Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Can Enlightenment Be a Christian Concept?

I have written more than once about enlightenment, about the role of religion in enlightening people. But, generally when I and others speak of enlightenment, we have an Eastern and - at least in my case - generally Buddhist understanding of it. Enlightenment is a kind of sudden illumination, a flash of understand, a change in the way one sees the world, and everything in it. It is a transformative moment that stands at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of a long process of transformation.

I have written papers comparing and contrasting what Christians mean by salvation with what Buddhists and others mean by enlightenment; either implying or overtly stating that enlightenment more overtly belongs various non-Christian traditions, while salvation - by which I mean the workings of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace in our lives - is the distinctly Christian concept that most closely parallels it.

In one such paper I argued that most religions are, at least in part, a human attempt to solve what I call the existential problem:

Many, most, and, perhaps all human beings have a deep-seated existential need to find some kind of “meaning” in life. Many, most, and, perhaps all people also have, related to that existential need, some kind of deep-seated feeling, often inarticulateable, that there is something “wrong.” This feeling, in the context of this quest for meaning, represents a kind of existential problem. An individual’s experience of religion, as well as the choices that an individual makes with regard to religion, may represent their way of “solving” that existential problem.

Each religion, in some way, offers up both a diagnosis of and a prescription for this problem. The diagnosis and prescription, while often offered in general terms, are expressions which are experienced, evaluated, internalized, and either accepted or rejected by the individual. One way, then, to compare and contrast, as well as evaluate the merits of various religious and spiritual expressions and traditions is to look at the way in which they diagnose and attempt to solve the basic individual human existential problem.

After outlining how both Christianity and Buddhism - in their various forms - "diagnose" and propose to "cure" this existential problem, I wrote, as an attempt to find some common ground between these very different approaches of Christian "salvation" and Buddhist "enlightenment":

But, the divide between East and West; the divide between Christianity and Buddhism, is not too great to bridge. That bridge is found in certain similarities between the Christian concept of salvation as a process (which includes Prevenient grace, Justification, and Sanctification) with a particular understanding of the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.

Just as Prevenient grace is said by the Methodists to “[awaken] in us an earnest longing for deliverance,” enlightenment is seen by Buddhists as a kind of awakening. The Buddha, after all, can mean “awakened one.” The concept of awakening, whether it is Christian or Buddhist, carries with it a notion that a big part of our problem is that we are asleep. We are dreaming. We are drifting through life without a conscious thought, without an awareness of our profound existential problem. We must be shaken from our slumber. Whether this is accomplished by the grace of God or an individual act of volition, we must awake. We must become awakened. Once we are awakened, we can become aware of our existential problem, which is fueled by our ignorance of its nature, and we can set out on the path to solving it.

Both salvation and enlightenment are processes. Sure there is, in each, a moment in which something happens. But that moment is not the only moment. And, whatever happens plays itself out in time. In time, and through time, our nature is transformed. In time and through time the conditions which gave rise to our existential problem are eliminated. This is gradual. It does not happen all at once.

and later:

Salvation and enlightenment do not, of course, describe the same thing. Salvation depends on an act of God, and concerns a soul, or a permanent self. Enlightenment does not depend on anything external, and occurs when one has a direct experience of the truth that there is no permanent self. But, both are ways in which people attempt to address their existential problem. Both are means by which the elimination of the conditions which give rise to suffering are supposed to be achieved. Both describe spiritual processes which aim to make life happier and more meaningful.

Looking back at what I've written in the past on both salvation and enlightenment, I can stand by everything that I've said. However, one assumption that lies beneath all of these words troubles me. The assumption is that "enlightenment," in some important way, stands outside the Christian tradition, or at least the language that we Christians traditionally use to describe our tradition.

This may be true in the realm of Christian theology, but a careful study of the teachings of Jesus reveals that enlightenment language was central to the mission of the one we call the Christ, the centerpiece of the Christian religion, the one who, in some important way, reveals to us the nature and concerns of God.

I'm currently working my way through Marcus Borg's newest book, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. It is his most powerful work yet, and it constantly challenges my assumptions. In his section on the Wisdom teachings of Jesus Borg makes a familiar argument, that Jesus teaches a "narrow way" in contrast to the more conventional "broad way." Of the broad way Borg, in part in a challenge to preachers who are obsessed with conventional models of sin, writes:

Strikingly, it [the broad way that Jesus opposed - CB] was not the way of obvious wickedness - not the way of murder, stealing, extortion, brutality, abuse, corruption, and so forth. Though Jesus certainly didn't approve of these, they did not constitute the broad way. Indeed, the broad way was not even what people commonly think of as "sinful," as specific acts of disobedience to God (such as drunkenness, adultery, and so forth). The teaching of Jesus in this respect (as well as in many others) differs markedly from preaching that emphasizes the "hot sins," as some of today's evangelists do.

Rather, the broad way is the way most people live most of the time. It is not that most people are "wicked," but that most live lives structured by the conventions of their culture, by the taken-for-granted notions of what life is about and how to live, by what "everybody knows."

