The Views across the Pacific and the North Sea
When you stand on a tumbling grey cliff and look out from California onto the ocean the golden light bathes not only the blue swell but also the shadow of something unseen. You can sense Japan and the distant East, and the many islands of the South Pacific. Because this is California where the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley often show the sights and symbols of Japan and old China, and sometimes even the images of Mao and radicalism from the sixties, and where too the Eastern cults beg for cash and promise new journeys inwards and new gurus, you cannot help thinking about how the truths and values of the different civilizations will in the end live together. How in this new meeting of East and West can truth be grasped and sorted out? Does the planet hold some promise of a new way of understanding our life?
Because it is California you cannot either forget the swarms of ships that sailed out of San Diego and the Bay, heirs to Perry and Teddy Roosevelt, and went to do battle with Japan. You might even recall the great planes which took cargoes of drafted men to fight that late, somewhat bitter, fruit of Pacific destiny, the Vietnam War. But often the cruelty of war brings cultures together in the aftermath to what we call the Eastern world (going West to get East, as we also often find) you sense the strange promises held by the encounter of civilizations lying on either side of the great Pacific rim. How can their relationships be judged?
The views from Europe are, and this is no surprise, more complex and are more loaded with questions from the past. If you stand on the cliffs of Kent you may feel the wind that scuds across the great northern European plain, from Kuibyshev and the Vistula to Heligoland and Hull; and you will see tankers passing empty down the Channel on their tangled way through Suez or round the Cape. In either case there is much for the mind to digest before it reaches the shores of Asia. To the East are the vast battlefields of Europe’s great internecine conflicts — Flanders, Tannenberg, Kursk, Arnhem, Bastogne; and also the places of cold horror and ideological madness — the death camps of the Nazis, the Warsaw Ghetto, Dresden, the Gulag Archipelago. And if further south we follow the tracks of the fossil-bearing ships, we may pass to the Levant and Egypt or to the Persian Gulf, and before we ever reach South Asia proper we are reminded of Europe’s strange feelings towards Islam, brother of Christianity yet often its deathly enemy, and now despite all its inner quarrels mostly united in its outrage at the planting of a Jewish state in Israel and Palestine.
Although it has been the fashion for us in the West, or at least in the modern West, and especially in America, to make a divide between religion and politics, and perhaps to think of the former as lacking the zealous power of its past and as having lost its intellectual grip, displaced by science and a rational ethic, the divide and the judgement miss the mark. The so-called secular ideologies — Nazism, Marxism, Maoism, humanism — may lack a sense of the transcendent or of spirituality in the traditional sense. Their purgatories and heavens lie on earth (the heavens being not above but in the future). But they too feed on myth and doctrine, and mobilize people’s feelings with a sense of purpose and sacrifice, commitment and identity. Moreover, the cult of modernity, so gripping in our ‘modern’ world, bristling with economic theory, aeroplanes, equality, fertilizers, contraception, telecommunications and other excellences, is itself beyond science and reason, inhabiting still the regions of value and feeling. Modern is (we think) good: we wish to be ‘with it’ — and so we have the heavy symbolism of the new technology: sleek planes, mighty motorbikes, glass-wrapped architecture, silent (but alas now cracked) white nuclear domes. The subtle clash between modernity and older religion is something of which the Shah was rather roughly reminded. So secular ideologies themselves are replete with symbols and half-articulated values, and play in the same league (as we might say) as the traditional religions. The questions then which we might ponder, looking outwards across the wonders and terrors of recent European history, are questions which cross the frontier between religion and politics.
Religion and Ideology: an Ideological Distinction
The idea that there is such a frontier is often itself part of a modern ideology. Religion, it is said, is a private matter. It is for the individual and his conscience, and deals with what is ‘existential’, that is, what has to do with personal feelings and choice, and not with what is public and objective. This privatization of religion has as a main root the distinction between church and state which flowed from the desire to ensure religious tolerance and to defuse religious conflict. As I shall argue later, this stance is of the greatest importance for the dignity and freedom of human beings; but in the first place the principle has to apply beyond religions to secular worldviews. A major flaw in totalitarian systems is precisely that no distinction is made between church and state, only that now the Party stands for the church. And in the second place, the distinction between Church and State does not affect the question of how we should scientifically analyse worldviews. If a worldview such as Maoism has many of the formal properties of what hitherto has been treated as a religion, namely Confucianism or Buddhism, then it is important that scientifically they should be investigated and compared together. We should not be inhibited by a distinction which is becoming entrenched mainly in our language.
Thus an important part of the study of religion, which is the analysis of worldviews providing an interpretation for individual and collective experience, applies to the understanding of secular attitudes. Thus I regard it as an important part of my task to undertake an analysis of those systems of belief and symbolism which are most relevant to our contemporary condition in our global city, and especially in the West. I shall be delineating the various major world-views of the planet as they exist in interaction today. But of special interest are those which promise to give us a new outlook which will be both Western and yet go beyond the West, and so will be truly a possible world worldview. But this is not to say that all beliefs can merge and come together.
