Ways of knowing God

The title deliberately evokes Danielou’s classic God and the Ways of Knowing, but I wanted to change the title a little, so that people don’t come in expecting a book review.

How do people relate to God?

  1. The sense of the sacred.  This is the most “democratic” of ways in that most people in societies more advanced than the pygmies seem to experience it.  It is, in fact, the only socially relevant religious sense, and societies have been built around it.  It involves a sense that the world is divided into sacred and profane realms which must be kept separate, and a sense of one’s own ontological poverty before the sacred.  Ours is, I believe, the only advanced society to lose this sense.
  2. Personal, affective devotion; love of God as one person loves another.  This kind of devotion is especially marked in religions like Christianity and Hinduism, in which the god becomes human and can be related to as such.  This is the highest level of religious sense that most people are capable of, and perhaps it is only in Incarnational religions that a majority is capable of it.  It is not spontaneous, but can be developed through frequent Bible reading and meditation on the life of our Savior, and the like.  It can, in times of great enthusiasm, become a social force.  More importantly, it can transform individual souls.
  3. Mysticism, a direct, superconceptual apprehension of God.  This is generally agreed to be the highest religious sense, but it is reserved for a small spiritual elite, an Ibn Arabi or a Pseudo-Dionysius.  It is socially irrelevant, because it is given to so few and is by its nature incommunicable.  Nor does it save many souls, but it does contribute treasures to a religious tradition for those few able to profit by them.

Those wishing to know God should start low and build up.  Each stage of ascent must be tested against those below.  There is a false devotion to Christ, an easy “Jesus is my boyfriend” familiarity that can be known as false because it offends against our sense of the sacred.  The higher forms should never contradict the lower.  There is a false mysticism, that of charlatans like Joseph Campbell, that attacks all distinctions between good and evil, between holiness and profanity, and which attacks the (tri)personal God of Christians and Muslims.  A heretic may have a mystic vision and blasphemously proclaim his own divinity, while a sounder mystic like al-Ghazali will find in devotion to Allah a fresh zeal for obeying a holiness law.

Buddhism and Westerners

Out of Sleep considers the positive and negative consequences of Western secularists dabbling with Buddhism.  He thinks it can serve either as a gateway into religion, or a gateway to complete alienation from it.

One thing that irritates me about Western Buddhism dabblers is that they don’t even seem interested in the question of whether Buddhist beliefs are true.  For example, do they really believe in reincarnation.  As OoS also notices, the attitude seems to be much different from that of conforming one’s mind to the truth about the world.

Of course, people still convert to Western religions all the time, and not just in Africa. There are new Catholics, new Evangelicals (especially), and new members of non-mainstream churches, especially Mormons in the USA. Etc.

But I would argue (and I admit I’m getting on some thin rhetorical ice here; I’m really just arguing from a gut feeling) that these kinds of conversions come from a deeper — or at the very least more fervent — conviction than do “conversions” to Buddhism. In fact, it sounds weird to say “converted to Buddhism” though we have no problem saying “converted to Islam” or “converted to the Catholic church.” In my own story which I posted yesterday, I said it (without even thinking) the way most people say it. “I began practicing Buddhism.”

Just like I “began practicing” the violin last year.

Do you see what I mean? It’s a lifestyle choice. Hopefully that feels intrinsically wrong, to choose a religion for lifestyle choice reasons. But why, exactly?


Because it makes a mockery of the most important thing a man can do with his time on earth.

He also has the same opinion I do of the Dalai Lama’s decision to inflict democracy on his people:

Interestingly, I note that the Dalai Lama has spent so much time among his deracinated, empty-souled, atheist Western followers and lionizers, that he has denounced his own tradition. His own lineage goes back 14 generations, and he has taken it upon himself to end the tradition in favor of “democracy.” Apparently the 14 generations of previous Lamas and all the people who lived under them and venerated them don’t get a vote! The Dalai Lama and his Westernized, atomized, rootless new international Buddhism just know better than those hopelessly backward rubes.

The Dalai Lama’s final betrayal

With a fit of PC, the Lalai Lama is retiring and taking down the theocracy with him:

“It has nothing to do with resignation, or health reasons, only with insight,” he said in a recent interview with SPIEGEL in the French city of Toulouse, where he was giving lectures on Buddhism, before traveling to Germany this week as the guest of the Hessian state government in the western city of Wiesbaden. “I have taken a close look at all forms of government. A democratic parliament with an elected prime minister is the only modern and functioning one. Monarchy: yesterday. Theocracy: from the day before yesterday. I believe in the separation of church and state. But what sort of a hypocrite would I be if I didn’t draw any conclusions from this realization?”

