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The Search for Meaning in General

Inescapably, human religiousness includes a brush with mystery, a being in touch with the holy, and experience of sacredness. The holy is sometimes perceived as a reality beyond the self, sometimes as within the self. In either case, personal experience of the holy is qualitatively different from other experiences, and no normal language can adequately describe it. Moreover, the object of that experience so transcends the ordinary that it defies completely rational explanation. The experience of the holy and the holy as experience, in spite of the ambiguity of meaning, are central to all religious expressions. Most sacred stories tell of action by the gods or heroes. Belief systems are built upon concepts of a holy reality. Rituals convey a sense of the presence of the holy to the worshiping community. Moral codes are derived form and given sanction by this sacrality. Painters, poets, and musicians seek to capture the holy in their art. Behind, beyond, and within all symbolic expression is an intimation of a presence, a holiness. Poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) captured a universal religious sentiment in the lines, I have felt a presence which disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts. The American poet Emily Dickinson saw the divine in nature, but this presence was beyond thought and sound. For her, it beckons, and it bafflesphilosophydont knowand through a Riddle, at the last Sagacity, must go. For the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) the most ordinary realities took on eternal meaning. He saw eternity in, that out of days grown tepid come to beat against my frightened windows and I hear far-off places saying things that I cannot bear without a friend, cannot love without a sister. Expressions of the holy can be found in the cave paintings of preliterate civilizations, in the ancient religions of the Middle East, in African and Native American religions, and in the journals of individual spiritual seekers. However, expressions of the holy from within the five major religionsHinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-- will be discussed later in this course. How can we describe experiences of the holy? One answer comes from the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto proposes that countless people have experienced the feeling of awe, mystery, and wonderan experience of what he calls the numinous. Such experiences may come in crisis moments when we witness the birth of a baby, the death of a parent, an earthquake, and a beautiful sunset on the ocean, or even when we feel love. We feel in those moments what Otto calls mysterium tremendum, an intense feeling that may gradually pass away or may continue in extended ecstasy. Although there is usually no clear intellectual conception about the nature of the holy thus felt, the person has a sense of an intensely

positive experience of something sacred. The experience described by Otto appears to be common to people in the various religious traditions. In the text of the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, for example, the poetic story reports experiences of the holy. The warrior Arjuna, after a successful battle in which Lord Krishna was his helper, exclaimed: Ah, my God, I see all gods within your body; Each in his degree, the multitude of creatures; See Lord Brahma throned upon the lotus; See all the sages, and he holy serpents. Universal Form, I see you without limit, Infinite of arms, eyes, mouths and bellies See, and find no end, mist, or beginning. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), A Spanish mystic, expressed an experience of the holy and the subsequent euphoria with these lines: I remain, lost in oblivion; my face I reclined on the beloved. All ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies. These few examples suggest that it is not preposterous to claim that an experience of the holy is universal. It is, of course, too much to say that all people everywhere affirm the reality of the holy in their experience, or that the experience and expression is always the same. Rather, an experience of the holy is not parochial, but is present in some form in various cultures all over the world. Within particular languages and vastly different cultures, persons report their experience of the holy. Through ritual, music, the arts, or belief system they express their understanding of the other that in some manner transcends ordinary life. It is as thought some people everywhere walk in a presence symbolically identified as ultimate reality, the eternal, the highest good, the root of all meaning, God, Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, and so forth. We can reasonably declare then that a sense of the holy is affirmed in all religions in all cultures. THE HOLY EXPERIENCED IN TWO WAYS If we were to visit religious centers through the world, talk with those who practice their religion, and study the sacred texts, we would find different testimonies of religious experience. Muslims, Jews, and Christians experience God as separate from the world and beyond human life. God is believed to have created the world, to influence if not control history. This God confronts persons and calls them to live morally. Yet among Hindus and Buddhists, the holy is usually experienced as internal. The yogi and the Zen monk seek to withdraw in meditation to experience that which is holy. Religious experience among Western persons seems to be on one end of a continuum with Easterners on the other. To be sure, these types are seldom purely one or the other; yet it is useful to consider these two types of experience of the holy: confrontation and interiority.

