Power, relation, and wisdom as basic religious categories
-- An approach to mutual understanding between East and West
Dr. Notto R. THELLE Professor, Oslo University, Norway

It has been one of my great privileges in life to be involved for many years in study and dialogue with Eastern religious traditions. For many years I worked as Associate Director of the NCC Center for the Study of Japanese Religions in Kyoto, Japan, a position which opened a wide field of contact with religious traditions in Japan. I have been particularly concerned with the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity. In many ways it became a spiritual pilgrimage, for it was not only academic study and discussion, but also practice and participation in meditation, pilgrimages, and other spiritual ways; contact with new religious movements; visits, conferences, and friendship. At the same time I was involved in the life of the church, teaching and preaching, and I was challenged to reflect on a variety of related questions: «What does it mean to be a church in this culture? What does Christian faith mean to people who are rooted in entirely different spiritual traditions? What was the purpose of God when he created and nurtured people with such a variety of religious traditions?»

Of course I did not find the answers, and I continue to raise similar questions. Today I would like to share some reflections which directly or indirectly come out of those years of encounter in Japan. And I will add a few observations from a decade of similar dialogue and study in my own country, Norway, where Christianity is faced with a multitude of alternative religious ideas and practices, some of them obviously inspired by the East.

Since I have lived for many years in Japan where we use the Chinese pictograms, I will from time to time refer to Sino-Japanese characters and compounds in order to clarify my point. I realize, however, that the two languages have developed somewhat different concepts and expression, and apologize for the confusion such references may create. With some humor and imagination even such confusion may start a creative process in your minds.

Some of you may wonder about my categories: insight (wisdom), relationship, energy (power). You may suspect that my descriptions of Eastern and Western religions are stereotypes that only exist in scholars' minds. To a certain extent you are right, but anthropologists say that there is always some truth in stereotypes. My contrasts and comparisons, with all their potential distortions, may clarify some important points and promote understanding. Afterwards we are free to abandon the stereotypes, add modifications and nuances, and still appreciate their value.

By way of apology I just mention that conceptual simplicity does not necessarily preclude depth. Some of the great masters of thought and faith have chosen quite simple categories to develop their ideas: Buddha's vision of pain, attachment and detachment; Jesus' love of God and love of human in his unreserved «being-for-others»; Gabriel Marcel's distinction between être (being) and avoir (having); the existentialits' view of «existence unto death»; Martin Buber's description of personal (I-Thou) and impersonal (I-It) relationships; Emmanuel Levinas' ideas of «the Other», etc. They are all very simple, but open for quite penetrating analyses of human existence.

The Theme
I was recently told what a good lecturer is supposed to do. He first announces what he is going to say. Then he says what he has to say. And finally he concludes by saying what he has said. That is a good advise. What am I going to say?

First I will clarify the three basic concepts I have chosen: relationship, insight, energy. I will do that by describing some of my own attempt as a Christian theologian to come to terms with Buddhism, concentrated on the two catchwords: religion as relation and religion as insight. Then I will add a third dimension which gradually dawned to me as an aspect of religion which is often forgotten by scholars -- religion as energy or power or strength.

Second, on the basis of this clarification I will investigate further the implications of these categories. I don't think they are merely of private interest, but may enlighten us all and help us to a deeper understanding of religion in general and of our own faith, if we have one. My theses is that each category tend to create a certain type of religious language and commitment which often prejudice people againt other languages and commitments. And, correspondingly, awareness of such predilections may promote dialogue and understanding, even motivate people to investigate the forgotten or ignored aspects of their own faith. In fact, I suspect that any sound religion should have -- and potentially do have -- a balance of all three conceptual languages and concerns.

Thirdly, I would like to exemplify my point by seeing how different religions languages can enrich each other.

Three categories -- relationship, insight, energy
«East is East and West is West / and never the twain shall meet», Rudyard Kiplin wrote in his famous poem, «The Ballad of East and West». Usually it is taken as an inevitable conclusion about the intellectual and emotional gap that separates East and West and prevents a meaningful encounter. If you read the entire poem, however, the conclusion is far more optimistic. When mature and strong people really stand face to face, «there is neither East nor West». 1

I shall in the following minutes try to descibe some vital characteristics of Eastern religions, 2 represented particularly by Buddhism, on the one hand and Western religions, represented by the Semitic or Abrahamitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), on the other.

