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The Gospel of Thomas – Lots of nice talk but where’s the action?

English: Image of the Last Page of the Coptic ...

The Last Page of the Coptic Manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas. The title “peuaggelion pkata Thomas” is at the end. Courtesy of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Thomas (estimated date written, 40 – 250 CE) is an early non-canonical Christian document that has left many scholars scratching their heads as to who wrote it and where it came from. Some say it is a Gnostic text. Others maintain that it is not esoteric nor introspective enough to be considered Gnostic.

Another group of scholars believe that Thomas offers important insights into the early Christian oral gospel tradition. A good deal of the content of Thomas overlaps with canonical New Testament accounts, leading some scholars to say this supports the idea of a preexisting but lost common textual source, which has been called “Q.”

Q is a slightly complicated idea for non-specialists.¹ This diagram simplifies how the entirely hypothetical Q might have contributed to Thomas and “some GOSPELS” (referring to some of the canonical gospels of the New Testament).

Q2

With regard to Thomas, Wikipedia notes

Bishop Eusebius (AD 260/265 – 339/340) included it among a group of books that he believed to be not only spurious, but “the fictions of heretics”. However, it is not clear whether he was referring to this Gospel of Thomas or one of the other texts attributed to Thomas.²

Myself, when I read The Gospel of Thomas³ it seems slightly hokey and spiritually dissipated. I can’t fully explain why I feel this way. But I do feel this way. My assessment is not made entirely through biblical scholarship (because I am not a biblical scholar, in the standard sense of the term). Instead, I often make a judgement of any religious text on the way it effects me.

Also, some texts forward ideas and truth claims that I’ve long since moved past, not only experientially, but intellectually. In the extended Christian world, for example, I’ve learned enough about how the Bible and non-Canonical texts were put together to not be a fundamentalist—Biblical or Gnostic. But I still like to read the Catholic Bible from time to time.

Some folks obviously love The Gospel of Thomas. But to my mind it lacks an important element, that being the living example of Jesus through his actions. Thomas is all talk, as it were. It’s composed of over 100 sayings attributed to Christ. But for me, the main point of Christianity is not to merely enjoy nice or mysterious sounding language in some literary or pseudo-mystical way. Rather, it’s about putting a good ethical system into direct practice.

We must try our best to practice what we preach. So to say “God Bless” and then indiscriminately do sneaky and underhanded things to the very person we’re ‘God Blessing’ is, to my mind, evidence of a sick soul.

¹ For good diagrams of different theories about Q, see http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Synoptic_Gospels

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Thomas

³ Gospel of Thomas online and more related links (Bing) (Google)

Related » Gnosticism


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Satori

Hartwig HKD – Bonsai Moon via Flickr

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the idea and belief that one can experience a sudden flash of enlightenment in which all the conventional dualities of ‘love and hate,’ ‘good and bad,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ are apparently transcended.

Those claiming to have experienced satori talk about the importance of living in the present—hence popular spin-off catchphrases like “Be Here Now” (cleverly satirized in the otherwise vulgar film, The Love Guru).

There are different understandings about what satori really means. Some say that a greater kind of love and compassion follows the destruction of smaller ideas about love and compassion.¹ But satori usually is a somewhat cooler idea about surpassing the discriminating intellect.

One can’t help but wonder if some enlightened masters would, perhaps just as quickly as they gained enlightenment, lose their cool if their followers suddenly stopped funding them.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki champions Zen while casting aspersions on core Christian beliefs about Jesus dying on a cross. For Suzuki, religion is largely about aesthetics. And he says it’s distasteful to the Japanese mind to think of God dying in such a gruesome way. He also writes extensively on satori but admits to never having experienced it.²

Related » Koan

¹ This should not be confused with the Christian ideas of eros and agape because the latter involves a selfless service to God. And the entire idea of an absolute God is absent or seen as unimportant in Zen. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki in C. A. Moore, The Japanese Mind.

² Suzuki, himself, says that the idea of satori differs from Christian mysticism. The latter, he claims, is disconnected from everyday life. This demonstrates how Suzuki misunderstands the subtle workings of Christian mysticism, which reaches out to others through intercessionIbid.