As West and East and North and South intermingle and present to one another their various faiths and values, we may seek for some reconciliations perhaps; but there is also, acutely, the question of truth. Worldviews, as the name implies, relate both to us (our outlook) and to the world. They are the bridge between truth and action, and between reality and feeling; and they have to be judged at both levels. So the task which we have before us, if we wish to explore religions and ideologies, is a double one. On the one hand there is the analysis of the various structures of belief and feeling; and beyond that on the other hand is their evaluation. On the one hand we need to see how the various beliefs of men inter-relate and interact, and to see their points of compatibility and incompatibility. This is a descriptive task. On the other hand there is the reflection about them which may issue in a new way of seeing our world. On the one hand there is what used to be called the comparative study of religion and which now more broadly can be called the comparative study of worldviews. On the other there is what used to be called the philosophy of religion, which aimed to explore among other things the criteria of truth in religion, and which now we may more broadly extend to be the philosophy of worldviews. This is the more urgent today because we live in a global city, where ideas and powers jostle one another in its many thoroughfares.
The Global City
The earth has become in our time more or less a planet, a single globe: lonely perhaps as it wanders blue in space, but on its surface a loose human unity. The ancients, with their idea of the oikumene or inhabited world, may have had a similar sensation of unity in diversity; but it was partly based on an illusion, for quite other worlds lay beyond their world. When Jesus walked with his comrades beside the hot blue shore of the lake, the Buddha’s message was already centuries old in the minds of the shaven monks of Sri Lanka. And men who went for a change of soul to the dramas of Eleusis or to the shining mysteries of Isis knew nothing of Confucius and the Tao. But now there is no world beyond our world. Our oikumene is spherical, closed, and there is no new frontier. True, we may hop grandly and with breathtaking ingenuity into space, but hardly further than the moon. That is almost nowhere amid the light years. And who can tell whether we shall ever communicate with other living beings beyond the solar system? It seems doubtful; and at best deep in the future. For our times and the times of our children and their children, the planet is now a single place, a kind of city, the geopolis. It is as if America were Manhattan, Russia the New Jersey side, Europe Queens, Asia the Bronx, Africa Brooklyn and Oceania Staten Island.
Thus it is that no culture or system of ideas can ignore others. The Christian is necessarily confronted by Buddhism and the Hindu mind. The Muslim cannot ignore Marx and the ‘modernizing’ West. The Polish Marxist cannot ignore Catholicism. Africa cannot ignore Islam. The Polynesian is in contact with Hindus. Our era then is one of planetary connectedness. In the last twenty years the ubiquity of the jet, the instantaneous availability of telecommunication, the migrations of peoples and guest workers — such factors have bound the city together very closely. Moreover it has done so as the culmination of a period of unprecedented change.
I call our planet a global city, rather than village. Villages are more homogeneous. They are less given to mayhem and riot than cities. And a city has quarters, and all sorts of graduations of power and wealth. It is industrialized and bureaucratized, as our world increasingly is. So I prefer the metaphor of the global city, which, as I say, like cities of the modern period, has grown and flourished, yet also bred squalor, amid great human changes. Let us briefly recite some of these changes.
The Mad and Brilliant Changes of the Last Half Century
For sentimental reasons I start in the year 1927, the year when I was born. In that year Chiang Kai-shek purged the Kuomintang of its red connection and prepared the way for Mao to switch the revolution into the mountains, the Long March and the sea of peasants. Stalin finally consolidated his hold on the Soviet Communist Party and got rid of Trotsky, thus opening the way towards his ruthless drive for steel and tanks, and the permanent change of Russia and its colonies into a new ideologically controlled industrialized power. That year Hindenburg, hero of World War I, and President of Germany’s weakening democracy, publicly denied German responsibility for the earlier bloodbath, and helped to confirm thereby the feelings of millions who were to turn to Hitler. Heisenberg announced his principle of indeterminacy and so the ultimate decay of the old physics: the new physics was almost ready to conceive and to fashion the nuclear bomb.
Since then we have seen the Holocaust, which must forever change people’s views of the interface between Christianity and Judaism. We have seen the heroism of the Great Patriotic War and the terrible sufferings thereafter in the last mad decade of Stalin’s rule; and this must permanently alter our consciousness of practical Marxism. We have seen the collapse of Germany and Japan, and their resurrection; and this already changes the rules both of European and Asian politics. We have seen the overwhelming victory of Mao and this must for the future mean a different China, however much the ideology may be softened and adapted. We have seen the foundation of Israel and the emergence of a new Islamic nationalism, which, with oil, must greatly alter the balance of religious power. We have seen the Indo-Chinese wars, which are potent to disillusion all who contemplate them and which soiled the reputations of Marxists, liberals and traditionalists alike, and yet which also contributed to a new phase of American consciousness. We have also seen the bombers turned into civilian jets, and radar into new methods of communication: so that now intercontinental travel is more and more a commonplace, and this may lead us to wonder what a hundred years or five hundred of the jet will do for the world, seeing it has done so much in thirty. We have also seen Hiroshima, and that has forever altered the equations of international conflict. Aggrandisements may in the end fry us in the twinkling of an eye.
But of all the changes, the most significant, in relation at least to politics and to human identity, has been the spread of nationalism across the globe. Had World War II not already spoken so potently about the force of nationalism in its good and bad forms, we might have been blinded by ideology into thinking that the divisions of the world are essentially economic and ideological. Instead economics and worldviews are everywhere modified by the demands of ethnic identity and the struggles of the world are more often than anything to do with nationhood and ethnicity — the Basques, the Irish, the Cypriots, the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Bengalis, the Vietnamese, the Somalis, the Algerians: all these and many other groups have been fighting in order to establish some vision of national independence.
