Beyond the experience of duality

The Search for God

Many people have left the Church in search of God. The Church can respond to their needs by rediscovering the experience of God revealed by Jesus Christ. Spiritual seekers today often go to India, but this experience of God can be found within Christianity, where it has been long buried under layers of dogma and moral law which for many have lost their meaning.


It is well known that thousands of young people come to India every year in search of God or let us say in search of an ultimate meaning and purpose in life. They come from all parts of Western Europe, from North and South America, from South Africa and from Australia and New Zealand. Many come from so called ‘Catholic’ countries like Italy, Span, Portugal, Argentine and Brazil. I was told by the Italian consul in Bombay that 5,000 Italians come every year to Bombay alone. But what is remarkable about these people is that almost all of them, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jew, have given up the practice of their own religion and come to India in search of something which they cannot find in the religious establishments of the west. Not many of them, of course, have seriously studied their own religion. It is rather a spontaneous reaction against what they consider a formal system of religion without meaning or relevance to their own lives. It is often part of a wider movement of rejection of what they call the ‘establishment,’ the whole set-up of economic, social, political and religious structures in the west, which they regard as inhuman and immoral. But whatever the reasons may be, we are faced with the startling fact that hundreds and thousands of young people today are leaving the churches not because they reject religion, but because they want to find God.

Of course, the underlying motives are various. Some are simply seeking adventure, some are drop-outs in search of an alternative way of life, some probably the majority are or have been under the influence of drugs, whether marijuana, lsd or even heroin. But a great many are seriously seeking ways of Yoga and meditation which may help them to redirect their lives. What is common to all is the search for experience. They do not want doctrines or rituals but an experience which will change their lives.

The influence of drugs must not be underestimated. Many have told me that they owed their first experience of religion as something meaningful through the drug experience. A hallucinatory drug sets the mind free from rational and moral inhibitions and opens up the unconscious with its cast capacity for emotional and imaginative experience. This is, of course, a dangerous path since there are negative and destructive forces in the unconscious as well as positive and creative. There is the further problem that drugs may lead to addiction and in any case, they weaken the will and make the subject prone to irrational behaviour and even to madness. Nevertheless, they cannot just be dismissed, as though they had no positive value. Many have come out of drugs and dedicated themselves to Yoga and meditation with the utmost seriousness, fasting and praying for many hours a day and often for many days or weeks at a time. The ashrams of Swami Muktananda at Ganesh Puri near Bombay, and that of Rajneesh at Poona are examples of ashrams which attract literally hundreds of young people – sometimes 500 at a time – and teach various methods of obtaining ‘God-experience.’ Perhaps even more influential is Krishnamurti, who has thousands of followers all over the world and who teaches a way of ‘self-discovery,’ a way to reach the inner depth of the soul beyond sense or reason, where it is open to the mystery of being, the centre of freedom and creativity, in which the meaning and the purpose of existence is to be found.

This is the essential goal of all oriental religion: it is a way to go beyond both sense and feeling, reason and the active will, and to discover the ‘ground’ of the soul where man enters into the experience of the Absolute, of infinite, eternal Reality, which is at once Being (sat), Consciousness (cit), and Bliss (ananda). These are the Hindu terms for the experience, but the Buddha’s Nirvana and the Void (sunyata) and the Tao of Chinese thought are all essentially pointers towards this infinite, transcendent mystery which cannot be known by reason, but reveals itself to those who seek it with their whole heart. It is here that the challenge to Christian religion is most clearly felt. How is it that the churches today so rarely offer this experience of God? It is almost identical, though the modalities of the experience differ, with what in the Middle Ages and in St John of the Cross was called ‘contemplation.’ But for many centuries now contemplation and contemplative life have been relegated to a few convents and monasteries and the ordinary Catholic, whether religious, priest or layman, is not expected to seek or to find such an experience. Yet the essence of contemplation is precisely the passing beyond images and concepts and experiencing the indwelling presence of God in the depths of the soul. For many centuries – practically since the Council of Trent – contemplation or the experience of God was rejected in favour of a system of dogmas, rituals and moral laws, which a Roman Catholic was expected to ‘believe,’ however little they might seem relevant to his own life.

