Thursday, May 1, 2008

The 'Depth' of Spritual Experience: Part One

There are two things which I "take seriously without any reservations" - books and freedom. Both have proven to be vitally important on my quest for spiritual awakening, awareness and self-transcendence. Imagine my delight a couple of years ago when I passed a local church and out front of the minister's adjoining home I saw a table piled high with books and a sign that said, "Feel Free to Take Us Home." I left with an armload of dog-eared, well-read volumes that, judging by the titles, must have accompanied the minister around the world - from England to West Africa, to where they were neatly stacked awaiting me, here in suburban Ontario.

Amongst the books I scooped up was a two-volume set of Paul Tillich's collected sermons. As I didn't (and still don't) have any religious affiliation, nor any formal religious or theological education, Tillich's name wasn't familiar to me then. I later learned that Tillich was perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century - if not the top, certainly amongst the top handful. Tillich was encouraged to emigrate from Nazi Germany on the brink of World War II by Reinhold Neibuhr, a fellow German theologian and author of the "Serenity Prayer," with which I was eminently familiar by that time. Tillich went on to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Neibuhr's academic home, and then for many years at the University of Chicago. He authored a number of renowned works, including A History of Christian Thought and The Courage To Be, and was featured for his work on the cover of Time magazine in 1959.

When I opened the first of the two-volume set, The Shaking of the Foundations, one sermon about "The Depths of Existence"stood out particularly. Its words were a powerful affirmation of all that I had been learning. My own foundations had been shaken by the proverbial mid-life crisis, and I had been forced to look within to find the depths of my own existence. To my shock, I found that I had very little idea of who or what I was at the core of my being, nor much idea of my place in the grand scheme of things. At a very early age I had rejected all notions of a God, of an anthropomorphic 'superman' in an imaginary heaven, as the superstitious foolishness of people who were unable or unwilling to understand the world, the universe and the scientific basis of their lives and being. I had great 'faith' in science, but didn't even know what science and the limitations of science really were.

The following passages from Tillich's "Depth of Existence" sermon put into words that I did not then know how to express all that I had discovered as a result of my existential crisis - that I was the person with the prejudiced mind who had been unwilling to examine or understand areas of consciousness, being and existence which I had willfully blinded myself to. I had been prejudiced, by my upbringing and culture, to what I only perceived others' notions and ideas of God were. I found that I had to cast aside all those notions of what others thought, and look within my own being to come to an understanding of who I was, before looking at any bigger picture.

In "The Depth of Existence", Tillich writes:

"The wisdom of all ages and of all continents speaks about the road to our depth. It has been described in innumerably different ways. But all those who have been concerned - mystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated people - with that road, through confession, lonely self-scrutiny, internal or external catastrophes, prayer, (and) contemplation, have witnessed to the same experience. They have found that they were not what they believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level became surface, when a still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their very lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth. . . . The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservations. Perhaps in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God."

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