Monday, September 28, 2015

Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism

Though born Alphonse Levée, and called Brother Elias by his fellow monastics, the author of Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism identifies himself as 'A Monk of the West'. This is an act of defiance against the 'cult of personality' that defines the modern academic environment; it is first and foremost a statement of anonymity that evinces the writer's earnest motive to put 'theory into practise'. It is a traditional act insofar as his work is accomplished not by Alphonse Levée, born in Paris in the year 1911, but by his inner vocation: '[It] is not inasmuch as he is ''such and such a person'' that the artifex produces his work, but inasmuch as he fulfils a certain ''function'' that is properly ''organic'' and not ''mechanical"' (René Guénon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, p. 64).

It is not coincidental that we quote Guénon here, for this entire endeavour is in no small part indebted
to the French metaphysician. Throughout the 20th Century there was no philosopher or theologian more committed to both the inner conciliation of East and West, and to the intellectual reorientation of the West through the rediscovery of her traditional principles. In Guénon's view this would take place through an authentic understanding of Eastern ideas: 'In the first period it is by the study of Eastern doctrines, more than by any other means, that those who are destined to belong to this elite will be able to develop and acquire in themselves pure intellectuality, since they cannot possibly find it in the West. It is also only by this study that they will be able to learn what a traditional civilization is in its various elements, for it is only a knowledge as direct as possible that has any value in such a case, and there is no place for mere book-learning, which is of no use by itself for the end that we have in view' (René Guénon, East and West, pp. 145-6). It is this 'elite' to which A Monk of the West belongs, and, inspired by Guénon, his studies of Eastern spirituality have compelled him to seek their concordance with Christianity, the tradition of the West.

An additional reason for Brother Elias electing anonymity is to emphasize his subordinate position in the ecclesial hierarchy, as well as in the intellectual domain itself. He repeats on several occasions the fact that his thoughts are hardly authoritative: '[We] do not have the authority to make final judgments in these matters, and we now leave the last word to judges of greater competence and authority' (A Monk of the West, Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism, p. 136). This text is indeed nothing more than a speculative insight into possible fundamental agreements between Christianity and Advaita Vedanta, and there is no pretense as to it being otherwise. The thoughts and the opinions of the author are properly relegated to the realm of the layman, and not to official sacral positions.

That is, however, no reason to discount them. Indeed, given the present crisis of the Church and its swift falling away from knowledge of itself, the studies of a layman, provided that they are performed in the appropriate manner and with the right mentality, might even be considered to be of greater value than something produced by more conventional channels. In any case, or rather in the present case, Christianity and the Doctrine of Non-Dualism (CDND) is an exquisite example of a private study that nevertheless recognizes its subordinate place in the greater scheme of things; it is intuitive, erudite, insightful, poetic at times, but above all this text is respectful of higher knowledge, final authority, and of the near certainty that it does not and will not have the last word.

CDND is essentially organized around four or five main metaphors, and it is around these that we shall conceive of this review's remainder. To begin, however, it will be necessary to revisit a basic principle in order to fully understand what follows. God is perfect Being; that is to say, God is wholly Being, which means that nothing outside of God has full existence; instead, everything outside of God has only partial existence insofar as everything outside of God has only partial Being (namely the part it receives from God, from sharing in His nature). This is due to the fact that anything that goes out from God goes into the void of Becoming, and thereby ceases to be fully divine; if God went into the void and remained fully Himself there would be no creation, for there would simply be God, uncreated and universal. Creation presupposes a diminution of divinity, for creation in itself has no Being of its own (and thus can only offer a lack or a want). This means that everything that exists is borne purely of God, the First Cause, even actions which we might ignorantly consider our own:

'The creature does not belong to himself, but all save the intelligent creature are ignorant of this. We emphasize: this is true first of all of his free acts in themselves which are certainly personal and responsible acts, but in no way being his own acts, being also - we should say being first - acts of God, the universal First Cause. In reality I have as my own only the interior act by which I adhere to evil recognized as such.... It is nonetheless true that God does everything because evil as such has no being, and "everything that happens is worthy of adoration".' (Ibid, p. 15)
'Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father.' (Matthew 10:29)

God is real; evil is unreal. The only acts that are properly our own are those which are evil, because they are not acts of God; if they were good acts they would belong to God. We can see already, then, that our means of attaining realness, of attaining being, is through acting like God. When we act like God, we become like God, and by becoming like God we become more real. Conversely, when we act viciously, we act more like 'ourselves', i.e., like persons divorced from God - 'independent', but only in the sense that we derive and base our actions in a lesser, polluted source. In the end, however, because we are made in the 'Image of God', when we act like God we are more truly ourself: 'True man is actually relative to the Creator-Agent, and this actuality of the relationship which places him in existence, makes him essentially an image of God' (CDND, p. 16). Etienne Gilson likewise says, 'Image - the greater man's resemblance, the more he is himself'. This is because at the heart of man is the thing which created us - God's love. The more we become like the Creator, the more we become like the creature we are made to be.

The first metaphor that the monk introduces us to is that of the sun reflecting on the water. The essential idea of this is not dissimilar to that of Plato's cave, namely that the true reality is only vaguely reproduced in sensible impressions, viz., via the shadows on the wall or the reflections on the water. The first point that the author dwells on, however, is that the images on the water are not unreal in themselves, but only in relation to the sun which creates them; it is true that they are not the final form and the first cause, that they are but a secondary product of something superior, and yet they are nevertheless existing by virtue of that superior source:

'As the reflection of the sun in the water is illusory with regard to the real sun although in itself is a real reflection, so the contingent being is illusory with regard to real (divine) Being although in itself it is a real contingent being.... Just as the reflection of the sun is at once real and illusory, so contingent being is both real and illusory. If we attempted to isolate the image from the object and to reduce it to itself, it would immediately cease to be, since it is solely the actual relationship to the real object which makes it a real reflection.... Thus the world understood as the totality of existents is simultaneously reality and illusion (māyā), reality in itself, illusion with regard to the Supreme Reality in which everything that has any reality participates and without which there is nothing whatsoever. It must be understood, however, that nothing is illusory in itself. The illusion is entirely in the one who takes the reflection for the sun in itself, or the world for Reality; Illusion is Ignorance.' (Ibid, pp. 17-8)

The things which we see using our senses are therefore not unreal - they are there by virtue of their participation in the Real. They are only unreal in relation to the divine archetypes which they reflect visibly, materially, and the only illusion possible is when we take their material forms for their final forms. This is moreover true a fortiori of man himself: illusory in regard to the Supreme Reality, from which all his being proceeds, but real in regard to himself (by virtue of that being proceeding from the Supreme Reality). He is not the Divine, but he is made of the Divine. There is nevertheless a principal difference between man and other existents, namely that he is called for something higher; he is called to be the Supreme Reality:

'[Man] is directly called to union (yoga) wherein the Delivered (mukta) realizes or, more precisely, verifies - for there is no change - the illusory or entirely dependent character of his existence, "having no other being of its own than this dependence" of the human individual vis-à-vis the Supreme Self (Paramātmā), which is true and total Being. Rather, it is Beyond Being, entirely free from every condition of limitative determination whatsoever: He alone is who is the very Being of Himself and of all beings, Deity beyond Being.' (Ibid., pp. 19-20)

The real Being, therefore, is even beyond Being, for Being presupposes some kind of limitative delineation, even if a purely intellectual and metaphysical one. The real Being is beyond even that, for the real Being is Ātmā, the Self which transcends the personal, creator God (Brahmā) and whose only likeness is the supreme, uncreated God (Brahma):

'Neither the higher intellect (buddhi), nor the mental (manas), nor the sense of self... none of these is the Self. Strictly speaking, it should be said that Ātmā is nothing, nothing that can be perceived, nothing that can be conceived or known in any manner whatsoever. Like Brahma, Ātmā is "Non-Being", which is not to say "nothingness", but, on the contrary... we would be tempted to say that Ātmā is what escapes determination altogether, including the first determination which is that of pure Being itself. Ātmā is beyond all perception, conception, or experience in general, beyond all things implying subject and object; beyond all existence and essence, even beyond pure Being, as we said, and therefore beyond Unity, with which Being is coextensive; in short, beyond God (Ishvara or Brahmā).' (Ibid. p.42)

This does not render the 'creator, personal God' (Brahmā) unnecessary, from a religious point of view or otherwise; infact, Brahmā is pivotal for the worshiper, constrained as he is by the existence necessitated by māyā and its nebulous and imprecise forms. The devotion to Brahmā (called the 'divine energies' by Eastern orthodoxy and 'God' by Meister Eckhart) signifies a devotion to Brahma (called the 'divine essence' and the 'Godhead' by the same) in his personal, apparent aspect; it is necessary to venerate and submit to something personal insofar as it is impossible to do the same for the impersonal. It is moreover by the awareness of distinctions that we perfect our knowledge of the lack of inner distinctions:

'If you want to know the Absolute, invoke this Brahman with attributes who hears your prayers, and it is He who will make you know the Absolute. For He who is Brahman with attributes is also Brahma without attributes. Distinctions make for the perfection of knowledge.' (Ramakrishna, L'Enseignment, no. 1262)
The second main metaphor is one of the most familiar in the Vedic tradition, namely that of the rope and the serpent, where the rope is confused for a rope by a man in ignorance: 'The rope is supposed to be the snake only so long as the mistake lasts, and there is no more illusion when the snake vanishes' (Sankara, Vivekachudamani, v. 197). The principal idea of the metaphor is similar to the previous one, viz., it shows reality to be twofold: the one part which is Supreme and the part which is only a semblance of the Supreme, the part that we experience 'ordinarily', 'sensibly'. The rope is Brahman, the underlying reality, and the snake is the mundane reality - which only exists because of our illusion as to the real nature of what we experience.

Initially this may sound dualistic - which seems to be a contradiction considering that advaita means 'not dual'. This is easily cleared up, however, when we consider that that second part, the 'serpent', is just an illusion, which has no existence of its own. Its being is facile, and totally dependent on a confusion between real and not-real. The rope is Brahman, and as such it is the only thing that is real, and how can the only thing that is real have a true opposite? Anything that is unreal cannot rightly said to be anything - it is simply illusion and void. There is only one thing that exists, which is God, possessor and purveyor of Being:

'Again, what is God? That without which nothing exists. It is as impossible for anything to exist without Him as it is for Him to exist without Himself: He is to Himself as He is to everything, and thus, in a certain way, He alone is who is the very Being of Himself and of everything.' (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De consideratione, v, 6, 13) 

This is naturally the source of the accusations of Vedanta's 'pantheism', something that Brother Elias pays a lot of attention to in refuting it. There is a much more intricate and involved argument employed in his work, but the basic idea comes down to a semantic confusion, or how we understand the term. In the sense that the word 'pantheism' (all-god) simply means that God is all, there is no problem, no suspicion of heresy, and even no discordance between Vedanta and traditional Christian theology; as we have already seen, God really is all, because God is pure Being, and outside of God there is necessarily something that is not as real as He is: 'By what could Brahma be hidden since nothing other than Brahma exists?' (Sankara, Vivekachudamani, v. 570) And: 'He who would add the entire world to God would have nothing more than if he had God alone. Without God all creatures have no more being than a midge; without God, exactly as much, neither more nor less' (Meister Eckhart, Omne datum optimum). On the other hand. if we understand pantheism to mean that 'God is everywhere' in the sense that we impart things that have no ontological value with the quality of being 'divine', then we are indeed adopting the false, heretical doctrine, for that would assume that māyā has a divinity and a reality that proceeds from herself. In assigning the nebulous and the mundane with a wholly divine quality we are subject to a grave error of ignorance, of confusing the natural with the supernatural; we are infact guilty of confusing the rope for the serpent.

The third metaphor is that of the man looking at himself in the mirror. He sees two forms, both himself and his reflection, but of course realizes they are but one. This is to convey the truth that the 'Delivered while living' (jivan-mukta) knows that 'the "produced beings" have no other reality than that which is communicated by Himself, which [is] an exact expression of the doctrine of cosmic Illusion...' (CDND, p. 95). This is again touching on familiar ground: the forms we see around us are but the reflections of something interior, beyond the sensible domain; the divine archetypes are produced in this world as though it were a mirror, reflecting them back, albeit in new, inferior shapes.

The second part of this metaphor is utilized to illustrate the perspective of God (Ishvara) in his creative function. In contrast to the prior two metaphors, where the observer or the participant was 'deluded' and belonged to the domain of the reflection, in this situation the observer is identified with the object in itself, that is to say, the real object, while the exterior is the plane upon which the secondary reality presents itself. God the Producer can therefore perceive the divine objects not in themselves, as they exist inside of him, but as reflected in a different arena; his divinity is promulgated into a new, external sphere where it takes on the diverse (and not unwelcome) forms of materiality:

'God (al-Haqq) wished to see the essences (a'yān) of His most perfect Names... in an all encompassing object which, being endowed with existence, epitomizes the entire divine order thereby manifesting His mystery to Himself. For the vision that a being has of itself in itself is not the same as that provided by another reality which serves it as a mirror. There it manifests itself in the form determined by the "place" of the vision; the latter would not exist without the "plane of reflection" and the ray that is reflected therein.' (Ibn 'Arabi, Sagesse des Prophetes)

