Beyond the experience of duality

Union and Communion

Above: The mass celebrated in the new temple at Shantivanam

A letter to The Tablet 28 May 1977


Sir: The correspondence in The Tablet on union and communion makes very depressing reading. It seems that we are still involved in the sterile controversies, which have divided the Christian churches for so many centuries, and judging from your article on ‘The Vatican Frustration.’ It seems that this mentality still prevails in Rome. May I suggest that the root cause of the trouble, which goes back a long way in Christian history, is the failure to recognise that the manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a mystery which cannot properly be expressed in words? Whether we speak of transubstantiation or real presence or symbolic presence, all these words and concepts are totally inadequate to describe the reality, and we shall never find an adequate formula. What unites all Christians in the Eucharist is their intention to do what Christ did at the last supper and so to fulfil his command: “Do this in memory of me.” Should we not be prepared to admit to communion everyone who sincerely seeks communion with Christ in this sacrament, whatever his opinion of the exact nature of this communion may be.

It is the same with belief in Christ. We shall never find a formula in which all Christians will agree about the person of Jesus Christ. The relation of Jesus to God is a mystery which cannot properly be expressed in words. All words are at best approximations. Whether we call him Son or Image or Word or Lord or Christ or God, all these words are terms of analogy and cannot even remotely define his nature. What defines a Christian is not the formula of his faith but his commitment to the person of Christ. Can we not accept as a Christian anyone who is committed to Christ, whatever the term in which this commitment is expressed? This is not to say that the terms of his commitment are not important and do not influence his commitment, but that they are secondary and should be matters of friendly discussion not of denunciation and excommunication.

Finally in the matter of belief in God, the word ‘God’ is a name which we give to that ultimate mystery of existence which cannot properly be named. Whether we speak of Brahman or Atman or Nirvana or Tao or Yahweh or Allah or God, we are using names which point towards a mystery which can never be adequately expressed or comprehended. It is natural and necessary to use words and concepts in order to express our faith and we cannot do without them, but if we remember that the language which we use about God is always analogous and infinitely remote from the reality, may we not cease to quarrel about names?

It may be thought that to give up formulas as a test of faith will lead to complete vagueness and leave faith totally undefined. But the evidence from the history of Hinduism seems to refute this supposition. Hinduism has existed for 5,000 years as a religion with a clearly defined character and yet it relies on no formulas of faith. A Hindu is free to believe what he likes, and yet a profound and complex doctrine has been preserved and has grown throughout its history, and millions of Hindus are able to live together in harmony without excommunicating one another for their differences in belief.

May I be allowed to say that I express this view of religious faith in my book Return to the Centre, which a reviewer in The Tablet described as “an unhappy amalgam of opaque statements, confusion of thought and superficial generalisations.” This may have prevented some readers from even taking a look at it, but it is in fact the fruit of many years reflection on the Christian faith, especially in the light of my experience in India, and is expressed with the utmost clarity and consistency which I could command, and suggests a view of religious truth which I think deserves more consideration than it receives.