November 02, 2003
The fortress of solitude

I'm coming down with a cold, so it might not be the wisest thing to post with a half-melted brain, but I've been thinking about the discussion going on in the previous post about Christianity, Buddhism, Gnosticism, etc. I think that one point of difference that's not quite being stated here is the extent to which spirituality is individual. Jeremy has been arguing the Gnostic point of view that everyone must find his own way, and that Jesus supported this because, as he put it here, he "understood that people tend to be individualists by nature."

I think that's a highly contestable statement, not just from the point of view of what Jesus said, but about whether people actually are individualists by nature. People are, in fact, social animals, not just in the sense that we like being with others, but that we need interaction with others to fully develop, and those interactions form a great deal of our thoughts and feelings even if we don't fully realize it. But there is certainly some variation in natural sociability and individualism between different people, and between different societies; and how that plays out spiritually I think forms a lot of the reasons why people talk past each other about these things.

Mainstream Christian belief, even among those wacky individualist Protestants, has been that Christianity started out as a community, has always been a community and that's essential to its nature. God is love, after all, and love is expressed in interactions between people, not in solitude. Much of the business of the epistles is devoted to sorting out how to function as a body of believers.

Faiths that seek salvation through more solitary, mystical means, such as Buddhism and Gnosticism, tend to look on these communal matters as inherently unspiritual and only getting in the way. This is especially true of Buddhism, which, as Andi put it, "taught self-reliance (see the Mahaparinibbana-sutta) as opposed to reliance on God or another outside force to attain enlightenment." Although even calling it self-reliance might be a touch misleading, since self is another one of those attachments you're supposed to let go of.

Spiritual individualism is appealing in modern society, both because of our own modernist individualism and because it seems so much more tolerant. Hey, just leave everybody to go their own way, and there won't be any more of those stupid political conflicts or wars of religion, right?

Well, kind of. As I said in the last post, because Buddhism basically offers nothing in terms of how to live as a member of society, people in Buddhist countries turn to other things -- Confucianism, folk traditions, political ideologies -- to take that place. In other words, saying social questions aren't the business of spiritual life is simply moving the problem, not eliminating it. Because most people aren't going to go off to caves or monasteries seeking enlightenment; they're going to want to live as people always have, working, marrying, having children, and so on. If your spiritual path doesn't address all that, for most people it will become something of an accessory.

The question is, what if you look inside yourself and you're not finding God, or nirvana, there? What if you're not a mystical or introspective kind of person? Or worse, what if you find bad things in there? What if instead of finding your way to heaven you're working up your own private hell? If the weakness of communal religion is its clannishness, the weakness of individualist religion has been elitism. It's striking how when I've read about Buddhism, Gnosticism and Sufism, they've all reported this problem. A group of "enlightened" folk develops, who look down on those unlucky earthbound people as spiritually lower or immature. In Tibet, this turned into a pretty harsh theocracy; my religion professor in college said that the monks figured laypeople couldn't reach nirvana, so the best they could do was try to improve their karma through discipline. This is better than thinking people are going to hell, I guess, but my point is that it's not really as tolerant as it first sounds like.

The thing is, the individualist approach basically throws up its hands at the idea that human society is redeemable, much less holy. Thus the common thread running through mystic traditions that the material world is illusory or evil. Orthodox Christianity makes the rather radical claim that community isn't just redeemable, it's the means of redemption. It's through your love for your neighbor and your participation in the Body of Christ that you find your salvation.

It's essentially because of this that my interest has migrated from Buddhism to Christianity in the last 15 years or so. There are a lot of things that appeal to me about Buddhism, but basically I'm not ready to give up on the world yet. Still, I've got enough Buddhist left in me that I clash with Telford a lot about this, since his viewpoint is so totally extroverted and social. I would like to think that Christianity has a place for mysticism, inner peace and all that good stuff. There's some tradition of that, certainly, which is why I still hold out a hope that these conflicting needs can ultimately be reconciled.

Posted by Camassia at November 02, 2003 04:34 PM | TrackBack

I find it interesting that although the previous topic, that gave birth to this one, concerned the relationship of Christianity to Islam--which is, needless to say, a rather crucial issue at this point in history--we so easily got sidetracked into a completely different set of questions, dealing with everything and anything BUT Islam and Christianity. It's hard stuff to talk about, no?

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2003 04:46 PM

Well yeah, but that's because I don't have anything very interesting to say about the topic. I agree they're irreconcilable, and I have no idea what to do about it. I guess the idea I'm toying with here is that one popular modern approach to religious conflict is to regard spirituality as an individual quest, but even that is foisting certain assumptions on people. Hey, not everybody wants to be an individual! Thus, I seem to be coming to the depressing conclusion that there is no such thing as common ground here...

