By Paul O. Ingram Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Of all people who try to write or speak about the Sacred, theologians and philosophers must seem the strangest. We lust after the perfect word, the glorious phrase that will somehow make the avalanche of what we see sayable. We live in mental and emotional barrios where any idea may turn to honest labor, if it gets the right incentive—a little wine, a light flogging, a delicate seduction, a kick in the ass. It is a great deal of trouble because writers, like all sentient beings must live in their senses.
The problem is, there is a point of ecstasy beyond which the senses cannot lead us. Ecstasy means being flung out of our usual selves. But that is still to feel the commotion inside, which is why writers and some theologians are pulled, often kicking and screaming, into mysticism. Whatever else mysticism is, it transcends the here-and-now for truths unexplainable in the straightjacket of ordinary language. But even this transcendence registers on the senses, too, as rush of fire in the belly, a quivering in the chest, a quiet fossil-like surrender in the bones.
We can see anything from a new perspective, but its still an experience of vision. Nowadays computers help us interpret some of life’s complicated processes, which we previously used our senses to see. Astronomers are more likely to look at their telescope’s monitors than at the stars with their naked eyes. But we continue to use our senses to interpret the work of computers, to see the monitors, and to judge and analyze. Never will we leave the mansions of our perceptions.
If we are in a rut, it is an exquisite one. Like prisoners in a cell, we grip our ribs from within, rattle them, and beg for release. Especially when language filters our perceptions of the Sacred’s traces. There are always questions. According to the Bible, God once instructed Moses to burn sweet incense to God’s liking. Does God have nostrils? Does God really prefer one smell of this earth to another? The processes of decay complete a cycle necessary for growth. Carrion—the stale honey-sweet order of death—is stench to our nostrils but smells delicious to animals that rely on it for food. What these animals excrete will make soil rich and crops abundant. There is no need for divine election; perception is itself a form of grace. We catch the Sacred with our senses and lasso it with words, knowing the rope will eventually break because the Sacred is beyond words, yet always there, stalking us like wolves after prey.
So like the stealth of autumn, the Sacred—however it is named—is apt to catch us when we are not looking. Was that a goldfinch perching in the early September woods surrounding my house? A robin or a maple closing up shop for the winter? Keen-eyed as cougars, we stand still and squint hard for signs of movement while frost sits heavy on the leaves and turns barbed wire into a string of stars. The Sacred is a force, and like others, can be resisted. Even if we do not want to catch the Sacred, it is there, backtracking us all the same. It is as if the Sacred is saying, “I am here, but not as you have known or want to know. Do you see this look of silence, and of loneliness unendurable? It has always been mine, and now it shall be yours.”
Historically, the Sacred’s traces have been sensed in personal and non-personal masks. In spite of numerous differences between their cumulative traditions, the personal deities of theistic religious Ways—Zoroastrian, Judaism, Christianity, Islam—and the non-personal Sacred reality of non-theistic religious Ways have this in common: they have affected the transformation of human lives from self-centeredness to centeredness in the deity worshiped or in the Sacred reality non-personally apprehended in the zero-point of meditative awareness called samadhī or satori. This transformed state is one of freedom from narrow self-centered egoism, a consequent realization of inner peacefulness and integration with the universe, coupled with awareness in love and compassion of the oneness of humanity with all sentient beings with whom we hare Planet Earth.
So if I have read the historical evidence of humanity’s collective religious experience adequately, devout Jews or Christians or Muslims of theistic Hindus or Pure Land Buddhists throwing themselves in faith into reliance on the all-compassionate Amida Buddha all undergo in a symphonic pluralism of ways salvific transformation. Likewise, single-minded Advaitic Hindus, Theravada or Zen Buddhist, or Daoists seriously practicing a meditative path that leads to the dissolution of the dualisms of self and other, self and world, self and the Sacred, undergo in varying degrees the same liberating creative transformation. Such processes of creative transformation suggest that theistic and non-theistic masks of the Sacred reflect different modes of being stalked by the Sacred, however it is named. The deities the majority of human beings revere are personalized masks through which the Sacred is partly caught by the theistic religious Ways of humanity. Likewise, the non-personal traces of the Sacred caught by the disciples of non-theistic religious Ways are no less real.