The "broad way," then, is the conventional way, the rote, thoughtless, mindless way. The uncritical way. The way that most of us sleepwalk through our lives. The way that can be disturbed, disrupted, broken up, by enlightenment.

Indeed, Borg sees enlightenment as not just the gift of Eastern philosophy to the world, but as central to the teachings of Jesus, if early Christian beliefs and teachings are any reflection of them.

Jesus clearly taught about blindness and sight; the blindness of conventional thought and the sight that God gives to the spiritually blind, allowing them to see everything in a new way. Of this Borg writes:

Blindness is a frequent metaphor in the teachings of Jesus. There are sighted people who are blind: "You have eyes but fail to see" (Mark 8.18; see also 4.12). Several sayings refer to this condition. As an itinerant oral teacher, he spoke most (and probably all) of these many times. Blind though sighted was a major theme of his message.

He spoke of the blind leading the blind, and the futility of doing so: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?" (Like 6.39; Matt. 15.14). The saying obviously refers to sighted people. There is a smaller group (those who guide) and a larger group (those they seek to guide). Those who guide are presumably teachers or leaders; it is difficult to imagine a different referent. They could be local teachers, leaders of other movements, or official leaders such as the temple authorities and their scribes/ teachers. They are called "blind." But blindness applies not only to them, but also to the ones they seek to guide. It is a widespread condition.

Jesus, and his teachings, are seen as a cure to this blindness, a way to illuminate our habitual and conventional darkness. They give new sight to the blind. Is this not what we generally mean by enlightenment?

While in the earliest days of Christianity Easter was the central religious holiday of the young faith - the most significant holy day - in our culture Christmas has supplanted it. And, while there are more cultural than religious reasons for this, Christmas is still a significant religious holiday. And, what is the central metaphor of Christmas: The illumination of our darkness with the coming of the Christ, the Light of the World. Images of light and darkness fill Christmas. They also fill the teachings of Jesus, and some of the earliest Christian teachings concerning Jesus.

While most scholars agree that the Gospel of John does not reflect the historical Jesus, it does reflect early Christian beliefs concerning Jesus. And, Borg writes, "enlightenment is central to John's gospel," saying:

John announces it [the centrality of enlightenment - CB] in the magnificent and thematic prologue to his gospel: Jesus is "the true light, which enlightens everyone," who "was coming into the world" (1.9). Our condition is blindness being "in the dark," unable to find a way. The solution is to regain our sight, to see again, to have our eyes opened, to come into the light, to be enlightened.

The subversiveness of this metaphor - and thus the power of enlightenment language in the Christian tradition - is lost in a society in which Christianity is often the conventional way of thinking, the rote, mindless path. This is perhaps one of the many reasons that we Christians cede all enlightenment language to other religious traditions.

But when Christianity reflects conventional wisdom, it stops being Christian if by "Christian" we mean the way of the Christ. Metaphors of enlightenment, metaphors of "waking up" from our deep slumber or of gaining sight, learning a new way to see, or of having our collective yet deeply personal darkness illuminated by the unconventional wisdom of God; these metaphors are central to our Christian faith, and essential to regaining the power of our spiritual tradition.

Enlightenment - both in the sense of awakening to a deep wisdom and in the sense of having our darkness illuminated so that we can finally truly see - is Christian. It is not just Christian, but it is a vital part of our Christian heritage, and should be a part of our Christian practice. We, as Christians, should not be afraid to talk about enlightenment. And, we, as Christians, should seek to become enlightened.


Amy said...

The way you depict enlightenment sounds very much like the "conversion" experience within Christianity. Isn't that, also, our way of speaking about waking up to what is before us?

Sandalstraps said...

Yes, Amy, I think that enlightenment and awakening are related images, and that both images are also related to the conversion experience. I also think that, as Christians, we need to be comfortable using those images, as they are powerful images that provide fuller descriptions of what happens when we have our conversion experiences - which I generally call either religious experiences or transformative experiences.

Whatever language we use to describe these experiences, they are encounters with the sacred that wake us up, save us, enlighten us, transform us, free us from bondage, raise us from our state of death, etc. Each of these images provide us with fuller and fuller linguistic, mental, and conceptual pictures of our experience of the sacred.

Patrik said...

Man, you write long posts. ;)

But If you want to look for a Christian equivalent for enlightenment check out Evagrios of Ponots concept of Apatheia. Generally among the early Christian mystics you might find a lot of similarities.

But then, it might be problematic to focus to strictly on the "event" of enlightenement, because the interpretations will differ between traditions, and this is a really important part of the whole thing...

crystal said...

I agree about the christian version of enlightenment being a conversion experience ... I'm thinking of Paul falling off his donkey, even Moses when he saw the burning bush, and of course many of us too. St. Ignatius called it a "consolation without cause" ...this Consolation Without Cause suggests an experience of the presence of God that takes over our whole person ... Such a Consolation is self-authenticating and cannot be doubted.

Sandalstraps said...


Have you read DT Suzuki's Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist?