The Rolling Stones sang that “Time is on my side”, but rarely is it ever really on mine. Maybe if I had moves like Jagger it would be. Instead, I have the moves of a man with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. To say that I am often frantic, panicked, and tightly clenched fails to fully convey the urgent need I feel to get shit done and the very short time in which I have to do it, especially before things get messy.
If I’m allowed to take the metaphor uncomfortably too far, it’s no wonder that my creative bowels are so irritable, I have a habit of biting off far more than I can chew. I’ve gotten behind on a few projects and things have already started to get a little “messy”.
A while ago I was sent a book to review called Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity by John Thatamanil. Up until now I hadn’t even had time to start reading, much less to start reading it. But, after I received an email reminding me that I was coming precariously close to the review’s deadline I began to wonder if the universe, itself, was having an IBS flare up in close proximity to a rotating device, because the shit certainly seemed to be hitting the fan.
With being said, however, the universe still seemed to offer a moment of reprieve in between explosive bouts in the cosmic powder room. The office I work at unexpectedly decided to close a couple hours early, which I used to dive into Circling the Elephant, and I was quickly reminded as to why I had volunteered to read and review the book.
The book takes its title from a Buddhist parable, in which six blind men who have no knowledge of elephants each feel a particular part of an elephant and attempt to describe it based only on the part of the elephant they individually felt. Obviously, one who only experiences the trunk of an elephant will have a vastly different conception of what an elephant is compared to one who has only experienced the tail of the elephant.
The parable is intended to highlight some of the fundamental questions of epistemology, such as the incompleteness of human access to knowledge and human tendency to make grand sweeping claims of absoluteness based on an extremely narrow and limited margin of understanding. In this regard, the parable is also an apt way in which to discuss and examining religious traditions. In the realm of religion and spirituality we are each blindly searching the dark in the hopes of touching something unknowable.
Religious beliefs and spiritual practices emerge as means of describing that small part of the infinite that we’ve actually managed to put our hands on. But the mystery is more manifold than we can imagine. The mystery is the truth, and it only reveals itself through deeper mystery. We do not, and cannot, ever have access to the mystery in it’s entirety. We cannot even fully understand our own experience of it on our own. We need community and fellowship, discourse and dialogue, deeply rich conversations and compassionately wide-open hearts. As John Thatamanil writes “we need others…to hear ourselves and thereby come to self-understanding”. And this is what Thatamanil seeks to do in the book.
The book focuses primarily on plotting a comparative discourse between Buddhism and Christianity. Thatamanil seeks to “give a coherent account of the difference but also profound resonance between these two very different kinds of practice.” I’m sympathetic to such an endeavor. Christianity and Buddhism have both played important roles in the foundation and formation of my own spiritual development and practices. I grew up and came of age in an entirely Christian context , and I would later take up residence in the Buddhist tradition when the Christianity of my upbringing proved to be too constricting. Ultimately, neither of the two provided me with a lasting home, and yet, I have remained perpetually encamped between the two. I practice meditation daily and I still regularly mine Christian theology, literature, and symbolism in my efforts to better understand my view of and my place in the world.
I think that this is one of the truly incredible things about living in an age of unprecedented access to ideas and information, we are not beholden to the traditions into which we were born. We are free to move around the mystery, touching its many manifestations from varying vantages. We can collect and concoct, experiment and explore. We can, as Thatamanil supposes, begin to form “hybrid communities in a time of multiple religious participation and belonging.
I’m looking forward to reading further into this book, and anxious to share more of it with you.