“I have learned so much from God
that I can no longer call myself a Christian,
The Truth has shared so much of itself with me
that I can no longer call myself a man,
an angel, or even pure soul.
Love has befriended Hafiz so completely,
it has turned to ash and freed me
of every concept and image my mind has ever known.”
–Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
* * *
when God has perfected its delicate wings,
so will true worship take flight
when you are finally ready to burst through
the cocoon of your own beliefs.”
* * *
I have a friend in the newspaper business. Several years ago when we were undergrads together –before I dropped out in favor of wandering aimlessly—I too was studying to write for the fishwraps. The plan was to major in journalism and take a minor in philosophy. In many ways I have always felt that these forms of writing represent the polar opposites of verbal expression –one by its nature limited to a blunt assessment of What Is as it appears on the surface, the other an unlimited exploration of What Could Be if we lift the veil and look beneath the surface.
(Leaving behind both academic disciplines, I somehow jumped off the spectrum altogether and became a metaphysical writer –someone who is, to himself, a journalist of the soul, and to everyone else a crazy philosopher.)
My friend recently explained why he feels most people won’t go for the ash-turning and cocoon-bursting mentioned in these poems: “not because it’s hard and not because it’s cumbersome, but because the one thing I have learned as a journalist, and am reminded of every day, is people want order….And if you look to the start of the Torah, ‘In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of G-d hovered over the face of the waters. And G-d said: ‘Let there be light,’ and G-d saw the light, that it was good; and G-d divided the light from the darkness.’ Order.”
He is right –people crave order, and shun what they perceive to be disorder. But we also like sugary, salty, bready, fatty foods, and tend to avoid leafy green veggies. The former, which we call “comfort foods,” are not necessarily bad for us; they can bring an enriching balance to one’s diet when eaten in moderation. In fact, certain comfort foods aid in the digestion of raw veggies, which in turn provide digestive enzymes missing in cooked foods –perfect symbiosis. The optimal diet, therefore, consists of both, in proper measure.
The point is this: in the diet of our personal spirituality, theology –religious belief—is the comfort foods, and metatheology – metaphysical experience—is the leafy green vegetables. Both are necessary for optimal spiritual health.
Theology aims to make us feel comfortable in our skin. It quiets our existential fears, our grave anxieties about being mortal; it gives us a digestible concept of Who We Are and Why We’re Here, and of our personal relationship to something much larger and more durable than ourselves (be it a tribe, a body of believers, a common humanity, the natural world, or the master-Creator of our whole being). Without some kind of theological foundation for our view of the world, life seems to hold little value to the human being, and our awareness of the eminent death of the body foretells of a terrible, dark, everlasting emptiness that we fear to the core and avoid at all costs. Theology wakes us up from this nightmare and attempts to clean up most of the messes we make while sleepwalking through life, leaving the believer with a saner, healthier, more comfortable sense of self.
But our spiritual journey does not stop there. Just as a diet of nothing but comfort foods will not sustain our physical health adequately enough to let us enjoy them indefinitely, theologies that highlight our individuality –and therefore also our separateness from each other, the world and God—will not sustain our spiritual health. The simple reason for this is that our beliefs are just that: ours. They become part of our identity, an aspect of the ego we use to compare and contrast ourselves with others (“I am a Christian. That guy over there is a Jew. We’re different.”), which inevitably leads us back to our baser human judgments (“That guy thinks he’s so great cuz he’s rich, but I’ll be going to heaven while he burns in hell.”). Theologies are also language-based, so they bind us to the conceptual level of perception and comprehension, one step removed from direct, immediate knowledge of our Reality. These tandem factors limit our theological capacity to induce us into that state of being that we both crave and dread: the spiritual. In other words: theology can elevate the ego from a deprived state, clean it up and polish it, and give it the elevated status we seek in our worldliness –but it cannot deliver us to the Other World, the “supernatural.” It can still the mind and calm the heart to prepare us for liberation from our isolated state, but it cannot take the next step.
For that, we need to go beyond theology –metatheology.
If theology wakes us up from our nightmare of the mortality of the self, then metatheology wakes us up from our dream of the immortality of the ego. Both are illusions that cloud our perception of Reality. They are distinct maladies calling for distinct remedies, but are rooted together as twin products of one human experience we all share without exception: the formation and development of the dualistic mind during our earliest years. Religion aims to remedy both by addressing and reassessing this one experience, and it is the mystic path within each faith that forms the bridge from the theology to metatheology.