So we have a certain dialectic of change in the last fifty years. The world has seen a kind of tribal fighting, nation against nation, empire versus empire: but in the name of freedom to establish separateness. But the very conflicts have helped to accelerate the technologies which have drawn the planet into a close bound whole. The lesson is clear, and I shall come to it later. But we need to see these divisive and binding forces at work together. So now because of the mutation which has occurred in the means of transport and communication over the last three decades (jets, supertankers, container ships, satellites, television) there has been decisively created a world economy, whose parts, though different in design, interact in a holistic manner.
The price of wool in Australia has early effects in Helsinki. Drought in Kazakhstan affects the Iowan farmer. A riot on the Persian Gulf sends tremors through Wall Street. New blueprints in Osaka will cut car prices in Ireland. Research in silicon circuits stores up changes in the whole industrial world. So we now exist in a ‘world system’, which I call the global city. Since the arrival of this new order has been in great part due to the clash and inspiration of a variety of worldviews, one may also note another paradox. Very often the rapid change itself helps to amplify the effect of that primordial search for security and aggrandisement that so often lives behind the sophisticated ideas with which we interpret the world to ourselves.
The Relationship of Worldviews: a Matter of Flesh and Blood
Though it is profoundly important to take a calm and scientific view of the actual worldviews which humans hold, and though it is unwise to rush to judgement before grasping the nature of the religious and secular traditions and ideologies with which the various peoples and groups in the world express their values, it is also important to recognize that the issues transcend mere scholarship and philosophy: or perhaps I should turn that statement around and say that in regard to these living, often bitter, interactions between commitments and identities, scholarship and philosophy begin to clothe themselves in flesh and blood. For the question of how Buddhism and Marxism relate to one another within the material world is not just a philosophical topic. It is not something which, serious as it may be, is resolved only at the level of thought and insight. The shocks of change in Tibet and the flight of the Dalai Lama were the results of action driving against the grain of the Buddhist quest. The militancy of Marxist atheism can find expression in camps and shot priests. The agnosticism of the Western liberal can also issue in arrogances of power, as in the bombing of Cambodia. So the problems of worldview in our divided planet are practical ones, and have to do with human happiness and suffering. Those questions cross, as I have stated, the borders between religion and politics, and between the transcendent and the secular. But my exploration of the problem of worldviews will start with the religions, and then move to the ideologies. But whether we speak of religions or ideologies, we speak of identity and location: for human beings are restless without placement and a sure feeling of who and where they are.
Thus a worldview can be seen as to do with a triangle. One corner is the individual; another is his or her fellows; another is the cosmos. The fully satisfying myth or doctrine tells a person where he is in relation to society and the universe, and what the true constitution of his self is. Thus the old myth of Genesis worked as a resonant triangle. It shows forth the divine origin of the cosmos, something of mankind’s origin and nature, and starts the linked story which relates people here and now to the ancestral Adam. It is true that the story of Adam’s temptation and fall may be interpreted as showing that there is something deeply wrong in our nature and in my own being: but that too can be satisfying, for in stating the disease already the story may hint at the remedy. That there is evil in my life is alas obvious: its diagnosis however permits hope. But because the way in which modern ideologies function is more likely to be opaque to us, given the sharp divide between religion and the secular which we (ideologically as I have said) make, it is useful to begin our analysis of the spiritual and mythic aspects of worldviews, and of the way they relate to a sense of identity, with the religions. So the first part of my exploration will concern itself with Christianity and Buddhism. The reason for my choosing these two traditions to compare will come out shortly. But before we begin on that phase of our analytic and reflective voyage, it is useful to chart the state of belief-systems in the world today. For it is in the ambience of that real world that the process of philosophizing must occur.
Eastern Worldviews Today
The Eastern religions, and in particular Buddhism, have had considerable success since World War II in making a mark in the Western world. When I was learning Chinese in 1945 it was indeed a strange and surprising thing to do, and well in line with what friends expected of the mysteries of the Intelligence Corps. When ten years later I embarked on Sanskrit and Pali it was still something only a tiny minority would think of doing. Now it is almost easier to find a student of Sanskrit than of Latin. This impact of Eastern religions has various causes which need not now be uncovered. But it masks a fact on the other side. For while Buddhism may be fashionable in California and even on the wilder shores of Kent, it has undergone great traumas in some of its more traditional lands. It has been overlaid, though not entirely eliminated, in China and Tibet. It has no freedom in Vietnam and North Korea. It has been decimated in Kampuchea and its Laotian future is obscure. In Japan, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka it retains vigour, to be sure; but it has all the same suffered greater catastrophes than any other religion in the modern world, other than Judaism. Its dependence on the monastery exposes it to ready control and destruction, as the story both of Islam in North India and Marxism in East Asia shows. So we find here a paradox. This noble and subtle system of ideas and complex religious organism which represents perhaps the most vital force within Asian culture capable of responding to, and standing up to, the seductive and forceful secular philosophies of the West, is under assault through much of its Asian territory. The reasons we shall explore, but for the time being can be reduced to this fact — that Buddhism had not the brutal energy to reshape society in the face of the Western incursions which undermined the fabric of the old order in so much of Asia. It was the West’s militant counter-ideology, Marxism, which was used by Chinese and Vietnamese nationalism to reconstruct mainland Asian power.
