Beyond the experience of duality

The New Consciousness

The old is always dying and the new is emerging…we are at the birth of a new age and a new consciousness.


This article is the acceptance speech for the John Harriott Memorial Award published in The Tablet 16 January 1993. It was dictated by Fr Bede at Shantivanam shortly before he had his final stroke.


We are entering a new age. The European civilization which we have known for the past two thousand years is giving way to a global civilization, which will no longer be centred in Europe but will have its focus more in Asia, Africa and South America. Christianity will no longer be a separate religion but will be seen in the context of the religious traditions of humankind as a whole.

As we enter this new civilization, the meeting-pace of East and West, and of the nations of the world, will be science. The changes in contemporary Western science have provided a new outlook on life for humanity as a whole. The central point is the new understanding of the universe, which is no longer perceived as consisting of solid bodies moving in space and time, but rather, according to quantum theory, as a field of energy pervaded by consciousness. Western scientists, for the first time, have seriously faced the fact that if they want to understand the universe, they have to understand their own consciousness. A leader in this development was David Bohm for he was one of the first scientists to take seriously the place of consciousness in scientific understanding.

The new understanding of science and consciousness provides, as it were, a platform on which religions can meet. We are beginning to see that we can now interpret the religious traditions, particularly the myths and symbols of all the scriptures, within the context of a world where science and consciousness interrelate.

In this new global civilisation Christianity, as I understand it, will be seen in relation to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism and the primordial religious traditions – the Australian, the native American, the African and so on. A new consciousness is emerging, moving beyond the rational mind with its awareness of separate entities and its dualistic approach. We are beginning to discover the unitive consciousness which goes beyond dualistic awareness.

David Bohm speaks, as a theoretical physicist, of unity and interconnectedness in what he calls the implicate order, prior to the world of separate entities which is our normal experience. The implicate order is constantly unfolding, giving rise to the explicate order of particular forms and structures. This where the new scientific understanding of the universe meets with the non-dualist traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and so on. As we move beyond the present religious forms and structures, we begin to see that, behind and beyond their diversity, there is an underlying unity. All the religions are expressing symbolically something which cannot be expressed in rational terms.

Any attempt to express fully that which is beyond expression is bound to fail. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church attempts to put the content of the Catholic faith into rational discursive terms. The aim is illusory because the content of the Catholic faith, in common with that of the other great religious traditions, transcends all rational, discursive thought. When he had finished his great theological work, the Summa Theologica, St Thomas Aquinas realised that all he had written was as straw in comparison to his mystical experience. He was fully aware that no image or concept is remotely adequate to the fullness of the faith.

Within Christianity the focus will be on the mystery of faith, which Jesus called the mystery of the Kingdom of God and St Paul called the mystery of Christ. A mystery cannot be expressed rationally or logically but it can be symbolised. All scientific theories and all religious doctrines are in fact symbolic structures. In each religion the symbolic structures work by opening the human mind to the transcendent Reality, to the truth. The symbolic structures within the religions each have their unique value, but all have limitations because they are socially and culturally conditioned.

The unique value of Christianity is its profoundly historic structure. That to me is a key point. Christ is not an avatara. The Incarnation is a unique historic event and Jesus a unique historic person. In gathering all things, all of humanity and all matter, into one in himself, he transforms the world, bringing the cosmos, its matter and its processes, back to its source in the transcendent Reality, whom he called Abba, Father. This is unique. At the same time, one of the main limitations of institutional Christianity is its exclusivism, which stems from its cultural background in ancient Judaism. This exclusivism particularly will have to be transcended as we move more and more deeply into the mystery of Christ. We are in a position now to be open to all the religious traditions of the world, being aware of their limitations but also, most importantly, realising their unity in the depth-dimension which underlies them all: and that, of course, is the mystical dimension.

Many people today are discovering the mystical dimension in religion. In Christianity, once we get beyond the doctrinal systems, we have a long tradition of mystical wisdom, beginning with St John and St Paul, going through Clement of Alexandra, Origen and the Greek Fathers, and on to St Augustine, and later St Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. And now we can relate that to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism and the other great religions.

The Christian Gospel as originally proclaimed was: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” At that time the old structures were breaking down and the kingdom of God was emerging. The Apocalypse would put it, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” The old heaven and the old earth had passed away. And a voice said, “Behold I make all things new.” That is always happening.

I think that is exactly where we are today: the breakdown of the old civilisation and of the whole order which we knew, and, within that, the rebirth of meaning, penetrated by a new consciousness. Science today recognises that all order comes out of chaos. When the old structures break down and the traditional forms begin to disintegrate, precisely then in the chaos, a new form, a new structure, a new order of being and consciousness emerges.

The old is always dying and the new is emerging, and that which is new socially and culturally transforms the old. This is really an apocalyptic age. Within this context we can take the forms of Christian symbolism, but we can also take forms like the coming of the Buddha Maitreya or the last avatara of Kali. Every religion looks forward to a time when the end will come and the new birth will take place. So, in a very wonderful way we are at the birth of a new age and a new consciousness.