For centuries, the Dalai Lama was, in the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Tibetans, both the secular and spiritual leader of his people. The current holder of the office already introduced democratic structures while in exile, but they were reforms from the top down, and he always had the last word. Now he has resigned from his secular duties, including his right to dismiss ministers and shape the course of negotiations with Beijing. He also intends to significantly reduce his spiritual duties and address the search for a successor — “male or female,” as he says….

The curtain has fallen. A theocracy is coming to an end, and it is doing so peacefully and without bloodshed. A god is going into retirement.

So the one person charged with preserving the Tibetan constitution has decided to shelf it, chucking his country’s entire political (not to mention spiritual) tradition and turning his country into yet one more copy of England.  Does he imagine that the theocratic monarchy was his private property?  What else would give him the right to abolish it?

The Spiegel writer then goes on to remind us what an odious religion Buddhism is:

Buddhism has become the fashionable religion, from Los Angeles to London, just as the monk Padmasambhava predicted more than 1,200 years ago: “When the iron bird flies, when horses run on wheels, the king will come to the land of the red man.” The Germans are particularly enamored of Tibetan Buddhism, with their dozens of Tibetan centers and tens of thousands of Dalai Lama disciples, who see the Asian faith as the most appealing world religion, and one that generally does not look down on people of other faiths. It preaches peacefulness instead of inquisition, persuasion through meditation instead of missionary evangelism and the hope of attaining Nirvana instead of the threat of jihad, and it treats guilt and sin as concepts from a different, more punishing religious tradition and man as the sole creator of his own fate. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Yes, I just can’t imagine what might go wrong with abolishing people’s sense of guilt for evil actions.  (H.T. Alte)

Why we should expect Buddhists and communists to be drawn together

On this website, we’ve noted when Buddhist monks have burned themselves alive for communist propaganda, and that the Dali Lama identifies himself as a Marxist.  The anti-Christian commies in Hollywood are known to have a soft spot for Buddhism, to such an extent that they are actually willing to criticize an officially communist country (the PRC) over Tibet.  What gives?

People imagine that there’s an absolute distinction between “religion” and “politics”, so that what you believe about God and man has nothing to do with how you want your country organized.  This is not true.  It’s commonplace to observe that peoples often conceptualize the social body on the model of a human person–a human being writ large, as it were.  An organization of society is a statement about the nature of man.  As Eric Voegelin has argued, the Western “truth of the soul” is captured in our civilization’s most primary organization, the Catholic Church.  The Church represents “soteriological truth”:  man as called by and responding to God.  The Church has a profoundly personal self-understanding:  it is the “mystical body of Christ”, a corporate person united in the worship of a tri-personal God.  This social expression of Christianity comes from Jesus Himself, who didn’t bother writing down His teachings, but rather established the Church:  appointing the Apostles as its rulers and instituting its supreme sacrament of unity.  The states of Christendom were then modeled on the Church, each a sort of mystical body with the king at its head and God for its ultimate reference point.

Buddhism is anti-personal and atheistic, so the Christian social order will not express the Buddhist’s conception of man and his place in the universe.  Buddhists deny that a person is a substantial unity that endures through time.  Organic unity is an illusion, and behind it is nothing but meaningless cause and effect.  Deliverance comes only from the cessation of desire and the extinction of illusory self-consciousness.  The appropriate Buddhist social organization, one that reflects its the Buddhist ideal of man, would be egalitarian, without distinctions to organize people into an organic whole–an undifferentiated mass of humanity.  Sure enough, the earliest characteristic Buddhist organization is the monastery, and monks are precisely those who have left organized society.  Not everyone can be a monk, though, and so Buddhists have often had to accept Hindu or Confucian structures for society at large.

Then Karl Marx invented a way that everyone can be a monk.  Marxist socialism smashes the organic structure of society, eliminating roles and stations.  The state loses its personal character, “withering away”, because it loses anything to define itself against.  Like Buddhism, Marxism regards the conscious, personal world as a realm of illusion, the superstructure that keeps men from seeing clearly true reality:  the impersonal cause and effect of the economic base.  There is, thus, a deep congruity between communism and Buddhism.  The Dali Lama is right to think of himself as a communist.

Great women rulers

A patriarchist doesn’t mind being ruled by a woman, just as long as it isn’t his own wife.  The Mad Monarchist has put up profiles of two of my favorites. 

