Sunday, 21 August 2011

Truth is Two-Eyed

By temperament, training or tradition most of us have allowed ourselves to become one-eyed or so monocular in our vision of reality that effectively our 'lazy eye', spiritually speaking, contributes nothing. And some people, not least religious people, deliberately close that other eye, because, in a sense that Jesus did not mean it, it is a cause of 'offence'. They would rather be blinkered and bigoted. And if in that mood they pluck it out, it is scarcely likely to save them from hell, and their vision of 'life' will certainly be mean and narrow. (JAT Robinson, Truth is Two-Eyed)

Bishop John Robinson gave the 1978 Teape lectures in Delhi, later expanded as a book "Truth is Two-Eyed", which I've just been reading for the first time. It is a fascinating study which is based not only on Robinson's wide reading on the subject but also from a visit to India where he could study and immerse himself in Indian culture. Robinson is not arguing for a syncretic merging of different faiths but rather that from wherever our own tradition comes from, we also learn from the strengths of the other which enables us to have a more balanced and less distorted picture. Why is this important? Religious traditions and our participation or nonparticipation in them (in the West) do shape our ethical values, how we feel about treating other people, of social justice. So although Robinson is arguing for a deeper picture of reality, what he says can result in practical outcomes. And sometimes, a religious tradition also can be blind to the evils within itself, as with Christianity supporting slavery, and Hinduism endorsement of the caste system. Looking with two-eyes, we are more likely to see those evils.

And lest it be thought that it is only Christianity which makes claims to be the best way, often with a distorted vision of other faiths, it is worth remembering that others have done the same to Christianity. Anagarika Dharmapala, a nineteenth century Buddhist, said "The Nazarene carpenter had no sublime teachings to offer, and understandably so, because his parables not only reveal a limited mind, but they also impart immoral lessons and impractical ethics...The few illiterate fishermen of Galilee followed him as he promised to make them judges to rule over Israel", while A.J. Mattil said that "Jesus is a spiritual dwarf before Buddha, the spiritual giant."

Robinson does not consider the case of those who live a purely secular life, and who have no time for religious belief, although his other writings, such as "Honest to God" do address these issues, not for academic reasons but for pastoral reasons. But the rise of New Age spirituality and the increasingly strident tone of militant atheism (such as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris) demonstrate that our society cannot easily live in a spiritual vacuum. But the New Age has its own weaknesses, not least being an often unreflective assimilation to consumer society and an individualism which can see personal goals as more important than social goals. Many people are "dabblers", and often only interested in the effect New Age practices have on their health or well-being; it is only a minority who go further into the subject, and try to understand its theoretical (or "mystical") significance. This fits perfectly into the patterns of consumption in our society. As a result, many facets of New Age approaches have adapted well to the laws of the market, and it is partly because it is such an attractive economic proposition that New Age has become so widespread - just look at the expanding bookshelves in Waterstones! 

"Readiness to look at reality through both eyes at once brings the promise of extra-dimensionality and depth, but presents the labour of a fresh learning and focusing progress. It also, as we shall see, brings the danger of a mixed or syncretistic vision, which in dealing with Hinduism is again always very present."

Robinson suggests that in Christianity one finds the ultimate nature of reality to be personal, which he sees as the primacy of the "Thou" over the "That", where the Christian view of God is expressed in categories of the highest in personal relationship: love, trust, freedom. By contrast, he notes that in Hinduism one finds the opposite movement of the primacy of the "That" over the "Thou" at the heart of the ultimate nature of reality.  "The sa-guna (qualified) Brahman, that is, Is'vara, the personal divinity, is an anthropomorphic representation. The 'I-Thou' understanding of Christian personalism is inferior to the 'I-That' or 'Tat-Tvam-Asi' view of the Upanishadic tradition. The impersonal Brahman is the ultimate truth whereas the anthropomorphic Is'vara is a concession to popular devotion, unable to raise itself above a human image of the divine.  "

He notes that we always have a "stronger eye", so that by temperament or tradition, we are drawn to one side or the other, but we have to twy and see truth with both eyes.

George Gispert-Sauch, writing on  "Two Eyed Dialogue" noted that Robinson's thesis was not a naive syncretism which just seeks to mesh two pictures, but a way of improving our vision by keeping different perspectives together in our sight, which is an altogether different and more difficult enterprise:

A healthy vision, he said, comes from complementary perceptions. We have two eyes, but each one of us has taken to using one or the other, either the right or the left eye. The picture given us by our preferred eye must then be complemented by what the other eye can give us. The process by which the two visions become one remains hidden in the depth of the preconscious. The healthy complete vision has a wholeness that the one-eyed vision lacks. We can of course choose to look at reality with only one eye. We can use only the Western eye, and stress the personal, the historical, the dualistic, the contingent as the only place in which as creatures we can situate ourselves, the only place from which we can see God. Or we can be Easterners in vision and see everything in a monistic way,  sub specie aeternitatis, in a quasi-divine vision: from that pinnacle we see ourselves and the world  as expressions of God (though we wrongly think ourselves autonomous).

