherever the content of faith is relegated to the level of an untenable piece of Western metaphysics or mythology yet where there is still a deep spiritual and religious will.

I believe that as far as religion is concerned, the present age will have to decide ultimately between the Asiatic religious world view and the Christian faith. I have no doubt that both sides have a great deal to learn from each other. The issue may be which of the two can rescue more of the other’s authentic content. But in spite of this possibility of mutual exchange, no one will dispute the fact that the two ways are different. In a nutshell one could say that the goal of Asiatic contemplation is the escape from personality, whereas biblical prayer is essentially a relation between persons and hence ultimately the affirmation of the person.
Feast of Faith, 24

Reflection – Well this passage is bit longer than what I usually offer – it couldn’t really be cut down or broken up and still make sense. My reflections will be correspondingly brief.

I am struck, as I always am, with the friendly open tone Ratzinger has to ‘the other’, to the different world view. He is always eager to highlight what is true, good, beautiful in any philosophy or religion, while at the same time not lapsing into indifferentism or a false syncretism (we’re all the same, after all! It’s a small world, after all!).

We’re not all the same, and it’s tackling those differences head-on that allows us to genuinely learn from each other and benefit from one another’s point of view. To either demonize the other or to subtly dismiss the other by papering over the real difference in what they are saying closes the door to genuine dialogue and encounter.

Now I’m no expert in Asian religions, so in offering this excerpt from Ratzinger’s writings I cannot weigh in even slightly on how precisely accurate he is on the subject. Since he is a scholar of international stature, I presume he wouldn’t write about them without having done his homework.

But it certainly does strike me as a very profound question, this whole business of the affirmation of the person or the denial of the person. Is spirituality a plunging into something that ultimately negates our perception of existence, or does spirituality (prayer, God) ultimately affirm our actual existence and then draws us to transcendence through genuine personal communion with God?

It does seem to me that the two are very different realities. And that there is a fundamental question of the goodness and truth of what we know, what we experience, where life in this world has plunged us – is salvation an escape from experience, or a transformation of experience by a communion of love with Love Itself?

I am a Christian, and take my stand on the Christian approach to the question. But I would be interested in this learning, this exchange, this encounter of East and West, Asia and Europe, so to speak. There is much to ponder here, and Ratzinger shows us a good way and a good spirit in which to do this pondering.