Middle Way for Christians

Christianity is often interpreted – both by Christians and others – as overwhelmingly a matter of belief. These beliefs, such as belief in the existence of God, and the belief that Jesus was divine as well as human, are unavoidably metaphysical beliefs, as they lie far beyond any possible human experience. In this sense, then, one could not be a Christian and a practitioner of the Middle Way, just as one could not follow the Middle Way and be an atheist – in the sense of someone who asserts opposing negative metaphysical beliefs denying God’s existence.icon Christ

But there is a great deal more to Christianity than the adoption of such beliefs. Indeed, one could argue, as one could with Buddhism, that Christianity offers insights that are incompatible with such beliefs. Many Christians have adopted Christian faith because of an experience of God or of Jesus rather than because of any wish to adopt beliefs that lie beyond experience. However, due simply to the point that no finite being can experience infinity, one can assert confidently that nobody has ever had an experience that is undoubtedly of God. Rather, many Christians and other theists have had positive and integrating, but finite, experiences that they attribute to God. They may or may not be correct in that attribution, because God may or may not exist. We have no way of ever knowing.

There is a long tradition of agnosticism in Christianity known as negative theology, including the recognition that no-one can know God. Indeed, an important part of the significance of God is that unknowability. The mystical tradition, instead of claiming to know anything of God or his will, sought him in a state of openness through prayer, meditation and spiritual exercises. Such mystics have usually offered outward obedience to the Church, but there has also been a constant tension between dogma and experience.

The source of metaphysical beliefs in Christianity is not God or Jesus themselves, but the belief that God reveals his Will through the words of the Bible or the traditions of the Church. Again, all that is required to undermine this is a little reflection on human fallibility. Even if an infinite God is in fact trying to communicate in such a way, the authoritative words and institutions that we have are the result of finite human interpretation. To in any way identify the absoluteness of God with these flesh-and-blood productions involves a massive failure to appreciate our limitations. Belief in revelation is blasphemous, if blasphemy is understood as the profanation of the sacred and absolute.

Another source of the Middle Way within Christianity lies in the symbolic function of the story of the incarnation. For Jung, God can be identified with an archetype of an entirely integrated self, which we project ahead. An experience of God, then, can be understood as a glimpse of how all our own and others’ energies might work together, both inwardly and outwardly, and our views of the world be unified. We might imagine that potential as a wise old man, or more impersonally as a mandala, but however it is envisaged, it is likely to be accompanied by huge positive emotions and inspiration. However, we are also a long way away from this vision of the divine, a distance that Christians have often understood in terms of human sinfulness.

The role of Jesus Christ, then, is that of bridging the gap between the limited ego and the distant God-archetype. He does this in a position of profound ambiguity, in which (according to the Nicene Creed) he is both wholly divine and wholly human at the same time. How is this possible? One could interpret this uncharitably as just an appeal to a sort of magic to cross a gulf in human experience, and thus to give the illusion of (vicariously) overcoming sin when sin is still very much present. However, a more charitable interpretation might be to see the incarnation as working for Christians rather as the Middle Way works for Buddhists. It is a model or a metaphor that one can use to talk about the ways we can keep a vision of the perfect as an inspiration on the edge of experience, whilst making progress in a context of imperfection.

If Jesus’ incarnation offers a symbol of the possibility of progress, where the idealised visions of the left hemispheres of our brains are integrated with the physical limitations of our wider experience, then Jesus’ death by crucifixion offers the balancing opposite symbol, of the defeat of any such expectations and the ruin of our idealistic constructions. We are just sinful and imperfect after all – until the resurrection takes us back to the hope-beyond-despair. Perhaps the message is that we can only make progress towards the realisation of our ideals if we face up to the ultimate emptiness of our idealisations.

This kind of symbology would be available to us regardless of whether or not anything claimed about Jesus is historically accurate, because it presents an ongoing dialectical relationship between an archetype of the ego and an archetype of perfection. This relationship is of a kind that is going on in every human mind but can be represented in many alternative ways.  It is clearly not the only possible way of interpreting the Christian record, and cannot be asserted on the basis of any scholarly account of correct interpretation. Rather, like the Middle Way of the Buddha, it deserves highlighting because of its usefulness (and because of the destructiveness of the metaphysical alternatives).

There are thus various aspects of Christianity that can be interpreted in a way that is in accordance with the Middle Way: these include attitudes to blasphemy, the role of incarnation, and the mystical tradition. It is possible to be a Christian follower of the Middle Way, perhaps, by working within the Christian tradition on the basis of these positive points. At the same time, however, the appeal to revelatory authority of any kind will need to be rejected. God needs to be understood primarily as mystery. In this way one might well be able to take the best from Christian tradition, and practise it, whilst clearly rejecting metaphysics as the basis of the dogma, conflict, sectarianism, and war that has blighted Christian history.

3 thoughts on “Middle Way for Christians

  1. 11.11.2013.
    Start the Week. Radio 4, with Andrew Marr, John Tavener, Janette Winterson and another contributor. I would recommend this programme if you have not heard it. Music, symbols, the soul and the poetry of Wm. Herbert were discussed.

  2. Negative theology and mysticism don’t necessarily lead to agnosticism. There’s a perspective within Orthodox Christianity that mysticism is the fulfillment of doctrine, and doctrine is the expression of mysticism. It seems they hold that the doctrines arising from Biblical and other traditional sources are in fact expressions of mystical experience. It’s a nice justification for dogma, which is otherwise almost a dirty word in post-modern dialogue.
    Something I’ve been wondering recently is whether the Christian doctrine regarding Jesus, that “he is both wholly divine and wholly human at the same time” might be expressing an insight not dissimilar to the famous dictum “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. The latter is said to sum up the Prajnaparamita teachings, of which Nagarjuna’s Middle Way doctrine is an exegesis. Any thoughts on this point?

    1. Yes, I recognise that mysticism has been interpreted in terms that fit orthodox teaching throughout Christian history – including often by the mystics themselves, who have had to reconcile their experiences with their social status in the church. But that appropriation doesn’t mean that such interpretation is inevitable or that we couldn’t start to interpret religious experience differently.

      I’d also agree that there is an insight in the creedal statement of Jesus’ simultaneous divinity and humanity which can be interpreted as parallel to the emptiness doctrine. In both cases an absolute metaphysical opposition is being challenged, and that challenge can symbolise a process of loosening up opposed absolute categories and developing new ways of understanding and responding to the world. In both cases, too, the paradox can also simply be incorporated back into absolute thinking – it all depends on the interpretation of the symbols in relation to practice.

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