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Christianity in the Deep Wisdom Traditions of Humanity and World Religions
Early in our Church’s history, St Augustine said “the same thing which is now called Christian religion existed among the ancients. They have begun to call 'Christian' the true religion which existed
Early in our Church’s history, St Augustine said “the same thing which is now called Christian religion existed among the ancients. They have begun to call 'Christian' the true religion which existed before.”
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This quote surfaced for me recently, and it has captivated me.
I was recently listening to a conversation about paganism and Christianity, and they talked about how the missionaries and the Christian tradition is made up of pagan content that is salvaged from non-Christian pasts.
This didn’t sit right with me. It’s a well-meaning but colonialist approach. It used to be my own for decades, seeing the Church as a great city on wheels like ‘Mortal Engines’ sucking in other cultures, and spitting out the refuse.
Pedro Gabriel from WherePeterIs made this comment about colonialist viewpoints during his seasoned defenses of the ‘Pachamama’ fiasco. He pointed out that Amazonian Christianity appears very different to Eurocentric Christianity, and this celebration of Our Lady of the Amazon showed it to us. We have an inability to be open to the development of other traditions.
This position does a great injustice to the rich cultural histories of our human family. It assumes that Christianity has a monopoly on truth, and on Christ. It has neither. Christians have been gifted a gospel of the person and presence of Christ. But the Holy Spirit and Holy Wisdom have never ceased to strive everywhere with each human heart, either in ghettoes, gulags, or ziggurats.
The role of a Christian is an explorer, a bride seeking her beloved, who desires that all humanity be saved. Check out my complementary post on discerning the body of Christ in time and cultures.
Two Incredible Books
A long time back, two books went to seed deep in my heart, and pushed me in my journey out of Selective Rigorism (generally called ‘radical traditionalism’). Fr Richard Rohr’s book on ‘The Naked Now: Seeing as the Mystics See,’ and the Book of Enoch.
Fr Rohr’s book booted open the door in my peripheral vision to the reality of the mystical church, the critical counterpart to the magisterial church. I’d been raised as a good little foot-soldier for magisterial evangelization. I’d never been truly inducted into the call to mystical presence.
This mystical reality is not something that can be communicated easily. It is intensely personal, the one-to-one communion between Christ and the soul. What changed my outlook is that this mystical path is not restricted to Christianity, because Christ is not restricted to Christianity.
The Holy Spirit blows where it wills… and continues to do so with all beloved members of the human family throughout time.
That’s when the second book sent shivers down my spine and pushed me to my spiritual knees. The book of Enoch probably should be called the Mystical Visions of Saint Enoch.
It’s been many years, so I need to reread it all. But one reading of it showed me a tradition rooted so deep, so far back, that it defies storytelling.
As a storyteller though, I’m bullish to try. The records we have of this document is recent, and its later elements are prophetic reflections on the history and future of the Hebrew people, or humanity. It’s the oldest parts that riveted me.
An ancient history
Enoch lived before the floods of Noah, which we can now safely date to 10,000 BC, a time of constant and violent pounding of continental ice sheets called the Younger Dryas.
Humanity is probably 60,000 years old already at this point, spread around the world, wrestling with ancient religioning that no longer exists, at least in the same way. These humans at this level have only recently developed the level of articulate thought that we begin to recognize as early modern.
The farther back with go, the more community-minded and symbolic humanity becomes. The further forward, we see the gradual coming-into-focus of individual identity, culminating in the startling self-revelation of Christ.
These visions of Enoch are a tradition that goes back as far as Noah’s grandparents, and older. Like Hebrew Kingdom prophets, he is caught up in visions that take him deep into the structures of reality, conversing with increasingly archaic tiers of angels, like a reverse Dante’s Inferno. The under-structure of reality is revealed to him, the angeology that makes up and orders matter, the extra-temporal (outside of time) and trans-personal (across all human beings) influences and events that make up reality.
Much of this made no sense to the people then, just like most of the Old Testament. All of it awaited the presence and person of Christ. But many traditions emerged from these ancient taproots, this Yggdrasil of an experience that is rooted in Deep Heaven and flowers out into all of the creation we know.
