A more appropriate name for esoteric Christianity, as set forth by Richard Smoley in D. Patrick Miller’s interview [“What Was Hidden,” September 2003], would be ersatz Christianity.
The real route to inner Christianity — or Christian contemplative practice — is through the worship of the God revealed in the Bible, especially in the New Testament, and in the works of the Holy Spirit down through the ages, including our own. To conflate that tradition with others — Buddhism and Hinduism, for instance — is to do all of them a disservice.
Gnosticism, which is really what Smoley and Miller are talking about, was already around when Christ was born. Some early Christians thought of the resurrected Christ as another wisdom teacher in the Gnostic tradition. But the majority, who became the Church, recognized that Jesus’ teachings could not be separated from his life. Therefore, we have outer Christianity: caring for the ill and the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and loving the despised and rejected.
Richard Smoley has an interesting Western take on an essentially Eastern religious viewpoint. As a practicing Catholic, however, I balk at the use of the name “Christianity” for this belief system. Christianity is a belief in and dedication to a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who is and was fully human and fully divine. It is the personal relationship to Christ as Lord and Savior that has defined a Christian from the days of Jesus’ ministry to the present. As a Gnostic, Smoley looks to enlightenment as the source of salvation, not to Jesus.
True inner Christianity can be found in the works of the orthodox Christian saints and mystics. It is salvation in Jesus Christ, not in enlightenment — although the same God who said, “Let there be light,” certainly continues to bring light to the hearts of those who seek Him.
In the excerpt “True Forgiveness” [September 2003] Richard Smoley perpetuates a Western misunderstanding about the law of karma. To view karma as “good begets good, and evil, evil” is inappropriate and harmful. The concept of good and evil simply perpetuates the dualism that hinders most of Western thought. Life — with all of its pleasure and pain, grace and beauty — just is.
The law of karma says that each person experiences the life he or she needs for further spiritual development. How else is one to explain how “bad” things happen to “good” people, and good to bad? Our perceived misfortune is actually precisely what we need, at that time, in order to grow and to open our hearts and minds to a greater understanding of what it is to be human.
In the interview that precedes the excerpt, Smoley says, “Gnosis is the direct knowledge or insight into the nature of things. Like enlightenment in Buddhism or Hinduism, it is not given freely.” Again, duality creeps in: God over there and humankind over here trying so hard to “earn” that which we already have. Enlightenment is every person’s birthright, our basic state. It is only through the obscuration of mind, which projects duality on the situation, that we have lost sight of this.
Smoley touched on the truth when he quoted Saint Francis of Assisi: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” I fear, however, that as long as Smoley and other Western seekers continue to perpetuate the myth of duality, of object and subject, of me and God, then they are destined to turn away from enlightenment and search outwardly for understanding of themselves and their God.
Richard Smoley responds:
I find it curious that people like Joan Ogden and Robert Dominick take such intense interest in excluding others from the folds of Christianity simply because they do not agree with them. This might seem like a harmless pastime, but the history of the past two thousand years suggests it is not. Thus, Christianity is defended as an ideology and subverted in practice.
I also find it peculiar that any interest in higher states of consciousness should be almost automatically characterized as Eastern. In fact Westerners have had access to these states for as long as Western civilization has existed, and elevated consciousness is inextricably linked with the Christian heritage.
As for the dualism of which J.C. Jaress accuses me, that is too complex an issue to address fully here. But let me say that there are levels at which dualities apply — you are either reading a magazine right now or you are not — and levels at which they do not apply. It is a mistake, and possibly a dangerous one, to ignore this fact. And besides, what could be more dualistic than saying dualism is wrong?
I was moved by Kent Annan’s struggle with the limits of compassion in his essay “When the Hills Flow with Wine” [September 2003]. I recognize in his words my own anguished attempts to come to terms with the world’s suffering.
Annan’s frustration and despair at his inability to make the world over into the comfortable place he knows in the U.S. is the despair of the survivor who, after the battle, the plane crash, the earthquake, cries out, “Why them and not me?” There can never be an answer to this plea. That ache is our suffering. Annan’s resolve to stare back into the face of death and suffering is the correct response. All that is wanting is acceptance of the burden.
