Before Time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God. This celestial voice remained ever present with the Creator; His speech shaped the entire cosmos. [John 1, The Voice]
OM. The eternal Word is all: what was, what is and what shall be, and what beyond is in Eternity. All is OM. [Mandukya Upanishad]
Exclusivism cries foul on my right, and pan-anythingism beckons on my left. Christianity demands that I conform to its interpretations of “the way, the truth, and the life”, as Eastern philosophy calls me away from māyā, my illusions. But I engage the fracas, because I believe a re-imagining is not an optional extra. And specifically, re-imagining the bankrupt Modern Christian tradition.
A key theme for any student of Christian scripture is that of the Logos. This Greek term is known to most as “The Word” of John 1, and gives name to a new translation of the New Testament, The Voice. According to John’s gospel, Jesus Christ is in fact “The Word”. This synthesis of ideas – A divine personage equated with divine language – is a very powerful concept, and has certainly held my imagination for most of my life.
And herein lies the problem. What the current (pseudo)-Orthodoxy would have us believe is that God is the Bible. This is made so because of an overbalanced emphasis on the written Word as opposed to any other conception or revelation
- The spoken, prophetically uttered word.
- The creative, revealed word, Rhema.
- Wisdom, Sophia or Chokmah.
- Nature as revelation, from Aquinas who said “Revelation comes in two volumes, the bible and nature”.
This trend, to reduce the Logos to a mere written document, is not new. Keeping it simple, here are 4 key events:
- 1440 BCE (approx): In the Hebrew tradition, it began as soon as Moses was handed the 10 commandments. And issuing from this, tome upon heaving tome of thou shalt nots: the Law and the Scribe.
- 419 CE: In the 3rd Century, the Canon was decided: certain books were specially chosen, and by direct implication all other writings demoted. I’m not saying that Augustine’s Synod of Hippo did not make some good choices, or that simply anything can now be regarded as inspired. But the problem with canonisation is not what treasures it rounds up in its net, but the ugly circle of exclusion that it draws.
- 1440 CE: Mirroring God’s first foray into publishing, after Gutenberg’s pioneering invention of the printing press at the onset of the Reformation, the literal became increasingly available. Oral culture began to die off as literacy became synonymous with civilisation and progress.
- 2009 CE: In this age of digital networking, the crisis is being multiplied, as communication happens in a technologically mediated, and increasingly disembodied fashion: whether real-time remote communication (telephonic or video), or as reduced, narrowband digitext (SMS, blogs or email), or reproduced media like audio or digital streaming. In all cases, as communication become increasingly virtualised, it is abstracted from its source: intimate, incarnate communication between beings, in time and space, and primarily via our vocalisation.
As it stands, the Logos of Modern Christianity bears less and less resemblance to the sublime Original, whose “speech shaped the entire cosmos”. It is discredited by its coupling with Literalism, Legalism, Fundamentalism, Technology, and Colonialism, in short, Modernity, and shunning a living cosmology. It is in urgent need of re-imagining; if this is not forthcoming, it will die. Our current concept of the Living Word is deeply tainted by modernism.
Now, according to ancient Hindu tradition, the universe (Brahman) is a vibrating entity, and the word given to that vibration is “OM”, or “Aum”. This sounds strange to Western ears, but the more I explore the idea, the more similar it seems to be to what we have in the Greek “Logos”. Compare the Mandukya Upanishad: “OM. The eternal Word is all …” and the New International Version of the Book of Hebrews: “The Son [Logos] is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word”.
On the surface these two ideas may not appear that similar. But that is primarily because of the more cosmic, less historical, and more impersonal nature of the Eastern notion, and the western bias towards time, history and personality, rather than metaphor, poetry and eternity. But as far as representing the Divine in terms of sound and language, the similarity cannot be overlooked.
Swami Krishnananda, who wrote a series of lectures on the Madukya Upanishad, asks,
“Why do we chant Om? To establish a connection between ourselves and that which exists by its own right and which manifests itself as a sound-vibration in the form of Om…The recitation of Om is the speaking of a universal language.”
The larger significance of this investigation has to do with a general (Christian) Western mistrust of the East, acknowledging this and asking afresh, what might the East have to contribute to our Western Culture, including religion? Clearly this conversation goes back to the 1960’s Cultural Revolution and before, but I do not feel it has been given a fair hearing.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell, notes in “The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology”, that the original Garden of Eden as described in Genesis contained two trees: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. And that the “knowledge of good and evil” tradition went westwards into the monotheist religious traditions, while the “Eternal life” tradition went eastwards, into Hinduism, Buddhism and other oriental faiths.
“The two limbs … form a single tree at the base … Likewise, the two mythologies spring from one base in the Near East. If a man should taste of both fruits he would become … as God himself (Genesis 3:22) which is the boon that the meeting of East and West today is offering to us all.” (p 9)
It was Campbells hope that the reintegration of these “completely opposed mythologies” would yield “a boon”. I am intrigued by this assertion, and cautiously optimistic that it may be instrumental in leading the West out of its spiritual morass.
Before you dismiss me as a hopeless syncretist, or heterodox mystic, I would ask you to consider vibration from the point of view of western science. A hard distinction between matter and energy has ultimately proved impossible to make. The paradox, for instance, of light as both wave and particle, has been accepted by science for almost a century.
The implication of this is that the universe may in fact be comprised of energy – expressed in waves – and not simple inert matter. This is one for the philosophy of science to wrangle over, no doubt, but recent developments, such as string theory, are starting to imply that there may be no such thing as “matter”, at least in the western sense of atoms being like little billiard balls, with a discrete dualism between solid form and empty space. Strings, although too small to be empirically observed, are supposedly characterised by their distinct vibrational qualities, and put together in certain configurations, make up subatomic particles; which means everything that exists.
Krishnananda explains, “In the beginning, Om is supposed to have been the first vibratory sound that emanated as the seed of creation.” As such, OM can be taken to be an icon of the Universe.
In short, even western science recognises the impasse of our Modern notion of Logos. Could it be that the way forward is to reconnect with the fundamental nature of the cosmos, by opening ourselves to ancient wisdom, including that of the East? I certainly feel that Eastern Culture and Religion can likewise benefit and be challenged by the Christian Tradition, in many ways.
But before I criticise my neighbour (and I will at the right time), I need to look hard at my own back yard. I am inclined to think that our outmoded western ideas around the glorious Incarnate Word, might themselves need salvation, and that this might be in the form of an eastern cousin, OM. I do not see it as too far fetched to read the presence of that “imperishable syllable” in Paul who said the Romans: “the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”
Om shanti Om. (Om, Peace, Om)