First, there’s my favorite of the Habsburg rulers, Empress Maria Theresa:

As Empress consort, Maria Theresa certainly succeeded in securing the succession of the Hapsburg throne, having 16 children, 9 of whom lived to adulthood. She also set an example of moral and devout Catholic leadership when most of the rest of Europe had fallen prey to ideas of nationalistic tyranny, influenced by the “Enlightenment”. Maria Theresa also cared deeply for her people and would visit them in disguise to learn the true state of affairs in her realm and hear the honest opinion of her people. She greatly improved the lives of her people and the economy of Austria by cutting taxes for the poor and, for the first time in Austrian history, taxing the nobility. She built up a strong and efficient military so that Austria would not be caught at a disadvantage again, she improved the justice system, gave the poor the opportunity for an education and allowed peasants to own their own land rather than constantly being at the mercy of the landed aristocracy. She also provided a refuge for the Jesuits when her son, Emperor Joseph II, and even the Church turned against them.

Then there’s Tran Le Xuan, “Madame Nhu“, recently deceased:

Madame Nhu was, in every respect, a fiery and committed woman, which both her friends and her many enemies could agree on. She played a leading role in the moral reform President Diem instituted in South Vietnam, closing down brothels, opium dens and gambling houses. She was at the front of imposing what was known as the “campaign for public morality” on South Vietnam, which included the abolition of divorce, contraceptives and abortion. Nightclubs and ball rooms were also often targets. Even beauty pageants were halted as Madame Nhu believed they simply contributed to the objectification of women.

I think I’m in love.  And it gets better.

…at the height of Buddhist protests against the Diem administration. Like others, she accused the Buddhists of being infiltrated by the Viet Cong and when a Buddhist monk from Hue burned himself alive in protest, she commented that it was the Buddhist leaders who “barbequed” the monk, and even then, had relied on foreign help as the gasoline used was imported…When other protests followed she caused another stir by saying, “Let them burn, and we will clap our hands”.

I’m glad I’m not the only one to realize and clearly state the sheer evil that is the communist-Buddhist alliance.  They are a perfect match, the philosophy that denies that there are distinct persons and the political system that mows down all distinctions leaving humanity and undifferentiated mass.

Jeff Culbreath also has a nice memorial to Madame Nhu.  In the comments, Lydia says that Nhu erected a “Catholic police state”.  Oddly, she says this as if that were a bad thing.

Fighting Buddhism: Peek-a-boo

In an earlier post, I objected to the claim that one can disprove Descartes and prove Buddhist anti-substantialism (anatman) from the fact that there are brain-damaged people who are unaware of their own existence.  It occurs to me now that one could go farther.  These brain-damaged nuts are the reducio ad absurdum of Buddhism.  They have lost their ego sense and, in a sense, achieved Buddhist enlightenment.  If Buddha would have just said that his goal was to give people Cotard’s syndrome, he might not be so popular with our celebrities today.

Another example of people with a high degree of “enlightenment”:  newborn babies.  They have not yet learned to conceptualize the world in terms of enduring substances with distinct natures.  The world is a meaningless chaos of color and noise to them–Buddhist sages take decades of meditation to achieve a comparable level of idiocy.  My daughter is four and a half months old right now, and I’ve started trying to help her achieve a different, ultimately Hellenic/Christian, kind of enlightenment.  I want to help her realize that there are distinct beings, and especially distinct people, whose identity endures through time.  This idea of personal identity (“the soul” as people call it when disparaging it) is central to the Western (Hellenic/Christian) way.  Without the idea of distinct, enduring selves, there can be no personal responsibility (because it has no subject) and no love (because it has no object).  The Buddhist sees love as an obstacle to the pure detachment he craves; we see it as the purpose of existence.

Fortunately, Western man has invented a rite to induct his little ones into the holy mystery of personal identity.  That is the game of peek-a-boo.  “Where’s daddy?  There he is!  Where’s daddy?  There he is!”  The point, of course, that daddy is an enduring being who can be visible, then obscured, and then visible, all while remaining the same person.  Once they figure it out, kids love this game.  (Mine hasn’t quite got it yet, but I’ve seen this over and over with nieces and nephews.)  What could be more delightful than to realize that the world is not chaos?  Mommy and daddy are not momentary gobs of color, but enduring beings, subjects who can love and be loved.

Beware neuroscientists trying to do philosophy: in defense of Descartes

At the Inside Catholic blog, I am told that Descartes’ “cogito” argument has been “shattered” by neuroscience.  Descartes, you’ll recall, pointed out that there’s one non-tautological, contingent truth of which anyone can be absolutely sure–his own existence.  Claiming to have disproved this insight has long been a very popular activity, but it’s so obviously valid that only a lunatic would doubt the inference of existence from thought.  And so comes the new debunking of Descartes:  some psychologist says Descartes’ inference is wrong because he’s dug up some lunatics who don’t make it.  These nuts deny their own existence, therefore…therefore…what, exactly?  Descartes never said that everyone necessarily has reflective knowledge of his own existence, only that from the fact that one is thinking the fact that one exists does necessarily follow.

