Cambridge, MA. This is a hectic time of the academic year, as classes end and papers are due, and as other school business gets wrapped up before the winter/Christmas break; and of course, life goes on, so there are always other preoccupations as well. But in the midst of it all, earlier this week I had a three-day sojourn at the Esalen Institute, near Big Sur on the California coast. It is a spectacularly beautiful setting, right by the ocean and beneath what was a perfectly clear sky; the Milky Way was so very present and bright, sweeping across the night sky.
And of course, Esalen is famous, and has been since the 1960s, as a kind of new-age spa, a place for integral learning, crossings of the mind-body-soul boundaries, and experiments in the spiritual quest. From accounts given while I was visiting, it seems like every famous figure of the counter-culture came and played, performed, celebrated at Esalen at one time or another. Now almost 50 years old, it seems to have reached a settled middle-age, less edgy and experimental than its history records — though on any given day the rustic dining room seems to hold young-old men and women who might well have been there since the 1960s… (For the best current study of Esalen, see Jeffrey Kripal's Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.)
There are famed hot tubs (with water flowing in from hot natural springs) and expert masseurs, but alas, I had no time even to dip a toe in the waters, since I was there for a rather crammed three-day conference on panentheism, the theological/philosophical/spiritual view that God is in all, and all in God. This is not quite the same as theism, holding the idea of a God beyond and separate from the world, nor pantheism, which may be taken (here) as the idea that the world is the divine. Proponents of panentheism in the West are taken to range from great mystics such as Dionysius and Eckhart to Romantic poets and process philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead. Similarly, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi teachers are often classed as panentheist.
Ours was an academic conference highlighting reflection on the topic from the perspectives of many different religious traditions, with a variety of expert scholars in attendance. (My paper, drawing mostly on south Indian Vaisnava Hinduism, dealt with the dramatics of the divine-human relationship – intense oneness in tension with moments of absence, the unpredictable interplay of God and self seeking one another in passionate love; I added some comparative reflections with Christian theology at the end, and as an instance of Christian panentheism cited Galatians 2: "For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.") But since all this happened at Esalen, there was an undercurrent flowing under our conversation that made me think other thoughts as well.
First, panentheism seems to mark for many people, including Esalen staff and some of the visiting professors too, a way beyond the narrow, dry, and too-strict categories of traditional religions. It seems that for many, theism suggests a God removed and distant from the world, while pantheism obliterates the distinctions between the divine and the world. Panentheism is then taken as standing in-between, revitalizing the energies of God-in-yet-beyond-the-world, while also validating the world, and living beings, as God and not-God at the same time. It is, some think, real progress beyond the limits of all traditional religions, and the best theology for the emerging world of the new scientific-religious synthesis. Second, the practical corollary is that many of those around Esalen are former Christians, or perhaps Christians-plus; and many of these were Catholics at one point, but have moved on, into the agile sphere of a post-Catholic spiritual identity.
So it was a challenge, being there as a Catholic, priest, Jesuit. (No, I did not wear a Roman collar, but yes, everyone knew who/what I am.) I participated as a scholar of Hinduism and comparativist, yet also had to be present as one of the tradition-faithful persons in the room, and as the practicing Catholic. I think I was able to elude two obvious temptations: on the one side, to go easily post-religious for a few days, as if there were no bonds between me and the Church; on the other, to smile smugly to myself about how “we” have answers to all the questions that were being asked, or as if there could be no conceivable reason why people might be inclined to move beyond the Church and Christianity. The challenge at this conference and of Esalen itself – and of many of the other places where we work, teach, socialize – is twofold: First, an examination of conscience doesn’t hurt; we can ask how it is that so many find the Church lacking theologically and spiritually, and how it is that they then find rich and deep religious lives in new-age and panentheistic spaces, or within the bounds of other religious traditions. We may not actually know good answers to such questions, but we are bound to ask them. And it is certain that no good is achieved by a sour or prudish disapproval of experimentation.
So what might be a deeper Catholic way of engaging this pervasive dissatisfaction with exclusive hierarchies, religions-without-spirituality, lack of integration between body and soul, pleasure and asceticism? During the nearly last session, I ventured to say that while I respect the search for a divine-human dynamic that avoids the suffocation of spirit or denial of body, I’d always been guided by a sense that the Trinity — God beyond the world as its source, God incarnate, God infusing all reality with divine presence — captures this dynamic of panentheism in a powerful way. I added that I’ve always found that the tension between Catholic (the Church, community, tradition) and catholic (the boundary-crossing, universal, incarnate, both-secular-and-religious) has helped many of us to create, if not an Esalen, nevertheless real spaces in which to celebrate the mysteries of this world as well as the next.
But saying such words is not enough; are we as a community ready to show how catholic Catholics can keep soul and body together and find God in unexpected places, without serenely floating away from the Church?