Whoever we are-Hindus, Buddhists, Christians or whatever - Robinson suggests that we should use both eyes. Of course our original culture or faith will lead us to make a choice as to which is our primary  eye, but both eyes are needed if we are to have a complete perception. The one-eyed vision is dangerously flat; we lose perspective on distances; we might make misjudgments and have an accident. If we have been educated exclusively in one culture, we are one-eye blind. We need to borrow the other eye from the traditions of other cultures. And here dialogue has a function.

He explains how difficult this can be, because of the embedded nature of symbolism, but how it is fear that makes us want to pull back, and our understanding can be enriched by other symbols when we penetrate beyond the superficial:

However, symbols are not like coins from one currency that can easily be exchanged for others according to market rates. Symbols come with a retinue; they bring with them a world of moods, perceptions, mystic intuitions, ways of relating to the Divine, all derived from their origins. A sharing of symbols means also a sharing of religious experiences, seeing the Divine with a different eye. Some feel comfortable with this process; for others, it is unnerving, a call to death. It often demands an ascetic renunciation of things that give us security. Faith is purified, with less dependence on its external expressions, and a greater trust in the inner guidance of the Spirit. My colleagues taught me to see the temple, the gurdwara, the mosque, the great tirthas (pilgrimage centres), as places for worship and meditation, not tourist attractions. They are places vibrating with centuries of bhakti, love, devotion, tapas (penance), faith, trust and prayer. Here we cross frontiers; here we experience liminality; here we share a different spirituality which we do not understand fully. But at this level, understanding matters less. The important thing is communion in silence. The symbol is only a sacrament, a door to another spiritual world.

I think this was brought out very well in an article in the Tablet Magazine in 2008, where the Dalai Lama went to a Dominican colloquium on contemplative prayer in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, held at Blackfriars Priory. He had personally requested the meeting with the Dominicans, saying that he wished to learn something more about Christian prayer during his stay in Britain.

Prior to the colloquium the Dalai Lama attended the Divine Office sung by the Dominican community in the Priory Church. It was an impressive sight to see the Dalai Lama, dressed as always in his maroon and yellow Buddhist robes, surrounded by some 40 Dominican friars in their white habits, united in prayer

Apparently there are some Buddhists who do not feel easy with the familiarity the Dalai Lama shows to Christians, and some Christians who feel that Buddhism is a threat to Western Christianity. This shows the way in which fear makes people want to keep a single vision, and not engage. This, of course, was where multiculturalism in the UK went wrong, it encouraged tolerance, but the tolerance of the Ghetto, in which each group could live behind their own barricades.

It is also interesting that what emerged from the Blackfriars discussion on both sides was that contemplation and meditation was needed away from the rush and pace of work and daily life, in order that one could better engage with the world; it was not an individualist goal in itself:

The Dalai Lama said that what he had heard about Christian prayer confirmed his long held conviction that all religions had the same goal of working for the welfare of all human beings, even though they differed in many of their fundamental teachings. Fr Murray had said that within the Dominican tradition it was felt that time spent in contemplation should always be followed by the handing over of the fruits of that prayer to others out of love. The Dalai Lama saw in this a convergence with the Buddhist emphasis that the two central pillars of Buddhist life, wisdom and compassion, were bound up with each other. Meditation and the pursuit of wisdom should always issue forth in acts of compassion for others.

But what of the the different perspectives on what may be termed (loosely) "ultimate reality"? There, too, there may be differences in emphasis, but a closer truth than one might think:

Professor Paul Williams of Bristol University, both a scholar of Buddhism and a Catholic, asked the Dalai Lama whether Buddhism could find common ground with the Christian idea of God reaching out to humanity in love. In the Buddhist tradition, he said the goal of meditation was not a personal creator God, but the realisation of an ultimate reality characterised as "emptiness" (shunyata), meaning that nothing had independent existence. In reply, the Dalai Lama explained that in the Vajrayana form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, "emptiness" was held to be "shining" and could thus be held to radiate out to others, just as the joy of meditation radiated out to others in compassion.

In many ways, John Robinson was ahead of his time. In "Truth is Two-Eyes", he was proposing an alternative avenue that multiculturalism, which has now pretty well been acknowledged to be a failed enterprise. Toleration was very much a virtue promoted by the enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Lock, and while the ability to live together without religious strife and wars was extremely valuable, it was a part of what philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as "negative liberty". When used as a positive force, it encouraged a ghetto mentality which strenuously avoided engagement, and instead promoted segregation in which extremism could take root. Against that kind of relativism, Robinson's approach suggests that what we need to do is engagement, not segregation, which will produce not just a "live and let live" attitude, but positive fruits in terms of how society works better together.

George Gispert-Sauch notes that while Robinson was considering East and West, which was very much part of the framework of the British culture in which he was writing, the today vision needs to be wider still.

Of course the two-eye metaphor will need to be expanded: there is not only a so called 'oriental' and a 'western' pattern of spirituality: there may be, there are other patterns, e.g., those of the indigenous peoples who live closer to mother earth.

Truth is Two-Eyed. London, John A T Robinson. SCM Press, 1979
Two-Eyed Dialogue: Reflections after Fifty Years, George Gispert-Sauch 
The Tablet, 7 June 2008
Spirituality of Hinduism and Christianity at:

1 comment:

Alane Wallace said...

"all religions had the same goal of working for the welfare of all human beings"