The case of Hinduism was somewhat different. That ancient and plural mass of often contradictory ideas and customs, kept in some kind of equilibrium by the fabric of caste, responded creatively to the British challenge. In a sense Hinduism is a new religion formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It had elements in its past — its chaotic inclusiveness, its subtle philosophies, its contemplative expertise, its prizing of learning, its fervent devotion, its ever fresh supply of holy men, its love of, and its scepticism about, images, its mysterious scriptures, its respect for power — which could be taken up and used in a great new synthesis. It was the great achievement of men such as Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and Radhakrishnan to shape a mood and a pluralistic outlook which gave Hinduism both a positive world message and a role to play in the struggle for national freedom. All religions are true but the most true is that which recognizes (and has always recognized) this truth. If Christ is divine so also is Krishna and so in the last resort are all human beings. All images are useful and are all false. Such sentiments became part of the flesh of the new Hinduism. Its yoga and its bhakti have also come West, though perhaps with less lucidity and influence than have the like motifs of Buddhism.
Of lesser Indian religions Sikhism has dignity and some outward dynamic, even if it has become largely closed socially. Jainism, a sublime and subtle austerity, has no optimism about the conversion of the world. The Parsees keep alive the flame of Zoroaster, and form a modernizing part of the fabric of modern India. Such faiths become important footnotes within the greater text of the Hindu environment. Perhaps their situation will have much to teach us in the plural planet: for many such separately identified religious groups are likely to remain. But can their beliefs continue without being modified by some more embracing theory of religious truth?
To a great extent Confucianism and Taoism are sources of sustenance rather than real living organisms. Where in Taiwan and Hong Kong and elsewhere the old China persists after a fashion, the Taoist priest continues, and Confucian values are respected. But largely the Chinese, whether of the mainland or of the diaspora, are post-Confucian, post-Taoist. Both the old rituals and the old magic are in decay. This is not to say that there are not vast things to be learned from these ancient traditions. But they stand to modern Chinese civilization more as the classics did to modern Europe — sources from which something of value could be learned rather than a living, controlling culture and ideology. Confucianism is not on the modern ideological agenda as a living choice. It should be in our minds as a potent source of value, but that is a different matter. The dominant worldview, of course, of mainland China is Mao Zedong Thought. We shall later consider its roots. As a variety of Marxism it has (naturally) a Chinese shape: naturally, I say, because it was and is the great engine and expression of modern Chinese nationalism, resurgent in the face of the rampaging West and the erstwhile predatory Japanese. Not surprisingly it has as neighbours different varieties: the Vietnamese Marxism of Ho, and the grandiose Marxism of Kim. The history of the modern world tells us again and again that if you are in doubt as to the relative importance of ideological orthodoxy or national spirit, you should back the latter. The Soviets quarrel with the Chinese, who quarrel with the Vietnamese. The Jugoslavs quarrel with Albania and Moscow. Romania tries to keep its distance. If Czechs and Poles and East Germans are solid with Moscow it is because of the tanks.
Western Asia, in so far as it is not occupied by the USSR, is chiefly the scene of a reviving Islam. True, as within Marxism, there are ethnic tensions. The splitting of Pakistan was a critical example of the dominance of national groups over transnational religion as a constitutive basis of a state. The Kurds and Arabs of the new Iran likewise have proved restive minorities. Nevertheless the reviving vision of the Islamic State is manifest in a number of countries, and there is little doubt that Islam remains the single most vital reason why Marxism has little appeal in the Middle Eastern world. Like a great swathe Islam lies athwart the middle world, from the Western Pacific through Indonesia and Malaysia and into north India, Western Asia and North Africa, as far as Dakar: only Hindu India intervenes, and indigestible parts of Palestine and the Lebanon. It makes progress still in Africa. But it is interesting that somehow Christianity and Islam have exhausted their powers of mutual encroachment. Rather rarely does the Westerner become a Muslim, save for marriage or among blacks; still more rarely does the Muslim become a Christian: though the Muslim often enough becomes Westernized, leaving his old faith behind for a kind of utilitarianism. It is as if the three religions claiming descent from Abraham are destined to live together in a wary symbiosis (save where Islam sees in Judaism a form of Zionism and seeks therefore to wipe it out).
Judaism has, as a consequence of the Holocaust and of other tragic events, found its chief home in the Western democracies, and in the United States above all, of course. But the establishment of Israel has given it a different dynamic. Both the secularized Jew and the religious one must feel a special tie to the new State. Next year in Jerusalem is not next year anywhere else. But the Holocaust has given a special urgency to the reconsideration of Jewish-Christian relations. Many of the roots of anti-Semitism were Christian. But it should also be seen that violent nationalism was almost bound to be anti-Jewish: the logic of nationalism pointed towards the hounding of minorities, but whereas Armenians, Hungarians in Transylvania, Germans in Czeckoslavakia and so on had a majority place as well as a minority outreach, the Jews were in the national sense rootless, everywhere a minority in the heady upspringing of the nationalisms of Central and Eastern Europe.