Traditions are rooted in the persons, places, and attitudes of the people celebrating them. Accretions grow like mollusks, later leaders infer their own commentary, and zealots tamp out mystical renewal. But the deepest traditions run very deep, and every generation births silent mystics who are unintentionally in touch with. We never meet half of them. We never will until we meet in Heaven. But they push back, bubble with insights, and act.
And like St Augustine points out, they are rooted in an ever ancient, ever new reality, however hard they scry the glass darkly. We see this Wisdom tradition running deep within all cultures. This is the delight of true tradition, and how we can count on it. This tradition is anchored in the future, in the full self-revelation of Christ as all in all.
True radical traditionalism
Yes, it gets twisted into weird shapes, and it gets bound up in all kinds of mixed messages - exactly like our Catholicism in the first world west. We are packed with as many weird ideas as animist shamans - which is why the Holy Fathers gifted us the Catechism.
This brings together the best possible cliffs notes of this ancient wisdom tradition, this undercurrent that all humanity hungers for.
It will likely continue to grow and change as we continue this journey of renewal in time and return to sources in history.
But this is true radical traditionalism. To go all the way back to the earliest taproots, and trace the line of truth slowly coming into focus, and struggle to discern its details even today. This process won’t be over until the end of the ages. We’ll never see everything.
A great metaphor is water, which is the ancient symbol of Holy Wisdom.
Water is a life-giving element. But too little and it can only nourish the tiniest bacteria, and too much drowns a planet in cataclysm. It is utterly beyond a human ability to control, so we honor its role and existence, and we cultivate humility at the amount of water we can take in. It will be different depending on each person.
Water can be gathered up and flavored, or stored in different shaped vessels. It can be mixed, dirtied, and cast out. But it is still present in itself.
A healthy drinker is able to discern this, and learns how to distill water from the silt. To celebrate the varying stages of water, and the different sources that bring it to us.
Christians and Christianity must be the same.
The Holy Wisdom tradition is the spiritual water that flows under and gets twisted into all religions, because it comes from the same source.
So we do not baptize pagan elements that are good and welcome them into the Christian fold. We don’t extract the good and reject the bad, cherry-picking to fill our armories and museums.
This approach assumes that ideas and things are invented from a meaningless ground floor. And then Christianity comes along and elevates some higher, rejecting the extra flotsam.
No. Instead, Christianity is carefully attuned to the songs and touches and presence of her Lover, Christ, who desires to be all in all. We are not salvaging. We are recognizing. We are elevating awareness to a pre-existing good. We are overjoyed to find Holy Wisdom already everywhere ahead of us.
A renewed missionary outlook
This attitude completely changes our missionary outlook. It completely changes how we read and wrestle with other cultures. It allows us to look at The Dao and see the Proverbs of Wisdom in another language. To look at the Tao te Ching and see the Apostles drawing lots before the Holy Spirit to discern a new apostle. To see the strivings of Socrates as an awakening to reality. To understand the animism of the Amazon and the constellations of Hindu deities as the presence of every angelic being.
They will draw different conclusions, just as we in the first world west have overlaid our own conclusions of reality on top of the Gospel. We are individualists and materialists before everything else, but I see this slowly changing.
Blessed Mateo Ricci lived this approach to a heroic degree, from my rough memories of some beautiful biographies I read 12 years ago. His love of inculturation honored the deep and developed growth within the Chinese culture.
Today, we’re trying to figure out how to bridge the renewal of our tradition with a kaleidoscopically shifting culture, a culture that is foaming up and breaking apart into subcultures. This is a watershed moment in history, and how we choose to approach all this is critical.
For me, the spirit of celebration - not salvaging - is vital. This keeps us in a place of discovery and humility before the traditions of others, careful to honor the good, and practice ecumenism with the flaws. Sometimes a flaw is an undeveloped truth, and sometimes it’s a reflection of our own brokenness.
But this deep wisdom tradition is stunning, a burning bush in the heart of Eden. And Eden is human history.
“Then was I beside him as artisan; I was his delight day by day, playing before him all the while, Playing over the whole of his earth, having my delight with human beings. Now, children, listen to me; happy are they who keep my ways.” Proverbs 8:30-32 New American Bible (Revised Edition)
It’s the re-discerning of this wisdom tradition that is the Catholic frontier.
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