Sunday, November 4, 2018

Transcending Limited Notions of the Divine

When religion meets human nature, does the gravitational pull of me, me, me tend to encompass the journey downward in an all too comfortable direction? In his Natural History of Religion, David Hume proposes his theory that any religion begins with a focus on something akin to divine simplicity, but then becomes increasingly robed with anthropomorphic artifacts until the sheer weight of which brings down the tree whose inherently upward-looking striving succumbs to the increasing weight of the human.
In other words, is religion too weak to withstand the human, all too human ornaments that we conveniently adorn of our religions? The ornaments ultimate reflect ourselves, and thus are so convenient. So too is surrounding ourselves with others of like beliefs a matter of convenience. That is, religion can unwittingly become all about the self. Such religions or sects thereof can get sucked into a regular orbit of convenience without any of the congregants noticing the gradual and subtle slide.
As an antidote, transcendence, the unique and core aspect of religion and spirituality, can be utilized to get us outside of ourselves, including our concepts. The concept of God inhabiting a tree or stone relatively easy to transcend as a person looks past the image, both physical and cognitive, toward what is beyond, or through the favored image. Similarly even religious concepts that are themselves invisible, such as justice and mercy, can be transcended as a person moves on to even more basic divine concepts—even that of the One. Because the human mind is finite, even concepts revealed by a divine source are limited as they enter our cognitive atmosphere. Augustine likened this to light coming through a dark window. Accordingly, he warned that the relationship between the Father and Son should not be anthropomorphized into a human father-son relationship. St. Denis of the sixth century claimed that even Son itself as a limited human concept affixed to a divine person (of the Trinity) should be transcended in moving closer to the mystery that shrouds the divine in Christianity.
Simply stated, God lies beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility, and thus beyond our concepts—even those associated with divine revelation. Denis refers to the transcendence of God as the brilliant light that is in the darkness of unknowing. Hence faith is not knowledge. The latter is human, all too human, and thus must be transcended in order to transcend beyond our limited domain. Only when even the lofty religious concepts are transcended—not denied or pushed aside, but, rather, gone through them—can God be yearned for distinctly—meaning distinctly from religion being about the self, and thus a faith that is too convenient. The unknowability or ineffability of the divine is not hostile to religion, but is rather its salvation as distinguished from egoism and even selfishness.
The yearning itself, combined with transcending the religious concepts—especially those that are so very comfortable—is the best way religiously to leave the self behind. From a focus beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility, the spiritualized person returns to herself and our domain newly sensitized. When such a person looks at others, the sensitivity manifests automatically as compassion. This is more reliable, I submit, than relying on human intentionality, as in a decision to treat someone with compassion because of a religious teaching. Given the gravity of the human self, even in the religious sphere, compassion that springs automatically from the sensitivity to our world, including other people, is more reliable. Hence, paradoxically letting go cognitively of our cherished religious concepts of divine attributes can lead to transcendent religious experience—the sui generis essence of religion and spirituality—and more faithful feeling and action regarding religious ethical teachings.