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Turning toward Participation

Monday, April 11, 2016

Participation: Week 2

Turning toward Participation
Monday, April 11, 2016

Some of the most exciting and fruitful theology today is being described as the “turn toward participation.” [1] Religion as participation is a rediscovery of the Perennial Tradition that Plotinus, Gottfried Leibniz, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and so many saints and mystics have spoken of in their own ways. It constantly recognizes that we are a part of something, more than we are observing something or “believing” in something.

The work of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers and the English scholar Owen Barfield have given me a schema for understanding how we actually moved away from deep participatory experience into the present “desert of nonparticipation,” as Barfield calls it. [2] Today each autonomous individual is on his or her own, especially progressive academic types, making for a very neurotic world. I will take several days to explain this, as it is a kind of panoramic view of human history.

Roughly before 800 BC, it seems, most people connected with God and reality through myth, poetry, dance, music, fertility, and nature. Jaspers calls this Pre-axial Consciousness. Although it was a violent world focused on survival, people still knew that they belonged to something cosmic and meaningful. They inherently participated in what was still an utterly enchanted universe where the “supernatural” was everywhere. This was the pre-existent “church that existed since Abel” spoken of by St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and recently by the Second Vatican Council. Barfield calls this state of mind “original participation.”

What Jaspers calls Axial Consciousness emerged worldwide with the Eastern sages, the Jewish prophets, and the Greek philosophers, coalescing around 500 BC. It laid the foundations of all the world’s religions and major philosophies. It was the birth of systematic and conceptual thought. In the East, it often took the form of the holistic thinking that is found in Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, which allowed people to experience forms of participation with reality, themselves, and the divine. In the West, the Greek genius gave us a kind of mediated participation through thought, reason, and philosophy. At the same time, many mystics seemed to enjoy real participation, even though it was usually seen as a very narrow gate available to only a few.

Among the people called Israel there was a dramatic realization of intimate union and group participation with God. They recognized the individually enlightened person like Moses or Isaiah, but they did something more. The notion of participation was widened to the Jewish group and beyond, at least for many of the Hebrew prophets. The people as a whole were being saved; participation was historical and not just individual. The Bible documented the salvation of history itself, which is why we have to endure all those “unholy” historical books. Both the loving and the accusatory language in the Bible is not addressed primarily to individuals, but to Israel as a whole. YHWH’s concern is first of all societal; the covenant is with the people of Israel, much more than with individual personalities. It is amazing that we have forgotten or ignored this, making salvation all about private persons going to heaven or hell, which is surely a regression from the historical and even cosmic notion of salvation. This larger concern was always found more in the contemplative Eastern Church than in Western individualism.

Both the Hebrew Scriptures and experience created a matrix into which a new realization could be communicated, and Jesus soon offered the world full and final participation in his own very holistic teaching. This allowed Jesus to speak of true union at all levels: with oneself, with the neighbor, with the outsider, with the enemy, with nature, and—through all of these—with the Divine. The net and sweep of participation was total. Given this, it is so sad and strange that we created a Christian religion with many separate denominations—often known for elitism, boundary keeping, and exclusion.

Gateway to Silence:
Spirit of Love in me, love through me.

[1] Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (SUNY Press: 2008).
[2] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances (Harcourt Brace: 1957); Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (Yale University Press: 1953). For an excellent analysis of where this is leading, read Ewart Cousins, Christ of the 21st Century (Element: 1992).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey Bass: 2013), 108, 112-114.

Image Credit: Candles by clarita.
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