Joy Cowley was the guest speaker at the last Conversations in the Pub gathering of the year and took as her subject three themes: God, sin and salvation.
Many people, she said, were scared of the word ‘God’ and often rejected definitions that they had learnt in childhood, imagining that this ‘kindergarten’ stage represented the entire school of spiritual experience.
She talked of the Hindu construct of the paradox of all faith, ‘It is impossible to know God; but God is not unknown.’ For the Jewish mystics this was represented as the one percent of reality in which we live, knowing only what we perceive through our limited senses.
The other 99 percent, the spiritual realm, is all around us.
‘In the Christian mystical traditions we could probably say something like this: It is not possible to know absolute Truth by the ordinary workings of the human mind. Truth can only be known by the heart, and the way to the heart is the path of devotion.
‘People who give themselves away in love come close to that boundary between the one percent and the 99 percent. They tap into the greater reality.’
The simplest way to talk about this greater reality is to call it God.
Joy then talked about the function of religion which she said was not the spiritual journey but to provide signposts, maps and food to help us on our way.
‘At the early stage of travel, we all have a tendency to sit on the road and worship the signposts.’
But the journey goes past the signposts to ‘life experience with awareness—awareness of self, of the interconnectedness of all things, of the layers of mystery that underline our experience and of the way love unlocks the secrets of these mysteries’.
Good and evil in one apple
In terms of sin Joy said she saw atonement theology as part of the kindergarten stage of faith dividing our existence into good and evil according to our personal and social ideas of comfort or discomfort. She points out that in the mythical Genesis story of The Fall, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
‘There were not two trees or two fruits on one tree. Awareness of good and evil are contained in the one fruit. To know one we must know the other.’
This knowledge accompanies our journey. As children we learn the rules of social good and understand failure to obey those rules as evil. Beneath that we recognise that we are not perfect and try to reject that part of ourselves, often projecting it onto others – us and them.
Further on we ‘cautiously entertain the Jungian view of the shadow’ but only in mature faith do we see the shadow as spiritual gift.
‘It is our darkness that always holds the seed of light for further growth. If I don’t own my shadow, I miss that transcendence.
‘Mother Teresa was once asked why she chose to look after the dying and destitute. She shocked the reporter by saying “I do it to combat the Hitler in me”.’
The word ‘salvation’ has a connotation of ‘rescue’, ‘of having to do as we are told to avoid the flames of hell’.
But, Joy says, if heaven and hell are states of mind, living and working for the greater good does give a sense of fulfilment, whereas antisocial behaviour tends to reinforce negative emotion.
Who are the heroes
Joy summed up her talk to the 50 or so people in Molly Malones that November evening as a series of sparks.
‘We all have sparks of the divine within us. Throughout history, larger sparks have come to us as teachers when we have needed them in life school—Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela—but once, two thousand years ago, the great flame of God joined us to show us the way. And however we interpret what men wrote about him, his teachings unwrap for us the truth of who we are. Nor did he leave us. We know the continuing guidance of that Presence.’
‘Our human understanding of existence is trapped between the walls of birth and death. The great fire of God walked through both these walls to bring us to a larger place of awareness, a place beyond division.’