Christianity at Large
It is convenient to see Christianity in five forms. There is the Christianity of Protestantism which has played such a large part in the formation of modern Western democracy. This success in bringing forth modernity has given it a puzzling relationship to liberalism and scientific humanism, its somewhat unexpected children. There is the Catholicism of Europe and a wider world, which embraces various conflicting incarnations: in the democracies Catholicism adopts more and more the style of Protestantism; in Poland and Hungary it is more conservative in its struggles with the State; in Latin America it is strongly caught up with revolution and redicalism, though institutionalized also in the older repressive forms of the post-colonial Church. Thirdly, there is Eastern Orthodoxy, greatly under the oppressive canopy of Marxist government, in disarray in Russia, revived in Romania tremendously, more influential through its various contacts with ecumenism. Fourth, there are the numerous new Christian movements in Africa, a great laboratory of the spirit in which old ethnicities and the Gosple are in creative interaction. Fifth, there is the non-European Christianity of ancient times — Copts, Nestorians and others, reminders of other heritages than that of the Roman Empire and the European matrix of the dominant types of the faith. Both for historical and for logical reasons, the main question on the agenda of modern Christianity is its relation to the secular ideologies: to liberalism, to science, to Marxism. Much of the technical philosophy of religion (whether out of linguistic philosophy or out of Existentialism) is secretly or openly about the interface between older faith and the worldview of scientific humanism. Liberation theology which relates to the torments of Latin American poverty and exploitation is a debate about Christianity and the Marxist analysis of capitalism. Yet, as we shall see, the question of Christianity is a wider one: for more clearly we need to see how Christianity can have a theory of history relevant to the now global city, the blue plural sphere of the planet.
Outside of the traditional religions and the ideologies of Marxism, nationalism and liberal democracy there lie the ideas and practices of the many smaller peoples, two hundred and fifty million or so souls, who dwell in tribal groups and have to face the great impact of modernity. Such smaller peoples do not have much chance of surviving with their old beliefs intact. It is noticeable how throughout this smaller world there are new religious movements — Peyotism, Cargo cults, independent churches. These are new solutions to the problem of identity under threat. Really the older ideas do not have much chance. They may turn out to be resources of a kind, like Confucianism or like the classical culture of Europe (as we have noted); but as systems they can hardly stand up to the acid power of modernity or even the evangelical, universal zeal of the proselytizing great religions. What was proper and effective in a small, nature-bound world can no longer serve in the rich wide life opened up often so tragically to the tribal mind. The secret lore of the Aboriginal, the shamanism of the Eskimo, the lore of the Navajo, the myths of the Gikuyu — these motifs must be transformed if they are to stay alive. Remaining the same, they die. Many worldviews thus are in process of dying across this smaller world. We may see the new cults which replace them as attempts to mediate across the cosmic triangle — to adapt identity to truth, and truth to the new conditions of society.
Each Worldview Needs a View of the Others
Yet the arrival of the planetary city, that loose unity of human-kind in a finite, though unbounded, world, means that each religion, each ideology, must have a theory about the others. A mindless coexistence cannot be stable. If the Christian faith claims to be ultimate, surely it must have something to say about Buddhism and modern atheism; if Islam is what it seems to be then it proclaims a view of the religions of the Book and by implication has to theorize about the place of other faiths in Allah’s dispensation; Marxism has its theories of the genesis and meaning of religions. All such views imply a perspective on the modern history of the planet. Whether any such view is coherent and persuasive then itself becomes a criterion of truth in worldview. Incidentally it should be noticed that the comparative or scientific study of religion — the history of religions and such attendant approaches as sociology and anthropology of religion — would play a strong part in the evaluative process. For the misfortune of many older views, including those of Marx and many of his successors, is that they diagnose religion without having a true or full grasp of the facts. Often they could not: the facts are only lately known, say in the last fifty years with the growth of study of the great religions backed by a rounded knowledge both of the texts and practices. (Muslims who chopped off the noses of Buddhas at some of the great shrines of Northern India were mistaken in thinking them to be idolatrous: how can you have idolatry when there is no God?)
But as is clear enough the question of the Beyond is not a single one. Islam, Christianity and Buddhism (for instance) may point to that which lies beyond this universe, to depths within it which somehow are beyond even the subtleties of the atom and the quark. In a word they may be transcendental, not secular. But they differ severely, it seems. There are Sufis who may speak profoundly and sincerely about the transcendental unity of all religions, and that somehow in the speechless night of the soul even the emptiness of the Buddha is to be found. There may be those who quote the alleged writings of Dionysius the Areopagite and see in their noble negations a reflection of the neti neti of the Hindu. There are those who may seek to outline to us a Perennial Philosophy in which at their most profound level all the faiths are one. But is it indeed the profoundest level? And do we not see at the same time that Mecca is not Banaras, and Rome is not Kyoto, and that the crucified Christ is blasphemy beside the curving script of the Qur’an and that the enlightened Buddha asleep it seems on his side as he passes into the final emptiness of the Beyond is a person of greatly different character from the shrewd statesman and warrior Muhammad, creator of a new state and a new forceful empire upon earth? The great God of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims speaks sometimes imperiously, sometimes in love and compassion, to those who have ears to hear. But nirvana does not speak. There is no ‘Thus saith the Tao’. At times the great faiths seem to converge, their fingers as it were to signal the same moon. At other times they seem in radical conflict. Were they just a misunderstanding, these old divisions? And so we come back to the hard reality, that as far as we can see in this world of men, there are different Beyonds: or at least different maps of that other world. The problem of the plurality of religions cannot be evaded.