When Mother Teresa was asked why, in the face of overwhelming odds, she continued to attempt to relieve suffering, she replied, “God does not ask us to succeed. God asks us to try.” The Buddhists say something similar, but speak of not being attached to the results of your effort. It’s all in the doing. To desire to rid the world of that which upsets us is ultimately an egotistical desire to control what is beyond us. Accepting and immersing ourselves in the world’s pain, as Annan does, is compassion.
I would council him, though, not to cast away joy. When I visited the Dominican Republic, I was amazed at how joyful the people were in the midst of incredible poverty. I had expected them to be depressed and waiting to die. I am not trying to sugarcoat poverty, but merely point out that it does not exclude joy, and neither should we.
If the Buddhists are correct that we choose the circumstances of each incarnation, then the world’s suffering people demonstrate immense courage, the courage to bear pain, in order to teach us something. We need the courage to keep our hearts open and to pay attention.
I am writing in defense of Joyce Tenneson’s photograph on the cover of the July 2003 issue. I was so touched by this lovely, evocative photo that I removed the cover from my magazine and put it on the wall outside my office.
I am dismayed by the negative response two readers had to this image [Correspondence, September 2003]. Has our consumer culture so inundated us that we can no longer see a photo of a beautiful young woman as anything other than a means to sell products and magazines?
Faith Ballesteros describes the model as “a gorgeous, skinny teenager with a piece of cheesecloth on her head.” Why this bitter, jaded response to a young woman’s beauty? Ballesteros has been robbed. I beg her to go back and look again with fresh eyes.
I was inspired by Ken Klonsky’s interview with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter [“Going the Distance,” August 2003], the black boxer who was wrongly imprisoned for more than twenty years. Carter says to Klonsky, “In our society, people are conditioned along tribal lines. I use the word tribalism, not racism, because racism presupposes that there is more than one race of people on this planet. . . . There is only one race of people on this planet, the human race. We all belong to it.”
Powerful words. I, too, hope that one day we will all escape the bonds put on our freedom. Bob Dylan was right when he claimed Carter could be the “champion of the world.”
I was amazed at Rubin Carter’s life story. I do not see tribalism as the problem, however. The problem is racism and oppression.
We Native Americans have fought for our rights to be who we are since the Europeans set foot on this continent. The prisons in South Dakota house a disproportionate number of Native Americans, including one who was sentenced to seven years for stealing underwear. There was a time when Native American children were taken away from their “heathen” parents and put into government and religious boarding schools, thus destroying our family systems. It took me many years to forgive the abuse I suffered in a Catholic boarding school.
Do I want to be like white people? Far from it. I cannot imagine a world without racial and ethnic differences. If there were no racial or ethnic differences, what a lifeless, colorless society this would be. It will not change the world to wipe out tribal identity. There will be peace among the races and tribes only when we all learn to accept and appreciate our differences.
Rubin Carter responds:
I understand, both literally and figuratively, where Lydia Whirlwind Soldier is coming from. I spent some time with the Sioux medicine man Floyd Han, the great grandson of Chief Red Cloud. So I respect what she says, and on this level of life, she is absolutely right. This is the level of conflict, of machines, of sleeping people, of tribes. The trouble with tribalism is that we all see ourselves as victims, because we identify with what has been done to us. And who would deny that the Native North American has faced extermination?
But there are higher levels of understanding. On this level of life, we are aware of race to such an extent that we are poisoned by it. Is there really any meaning to the color of a person’s skin that it should be a source of pain or pride? We are conditioned to believe that our race or tribe is who we are, when all of us are actually flowers from the sun — seeds planted in organic earth with the capacity and the ability to grow stronger, wiser, more intelligent and more beautiful than anyone can imagine.
If we are not all victims, then there are no victims at all. When you’re angry and bitter and exclusionary, you can’t do anything right. We need to harness that energy and turn it into an action that’s self-directed.
Unity is a greater ideal than separation. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of having a dream, it was the dream of unity, of a common humanity. But on this level of life, it is still nothing but a dream.