Relationship -- the Semitic religions of the ear
I think it is possible to say that Christianity and the other Semitic religions are «religions of the ear». Here God makes himself known by speaking to humanity, and human beings are expected to listen to the word of God and to respond. By listening and responding to God the human being is involved in a responsible relationship. Germans sometimes emphasize this by three words: Wort (word), Antwort (answer, response), and Verantwortlichkeit (responsibility). In a similar way, hearing God's word creates obedience. It is expressed i New Testament Greek by the linguistic connection between hypakouein (to hear, listen) and hypakoé (obedience), in German and several other European languages similarly in the connection between Hören (hearing) and Gehorsamkeit (obedience). Responsibility and obedience of course leads to action, a committed relationships to other people and to the created world. When Jesus was asked to summarize his teaching, he combined the two basic relationships: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind. ... Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:37-39). It is no exaggeration to say that the entire Biblical narration and symbolism is inconceivable without this dynamic relationship between hearing, speaking, and responding in loving action.

A few examples will clarify my point: The Biblical creation story begins with the word of God: «Let there be Light,» and there was light. The entire creation story is then told in similar terms. The creator speaks, and it happens. The Koran has corresponding descriptions of the origin of heaven and earth:

When He decreeth a matter,
He saith to it, «Be,»
And it is.
(Sura 2:117)

Let me use two Biblical questions to demonstrate the relational character of Biblical faith as it appears in the powerful symbolism of the first stories of the Bible. The first question is not «Who am I? What is my true self?» It is rather the question of relationship expressed in God's words to Adam when he was hiding from God, «Adam, where are you?» That is: Where are you heading? Why are you hiding from the source of your life? The second questions follow in the story of the first homocide. Cain has killed his brother, Abel, and was confronted with the question: «Cain, where is your brother?» To this he responded: «Am I my brother's keeper?» But every reader knows that his question was false. To be human is to be in a responsible relationship. It is hardly coincidental that in the Biblical narration the broken relationship with God leads to broken relationships between people, even brothers.

The Biblical narration is full of stories about people who were called by God in a very personal way -- often called by name -- to take responsibility for their own lives and for the lives of others (Adam, Eve and Cain have already been mentioned, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, judges, prophets and kings.)

The most important symbolic figure in these religions is therefore the prophet. A prophet -- at least in the Biblical tradition -- is not primarily one who looks into a distant future divining what is going to happen, but rather one who claims to have been called by God to proclaim his will in a concrete situation. They begin their oracles with the words, «So says the Lord....», and then reveal what they have heard - usually a proclamation about people's distortion of religion by an intolerable combination of piety and injustice. Sometimes God's word is symbolized by a written tablet received by the propet (Moses), a scroll which he eats (Ezekiel), or a book (Mohammad). Jesus consistently said about himself that he spoke what he had heard from his heavenly Father. The mission of Mohammad was to «recite» the words of Allah as he heard them through the angel Gabriel. Qur'an literally means «recitation».

Is it neccessary to say that this relationship is primarily understood in personal terms? It is a dialogical relationship, expressed in prayer and worship, conflict and friendship, trust, faithfulness, listening and answering. God is primarily described in personal categories, such as lord, king, maker, father, protector, lover, husband, friend, etc. Even the numerous impersonal symbols used for God, such as cliff, fortress, and fountain have strong personal and emotional overtones -- protector, lifegiver, nurturer. The strongest expression for this relationship is an encounter where one can speak to God face to face, «as on man speaks to another», to use the expression from Exodus (33:11).

Many years ago I participated in a conference of Buddhists and Christians from East Asia dealing with «reconciliation». In my presentation I suggested that reconciliation is a «Christian» term. My point was neither to deny that reconciliation is a universal virtue, vital to all sorts of human relationships, neither to say that Buddhism and other religions cannot contribute towards creating reconciliation in the world. My only point was to suggest that as a religious term reconciliation grows out of an entire set of conceptual imagery which presupposes relationship and community as the basic way of being a human person. The same can be said of central concepts of the Biblical tradition: grace, forgiveness, justice, eternal life (which according to Biblical visions is primarily life in community).

Few scholars have expressed this relationship more beautifully than Abraham Heschel in his book Man is not alone:

God is unwilling to be alone, and man cannot forever remain impervious to what he longs to show. Those of us who cannot keep their striving back find themselves at times within the sight of the unseen and become aglow with its rays. Some of us blush, others wear a mask. Faith is a blush in the presence of God.... But faith only comes when we stand face to face -- the ineffable in us with the ineffable beyond us -- suffer ourselves to be seen, to commune, to receive a ray and to reflect it. But to do that the soul must be alive within the mind (p. 91)

To be a human person is to be in relation. I don't think that is alien to Asia, which has such a deep understanding of human relationships. One of the most common Japanese expressions for a human person is ningen ...... The second character means an open space, interval, that which is between. If I may be allowed to press the symbolism, to be a true person, there should not only be a sun/day in that gate, but also and ear ...... and a mouth ...... To be a human person is to be with other people in the open space of the gate, listening, asking, speaking and sharing.

