The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
To fathom the nature and operations of the divine upon humanity is an illumination beyond the workaday intellect.
This is part of a series. The previous parts are: I. Wisdom as knowledge (and an introduction to the broader topic); II. Wisdom as simplicity and wisdom as a virtue; III. Wisdom as cunning; IV. Wisdom as poetic imagination; and V. Wisdom as divine illumination (a sub-topic continued in this post).
To review: in our last installment, we introduced the general idea of mysticism, and said a little about the two main families of religions in which it occurs, namely the Abrahamic and Dharmic groups of religions.* Typically, Abrahamic faiths are Middle Eastern, monotheistic, and expect a Last Judgment. The best-known are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (along with minority sects like the Druze faith). Dharmic religions generally come from the Indian subcontinent, and orient themselves by what they consider the dharma or cosmic law; they mostly view the world as existing on a cycle (saṃsāra), and believe human souls normally reincarnate within it. Buddhism and Hinduism are examples.
The differences, both between and within the Abrahamic and Dharmic families, have been both ignored and exaggerated. At the one end of the spectrum we tend to find pantheism and syncretism, while at the other lie most forms of fundamentalism and theocracy. Mysticism is frequently associated with the former end of the spectrum; some religions, such as Bahá’í and some forms of Hinduism,** formally assert that the differentia of religions are insignificant, and that the true core of all religion is identical. But there are also plenty of mystics who are rigorously orthodox members of their traditions, and categorically dismiss religious indifferentism. A good illustration of how these differences really tend to operate can be found by comparing the Abrahamic doctrine of the Last Judgment with the Dharmic doctrine of of karma.†
After a little analysis, the two appear as something like different “arrangements” of the same tune. Let us start with a few lines from one of the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophic and religious texts:
Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be; a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad; he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds. And here they say that a person consists of desires, and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.
—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.v-vi
Compare that with the words of the Gospel of Luke, penned about six hundred years later:
The Highest is kind to the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned; forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.
Both the Dharmic and the Abrahamic traditions assert, like Rev. Dr. King, that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Moreover, both explain justice in similar terms: something like “you get out what you put in” or “what goes around comes around.” Justice is, in some way, a balancing of the scales—an image common to civic, criminal, and economic justice alike.
Nevertheless, the two arrangements of the tune are, indeed, distinguishable. To start with, the Upanishad refers justice to impersonal laws of cause and effect, where the Abrahamic text describes it in terms of decision and relationship. This could of course be coincidence; one text from each entire family of religions is not a large sample size! Still, it is notable that the text from the Abrahamic faith—the kind that not only believes in a single, personal deity (a belief some Hindus also adhere to), but makes this type of monotheism its defining principle—is the one to define justice in personal terms. This is a trivial instance of a divergence in atmosphere that runs through all members of the two families. More important in both, however, is an unstated element of context given to both by their notions of time. In most accounts of the Dharma, the wheel of saṃsāra is perpetual: an individual can (in some versions) escape from the wheel, or at least learn to permanently occupy a blessed place within it, but there is no rush, no urgency. The God of Abraham, on the other hand, has forewarned mankind of a coming judgment, one in which any justice that we have dawdled over will be taken forcibly from our hands and imposed. And we have absolutely no clue when that is going to befall, so that there is very much a note of urgency common to the Tanakh, the New Testament, and the Qur’an!
A peculiarly Christian emphasis which emerges in the above passage from Luke is the mention of forgiveness. This is probably Christianity’s single most unpopular teaching—that we are instructed not only to love our enemies (which can still allow us to retain a sense of superiority over them, something we are usually pleased to call “pity”), but to ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. This offensive phrase has the indecency to put our lovely selves on a level with people we can’t stand, and to attach our desire to receive divine favor to our willingness to extend the same favor to people who have genuinely, perhaps irrevocably, hurt us.
The full ins and outs of forgiveness are far too much for a single blog post to cover! But a metaphor that may be illuminating is if we think of it as an entry into a divine economy. Christian wisdom, in this metaphor, is the power to understand how the divine economy operates: not at all by debt or purchase; entirely by gift. To refuse to forgive someone else, to demand that that debt to oneself be paid, is only possible by returning to the earthly economy of purchase, and if we return to that economy, its logic will operate upon us as much as upon anyone else.
Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity?
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven!
Such is the Forgiveness of the Gods, the Moral Virtues of the
Heathen, whose tender Mercies are Cruelty. But Jehovahs Salvation
Is without Money & without Price, in the Continual Forgiveness of Sins
In the Perpetual Mutual Sacrifice in Great Eternity!
—William Blake, Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, plate 61
All this will do for a bare introduction to divine illumination. On this subject more than any other, we must suggest the suggested reading with particular warmth! But one more meaning of wisdom remains; and it, like the second and this sixth, is counterintuitive. Yet it is indispensable, especially in an age like our own.
The Buddha [Siddartha Gautama], The Path of Truth (or Dhammapada)
St. Gregory the Great, The Book of Shepherdly Care
The Qur’an, Surah 17: Al-Isrā’ (“The Night Journey”)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Talks on the Song of Songs
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
Leo Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
Charles Williams, The Forgiveness of Sins
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace
*To be sure, this is a serious oversimplification: most scholars would add at least two more categories, the Iranian and Far Eastern (to say nothing of the indigenous beliefs of Africa, the Americas, northern Asia, pre-Christian Europe, and Oceania). The origins and histories of Far Eastern faiths like Shinto and Daoism are quite independent of India; however, in typology, they largely resemble the Dharmic religions. The Iranian religions, like Yazidism and Zoroastrianism, often seem to partake of both Dharmic and Abrahamic elements—which is logical, given their geographic origin.
**It is exceedingly difficult to generalize about Hinduism, because it is a highly diverse tradition. To take just one example, Westerners typically assume that Hinduism is pantheistic, but the bhakti traditions (such as the Hare Krishna movement) are explicitly monotheist, as expressed in the maxim “I want to eat sugar; I don’t want to be sugar.”
†Karma literally means “deeds” or “works” in Sanskrit (Sanskrit being, in India, the approximate cultural and theological equivalent of Latin in Western Europe). Its details differ depending on the religious context in which it occurs, much as the details of the Last Judgment differ depending on whether you ask a Catholic, a Zoroastrian, a Shiite Muslim, or a Southern Baptist. However, the general common thread of the doctrine of karma is that the human soul, like the human body, is subject to the law of cause and effect, and that one of the spiritual effects of bad deeds is a bad reincarnation.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, and counsels you to consult the wise.
If you’d like to read more about this, try our posts on the concept of authority, the writings of John Donne, the idea of faith, the work of St. Jerome, and Moses Maimonides. Thank you for reading the Journal, and enjoy your day.
Published on 19th October, 2023.