This leads to a very important point that should not be overlooked or understated here: every religion and spiritual path is a distinct amalgam of both theology and metatheology, a diet of both comfort food and raw greens.
Without a theological framework, the path of metatheology leads to a Reality that looks too much like the “dark, everlasting emptiness” for us to be inclined to embrace it with our whole selves; furthermore it cannot be communicated from one individual to another, nor transmitted from one generation to the next. Without the presence of the metatheological calling, however, a theological path would be little more than an entertaining story, a tasty bowl of popcorn to munch on while we watch the movie of our separate lives, fearing all the while the end of the film (“Do I really have the right version of this story?”).
A religion, then, is a phenomenon that is at once unique and universal. Theologically they are as distinct to each other as one language is to another; metatheologically they are as universal as the nameless Reality that acquires different names as it is examined through the lens of different languages. We tend to think and speak in the language in which we were educated and in which we are most literate, most comfortable with our ability to communicate. This choice of language inevitably shapes our perception of Reality, but it does not shape the Reality itself. A rose is a rose is a rose, regardless of whether we see it as a rose, una rosa, a ruusu (Finnish), or bir gül (Azerbaijani).
The same is true of the ultimate Reality to which our distinct religions point us and lead us. The theological aspects of each religion vary anywhere from slightly to drastically. It is not hard to translate the English concept of “a rose” to the German “eine Rose,” or the French “une rose” since they use the exact same spelling, and the Spanish and Italian “una rosa” are both very similar, but it gets a lot more difficult to find the bridge of understanding between English and Greek, or Russian, or Chinese –these languages utilize alphabets that I cannot even type with this simple keyboard!
But a speaker of any of these languages can spot a rosebush, appreciate its vivid colors, drink in its intoxicating aroma, and lose him/herself in a nameless Beauty that transcends all human language. Religion tells us that there is such a Rose at the base of our existence. Theology explains in symbolic terms how we lost touch with this Rose and how we can get back to it; once we arrive at it, metatheology gives us the techniques to put aside our notion of the Rose as separate from us, and lets us become this Rose. Once we do that, we are no longer inclined to argue about which was the correct path to the Rose.
This is the blissful secret behind the concept that tells us “Truth Is One, Paths Are Many.” The many paths do not lead to different Truths, but one universal Truth that in English is called “God,” in German is “Gott,” in Spanish “Dios,” in Basque “Jainko,” and in Zulu “uNkulunkulu.” Again, the theological conclusions of the many paths vary as much as these distinct names, and to stay within the comfort zone of our own theology is to cleave to a truth that is profound and life-changing, but relative, always threatened by the existence of other “truths” that infringe upon our sense that ours is the absolute Truth. Every “holy war” that has ever been fought, from a sidewalk skirmish in Crown Heights to the Crusades, is a direct consequence of this confusion.
The way out of this quandry is not to abandon the path we are on: it is to embrace metatheology, and metatheology exists within every one of the paths. When theology stands alone, the truth it tells us is only part of a mind-boggling complexity of mutually exclusive choices; when theology collaborates with metatheology to form a unique mystic path to Truth, it says to he/she who would follow it, “The Life that you truly are is eternal; to know this while you live is the ultimate Joy and absolute Bliss, but the price of knowing this will be your life. To know yourself as the Self, you must be ready to die to your self.” Buddhism uses this simple but incredibly potent symbol for the proper use of theology: it is a finger pointing at the moon. Truth is the moon itself, not the finger.
If we comb the Gospels of Jesus and the Bhagavad-Gita side by side, impartially, looking for metatheological Truth, one cannot miss the fact that Christ and Krishna are telling us the exact same thing in different theological languages: I am the Life. Follow Me, embody Me, and you will know that you too are the Life.
The number of religious devotees who are willing to trade their lives for this Life at any given time is extremely small –such is the unfortunate downside of comfort food– but it is they who blaze the trails and keep the spiritual life vital for the rest of us. For this they are usually thanked by the local religious authorities through banishment, excommunication, torture or some variation of murder, but such corporeal repudiation is inconsequential to the mystic; the body is a home s/he left long before.
Originally written in 2006, edited and reposted here 02.01.14
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