Monday, February 05, 2007

Nothing New Under the Sun

A few weeks ago my church did the most delightful thing. We are renovating the library, and are running out of room to store some of the older books. So, after church, for two weeks in a row, we held a book adoption. Hundreds of books were piled up on tables, with a sign that read "Free to a Good Home." So, in our fellowship time following the service, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and thumbed through a generation's worth of books.

I "adopted" two books, Theology in Reconstruction, by T.F. Torrance, and The Wisdom of Insecurity, by Alan W. Watts. All I know of Torrance is that he was Professor of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh, and that this book is a collection of essays dating from 1960 to 1964. The book looked interesting, and the price was right. I haven't touched it yet.

Watts I knew a little more about. He was known as one of the intellectual forces behind the rise of Zen in America; the Beat philosopher. He shows up 7 times in Sean Murphy's wonderful One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories, a favorite book of mine. I'd been meaning to read Watts ever since I first read about him, but hadn't seen one of his books before. That my church had one, and was giving it away, made my day.

Before developing an interest in Zen, Watts had been an Anglican priest. He brought a Christian theological background to his study of Buddhism, Chinese philosophy, and Indian philosophy - his two Masters degrees were in Divinity and Theology. In that respect, his interests, it seems, mirror my own. I was not prepared, however, for how closely his work mirrors my own - or vice versa.

Much of my theological work has centered on the "emptiness" of God concepts. That is, I make a sharp distinction between God as God and human ideas about God. Each human idea of God is fraught with problems, limitations, and even inconsistencies. This is because, I argue, our theological concepts are attempts after the fact to describe the divine-human encounter; an encounter with the person of God rather than propositions about God. Perhaps the best summations of this approach can be found in these posts:

Xenophanes' Critique of Religion

How the "Heart Sutra" Speaks to "Attachment" in Religion

and especially my more recent

On Knowing God

In fact, I am currently working on a book which in part expands and explores the religious epistemology offered in On Knowing God; an epistemology that is in turn the foundation for the model of religion offered in that in-progress book.

This approach is not entirely new or original, I know. In fact, one of the earliest Greek philosophers, Xenophanes, said something very much like it, as noted in a post linked above. But I was pretty sure that most of the ideas I've been developing are my own. My spiritual journey has been informed by a fusion of a Christian background and a Buddhist approach, a fact which makes me - I thought - relatively unique among Christian theologians (to the extent that I can be called one). Yes, Marcus Borg and I have a great deal in common, and his work has influenced me greatly, helping keep me connected to my Christian heritage. But, because I am so familiar with Borg's work, I can keep from ripping it off without at least offering due credit.

However, I started reading Alan Watts' The Wisdom of Insecurity this morning, and it has been like reading myself. Since he died six years before I was born, his use of language is very different from mine - he doesn't even attempt to be gender inclusive. But the ideas couched in the language, and perhaps even the experiences that gave rise to the ideas, are very similar. If what I've read so far - about 40 pages or so - is an accurate representation, both our philosophies and psychologies or religion are almost identical.

This has been a little unnerving. I know that, as Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. I know that it is only vanity that expects to be original. But still, now I wonder, given that what I've read of The Wisdom of Insecurity - published in 1951 - is basically the same as the book I've been working on, if I don't have to totally revisit my book idea. At the very least, I suspect, I have to read a great deal more of Watts to more fully understand where our paths intersect, so that I can keep from plagiarizing him on accident.

Anyway, here is a passage from The Wisdom of Insecurity that is almost exactly what I've been working on. I read it aloud to Tom, and he thought that I might have written it:

Surely it is old news that salvation comes only through the death of the human form of God. But it was not, perhaps, so easy to see that God's human form is not simply the historic Christ, but also the images, ideas, and beliefs in the Absolute to which man clings in his mind. Here is the full sense of the commandment, "Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above... thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them."

To discover the ultimate Reality of life - the Absolute, the eternal God - you must cease to try to grasp it in the forms of idols. These idols are not just crude images, such as the mental picture of God as an old gentleman on a golden throne. They are our beliefs, our cherished preconceptions of the truth which block the unreserved opening of the mind and heart to reality. The legitimate use of images is to express truth, not to possess it.

Of course I would not speak of "man," but rather of "humanity," clinging to ideas about God. And, when quoting from the Ten Commandments I would probably use the JPS instead of the King James. But those differences are products of the more than fifty years that separate our work, rather than a fundamental difference in approach. The rest could just as easily been me.

This notion of concepts of God - when clung to, when understood as propositional truths rather than mythic/poetic metaphors - as idols, is a powerful and timely one. It is also at the heart of my own theology. It is, in my view, the greatest source of religious conflict, and perhaps the largest single cause of the culture wars. It is an attempt to pin God down, to capture an control the Sacred. And, to say the least, it is bad religion.

So, I'm going to read the rest of this book, and try to pick up anything else I can from Alan Watts. I need to see where he is taking us, because I fear it is exactly where I've been trying to go - and he got there half a century at least before me.

1 comment:

crystal said...

I don't think you should consider this a reason not to write your book .... this may actually help you with it. In a way, it's kind of an affirmation.