Even now it is not uncommon to find the Catholic faith defined as a system of ‘propositions’ or ‘truths’ about God, Christ, and the Church, to which the Catholic is expected to give assent. In such a system the most important thing is that the dogmas and rituals and laws should be clearly defined, so that no one may [be] in doubt as to what he believes. Yet this is almost the exact opposite of the religion which was proclaimed in the gospels. Jesus gave his life and St Paul spent his life fighting against just such a system of law, in which the knowledge of God, the moral law and the religious rites, which he had ordained, were believed to be contained. Jesus did not simply substitute some other dogmas and laws which his disciples were expected to accept. He changed the whole character of the religion. The object of the Christian faith is not a system of doctrines and sacraments and moral laws, but a person, and a person is essentially a ‘mystery.’ God himself is the infinite, transcendent Mystery, which cannot be thought, cannot properly be named. It should be noted that Yahweh himself was originally this infinite transcendent Mystery, the Holy One, the Other, the One without a Second which Indian religion has sought throughout its history. Jesus did not simply proclaim a new dogma of the Trinity. He experienced himself in relation to God as a son to his father and he communicated this experience of God to his disciples by the gift of the Spirit. As St Paul was to say: “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, Abba, Father” (Gal 4,6). The doctrine of the Trinity was therefore originally not a dogma but a mystery, a unique experience which Jesus enjoyed of relationship to God as Son to his Father. This mystery was communicated to the disciples not by a series of propositions but by the Holy Spirit, the inner life and love of God, which the disciples experienced in the depths of their hearts. When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, it was not to reveal doctrines but to communicate an experience.

This is not, of course, to say that doctrines and dogmas have no value. The mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Eucharist were first experienced in contemplation, as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul. But since religious experience has an aspect both of knowledge and of love as well as of ‘praxis,’ it was inevitable that these profound experiences should be gradually expressed in intelligible terms. Thus the experience becomes formulated and doctrines are evolved but the doctrines are always secondary: they point towards an ineffable experience which cannot be adequately expressed. It is the same with moral laws. Christian morality is not simply obedience to laws, but surrender to the love of God in total self-giving, which results in a new understanding of the relation of our neighbour to ourselves. But when the doctrine or the moral law becomes a substitute for the experience, as has so often happened, then the result is disastrous. The charismatic movement among Catholics and Protestants today is a remarkable example of a return to experience of the Holy Spirit, but there is a danger of a fundamentalist doctrine behind the charismatic movement, which could prevent its opening to the great world of God experience, which people are seeking today.

Perhaps the most important change in the understanding of theology since the second Vatican Council has been the recognition of the historical character of all dogmas. Dogmas are no longer regarded as fixed and final. A dogma is the expression of the mystery of faith in human language which always remains inadequate and is always culturally conditioned. A dogma points towards a mystery, which it can never properly define, and it is always possible to find new ways of expressing the mystery, which may be more adequate and meaningful. Thus we are always being driven to go beyond the dogma to the mystery which it seeks to safeguard. In the same way we are always being urged to go beyond moral laws, which can never be adequate to the concrete human situation, and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which transcends all laws and penetrates into the heart.

During the past years a constant stream of people have been coming to our ashram from different parts of India and from all over the world. Almost all of them are deeply serious. They may be very far from Christian faith, but they are seeking God, that is, they are seeking for an ultimate meaning for their lives. They may make use of Yoga or Zen or Vipassana as a method of meditation, or they may meditate on the Tao or the I Ching, or they may make use of Sufi prayer and dance. But whatever method they may use what they are seeking is not a theory or a doctrine but a method of ‘self-realisation,’ an experience of God or Truth or ultimate Reality. They are open to what Hinduism or Buddhism or Taoism or Islam can teach them, but they are equally open to Christianity, as long as it is presented as a way of spiritual experience, of ‘God-realisation,’ or, in a word, of contemplation. I have known many Catholics, who had not practiced their faith for years, undergo a profound conversion, rediscovering their faith in a new way, not from without but from within. This, it seems, is what India has to offer, the discovery of the interior dimension of faith as an experience of God in the heart. Could not the Church be more aware of this tremendous search for God, for a new consciousness beyond the mental consciousness, for a new age of spirituality, which many believe is now dawning?

The Christian experience of God is of unfathomable depth, but it is locked up in words and formulas, which have for many lost their meaning. Only when the Catholic Church opens itself to the immeasurable riches of oriental religion shall we be able to answer the need of the new generation, which comes to India and other parts of Asia very year in search of God.


First published in The Tablet 30 June 1979