Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alan Watts and late night theology.

(after the blindingly boring indulgence in self-pity that was my previous post, we now return you to to your regularly scheduled program).

Listening to Alan Watts is often a humbling experience. On the one hand, he is a consummate raconteur, a "spiritual entertainer" as he often styled himself, with big ideas and a compelling delivery. He is one of the people I'd like to emulate in my life, and, aside from the bit about being an alcoholic (which I'd also say I understand in some ways), I'd say he's one of my heroes.

Now the other way that listening to Alan Watts is humbling is what happens when I try to explain what I heard to my wife.

"So he says that since you can't really love God, because you're only doing it because you want something or because you're afraid, you have to eventually get to the point where you realize that you CAN'T love God, and only the part of you that is from God can love God, the part of you that *is* God." I'm sitting on the edge of the tub while she brushes her teeth after a long days work.

"Wait," she say, after spitting. "I don't agree with that at all."

I'm taken aback. Disagree? With my beloved Alan Watts? What could she mean? And so I ask.

"I love God," she says. "I remember people telling me how great He was and how much He loved us and all the great things He did for us, and even though I didn't really know what God was, I knew I loved him. Her. It. Whatever."

That made me stop. Now, of course Alan was going on his Zen/Gurdjieff/Rascally Guru trip, which is totally his thing. He loves the idea of "the fool that persists in his folly becomes wise" and going so far into the idea of separation that you realize that your separation is unworkable and that you are one with all things, etc. And it's a good path. It works very well for the skeptical, the cynical, the intellectual. But Love is a mystic's path too, and while the intellectual may scorn it, there is a case to be made that it is the real path of Christianity, tempered as it is with a certain rigor that the sarcastic, aphorism spouting Jesus brings to the process that keeps it from descending into maudlin sentimentality.

And I think that's the thing that Watts misses. He brings a nice balance to the know-nothing sentiment that unfortunately passes for devotion these days, but he misses something crucial. Yes, for a certain type, it may be impossible to believe outright. But there are many, many others, who actually *do* love God, and through their love and trust in His forgiveness, find their way to a union with Him. Now, as with all paths there are pitfalls, and the love and trust can often devolve into love and trust in a God we created, that reaffirms our prejudices and desires, and there to complacency and forgetfulness. We create God in our image, and then worship it.

The pitfalls of Watts' path seem to me to be: despair, madness, an insufficiently marked out path, a sense that "whatever I do is fine, because it's all God's play." I'm sure there are others. Either way, there is no "foolproof" path, but it was nice to see that there are other ways. The sufis often present more than one path to God, suitable for different personality types. Good to see that Christianity has something going on in that department, too.

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