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From Professor at Large, which was published last month by Cornell University Press.

It must have seemed some kind of risk to request a sermon from a man once so widely accused of blasphemy. When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released in 1979, it was denounced by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York as “blasphemous,” by the Rabbinical Alliance of America as “blasphemous and sacrilegious,” and by assorted Lutherans, Calvinists, and Episcopalians as “profane.” Indeed, the Roman Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting actually declared it a sin to see the film.

Surprisingly, the Pythons—who could seldom agree on anything—were, for once, unanimous in believing that Life of Brian was not an attack against religion. Our intention was to make fun of some of the ways some people practice what they claim is religion.

Christianity, like the other great sacred traditions, can be received, understood, and practiced at many different levels. In addition, no matter what the founder of a sacred tradition may teach, there will always be people who understand the words quite differently. As was once said, “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.”

Let us not forget what has been done in the name of religion. Christians know about the Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land. Jewish people will know, for example, of Baruch Goldstein, who entered a mosque in Hebron, in the West Bank, during prayer in 1994 and shot twenty-nine Arabs dead. And Muslims know that, in the name of Islam, the Buddhists were mostly eliminated from India in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while today the Taliban routinely treat women as inferior beings and shell Buddhist sculptures. (Although, in all fairness, we should note that Iran’s interior ministry has ordered people to stop stabbing themselves in the head during Shiite mourning rituals. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “Wounding one’s head with daggers is not in Islamic tradition.”)

Despite this clarification, it does seem that holy behavior can be very widely defined. But is it blasphemous to discuss these matters? I sincerely hope not, because I am very interested in what the Dalai Lama had in mind when he spoke about having a healthy relationship with one’s religion.

The first relationship I had with a religion was the Church of England’s Fifties variety, sometimes described as the Conservative Party at prayer. I’ll be blunt. The Church turned me away from religion for twenty years because I thought that’s what religion was—great for some people, but not for me, and not for 90 percent of my friends.

And then I had the huge luck—thanks be to God!—to read an essay delivered at UC Santa Barbara in 1959 by Aldous Huxley. Huxley wrote:

These two main sets of references, at the beginning of the Bible and at the end, illustrate very clearly an important point: that there are two main kinds of religion. There is the religion of the immediate experience (the religion, in the words of Genesis, of hearing the voice of God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening—the religion of direct acquaintance with the Divine in the world), and there is the religion of symbols (the religion of the imposition of order and meaning upon the world through verbal or nonverbal symbols and their manipulation—the religion of knowledge about the Divine rather than direct acquaintance with the Divine). And these two types of religion have, of course, always existed, and we have to discuss them both. . . .

These two types of religion—the religion of immediate experience, of direct acquaintance with the Divine, and this second kind of symbolic religion—have, of course, co-existed in the West. Mystics have always formed a minority in the midst of the official symbol-manipulating religions, and this has been a rather uneasy symbiosis. The members of the official religion tended to look upon the mystics as difficult, trouble-making people. They have even made puns about the name; they have called mysticism “misty schism” in the sense that this is not a clear doctrine. It is a cloudy doctrine, it is an antinomian doctrine, it is a doctrine which does not conform easily to authority; and they have disliked it in consequence. And on their side, of course, the mystics have spoken—not exactly with contempt, because they don’t feel contempt, but with sadness and compassion about those who are devoted to the symbolic religion, because they feel that the pursuit and the manipulation of symbols is simply incapable in the nature of things of achieving what they regard as the highest end: the union with God.

Let me tell you about a cat, a truly wonderful one called Wensley. He and I have a special relationship based on affection and a strange kind of respect. But I have to tell you that smart though Wensley is, I am, forgive the boasting, a lot more intelligent. I could say that my cat doesn’t really understand me. For, if you asked Wensley what the purpose of life was, he’d probably say it was something to do with mice.