Buddhism and Christianity: Widespread and Mirroring
As for the first part of this programme, in principle the task of diagnosing the varieties of religion and of seeing how far some kind of complementarity might be found is one which should relate to all the great traditions. I am here being selective. I am going chiefly to consider, in the context of the global city, what is to be made of the relationship between the Christian and the Buddhist traditions, in some of their major forms. It is partly space; partly competence; partly sympathy; partly a judgement about value — it is such factors that have caused me to light upon these two. To explain why I must first be slightly autobiographical. But as I shall try to show there are also more ‘objective’ reasons for this choice. These two faiths are clearly of astounding significance for the history of the planet, the one being the matrix of Western culture and science, the other the chief spiritual force in the majority of Asian countries at one time or another. But first let me be slightly autobiographical.
My first interest in Buddhism arose from two things. First, I was put to learn Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London as part of my army service, just after the end of World War II. But instead of ending up in China I was sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Both countries began with C, enough perhaps for the War Office in London. But more important, Buddhism flourished in both. My later determination to learn Pali and Sanskrit arose not only from these encounters but also from a sense of the deep importance of Theravada Buddhism as a radical alternative to, not necessarily though as a challenge to, the theism of my somewhat Catholic Anglican background. An alternative, I say, rather than a challenge: by this I mean something which is personal but which I believe has a more ‘objective’ validity. In a period of rather dreary disillusion with the Christian tradition, and at a time when I was surrounded by rationalists of a sort, I found a new spirit blowing through the marvellous discourses of The Questions of Milinda and the poetry of the Theragāthā, and through the extraordinary parables and similes of the Suttas and the complex serenities of Buddhist thinking. I was a bit afflicted too by a sense of the tribalism of some of the religious debates of those days. The circumambient rationalism found its chief expression in the way Oxford philosophy was interpreted, which for all its many enjoyable glories and achievements was infected with a dogmatism and even authoritarianism not quite fitting the rational temper to which it often laid claim: there were Ryle, brusque; Austin, daunting; Waismann, wistful; Wittgenstein, unseen. So Buddhism came as a different wind. How could it be so different from Christianity and yet somehow, obscurely, show its affinity? It seems to me still that the greatest philosophical and religious question to be raised about the traditional cultures of the globe is that concerning these two religions, both multiple, so vastly different in origin, overtly conflicting in many concepts and practices. But are they perhaps in some way complementary?
Moreover, important as other faiths have been and other systems of thought, Christianity and Buddhism have had the most far-reaching influence on planetary history. There has been scarcely a country in Asia which has not felt the lasting imprint of the Buddha. Buddhism proved the major cultural ingredient in the histories of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal; it was a major force in India, and likewise in China, Vietnam and Korea. It was important too in Indonesia. It penetrated Central Asia. In brief, it was the single most vital spiritual force in South and East Asia. Even though Hinduism may have come to displace it in much of India, it yet left its mark on Hindu life and thinking. Not for nothing did the Buddha become an avatar of Vishnu; nor was it entirely wrong that Shankara was accused of being a secret Buddhist. With its strong philosophical fabric Buddhism retains the vitality to stand up to the forces of Western cultures; while its style of psychotherapy, its astonishing cosmology, its compassionate ethic, its theories of adaptation, its spirit of self-cultivation and its balance between realism and idealism make it seem subtly modern, ready to relate to modern science and to keep a sympathetic distance from rationalism. This modernity of Buddhism is sometimes quite striking in contrast to the crudities about the world which have often been inferred from the mythic cosmology of the bible. The analytic character of Buddhism is very different from the rushing spirit of the Bible. Yet for all the ‘scientific’ temper of Buddhism it was in fact, for various reasons, the Christian civilization of the West which gave birth to modern science and the industrial revolution. It is this fact, together with Christianity’s astonishing spread over so many regions of the earth which gives Christianity its vast importance in the history of the global city. Christianity and Buddhism are, in short, two giants and greater in their influence and meaning even than the dynamic theocracy of Islam or even than the practical doctrines of Marxism.
Apart from the importance of the two traditions as giants of East and West, their enigmatic relationship, which has not been explored with a full systematic eye hitherto, presents to us some of the most sublime and challenging problems in the methods through which we should come to terms with descriptive comparisons. I shall describe some of these briefly in the next chapter, for they help us to see some of the fruits which our enterprise of comparison may yield.
Nationalism and other Identities
I have already spoken of Nationalism as an ideology. Actually it is a set of ideologies, or if you like a prescription for forming ideologies. A nation is a substance composed of matter and form. The matter is a language, a religion, a territory — the ingredients vary (and often the matter has to be brought together in the process of nation-building). The form is the consciousness of nationhood. That consciousness is reinforced and fed by myth and ritual. The myth, typically, is a special history, incorporating perchance a sense of destiny; the rituals are flag, anthem, battle, memorials of martyrs, presidential motorcades, poets and composers, ancestors celebrated. The nation state has become the dominant political form of our day, and though religion may help to furnish the matter of the nation it also often is subordinated to the demands of national substance and identity. If you have an uncle or great-uncle who died violently, the likelihood is that he did so for his country, not for Presbyterianism. Often too the nation is strengthened by worldviews claiming to be universal. Christianity is an ingredient in the civil religion of America. But it is Marxism which, because of its collectivism, helps most powerfully to unify the nation-state. The People easily becomes identified with (say) the Hungarian people; while the concentration of economic power through socialism makes for a centralism which while it may be tyrannical over individuals can give a stronge sense of national identity.