On the Web:

  • Mel Van Dusen presents the talks of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”


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Huston Smith

English: Huston Smith at home in Berkeley.

Huston Smith at home in Berkeley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Huston Smith (1919 –  ) is a widely respected educator and media figure in the area of comparative religion. In his compact classic, The World’s Religions (1991, formerly The Religions of Man, 1958), Smith reveals many of the insights and problems inherent to a comparative study of religion.

Choosing to place more emphasis on religious experience as something integral to personal transformation, and less on historical data, Smith hopes to rekindle debate around several age old questions:

Why are we here? What gives meaning to life? Does something exist beyond the world of the senses? Is there an afterlife?

Not strictly opposed to organized religions, Smith says their group aspect makes them a “mixed bag.”

Like any term religion can be defined as one wishes, and if one links it to institutions, I think religious institutions are indispensable, but they’re clearly a mixed bag, and we’ve had the wars of religions; but I tend to think this is the nature of institutions and people in the aggregate. What government has a clean or perfect record, you know?¹

Smith is reminiscent of to another leading interpreter of religion, Joseph Campbell, whose somewhat Jungian approach to the spirit has sparked worldwide interest and debate. However, Smith, as we see in the quote immediately below, doesn’t seem to entirely equate Christianity with non-Christian world religions.²

Hans Makart 006

Japanese kimono by Hans Makart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some interesting Huston Smith quotes via Wikipedia:³

  • Smith is a practicing Christian who credits his faith to his missionary parents who had “instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity.”
  • “Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion… religion is institutionalized spirituality.”
  • “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”

Related » Aton, Illness


¹ Huston Smith, “The Psychology of Religious Experience” in Jeffrey Mishlove, Thinking Allowed video series:  http://www.thinkingallowed.com/2hsmith.html

² I remember seeing an early b&w Huston Smith film in an Oriental Phil. course at Trent University in the mid-1980s. Smith was quite young in the film, wearing a conventional Western suit with short cut hair. The class members laughed out loud at the seeming contradiction. Here was this uber straight looking Western guy doing a film on esoteric world religions. Our professor replied something like – “That’s what things were like back then.” And in retrospect, there was really nothing to laugh about. Smith was a pioneer, actively exploring areas that most others wouldn’t even imagine questioning beyond the prevailing Hollywood and music industry stereotypes. (As much as I admire Frank Sinatra, for instance, I smirk when I hear him sing about “far Bombay” in “Come Fly with Me“). Not to say that Sinatra necessarily believed in these clichés. I have no idea. But they certainly resonated with the pop culture that he thrived in. Another musical example would be Nat King Cole’s Hajji Baba (Persian Lament). For more, see E. Said, Orientalism.

³ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huston_Smith

On the Web:

  • “‘RUMI: Poet of the Heart,’ an award-winning 60 minute film produced and directed by Haydn Reiss, featuring Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Deepak Chopra, storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, and religious historian Huston Smith.”


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Solitude

Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 D...

Drawing of American poet Emily Dickinson (10 December 1830 – 15 May 1886) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a positive sense, solitude is a peaceful, regenerating experience that comes from choosing to be alone for some uninterrupted period of time. Western culture champions individuality but, ironically, also tends to marginalize and even stigmatize individuals who prefer their own company.

It’s almost as if you’re “weird” if you don’t fit in with some kind of group—be it your peers at work, worshippers at Church, local ball team… whatever.¹

By way of contrast, saints and mystics from different world traditions contend that, as one progresses in a contemplative path toward God, direct interaction with others should be minimized. For many contemplatives, superficial talk is a distraction from the source of true happiness, which they maintain is God.

Contemplatives may engage in everyday talk. They may even be quite gregarious if they believe God wants them to behave that way. But socializing is rarely done for its own sake. And when contemplatives do socialize it apparently is in a state of spiritual detachment. Detachment in this sense is not pathological. It means being mindful that God is first and God’s creation is second. In Hinduism this is the ideal of karma-yoga.

Put differently, solitude enables some individuals to recharge their spiritual batteries. Providing that withdrawal isn’t entirely based on some unresolved psychological complex, solitude should be not only valued but treasured.