Here’s my point. I bet that the gap in intelligence between God and me is rather bigger than the gap between me and Wensley. So, I find it hard to see the point of my trying to describe in words what God is like or what his or her purposes are because I might be foolish enough to believe that God might think just a little bit like me. But, just as I can stroke Wensley and maybe make him feel loved and secure, I can conceive of the possibility that I might have an experience, a very slight kind of contact, a sort of divine pat, which might affect me at some deep level. People are changed not by exhortations to do things but by experiences. For example, people who have had near-death experiences or out-of-body experiences, whatever they may be, are changed by them in a way that could never in a lifetime be achieved by good advice.

Think about what Christ asks us to do: “Love your enemy.” Can any of us begin to do this? It’s a great aim, but how do we acquire the capacity? As far as I’m concerned, I might as well have been advised to move backward in time. “Thou shalt hover unsupported four feet off the ground.”

But now, I venture to suggest that egotistical little creatures like us could perhaps love our enemies and turn the other cheek—if we received some kind of divine experience. But under what circumstances might that happen? How would we improve the odds of receiving a divine pat? Let me read you what Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

If we look into our lives, we will see clearly how many unimportant tasks, so-called responsibilities accumulate to fill them up. . . . We tell ourselves we want to spend time on the important things of life, but there never is any time.

Even simply to get up in the morning, there is so much to do: open the window, make the bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, feed the dog or cat, do last night’s washing up, discover that you are out of sugar or coffee, go and buy them, make breakfast—the list is endless. Then, there are clothes to sort out, choose, iron, and fold up again. And what about your hair and makeup? Helpless, we watch our days fill up with telephone calls and petty projects with so many responsibilities—or shouldn’t we call them “irresponsibilities”?

It’s clear to me that we’re unlikely to have an experience of the divine while we’re dashing around, ticking things off lists, caught up in quotidian details, and pretty much unaware of our own existence. We’re not going to have the sort of attention we need for a subtler experience while it’s all being wasted on ordinary life.

So we need to be quiet. But if we manage to get quiet, what part of us might be able to get in contact with something on a different scale? Well, certainly not the more self-centered parts of ourselves. Surely they will be a barrier between the divine and the bit of us that could connect with the divine. That’s why the poor in spirit are blessed, aren’t they?

So, how do we begin to chip away at our egotistical shells to open up the more real, more simple, more childlike, more essential part of ourselves that God might be able to influence? The best stuff I have ever read on this was written by a British psychiatrist, Maurice Nicoll, who studied with George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. He wrote:

You must try to struggle against being identified, try to struggle with mechanicalness, with mechanical and wrong talking, with every kind of self-justifying, with all the different pictures of yourself, with your special forms of imagination, with mechanical disliking, with all varieties of your self-pity and self-esteem, with your jealousy, with your hatreds, with your vanity, your inner falseness, with your lying, with your self-conceit, with your attitudes, prejudices, and so on. And it expressly speaks of struggling with your negative emotions, taken as a whole. . . .

The first stages are sometimes called “cleaning the machine.” A person who constantly says: “What should I do?,” after hearing the practical teaching of the Work over and over again, is like a man who has a garden full of weeds and says eagerly: “What should I plant in it? What should I grow in it?” He must first clean the garden. So the Work lays great emphasis on what not to do—that is, on what must be stopped, what must no longer be indulged in, what is to be prevented, what is no longer to be nourished, what must be cleaned away from the human machine. For none of us have nice new machines when we enter this Work, but rusty, dirty machines that need a daily and indeed a life-long cleaning to begin with.

A person who is always thinking unpleasant things about others, saying unpleasant things, disliking everyone, being jealous, always having some grievance, or some form of self-pity, always feeling that he or she is not rightly treated and so on—such a person has a filthy mind in the most real and practical sense, because all these things are forms of negative emotion and all negative emotions are dirt.

Now, the Work says you have a right not to be negative. As was pointed out, it does not say you have no right to be negative. If you will think of the difference, you will see how great it is. . . .

To be able to feel this draws down force to help you. You stand upright, as it were, in yourself, among all the mess of your negativeness, and you feel and know that it is not necessary to lie down in that mess. To say this phrase in the right way to yourself, to feel the meaning of the words, “I have a right not to be negative,” is actually a form of self-remembering, of feeling a trace of real “I.”

I have a hunch that, if I could ever get quiet and free for a moment from my negativity, I might get a gift from God.

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November 2018

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