Most of the article is spent attacking the idea that conscious subjects possess a unified self, and for the most part it’s equally sloppy.  The fact that amnesiacs and multiple-personality nuts have changing knowledge or beliefs about their identity doesn’t change the fact that their transcendental ego must be at any time unified.  It then cites studies on people who have had the left and right hemispheres of their brain separated, arguing (rather extravagantly) that such people have two independent centers of consciousness.  I doubt it is really the case, as the authors are so eager to believe, that there are two thinking subjects in such a person, but even if there are, it wouldn’t prove anything.  Each self would have to be a unitary subject for it to think as we understand the word.  And it would not mean–as they recklessly and foolishly imply–that normal brains have two selves that just “sync” so often that we don’t notice it.

What’s the agenda?  It is exactly what Zoe says the scientists aren’t addressing–whether human beings have souls.  Whether or not the neuroscientists are addressing it, it is precisely the point of the article to convince readers that they have no soul, i.e. no internal principle of unity.  And they let the cat out of the bag half way through the article, when they start openly advocating the evil religion of Buddhism.  Make no mistake:  this isn’t just an attack on Descartes; it’s an attack on the entire Western substantialist tradition, an attempt to replace the Western insight that parts can join together to form a real unity with Buddhism–the sinister anti-intellectualism of the East.

Neoconfucianism and the second Axial Age

In his pernicious Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues (or, rather, asserts) that the meaning of all the world’s myths and religions is that human categories of being and nonbeing, sacred and profane, good and evil are in fact illusions.  In fact, he claims that a belief in objective good and evil is a sign of an unresolved Oedipus Complex.  Being a modern-day gnostic, it’s hardly surprising that Campbell despises Christianity while praising Buddhism to the skies.  Buddhism is indeed the most historically significant manifestation of what I’ve identified as the gnostic attitude–the refusal to see God’s presence as mediated by physical signs or communal organizations.  It was the world’s first great desacralizing movement.

Any society founded on a vision of sacred order will see a desacralizing movement–be it Buddhist, Marxist, capitalist, or other–as a mortal threat.  Such was China during the Tang Dynasty, and Confucian scholars were not slow to recognize the threat of Buddhism or to denounce it.  It was easy for Confucians to denounce the ascetic side of Buddhism, the encouragement it gave to young men to cast off familial and political responsibilities and become monks.  They were poorly prepared, however, to answer the anti-rational metaphysics of Buddhism.  Confucius himself had famously eschewed metaphysical questions, and China’s Daoist tradition was, if anything, sympathetic to the new ideas.

Fortunately, the partisans of communal sacred order rose to the occasion through the great Confucian revival of the Song dynasty.  Interestingly enough, the key to the counterattack was the rediscovery, half a world away, of key features of Aristotelian metaphysics.  In the metaphysics of the Chen brothers, systematized by Zhu Xi, being has two principles:  li (form) and qi (matter).  It is through the formal principle that all things are connected to the T’ai Chi (the source and summit of form; Plato’s Idea of the Good, more or less).  Hylomorphic doctrine was tied to Confucian ethics by tying human li to morality and ritual.

The system of Zhu Xi became public orthodoxy in China for six centuries, his writings a main subject in the civil service exams.  Then, in the twentieth century, another gnostic craze gripped China, as Sun Yatsen and others decided that the China should abandon its culture and embrace the refuse of Western civilization–the gnostic heresies of nationalism and socialism.  We all know how that turned out.

Karl Jaspers famously pointed to the age of the Upanishads, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, and the Hebrew prophets as the “Axial Age” when all the world’s great civilizations made a leap in spirituality.  This Axial Age gave men for the first time a true sense of God’s transcendence from the world.  It left some work undone, however, in that it didn’t leave an intellectual framework for understanding how God could be both immanent in the world and yet transcend it.  This was left for what I think of as the second or minor Axial Age, when, under pressure from gnostics and pantheists, the great world civilizations were forced to articulate their understanding of how God relates to the world.  Zhu Xi was not only the Chinese equivalent of Thomas Aquinas; he lived at almost the same time.  Go back one more century, and we are in the lifetime of Ibn Sina, one of the greatest of theistic philosophers, who plays a similar role in Muslim thought.  Interestingly, all three–Zhu Xi, Aquinas, and Ibn Sina–were, basically Aristotelians.  Aristotle is the philosopher of choice for social, sacramental religions.  At around the same time, Gregory Palamas confronted the relationship between God and creation in the context of mystical experience, and his writings would become a foundation of modern Eastern Orthodox thought.  Finally, in India, the Bhakti movement would temper Hinduism’s monistic tendencies with an emphasis on interpersonal devotion to a deity.  Ramanuja lived in the eleventh century.

