Discuss Life and Religion with Tan Tai Wei

A Way of “Salvation”: Escape from Finitude

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We may discern, in the variegated religious experiences of mankind across the diverse cultures and sub-cultures of the world,  two main ways humankind has sought salvation by, which we may see as basically the seeking to be saved from the sort of “condemnation of sin and death”  I tried to depict in my preceding two postings. We discuss here one of the ways, and leave the other for the next posting.

One way is the individual soul’s seeking  relief from that loneliness of “condemnation”, either already realised or the potentiality of its being realised, through escape from and rejection of that condition of his finitude.  He seeks relief through withdrawal, rejecting the realities out there he fails or is unwilling to comprehend and come  to terms with, like Pilate’s asking “What is truth?” (except that Pilate was content to there remain, oblivious of the hell he was in!). He seeks to escape by piling mountain upon mountain like the Titans, or build the Tower of Babel, craving to rise above and beyond his finitude and merge with the Infinite.  It’s like this old colleague of mine, brought up to pray, just as I was, in the context of being told stories of God’s appearing in visions and the likes, as if despite our finitude we were able when rightly disposed to have a direct “I-Thou” encounter with the Infinite. So, he wondered once to me whether when he prayed, he was “imagining it all up”. Well, of course he was imagining if he thought that when praying, he was talking to God in direct “face-to-face” relation. Even when we relate with our fellow-humans, who like ourselves have physical bodies, it cannot be direct mind-to-mind encounter, for we get to know one another’s minds through the mediation of their behaviour as manifested by their bodily movements, however “intimate” the relationships seem. As finite beings, we can know God only as He makes inroads into the finite consciousness He has endowed us and as we train ourselves at devotional practices and worship to sensitise ourselves to His “messages” so initiated. And those rare cases of  visions, voices and dreams “evangelical” preachers  like to select for emphasis  are surely only psychic phenomena occurring  within our finite, natural awareness of things, even though rare. To be sure, God might communicate that way for people so psychically inclined, and such persons would still need to interpret rightly the messages thus conveyed.  It would not be a relief of such persons from their finitude and its potential loneliness. In my very young days, after the conversion experience I had which I described in my “Testimony” posting, I spent many hours at prayer wanting to experience God the way of vision and miracles stressed by “evangelical”  preachers, who were my “gurus”. Nothing happened in that way (for being psychic isn’t my “gift”). The thinking back on that had been one of the considerations that drove me away from the faith some years later, as related in my “Testimony” posting. I thought that, if I had tried so hard to meet God and nothing of that sort occurred, so surely there was no God? A very close friend of mine did tell of such “supernatural” encounters of trance states and hearing voices. One night he had one of those experiences during a church meeting and the pastor wisely sent him to our psychiatric hospital. Years later, he told me how a voice told him to jump from a high building, and then at the brink of it, not to jump. One night some two years later, he did jump. Also, another former colleague of mine, who had no religious affiliation, told me of his “out of the body” experiences, as if there was virtue in itself to be “out of the body”. He would regularly induce himself to “get out”, as if the state of finite bodily existence were one it was needful to escape from. But the truth must, of course, be that, however  the  “out of the body” experiences felt to him, he hadn’t been literally out of the body but he had had psychic experiences he had misinterpreted to be his being out of his body. They had also been natural experiences, like being in a trance and seeing visions, that called for proper and truthful interpreting and sensitising to.

This tendency of humans towards withdrawal and escape from, rather than acceptance of their finite status, we may also discern in those quest for mystical experiences within the world religions, which crave for the absorption of one into some “whole” regarded as ultimate, true Reality. This has occurred even within Christianity and Islam that worship God as personal and “wholly other” (as Martin Buber describe Him), even though their mystics mostly fall short of claiming total identification with God at their mystical experiences, a claim that would strain their belief in a personal God. However, this escapist tendency became writ large as major and definitive doctrines in classical Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hinduism,  the soul quests for release, from being perpetually caught in the cycle of reincarnations within this realm of its existence believed to be illusory, towards realising its true being in identification with  Brahman,  the universal mind and true reality. In Buddhism also, the person seeks  escape from the cycle of unending rebirths within this unreal and inferior realm  in order to find release in Nirvana, the “Void” that negates all illusion and so is true Being,  fullness  and “bliss”.  This tendency is less clearly defined in Taoism, which advocates also withdrawal from over involvement and action, in order to let go and realise our true being within the natural  flow  of the Tao, the unseen, unspoken and eternal. The West too has had her “Idealisms”, stemming importantly from Plato who, as HD Lewis points out, had small regard for the particular,  such beings as the family and children and such things as poetry and the arts, preferring the generality and universality of concepts and ideas. Those he took to comprise the true Realities, particular entities in our world deriving whatever significance they have through “participation” with them. Plato’s quest is to climb tediously up and out the cave, where we are kept prisoners amongst only the unreality of shadows and particulars, in order to emerge  into the sunlight of universal meanings which he literally takes to be real, eventually to attain the vision of the Good, the ultimate  Universal, and there realise our true being. We might simplify and say that the idealist tradition in the West thus initiated culiminates in the philosophy of TH Green and others around the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century, which sees the individual mind as only some particular manifestation of the one true universal Mind. The quest is thus to negate the illusory self and realize one’s true identity by returning to whence one came in reunification with the One.

Now, as HD Lewis has so succinctly and repeatedly brought out through numerous publications, this repudiation of our status as finite beings, who exist only as distinct subjects of our own experiences and must become, in only the mode we are capable of becoming, as we sensitise ourselves and try as truthfully as we can to interpret the impressions the external world of persons and things make on us, would result only in the annihilation of ourselves. Take the famous Hindu analogy, that we are as individual souls to be as rivers flowing into the sea, as we aim to disappear into the vast ocean of the One. Well, then, would we still be? Would not it be that only Being exists,  a Reality with no other individual existing? So, it would all turn out to result in not salvation for the votary but his annihilation. If in the end, all found their destiny in identification with Brahman, or were absorbed into Nirvana, or the mystic became united in the All-in-All, how could there be “the Beatific Vision” ? No distinctive self would  be there to see it, or enjoy the “bliss” and “fullness” of Nirvana.

It is such internal contradictions of faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism that have rendered them unsustainable in their purity. And so, in Buddhism, Nirvana is not mere emptiness but also fullness, indeed blissful (implying the votary still exists as individuated enough to experience bliss). In the posting that follows, I shall indicate how Hinduism and Buddhism had had to deviate into modes that address truly the individual soul’s  quest for relief from that solitariness that is foreign to his God-endowed destiny as a social being. And so, too, in the Chinese tradition, Taoism had to be balanced by the Confucian stress on good interpersonal relations under a Cosmic Being on the side of justice and benevolence. And we shall try to observe how it could be claimed that the Judaeo-Islamic tradition, culminating most definitively in Christianity, fulfils this human quest most satisfactorily.

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Written by Tan Tai Wei

May 18, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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