Psycho (Imelda May song)

Psycho (Imelda May song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, in the negative sense, some individuals seem to neurotically play the social role of the solitary saint or reclusive hero. They may deceive themselves (and others) into supposing they are more spiritually developed than they really are. They may also try to manipulate, exploit or cheat those gullible enough to be fooled.

We’ve probably all met these kinds of fakers somewhere along the line. Upon close inspection there is a disjoint between their words and actions. So it seems reasonable to differentiate between healthy solitude, on the one hand, and a neurotic or cultic type of seclusion that could possibly lead to insanity, sociopathy and even violence, on the other hand.

An example of positive solitude would be the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), who withdrew from society at age 23, preferring her own company to that of others. Her outstanding verse of over 1000 poems has had a profound influence on modern literature.

Another example would be the influential Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton. Merton gained permission from his monastic order to live the simple life of a hermit. His efforts to promote interfaith dialogue have become a model for many Catholics and non-Christians. Sadly, Merton met an untimely death at Bangkok in 1968 while visiting several Asian religious leaders.

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappi...

Ronald E. Powaski has written about the Trappist monk, peace activist, and writer, Thomas Merton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More recently, the Catholic Church has been emphasizing the importance of community. I’ve noticed that priests in different parishes are highlighting the theme of community in their homilies, which makes me wonder if some kind of internal memo from the Vatican has instructed them to do so.

Community is fine and dandy, even necessary. But of all things, a religious community should also recognize that some individuals are more sensitive than others. And these people can be just as involved in the ongoing dynamic of salvation as the big talkers and glad-handers who often dominate the scene at local Catholic parishes.

¹ Of course, being alone is officially endorsed within religious retreats, which are not seen as weird partly because people retreat in the safety of a group. The event is organized by a Church and retreatants usually pay a fee for their solitude/retreat. So buying your solitude with others within a pre-established program is okay. But just wanting to be alone, not spending money, and creating your own program is often suspect.


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Soul

All Souls Night in Gdansk: Robin Hamman

All Souls Night in Gdansk by Robin Hamman

The idea of the soul is variously understood around the world and throughout history.

A distinction is often made between an individual soul and a world soul (anima mundi).

Some regard the soul as a multiple entity, as in ancient Egyptian religion or the contemporary views of the alleged trance channeler, Jane Roberts/Seth. Others insist the soul is single. And yet some say the soul is the conceptual “I” that apparently remains constant throughout one’s life (itself a highly debatable claim).

Plato viewed the soul as single but containing multiple functions.

Aristotle saw the soul as a partly rational and partly irrational function governing bodily needs, desires and actions that disappears at death.

Soul is also envisioned as a spiritual, self-motivating eternal agent or substance.

St. Thomas Aquinas insists the soul is united to the body but not of the body. For Aquinas it “operates through corporeal organs” with its “proper function” being “in the understanding.”

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin

Deutsch: Thomas von Aquin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In much of Hinduism the soul reincarnates, ultimately to merge with God, as a drop of water returns to the ocean from whence it came. In this sense, individuality is temporary, at best.

However, Ramanuja‘s Visistadvaita school of Hinduism provides an important exception to this idea. For Ramanuja, individual souls (jivas) emerge from and ultimately rest within God (Brahman) but retain some aspect of their individuality, existence and, therefore, reality.

The anatman doctrine of Buddhism contends that the idea of a soul is just a conceptual illusion; for Buddhists, the soul does not really exist.

Catholics believe that the soul is created by God at the moment of human conception, a view that has sparked intense debate among pro-life and pro-choice groups. Concerning death and the afterlife, traditional Catholic believers say the soul might (a) rise to heaven (b) be purified in purgatory in preparation for heaven or (c) descend to eternal hell.

In pop culture “soul” refers to a musical form, originating in America, that blends gospel music with rhythm and blues. Although soul music was created by black Americans, its offshoots are composed and performed by anyone, anywhere.


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Spiritual Attack (or warfare)

Spiritual Warfare: Chris and Laura

Spiritual Warfare: Chris and Laura via Flickr

The idea of spiritual attack (also spiritual warfare) is found in most religious and spiritual traditions sharing the belief that a normally invisible attack is caused by evil or lower beings wishing to cause misfortune, distress and physical or psychological illness. I say “normally invisible” because certain mystics, saints and seers claim to actually see the process through visions, revelations or inward, intuitive seeing.

