Leave the poor ego alone, but a great book

Book Review: A Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh

Some of the statements Kavanagh makes in this book strike me as wise as wise can be. But mixed in with them are ones that I believe take us down the wrong path.

First, the wise part. It is a book of unknowing in that it celebrates the deep background of one’s existence that always eludes one’s intellectual grasp. It is not a matter of willfully remaining ignorant through laziness or a superstitious fear of finding out that reality doesn’t conform to one’s wishes. Instead, what Kavanagh recommends is an openness to being guided by what is not under one’s control. She writes about “seeming coincidences which are glimpses of an existing connection, hitherto unnoticed,” and states, “The more open we are, the more these seem to appear.” (p. 27) She illustrates this way of living with anecdotes from her own life and quotations from the writings of others, and shows how this openness to being guided by what is not under one’s control is the same thing as creativity, improvisation, waiting for clarity, and obedience to the will of God. She writes, “With the world inside us as our guide, we have moments of choice: to betray our true self or to say ‘yes’.” (p. 29)

The unwise part begins to creep in when she starts talking about the ego: “Obedience to that process means trust, is the very meaning of ‘faith’, the surrender of ambitions, plans, decisions made by the ego and the urge to control.” This kind of language is familiar to me from the writings of Alan Watts, Huston Smith, and others. My problem with it is that it assumes a clear distinction between a good self, “the true self,” and a bad self, “the ego”; and I think I am only one self, who is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and complex in many other ways as well. “Ego” just means “I” in Greek and Latin. I don’t think it is helpful to castigate a bad “I” who is the one who makes mistakes and does bad things, as if this weren’t the same “I” who sometimes understands and does good things. I would ask: Can’t we pay attention to synchronicity without necessarily surrendering our ambitions, plans, and decisions? Isn’t it better to enjoy an interplay between our plans and synchronicity? To recognize the importance of what we can control as well as the importance of what is beyond our control? I suspect that Kavanagh would answer, “Yes, yes, of course,” but what came across to me in reading the book was too much of a recommendation of an unhealthy self-abnegation. Near the beginning of the book she wrote, “. . . [T]he unforeseen may contain riches that go beyond what in our habitual ways of thinking and in our workaday lives we are capable of imagining.” But then a little later she wrote, “In our action in the world, if we act from that state of ego-free emptiness we will transform the manner of our working. If we work for others, we will know to expect nothing in return.” And I thought, “Well, which is it? Are we to find riches beyond our imagining, or nothing? If everybody followed the advice of her second statement, we should expect no one to enjoy the fruits of helping or of being helped by someone else. Consider those who wanted to be healed by Jesus. Were they wrong to want this? Were they ego-driven? Should they have wanted only that others should be healed? If you don’t love yourself, then loving your neighbor as yourself equals not loving your neighbor.

I think there are two types of mysticism. One is expressed in Hinduism and Buddhism, and in some forms of Christian and Islamic mysticism. It is the longing for one’s own annihilation in the belief that this is necessary in order to be one with God, or, in the case of Buddhism, to be in the bliss of nirvana. The other is the mysticism of Paul the Apostle, and perhaps of Jesus himself, in which one hopes that God will be all in all in a way that fulfills rather than wipes out individual selves, which each have life everlasting in God. The contrast of being ego-driven versus being ego-free goes with the first. The contrast between success in this life and this world versus the success of everlasting life goes with the second. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19) My advice to readers is to read A Little Book of Unknowing with this second contrast in mind in order to appreciate the wisdom and beauty of this book. Mentally substitute “this worldly” for “ego-driven” and the like, and “faith in life everlasting” for “being free of the ego” and the like.

But back to the wisdom of this book. There is so much to remind one of the deepest, most important truth, which is, in the words of Julian of Norwich, whom Kavanagh quotes, that “all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.” Despite my criticism of the “ego vs. non-ego” talk, reading this book made me feel more patient, more accepting, calmer and less anxious. Dip into it almost anywhere and you will find excellent advice about how to live in tune with the Spirit. “There is no planning; we are asked to arrive fresh at every moment and respond to whatever happens.” (p. 36) “Silence is a way towards God.” (p. 38) “It was only when I heard the definition of prayer as ‘attention’ that it began to have meaning for me.” (p. 40) “We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led.” (p. 50) I have stated my criticism. I also highly recommend this book.

Does Jesus recommend political activism?