The fourth and final metaphor is likewise constituent of two parts, both of which revolve around the image of the 'dreamer'. When we sleep, we dream, and in dreams we imagine an artificial world, a world which might share characteristics with the real world but one which is nevertheless false - it is an illusion. At the same time, however, we project things which are true into this world; the dream, in Jung's words, 'is a series of images, which are apparently contradictory and nonsensical, but arise in reality from psychologic material' (Psychology of the Unconscious). The dream is unreal, but it is informed by things which are real. It is thus a powerful metaphor for the nature of māyā, of the mundane. There are moreover two types of dreamers: the one who is unaware that he is dreaming and the one who is aware. The first is of course deluded, and as such he 'imputes the nature of the ego to the Self, just as the sleeper identifies himself with only one of the mental forms of his dream to the exclusion of others' (CDND, p. 97). This type is caught in his own projected reality, completely ignorant of its falseness and what lies behind it. The second type, the one who is aware of the fact that he is dreaming, is certainly not 'deluded' insofar as he has realized the transitory, secondary nature of the dream. The second dreamer 'is in the situation of the man who looks at his own image in a mirror knowing that the image is "he", with the difference that here the "forms" that are viewed, instead of being exterior and sensible, are interior and mental' (Ibid. p. 97). He has realized that the things which he sees in the dream are merely impressions of his own inner state; he is like the God (al-Haqq) of Ibn 'Arabi's description, extending his essential nature into an exterior plane.

The second type is nevertheless still caught in a limited dimension insofar as he remains immersed inside a world of his own production. There is something higher yet, namely the dimension of unlimited freedom, which we enter into when we wake up. Once the dream ends, the whole array of false images and disparate narratives comes to an end, leaving the individual with reality as it really is: 'It is only when he is fully awake that the images dissipate and only the pure Self remains, free, unconditioned, unlimited, as in reality it has always been. All distinctions will then be extinguished. For Him, henceforth identified with the Supreme (Parabrahma), there will be neither "outside" nor "inside", neither "Producer "(Brahmā), nor "produced", neither "Creator" nor "creatures", neither "Truth" nor "illusion", neither "Liberation" nor "servitude", under their aspects of distinct realities, but only THAT, the Supreme, totally unlimited' (Ibid. p. 97). Upon waking, like Plato's philosopher emerging from the cave, the shadows disappear, and the viewer beholds only himself: 'Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes' (C.G. Jung). His reality has been transformed from something transient and illusory to the Ultimate Reality wherein all things are indistinct windows looking right into God. There is no longer anything intermediate; there is only you and God, both become one: 'It is therefore by his incorporation in Christ and his participation in the Paschal mystery that man would receive the possibility of verifying the Supreme Identity in his person' (CDND, p. 117).

That is the fundamental message of this astute and extremely useful text, namely to illustrate how essentially the same metaphysical insight is shared across traditions, from Shankara to Plato to Ss. Paul and Thomas Aquinas. There is also, however, a more muted but equally important message, one which is sent to our own troubled tradition, that of modernity and the crisis of contemporary existence, of which Brother Elias accuses of having neglected God's wisdom for man's hubris: 'Blinded by the separative illusion, we attempt to make man's world closed and autonomous, but one which nevertheless continues to exist, as if a room could still retain the light of the sun for a single instant within its closed walls after the shutters had been closed! The world is not "autonomous", but "theonomous", God-governed. Whether man in his profane blindness knows this or not, changes nothing. Nothing escapes the sovereign domain of God' (CDND, p. 124). Our humanistic pride has assumed that reality proceeds from our own nature or that of the physical world, but, as we have seen, these are but fragments of the ultimate reality, the being and beyond being which sustains all life; they are shadows of the real world, the eternal, infinite, and absolute hypostasis that subsists at the root of everything. We might describe it as sat-chit-ananda or as the most perfect Love (1 Corinthians 13:7), but the essence is the same, and it is one which we, the global community, have as a whole forgotten. This final excerpt, which is reminiscent of Guénon's mission, suggests how our Western civilization might rediscover our roots, namely by curing our amnesia through the revelation that Western and Eastern wisdom have a common source:

'If the closing twentieth century has been that of "socialization" and "technicization", may corroborating indications lead us to think that the first century of the third millenium may be, at least for some, of whom the number is growing, that of the quest for lost identity. Is it not precisely this which explains why contemporary young people with their "hunger for the absolute" (which, although too often mixed with elements that are more than suspect, is undeniably characteristic of them), turn so readily toward the non-Christian east to try to discover what Christianity no longer, or seems no longer, to offer them? Is not one of the most notable services which the Orient could render Christianity today, to oblige it to return to its own center instead of seeming to wish to dilute its identity in a hollow and vacuous world where all interiority, all solitude, all silence, all recollection have been banished?' (CDND, pp. 124-5)