The God Who Confronts His People. The Hebrew Bible begins with the sacred story of creation. In the beginning Yahweh created the heavens and the earth. God created light, heaven, earth, all vegetation, animals, the sun, the moon, and finally human beings. Then, having put the first man and woman in a perfect garden, Yahweh placed demands on them about how they should act. When Adam and Even disobeyed, they were forced to leave the garden and were thus separated from God. The primeval stories continue with the main theme of God confronting this ancient people. Yahweh placed certain demands on Cain and Abel. The same divine One commanded Noah to build a huge ark in order to survive the coming flood. Abram (later called Abraham) was commanded to travel from his home to a new land and later was chosen to be the leader of a great nation. In additional stories, God confronts Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The primeval stories were later collected into the book of Genesis. The book of Exodus continues with the story of Moses who, having left his family in Egypt was in the wilderness taking care of a flock of sheep for his father-in-law Jethro. Suddenly Moses was shocked to observe a bush near him that was burning. Yahwehs voice came from the fire telling Moses, Take off your sandals for this is holy ground. Yahweh then instructed Moses to be the leader of his people, to take them out of slavery in Egypt to their own land. When Moses asked for clarification about who was speaking, the voice of God declared: I am who I am" (Yahweh). Whether these stories are myth, factual history, or a combination of the two, they present experience of the holy as confronting persons. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God continues to speak, to lead, and to judgeto be external to nature and to human life. One poetic writer sums up this experience in Psalm 121: I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth. During the many years of Jewish history, religious Jews have maintained their belief in the all-powerful divine being. Such a faith has continued in spite of dispersions, discrimination, and the Holocaust. To this day the experience of God is recalled in every synagogue when the people say: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Christianity, like the Jewish culture out of which it emerged, continued faith in a transcendent God. Christians accepted as their Bible the Jewish scriptures, along with their own New Testament. They were convinced that God was in the beginning, and the same God became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus of Nazareth. As Christianity

spread north from Palestine toward Greece and Rome, the New Testament reports additional experiences of God. God came to the people like a mighty wind as reported in Acts 2. Paul, the writer of New Testament letters, was made blind and speechless by the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus and was converted to Christianity. And Christians were urged to accept the judgment and forgiveness of the God who was made known by Jesus the Christ. No one needed to argue for the existence of God; God was experienced as creator, the one who forgives people for their sins, the one who is the source of peace and hope. Even in the modern world, Christians direct their prayers to God. In every kind of public worship, God is affirmed often in the form of a creed like the Nicean Creed, the official creed of Christianity: I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord. Just as the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity reflect experiences of God confronting persons, so too do the sacred writings of Islam, the Koran (Quran). According to the Koran, Allah created the world and all people, and this God, being kind, taught people things that were not known before. God is a single being, a unified personal will who overshadows the entire universe with his power and grace. John A. Hutchinson, an American philosopher of religion, writes that any exposition of Muslim doctrine must beginand endwith the one God, Allah, majestic, holy, transcendent, absolutely unique. Faith in Allah who calls to all the faithful permeates Muslim religious life. Affirmation of one divine being, creator and sustainer of the world and human life, who stands over against all that he has made, gives laws for the community of the faithful, and who comes to human life with grace and forgiveness, has been characteristic in the religious life of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Thus the divine is experienced as the one who confronts the human and can be identified at one end of the continuum suggested in this model of religiosity. The Holy as Within: Interiority Experiences of the holy by persons within Eastern religionsHinduism and Buddhism in particularseem to a large degree to be different from Western religious visions. The holy does not confront one from the outside in much of Eastern spirituality. Rather, it is experienced when looking inward. This spirit within is experienced as the most real part of the person, as well as sacred reality itself. Of course, some religious experiences in the West are also of this type. Mystical persons in Western religions fall quite easily into this interior type. Yet mysticism has never been the norm in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Despite recent interest in the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism, this by historical standards is an anomaly. Nevertheless, these two typesconfrontation and interiorityare useful types for pointing out differences in the experience and expression of the holy in varied cultures. Evidence of the second type of holiness abounds in religions coming out of India The story of the historic Buddha is a paradigm of the inward experience of the holy. The Buddha was a sensitive young man, rich in possessions, the proud husband of a beautiful princes, and blessed with a son. But, becoming aware of the miseries of sickness, old

age, and the inevitableness of death, and disillusioned by the meaninglessness of all external possessions, he left his palace. He experimented with a life of self-denial, reflection, and conversations with well-known persons of wisdom. He found all of these unsatisfactory. Then while in silent mediation, sitting under a treeand according to legend the tree is still there! he became enlightened, or the buddha, literally, the man who woke up. We shall devote the latter part of this course to a complete discussion of Buddhism .

Throughout the history of various branches of Buddhism, the image of the Buddha sitting quietly with eyes partially closed to the outside world has been the mode wherein a vision of holiness is possible. The content of that vision, however, is not of a personal God who confronts one with demands, or of one who initiates a covenant with the people. Rather the experience is an awakening of the self to ones own true nature. The experience leads to an intuitive conviction that a person can become nonattached to everything external and gain a consciousness of liberation from cravings for things. With such a new perspective, everything outside the self remains the same; yet it is different. The totality of existence is transformed by the internal vision of the self that has achieved Buddhahood. Later on in this course will see how Buddhism eventually evolved into two main branches: Theravada, the more traditional; and Mahayana, the more liberal. It was Theravada that remained closest to the Buddha's original vision. Men and women in widely different cultures have experienced the holy--at least that is their claim. The names given to the holy may be Brahman, Yahweh, God, or Allah. That experience may also be called enlightenment, nirvana, or may even go unnamed. Yet each experience falls somewhere on the continuum from a God who confronts one from outside the self to an inward experience by which holiness is known. While this section has characterized the confrontation type as Western while Eastern spirituality is one of inward awareness, observers of religion discover that both types, or combinations of the two, can be found in every tradition and culture. But whatever the type--experience of the holy as confronting the self, or the experience of the holy as within the self--such experiences are central to religion.