Why do I bring this up on a political blog?  It’s not just that I use this blog as a container (some would say a waste basket) for any of my non-physics-related thoughts.  While the nature of being is more important than politics, it does have political implications.  In my telling, the conservative understanding of authority is a sort of practical application of Saint Thomas’ fourth way.  Authority is one way the polis orients itself toward the transcendent Good.  It partakes in the dialectic of sacred and profane.  Thus, defending the Confucian/Jewish/Christian/Muslim/Hindu sense of the sacred is very much a conservative’s business.

Buddhism: the good, the bad, and the dangerous

Despisers of Christianity, i.e. the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, will often cite Buddhism as their ideal of what religion should be:  private, nondogmatic, and nonmoralistic.  This has no doubt prejudiced me severely (and probably unfairly) against Buddhism, both because I’m a Christian and because I’m a communitarian moralistic dogmatist (and proud of it).  As a conservative, one of my chief concerns is to maintain the sacred aura surrounding family and community.  These are things I don’t want the Buddhist ethos of detatchment to touch.

Fortunately, our reader Daniel has posted some fascinating comments on the positive and negative aspects of Buddhism.  Daniel has studied this religion extensively and even spent some time as a member, so his opinions carry far more weight than mine.  Our exchange can be read here.  Below is a crucial part of his analysis.

[Buddhism] is indeed a religion of renunciation and, especially, detachment. The goal of the good Buddhist is to sever all ego-attachments, up to and including the attachment to enlightenment. The very excellent side of this detachment philosophy hinges on the doctrine of EGO detachment. One is meant to differentiate between one’s ego, which is temporal, and one’s true nature (or Buddha-nature) which is eternal, and therefore is the property of Brahman, or God. One studiously renounces the immanent self in favor of the numinous Self.This is actually excellent practice, I still believe.

The problem with Buddhism is something I think you hit on very squarely in your original post. It assumes that the immanent is somehow different in kind from the numinous self. I have come in my own life to reconfirm that the sacred and the profane meet together in the human soul in a way that is inextricable. That is, what makes us fallible is the very same stuff that makes us the brothers of angels. Selfishness and ego-centrism, to be sure, are still to be avoided. But extinction of the “small” self is not desirable or even possible, because it is the “small self” that one should desire to make large. Not large like a rival of God (that is Satan’s way), but open and peaceful and strong, like Christ. But still one’s SELF… not just some released flame. Christ and God save individual souls, not abstractions.

I’m not sure who said it first, but I heard it first from a fellow Anglican with Buddhist training (or Buddhist with Anglican training), Alan Watts, “Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export.” That is, it takes the metaphysics of the classical Indian world and strips them of all particularity, leaving pure philosophy behind.

Of all the major world religions, Buddhism is the one of which I’m most suspicious, not necessarily because it’s the most intrinsically destructive, but because it’s the one that is least incompatible with the liberal system.  The liberals will have much less trouble crushing our historical religion if they can offer a people a more pliable spiritual outlet.  I can imagine the widespread adoption of a new religion:  hedonistic Buddhism.  (Yes, I know, it’s oxymoronic, but just you wait.)

Dalai Lama admits he’s a commie

Spengler noted, in his great Decline of the West, that Buddhism and socialism are morphologically equivalent.  They are both symptoms of a society that has lost its spiritual vitality.  Socialism is the materialist corruption of Christianity, just as Buddhism is the materialist corruption of Hinduism.

It would seem that the relationship between Buddhism and socialism–full, clenched-fisted communism, in fact–is even closer than that.  A couple of months ago, the Dalai Lama came out as a communist:

“Still I am a Marxist,” the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader said in New York, where he arrived with an entourage of robed monks and a heavy security detail to give a series of paid public lectures.

Marxism has “moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits,” the Dalai Lama, 74, said.

Anti-war movements, huge international aid efforts after Haiti’s earthquake this year, and the election of Barack Obama as the first black president in a once deeply racist United States are “clear signs of human beings being more mature,” he said.

“Oh, but maybe he meant…”  Bull.  The dude’s country was conquered by Maoist China; he knows perfectly well what “Marxist” means, and he’s decided it’s just his cup of tea.  The spiritual sickness of Buddhism and the spiritual sickness of Marxism:  it’s a match made in…someplace, anyway.

Also, don’t you just love his fawning over President Obama like a Leftist little schoolgirl?