Alleged remedies for spiritual attack vary somewhat, according to the beliefs and practices of a given tradition. Perhaps the biggest difference among traditions is between those that overcome spiritual attack through

  • humble prayer to God and interceding angels and saints
  • one’s own effort, such as the of casting spells or identifying with some kind of spiritual warrior that slays or contains negative spiritual influences¹

In Roman Catholicism, we find a lengthy exorcism prayer aimed to “repulse the attacks and deceits of the devil.” A shorter prayer to St. Michael illustrates this well:

St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits that wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.³

Tuwinische Schamanin, Ai-Churek (Moon Heart, g...

Tuwinische Schamanin, Ai-Churek (Moon Heart, gestorben 22.11.2010) während einer Zeremonie am Feuer bei Kyzyl, Tuva, Russland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in Catholic theology we find the term obsession, which means not possessed but significantly disturbed by an evil spirit, spiritual power or influence. Most religions and individuals probably interpret the idea of spiritual attack through their own cultural filters, arriving at beliefs that are just as man-made as actual. And some people go to great lengths to convince us that we’d do well to purchase certain beads or charms to ward off evil.

However, the overall idea of spiritual attack remains important, especially when viewed thoughtfully instead of dogmatically. Spiritual attack presents an alternative to the reductive belief, forwarded by the likes of Richard Dawkins,² that living beings are nothing more than an assemblage of electrically charged chemicals.

By way of analogy, ancient and medieval astronomers made mistakes while viewing the night skies, but those errors didn’t dissuade others from improving observational techniques, leading to better categorizations and explanations of astronomical phenomena. And so it is, one could argue, with observing and understanding the spiritual realm. Some claim to sense, discern or perhaps see its reality. However, we still have a long way to go in decreasing the interpretive biases and influences that can arise from preexisting religious beliefs and worldviews.³

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ (a) In some cultures a professional shaman is enlisted or even paid to overcome evil for another person believed to be under its spell. Mircea Eliade notes that sometimes if the shaman can’t make a living out this, they choose another profession. See http://www.amazon.com/Shamanism-Archaic-Techniques-Ecstasy-Bollingen/dp/0691119422

(b) I should add that these two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A modern witch, for example, might cast a spell but also pray to God or spirits for guidance. Likewise, a contemporary shaman might talk about the reality of one God among all traditions.

² See The Selfish Gene, 1976; The God Delusion, 2006.

³ See https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/spiritual-warfare and https://goo.gl/ymEjvW

Related Posts » Obsession, Occam’s Razor, Possession, Alien Possession Theory, Shamanism, Spirit


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St. Teresa of Ávila

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany

Teresa of Ávila, Ulm, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) was a Spanish Carmelite Catholic mystic whose frank autobiography was criticized by the American psychologist and philosopher William James. However, this work along with The Interior Castle and The Way of Perfection are widely regarded as literary and spiritual classics.

St. Teresa was a profound mystic and convent organizer. She spoke of degrees of purity, detachment from the world (to include one’s relatives) and various graces encountered by those seeking spiritual perfection and God.

For St. Teresa, God’s love was experienced as a kind of spiritual water for which she was ever thirsty.

In keeping with the general motif of the Dark Night of the Soul, in her autobiography she spoke of terrible “dry” periods where grace was lacking. During these moments she neither enjoyed this world nor a heavenly one, “as if crucified between heaven and earth, suffering and receiving no help from either.”

St. Teresa apparently levitated. This made her uncomfortable because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

ipis

Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, by Bernini

Perhaps her most enduring saying is “God alone suffices.”

In 1622, forty years after her death, she was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and on 27 September 1970 was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI.¹

While St. Teresa’s autobiography is inspiring for contemporary readers, it doesn’t really address some of the problems that modern (and postmodern) mystics must face.

If I remember right, there’s no mention of systemic corruption in the Church. And there’s certainly no commentary on how we are to survive amidst ever growing technologies and their potential misuse by creaminals, creeps and scallywags. So although extremely worthwhile in my younger days, I had to take heed but respectfully move past hers and several other Christian classics to pave my own road to salvation.

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_of_%C3%81vila

Related Posts »  St. John of the Cross, Numinous, Pollution