Book Review

Fingerprints of Fire . . . Footprints of Peace: a spiritual manifesto from a Jesus perspective

by Noel Moules

There is much to like about this book: Moules’s universalism, i.e., his belief that in the end everybody and everything will be “made part of the final wholeness of all things”; his acknowledgement that there are important differences among the world’s major religions; his clear expression of why he favors the message of Jesus, coupled with his good-hearted respect and openness towards other views, including humanistic atheism; his appreciation for the goodness of creation; his recognition that loving God and neighbor requires love of self as well. Here is one sentence that particularly rings true to me: “One thing seems quite clear: however certain any of us are about what we believe, the final outcome will be filled with more surprise and astonishment than any of us can ever anticipate.” (p. 194)

In the spirit of reaching towards that final outcome, I offer the following criticism: Moules recommends political activism, but I don’t believe he has given a convincing answer to the question: If Jesus was recommending radical political engagement, as Moules claims (p. 54), then why did he say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36)?

Moules tries to make a clear distinction between violent and nonviolent political activism, but I don’t think he succeeds. He gives a quite broad definition of violence: “Violence is emotional, verbal, or physical behavior that dominates, diminishes or destroys ourselves or others.” (p. 132) And he writes the following about shalom, which he says is “the center of a Jesus-focused hope,” (p. 29): “Shalom has to be crafted out of raw and often resistant materials; this requires wisdom soaked in perspiration, shaped by a commitment to love and gentleness and hallmarked by a total absence of violence.” (p. 45) But he also writes that “there are times when wild nature is threatened,” and that when that happens, “we have the responsibility to stamp on the threat and eliminate it. This is part of what it means to be with creation; this is a call for us to be guardians.” (p. 86) He also makes it clear that he thinks we are currently facing an ecological crisis (p. 92) On its face, I’d say, talk of stamping on a threat and eliminating it certainly at least sounds violent. Moules goes so far as to claim that when Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple with a whip made of knotted cords, he was exercising, not violence, but “assertive meekness.” (p. 137) But didn’t Jesus dominate the moneychangers by physical behavior that day?

So here is where I disagree with Moules, though I think he has written a valuable book concerning topics of the utmost importance: Rather than trying to imagine there could be a kind of political activism that doesn’t aim at the goal of someone forcing someone else to do or stop doing something, we should make a distinction between 1) actions according to the worldly principle that force is justified in self-defense or defense of the innocent and 2) actions according to the divine principle that in the kingdom of heaven everyone freely chooses to act according to love of God and love of neighbor as oneself. Political activism, then, can only ever be justified by that worldly standard. Then what about Jesus’ action that day? Perhaps he would answer with a question, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone.” (Matt. 19:17, also Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19)

Book Review: The Death of the Church and Spirituality Reborn

In The Death of the Church and Spirituality Reborn, Rev. John Littlewood, a former parish priest who now works as the administrator of a counseling agency, argues for incorporating New Age spirituality into the life of the Church of England. He sees the New Age movement as a revival of the old Celtic church that was defeated by the church of the Roman Empire. He points out that the problem with New Age spirituality is that it has no collective authority but rather is a free-for-all with too many self-proclaimed masters. The problem with the Church of England, in contrast, is that it has lost sight of the answer to the question: What is the point of religion — any religion? Rev. Littlewood says the answer is that spiritual growth is the point. This is the part of the book that I found most compelling. He states unequivocally, “If that [spiritual growth] is not foremost then the religion has lost its way! No matter how high sounding or important a cause or issue may be it must still be secondary to matters spiritual for that religion.”

As an American, unfamiliar with the administrative jargon of the Church of England, and lacking the historical and geographical links with the sacred sites and legends of the British Isles, I felt at times that I was not a member of the intended audience of this book. However, the question about the point of a religion is universally important, and it gladdened my heart to see it treated with the emphasis it deserves. Rev. Littlewood wrote about being shocked to read in the UK press that the Church of England “was preparing a guide on what the church members should consider before voting in a General Election,” and I recalled similar discouragement on viewing the website of the United Church of Christ, which reads like the platform of a political party with a position on every controversial social and political question of the day, and very little about one’s relationship with God.

Rev. Littlewood discusses the advantages and the disadvantages of belonging to a church. He gives a clarion warning about the dangers of peer pressure and of using particular verbal formulations as shibboleths to identify those who truly belong. He discusses the differences between prayer, meditation, and magic. He offers detailed suggestions for incorporating New Age spirituality into the Church of England. His book will be of most interest to those who care about religion and spirituality in the context of British life and culture, but it also contains a message that is relevant everywhere: The point of any religion is being in the right relationship with God, and taking stands on political and social issues is of secondary importance.