Christianity, in a nutshell, is one of the world’s major religions, characterized by belief in God as a Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is common knowledge, even among people who do not count themselves Christians, that a person joins that religion through ‘baptism’, a ceremony in which you assert this belief and vow to uphold it. (If you are an infant, your parents and Godparents do this on your behalf, until you are old enough to do so for yourself at another ceremony called ‘confirmation’).
It is also widely known that Christianity is based upon Holy Scripture, principally the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The life, teachings, works, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, hailed as ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ by Christians are told in the four ‘Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The Acts of the Apostles includes stories about the earliest followers of Christ. The epistles, most written by St Paul, are letters to early Christians in various places throughout the Roman Empire, which contain restatements of Jesus’ life and teachings with additional commentaries and advice. The Revelation of St John the Divine, the final book of the Bible, contains a fantastical, near-hallucinatory vision of the end of time.
In his first letter to the people of Corinth, St Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke, thought and reasoned as a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways… Now I know only in part; then I will know fully…” (1 Cor 13: 11-12) This seems to point to the idea that the Christian path involves development towards personal, spiritual maturity and to a clearer understanding of the religion’s mysteries. It seems worth going back to scripture repeatedly as it gradually yields to us its sacred secrets; but this is not the only way forward.
The question of ‘belief’ is tricky from the outset. The statement ‘I believe…’ has two parts. Firstly, the ‘I’ (or ‘ego’) is always worth examining. “Who is it that asserts this belief?” “How close have you yet come to knowing your true self?” These are vital spiritual questions. The second part, about ‘belief’, implies that the person concerned is asserting something with confidence and living accordingly, but the question of belief always remains open to challenges from others for evidence, even proof. Such a conviction, even if based on a falsehood, or on an incomplete grasp of the truth, can still be held very strongly. Whenever knowledge is incomplete, though, doubt can always creep in. It is usually worth paying attention when it does.
We are all subject to both inheritance and conditioning. Where we were born and who our parents were; these are among the major factors that determine our childhood religious upbringing (or lack of it). In adolescence, we may challenge the traditional beliefs and practices of our families and communities, either committing ourselves to them or rejecting them as unsatisfactory. We are each unable to speak, think, reason or behave freely as mature adults until we grow independent of our past.
Looking at the same issue from another perspective, spiritual maturity involves learning to see matters holistically, no longer dualistically, that is solely in terms of black/white, right/wrong, up/down, ‘with us or against us’, etcetera. Christianity makes this difficult because the word ‘God’ is associated with ‘good’, implying the complementary existence of things that are ‘bad’, even ‘evil’. The word for God, the Supreme Being or Highest Divinity in Middle-Eastern languages – Elohim (Hebrew), Allah (Arabic) and Alaha (Aramaic) – are said rather to denote ‘Sacred Unity’, which lends itself better than the word ‘God’ to a unitary or holistic interpretation and understanding.
It is arguable from scripture, and from the teachings of Jesus, that mature Christianity depends upon a holistic vision of the way things are, a combination and summation of all opposites into a sacred, ultimately indivisible whole. From the holistic perspective, this is the way things already are. “’It is done! I am Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’. (Rev 21: 6) These are the words given to, “The Lord God, who is, who was and who is to come, the Almighty”. (Rev 1: 8)
So, how can there be a God who is a sacred unity but also three-in-one. This is not a problem to be solved by arithmetic, but by intuition and imagination. Imagine, for example, the three states of the molecule of water, H2O: solid, liquid and gas. Ice, flowing water, and invisible gas are inter-changeable, depending on conditions of pressure and temperature. The molecule, however, always remains the same.
The Holy Trinity of the Christian God may seem more complex to comprehend than water. Nevertheless, the same kind of intuitive insight – rather than some form of rational calculation – is required. A prayerful, contemplative attitude is most helpful, and this is easier to achieve when you have purged your everyday ego of its tendency to cling ardently to less mature, dualist, Us or Them, Right or Wrong, Life or Death, even Christian or non-Christian, ways of thinking.
What remains in consciousness when the ego is quiescent, is the ‘spiritual self': the core essence of each person in constant communication with the timeless and infinite spiritual dimension of human experience. In Christian terms, this is the human soul in direct contact with the Holy Spirit. Each soul, or ‘True Self’, is thus rendered loving, wise and compassionate. It knows intuitively, mystically, with no need for further evidence or proof, that All is One. Throughout the universe, through the sacred unity that is God, everything is seamlessly connected with everything else.
Each person, similarly, is vitally and dynamically linked to nature, to the planet and the universe. Each of us, likewise connected to all beings, is linked directly, soulfully, with everyone else. We may not yet feel it, but in the totality of humanity, we belong to each other, and the ultimate nature of this connection between us is selfless love.
Jesus, known to Christians as 'Redeemer', ‘Saviour’ and ‘Son of God’, invited and advised His followers thus: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one-another”. (John 13: 34). From the holistic perspective, it makes complete sense for us to do so. It even makes sense, as Jesus also recommended, for us to: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”. (Luke 6: 27-8) This is what Christian contemplatives – the Desert Fathers, the practitioners of Celtic Christianity, the mystics like Julian of Norwich, St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, John Main, and many more – have discovered as true, the message they have all wanted to pass on.
The mature Christian has given up all partisan allegiances and all self-centred ambitions – for material wealth, possessions, status and power – and all appetites for distracting stimulation. Rather than seeking to avoid suffering, spiritually mature people recognize its inevitability, and embrace suffering as offering the best of opportunities to grow and develop in faith.
This is at first counter-intuitive, a puzzling paradox to those of an exclusively rational mind. Only with experience, sometimes painful growth and eventual maturity does the wisdom of the highest form of selfless love become apparent. From the mature, holistic, Christian point of view, love, compassion and wisdom alone make sense. And neither should it surprise us that contemplative practitioners from other world faiths – including Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Jainism, Islam, Sufism and Judaism – have discovered the same great truths. The potential to become a loving citizen is already there in every infant. Not all will receive baptism and be counted a Christian, yet each – led by a Holy Spirit heeding no man-made boundaries – may become a full, equal and mature member of the entire family of humanity, the family of the Sacred Whole that is God.
This may not sound like some of the partisan messages given out by certain elements of the nominally Christian Church, divisive messages about Christian superiority over atheism, agnosticism, humanitarianism, over other world faiths, and even over other Christian denominations; but these messages come from an immature position, ignorant of the infinite extent of God’s mercy and grace. The Christian God is a forgiving God who excludes nobody. Belief in this God, the God of love, is a sign of maturity. Those who have not yet reached this level of understanding and faith deserve sympathy and encouragement, rather than unhelpful criticism. They, like the rest of us, are spiritual adolescents. In God’s eyes, no doubt, we are all still growing up.
Copyright Larry Culliford
Larry’s books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality’, ‘Love, Healing & Happiness’ and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness’ and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide’ (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).
Listen to Larry’s Keynote Address to the British Psychological Society’s Transpersonal Section via You Tube (1 hr 12 min).
See Larry interviewing JC Mac about ‘spiritual emergence’ on You Tube (5 min).