Liberal democracy or democratic liberalism can, of course, take various forms; but it is by and large the ideology which shapes the thinking of the Western European countries and the nations of North American and Australasia derivative therefrom; it also informs certain Asian countries, such as India, Sri Lanka and Japan, and one or two South American nations. Theoretically its presence is much more widespread. Perhaps its thinking can be summed up as emphasizing individualism, human rights, an open society in which free expression of views is good for politics, science and the arts, and institutions whereby some control of those in power is exercised by the people at large. It is in this last area that its chief weaknesses lie: for instance, majority rule can mean tyranny over the minority if there are strong ethnic divisions in a society — for this reason liberal democracy on the British or European model is hard to implement in most artificially constructed Third World countries. Generally such countries as practise liberal democracy have evolved mixed capitalist-socialist systems and a welfare machinery. The relationship between liberalism and traditional religion is ambiguous, for on the one hand the idea of the sacred individual is in part a derivative from old notions of an immortal soul or of man being made in the image of God; on the other hand, liberalism has an iconoclastic temper and is critical of dogmatism and authority, and is often scandalously open in its legitimation of new sexual experiments and the like which do not jibe well with conservative religion and older rituals of human interaction.
In this panorama of worldviews and elements therein, there are also to be seen the many new groups: the cults as they are often called. The fact that the Western world harbours these so freely is both a tribute to and a criticism of its individualism. The forces of new industrial mobility, the solvents of youthful consumerism, the experimentation born of the desire for novelty and from the habits of criticism, the atomization of the family structure — these processes are an accompaniment of a kind of freedom; but they also bring great anguishes of insecurity. Individualism can place great loads upon the individual. The father and the guru are new popes to give security to individuals; the commune supplies a milieu in which responsibilities, because shared, are taken away. The load is thus lifted. Also, the cults can dramatize life, in a way that traditional religion often has ceased to do. Indeed to a great degree serious interpretation of history as having a significant pattern has been abandoned, in the West, to the Marxists. Many liberal historians take such patterning as unscientific, while Christianity’s salvation-history is somehow regarded as petering out (a well-chosen expression perhaps) at the end of biblical times.
The Understanding between Worldviews and a New View of the Planet
How then so far does my argument stand? The cliffs of California and Kent are places where we sense both the future and terrors from the immediate past. The very conception of a World War has heralded today’s planet: a single, global city. In that city all the great religions and ideologies are in processes of interaction, some of them constructive, some of them violent. At the religious level some major traditions retain vigour: Christianity, shaper of the Western world; Judaism, noble and mysterious survivor of so many tragedies, none greater than the Holocaust; Islam, resurgent in that great swathe of lands from Dakar to the coasts of New Guinea; Hinduism, a new religion with the most ancient roots and maker of the modern Indian spirit; Buddhism subtle and profound Asian force, battered in some of its Eastern lands, finding new life in the Western world. And there are smaller faiths retaining old continuities, and new cults expressing new quests for identity. But most small-scale societies, and a number of ancient traditions, such as those of the Tao and of Confucius, have now become, by and large, ‘classical’ — resources to draw on rather than living organisms with life before them independently. Throughout the ‘smaller world’ of cultures whose strength is not enough to stand up head on to the huge forces of modernization (itself containing within it a set of values drawn from a technologically-suffused ideology) new religious movements grow, mediating the old worlds to the new. The traditional religions which retain real power pose the question of how far the modern world needs the transcendent. Though liberal democracy has been tolerant of that ‘other world,’ and rightly, for Protestant Christianity was one of its parents, Marxism has been on the whole aggressive in its attack upon religion; while for many folk, whether they have deep insight into scientific knowledge or only intuitive feelings about it and respect for its magic powers, a kind of scientific humanism has made the traditional faiths obsolete. Ikons are then, we may ask, destined to be collectors’ pieces, and Buddha statues to be admired for their serenity and poise but not for their signalling of nirvana and the transcendent aspect of existence? Is the Gītā to be read only for its poetry and philology, and the bible to remain simply part of literature? Is human craving for the spiritual to be satisfied in music and paint, and men’s mythic impulses illuminated only through drama and the film? So one major item on our agenda of exploration must be, in the new planetary world, the continued significance of those who point to the Beyond.
After all, there are some strange thoughts that rise to the mind of those who stand upon the cliffs and remember those wars and terrors which have helped to bring the globe into its blue unity. The new vision we have of our beautiful planet seen from outer space comes from the scintillating technology of the moon race. But this itself was born of two desires: one for an assertion of machismo — anything the Soviets can do we can do better. Another was the military use of rockets, inertial guidance systems, all the telemetry: the techniques could be used to cause Novossibirsk or Krasnoyarsk to disappear accurately in the frying of an eye. It is not a credit to secular ideologies that they should in our supposedly more enlightened age still act with cruelty and fear. Scientific humanism has not prevented the crime of the bombing of German cities. Nationalism has not prevented, but indeed encouraged, the Holocaust. Scientific Marxism has not sheltered men and women from the freezing terrors of the Gulag. Maybe we remember Rasputin too, and the bishops blessing war. We may remember more distantly the stakes of the Inquisition. Yet though there seems no way by taking thought that we can utterly protect ourselves from our cruel, stupid childishness, our ignorance and sin, we may yet pause to ask whether there are not spiritual resources in the great faiths which may help, like burning monks and nursing nuns, to moderate and challenge our evils. Certainly modern secularism has a mixed record, to put it too sweetly.