Poet, novelist, and playwright Miguel de Unamuno born on September 29, 1864, in the Basque city of Bilbao, represents a seminal 20th-century seeker. Unamuno's father, Felix, died when the poet was six, and his mother, Salom Jugo, provided her children with a deeply Catholic upbringing. Unamuno at one time wished to become a priest, but his love for his childhood sweetheart, Concepcin Lizrraga, kept him from the

priesthood. Unamuno attended the University of Madrid, where he studied languages and philosophy and received a Ph.D. in 1884. He returned to Bilbao after school, and in 1891 became professor of Greek at the University of Salamanca. Later that year he married his childhood sweetheart, Concepcin; together they had ten children. In 1900, Unamuno became the rector at the university. Throughout his life he would publish essays on metaphysics, politics, religion, and travel; he also published over ten novels and a number of plays. Unamuno did not begin to publish poetry until the age of forty-three. His first book, Poesas (1907), used common Spanish to offer the poet's impressions of nature and travel. Unamuno had translated the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Giacomo Leopoardi and their influence on his early work is clear. In 1907, he published Rosario de sonetos lcos (Rosary of Sonnets, 1911), which was followed in 1920 by El Cristo de Velasquez (translated as The Christ of Velasquez, 1951). Begun in 1913, The Christ of Velasquez ran 2,538 lines and reflects the poet's desire to define a uniquely Spanish Christ. Many people consider it to be Unamuno's greatest poem. During the summer of 1920, while El Cristo was in press, Unamuno prepared a volume of travel sketches, Andanza y visions (Spanish Travels and Visions, 1922). Many of the prose poems in this volume were published in daily newspapers, and the book contains some of Unamuno's most anthologized work. This book was followed by Rimas de dentro (Rhymes from Within, 1923), and another book of prose and verse, Rimas de un poeta desconocido presentadas y presentado por Miguel de Unamuno, (Teresa: Rhymes of an Unknown Poet Presented by Miguel de Unamuno, 1924). Before copies of Teresa reached Unamuno, political events forced a change in his life. On September 13, 1924, General Miguel Primo de Rivera launched a successful military coup in Spain. Unamuno published a number of articles critical of the new government and he was exiled without his family in 1924 to the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries. His exile brought him international attention and acclaim. He left Fuerteventura for Paris on a private boat, and in 1924 published De Fuerteventura a Pars: Diario ntimo de confinamiento y destierro vertido en sonetos (From Fuerteventura to Paris: Intimate Diary of Confinement and Exile Poured Out in Sonnets). While in Paris he completed Romancero del destierro (The Ballads of Exile, 1928), which would be the last book of poetry published in his lifetime. In 1930, King Alfonso of Spain removed the dictator, Primo de Rivera, and in February Unamuno triumphantly returned home and regained his position as rector at the University of Salamanca. When Generalissimo Francisco Franco took power in 1936, many of Unamuno's friends and colleagues were executed. At a university convocation, the poet angrily denounced Franco's rebellion. Generalissimo Franco gave permission to shoot him, but to avoid an international incident, the poet was confined to strict house arrest where he died on New Year's Eve, 1936. As you can see by the principle reading from Unamuno, he puts the desire for immortality at the heart of all religion. This desire is completely separate from human reason, and, quoting Pascal, whom we have already read, reason is impotent in this

matter. Unamuno reaches back to the ancient Greeks to support his position. In his dialogue The Symposium, Plato argued that we come to knowledge of God by contemplating beautiful (or, good) things. Individual things participate in divine beauty or goodness. Plato uses the idea of love to support his position. He notes that love begins with eros, or attraction to physical beauty. But it then progresses step-by-step to that highest beauty, or Goodness, who is God. As Plato says, we should "use the beauties of earth as steps along which one ascends toward that other beauty; going from one to two; from two to all beautiful forms; from beautiful forms, to beautiful actions; from beautiful or good actions, to beautiful ideas; and from beautiful ideas, one arrives at the notion of absolute beauty." Unamuno also reflects Descartes' position that it is impossible for us not to know that we do exist. Cogito, ergo sum, "I think, therefore, I am, or, better put, "I think, therefore, I exist." We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing and so we want more than what this life provides. Unamuno also reaches back to Pindar, Shakespeare, and Calderon to support his position. In Shakespeare's immortal words, "we are such stuff as dreams are made." Unamuno thus represents an important twentieth-century thinker who tried to reconcile his Spanish Catholicism with twentiethcentury doubt and uncertainty.