Posted by: Camassia on November 2, 2003 05:11 PM

It's certainly true that where you have a master and disciple thing going on, the thing that makes the master masterful seems to be the ability to "read" the disciple and tailor the teaching to fit the needs and abilities of that particular person. This is not to say that the goal is not the same for each person--it is. The truth imparted to each disciple is the same also--it is just arrived at by different paths offering the necessary variations in experience to each trainee: everybody gets their own koan to work on, so to speak.
Also, even Church orthodoxy stresses the loneliness of Jesus. Despite organized religion, there is no such thing as group salvation.
Where you have a preacher, standing up in his pulpit, delivering the same sermon, and reading the same text to everyone, it is hit or miss whether any given individual is going to get what he or she needs out of that service. For this reason I feel that individual seeking is more important than communal worship. But that's me.

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2003 05:41 PM

I think the difference here is that you're thinking of religion as a body of intellectual knowledge to be imparted. For people I know who are into communal religion, that actually isn't a huge part of it. It comes from the experience of worshiping together, loving one another, working on common services and so on. As Tom pointed out, the sermon is a very small part of Catholic services, and sometimes it's omitted entirely. That's what I meant by community being the means of redemption.

And I agree that Jesus was lonely at times, but I don't think that was meant to be a good thing.

Posted by: Camassia on November 2, 2003 06:15 PM

H-m-m. Maybe the loneliness was a necessary thing--the necessary being the good, by virtue of being necessary?

Posted by: Rob on November 2, 2003 07:19 PM

What I meant was, I think he was lonely because the world misunderstood and/or despised him. That the world misunderstood him was not a good thing. So I don't think the loneliness itself entailed some sort of holiness, it just described the situation he was in when he showed up. But notice that once he ascended and the disciples finally understood what he was about, the first thing they did was form a commune. I don't think they took the solitude as an example to follow.

Posted by: Camassia on November 2, 2003 07:53 PM

Jesus also taught his disciples that the world would despise them for his sake. There is a sense in which if the world does not despise a Christian, the Christian must not be doing it right. The communes of the first Christians seem to me to be the right way to do it: small groups; shared food; shared property; secret, movable feasts in private homes, or in neutral public places. It's not that they were alone, but neither were they comfortable and complacent.

Posted by: Rob on November 3, 2003 01:25 AM

I think that Camassia raises an excellent and relevant point about the presence of indiginous, shamanistic, and pagan elements in Buddhism, although I would expand her comment that these remain a presence to fill the social/communal gap left by the "loneliness" and elitism of enlightenment. I would include an observation that Buddhism tended to explicitly incorporate native religious elements, rather than subvert them or attempt to erase them.

Actually, rather than take up your space with my thoughts, I'll post them on my blog...

Posted by: andi on November 3, 2003 07:19 AM

I think in Catholic terms we would say the community is a source of grace for the individual.

I wonder, though: Just how lonely was Jesus? He spent a great deal of time alone, certainly. Not as much as He wanted in Galilee; more than He wanted in the Garden and on the Cross.

But even in the Garden, as Jesus awaited His betrayer, there was an angel to comfort Him. At the foot of the Cross were his mother and the beloved disciple. And always, there was His Father.

Posted by: Tom on November 3, 2003 10:31 AM

Romano Guardini's "The Lord" provides a feeling for the loneliness of Jesus that I found deeply affecting. It is clear from the gospels that he did not like crowds and that he was not understood by his closest companions. His own family tried to take him off the street. In the end he was rejected by the very people he was giving up his life to save. Angel in the garden, or not angel in the garden, that would make me lonely. It's true he had God. But, then, he was God...

Posted by: Rob on November 3, 2003 11:06 AM

I think our problem may be semantics. I agree that humans are inherently communal, and that communal spirituality is most definitely beneficial. However, I think that in some ways, we are required to be "individualists," simply because we can only directly experience things for ourselves. My experience of spirituality can never be identical to yours, because I'm an individual, and this is what I think Jesus realized. However, community was very important, even to the Gnostics.

My more important point was that "people tend to see information that they've figured out on their own as more valuable and real"-- like the joy of figuring out a complicated puzzle without anyone's help versus the disappointment of figuring something out only after someone has told you the solution. Or, even better, like the joy of discovering a surprise twist in a movie for one's self versus the disappointment of having someone tell you about the twist before the movie.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 3, 2003 11:52 AM

Er, I posted that too soon. ;) I wanted to add that I think that Jesus recognized that the spiritual experience is more valuable to those who figure it out for themselves than to those who simply believe because they're told to.

To me, this is why Jesus in the Gospels is so insistent that people believe because his teachings resonate with them, not because he performs miracles and heals people.

Posted by: J. Puma on November 3, 2003 11:54 AM
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