And another thing. The traditional religions refuse to face away. In Bucharest and Warsaw the churches glitter with a myriad candles. It may be in part a way of saying something to the great Bear, and it has much to do with national identity. But it happens. Conversely, where the pressures are not there, where life is in principle (one would think) very sweet, where food abounds and the good things of the planet, where technology and the car have solved so many of the problems of ordinary living — in such a place, the golden sun of the West is not quite enough. Nowhere more vigorously than in the globe’s still most advanced and scientific nation, land of Nobel prizes and cyclotrons, of silicon and sociology — nowhere more vigorously than there do the new quests for Jesus, Krishna, the Buddha, abound. Sometimes those who live in Northern Europe forget the vigour of traditional religion and the siren sounds of new voices from the Beyond. A certain post-Protestant sangfroid, a feeling of working class alienation from the high traditions of the past, a certain smugness perhaps — these conduce to a sense that religion is somewhat of the past. Perhaps it is easy to think this in Gothenburg and Hull, in Bremen or Lille. But it is a special feeling, untypical of the spiritual passions of the world. Nothing perhaps stirs the blood greatly in these places, and one should be grateful for tranquillities and the harmless pursuit of a daily, quite prosperous, living. But as I say such a feeling does not reflect the genuine magic which the Transcendent still retains, whether in Cracow or San Luis Obispo, in Banaras or Qom, in Croatia or Fiji, in Osaka or Valparaiso, in brief: the idea of the Transcendent or perhaps I should say better the practice of the Transcendent is something which both can serve as a challenge to those whose heavens and purgatories are on this earth alone, and can say something about the quest for identity, once the material problems have for the most part been rubbed away.
And as we have seen, it is not possible simply to put the religions in a kind of superior ghetto as though they do not affect and are not affected by the new secular symbol-systems of the modern planet. Thus our exploration is into a range of pictures and a range of identities. The traditional religions must too have a view about these secular ideologies, and the latter about the traditional religions, and about each other. Even those societies, less concerned with the ideologies, but more tragically involved in fighting for ethnic traditions threatened by the tidal waves of Western and modern culture and technology, must place themselves and place their heritage somehow: and this means constructing at least a sketch of a general theory of their and others’ existence.
In brief the global city is a place where each group must possess a map. There are no ghettoes left in that city, only enclaves.
Two Kinds of East and West
For various reasons, the major problems which the Western world has to face, of a spiritual kind, are to do with the relationship between the Christian (or post-Christian) West and the Asian East on the one hand, and between that West and Marxisms on the other hand. Sometimes it happens the phrase ‘East and West’ suggests the former polarity and sometimes the latter polarity. The first issue has to do ultimately with the relationship between the great Asian traditions and the Christian-cum-Jewish track of religion; the second has to do with the relationship between personalism and class collectivism. Both polarities are entangled with the forces of nationalism. And in turn all three are related to the North-South interaction: the way in which the more powerful industrial northern countries have inevitable effects upon the smaller-scale societies of the South.
Thus I wish to reflect upon these matters first from the perspective of the former polarity: to contemplate these two great transcendental religions, Christianity and Buddhism. The exploration will be quite a complex one. What I hope for is not that somehow the deliverances of the two traditions can be made identical or that they can be shown to have a secret single essence. But I would hope to show some of the dynamic reasons why they differ, and to show how aspects of the different dynamisms are like mirror images. There is no unknown Christianity of Buddhism or unknown Buddhism of Christianity. But there are convergences of experience and alternative ways of representing the Transcendent. Whether this will open up the possibility for Christianity of a new kind of natural theology, that is a new use of the cultural resources of the planet, in which Buddhist motifs are woven into the collage of a Western worldview; and whether by contrast it may be possible for Buddhists in their use of skilfulness in means — their capacity that is to adapt the teaching to the psychic condition of the hearers and the cultures as they develop — to attain a new synthesis. These questions belong to the further and philosophical phase of our exploration. But in the meantime let us address ourselves to the remarkable differences that the two great faiths display and to those echoes too which we hear mysteriously in Rome and Banaras, in Constantinople and Nara, and in Bible and Sutra.
If we look at the skies of Kent or California, or peer into the waves forming on the sea, is there anything we sense which lies so to speak behind or within them? When we gaze at one another in love or hate do we see anything beyond the body and the mind? We remain haunted by the sacred and cannot but reflect on the ways in which men have sustained and disturbed themselves by their intuitions of what lies beyond the strange veil of matter and experience. Should we forget those sacred echoes from great civilizations? Should we turn our gaze to solidarities here and now, techniques, fertilizers, the arts, sports, the glories of this world? Has the age of philosophical materialism truly arrived? Or are we still to learn something from the symbols and disciplines of the numinous and the mystical? It is in this quest that we are engaged. But it is a quest which is nothing if it does not engage with flesh and blood and bread and stone: unless, that is, it meets men’s intuitions of the Beyond clothed in life and complexity, which is how they always have been clothed, for naked they are almost nothing, like a nude Emperor.
Our search is to try and discern better the facts. But it may also yield us, like other explorations, a map. And that may help us to live more easily in the labyrinths of the new global city.
That discernment of facts is not easy. The new shape of religion as a field of exploration is not clear to all. So before I directly pursue my gaze beyond the ocean I shall look in a mirror first, to see how seeing is and to delineate the methods of delineation.