If I might add an example from my own tradition, I will express a Lutheran point by a symbolic interpretation of the Chinese ideogram for faith. When Luther designated «faith», even «faith alone» as the central point in his Reformation, it was not faith in terms of belief, doctrine, opinion, but faith as trust, faithfulness, in Latin fiducia (......). The Chinese pictogram for faith is a beautiful expression of exactly such a relationship. The two characters for «human being, man» ...... and «word, speaking» ...... are combined to a new meaning: faith, faithfulness, trust, communication ...... Sometimes we use the expression «a man and his word" in order to express a relationship of total trust. We might prefer to reformulate it as «a person who stands by his or her word». The pictogram shows an upright person who literally stands by his word and acknowledges what he has said. Words create communication and mutuality. They are hardly more than vibrations in the air which disappear as soon as they have been spoken. But a true relationship will continue to vibrate by virtue of our deepest humanity. Faithfulness is to stand by one's word. Trust is to expect the other to stand by their word.

It is significant that all the three great Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, regard Abraham as their great patriarch. In somewhat different ways Abraham is "the father of faith". He was the one who heard God's calling to break up from his country to the promised land. He trusted God even though he was never able to settle in the land of promise. For Jews he is the beginning of the Jewish people; for Christians "the father of faith"; for Muslims the first Muslim, because he rejected the idols and was faithful to he One.

In sum, the religions of the ear are characterized by listening to God's word and will, responding in obedience by worshipping, loving and serving God on the one hand, and by responsible and loving action towards other people, the society and the entire creation on the other. The religions of the ear are relational religions, nurtured by faith, trust, dialogue and communication, reconciliation and mutual love. The personal language is not only preferred, but regarded as the truest expression of our own humanity and of the divine nature.

Insight -- religions of the eye
Anyone who are acquainted with Buddhism would accept that it is a religion of the eye. The aim of the religious search is to wake up and open one's eye. Sakyamuni Buddha withdrew from the world in order to cleanse his mind from the desires and passions which darkened and perverted his view. Finally, after six years of strenuous ascetic practices, when he completed a long night's meditation, the day broke and the morning star shone in the east. His eyes were opened. With a purified vision he unmasked the illusions, saw the painful condition of all sentient beings, and envisioned the way towards freedom. From this point of view it is almost inevitable that the eightfold path of Buddhism begins with «right view» or «right insight», and continues with «right thought». In addition Buddhism is teeming with expressions related to eye and seeing: awakening, enlightenment, awareness, vision, seeing one's nature, understanding, wisdom, illumination, light, clarity, etc. The Chinese renderings of Buddhist terms emphasize this point: ...... The contrast is blindness and mental darkness, blind passions, perverted views, eyes that are shut by dust and mental mud.

The classical statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas, therefore, emphasize the importance of the eye and the mind. They reveal a mild, somewhat withdrawn, face which looks at the world with imperturbable eyes. The eye seeks insight and understanding, and is primarily directed inwards, to the dynamics of the mind. One has to see through the chaotic and destructive forces which corrupt and distort the mental vision, and seek the equanimity and clarity of the middle way.

Buddhism is not indifferent about society, but is more concerned with understanding the world than changing it. Some of the significant stages in that search leads to withdrawal from the world, cutting relationships, liberating oneself from the bondage to bewildering conglomerate that constitute a person -- body, senses, emotions, perceptions and consciousness (in Buddhist terminology, «stopping» ......) The ambition is not to change the world, but to be changed and see the world in a different way. Even for an awakened one the world is the same, things and phenomena continue as before. But the vision is purified, and hence the attitude to reality is different, just as the world changes when day breaks («stopping» is followed by «seeing», «vision» ...... ) The key to the change is in the mind. Only by opening one's mental eyes one is able to be liberated and live without pain.

I don't think I have to exemplify this attitude, but will just wuggest some implications. On the one hand it may lead to a systematic withdrawal from the world, a world-negating and passive relationship represented by the arhat whose practice is characterized by avoidance of all types of contacts that may disturb one's inner harmony and whose goal is nirvana. It is no exaggeration to say that this has been and still is one aspect of Buddhist spirituality. On the other hand, exactly this emphasis of liberation of the mind may create an entirely different attitude of openness, spontaneity, and affirmation of the things of the world. If the mind is free and pure, one is able to relate with freedom even to the temptations of the world.

Few have expressed this in such a beautiful and precise way as the thirteenth century Japanese Zen master Dogen:

To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one's own self.
To learn one's self is to forget one's self.
To forget one's self is to be confirmed by all dharmas (= things ......)
To be confirmed by all dharmas is to effect the casting off
of one's own body and mind and the bodies and minds of others as well.
All traces of enlightenment disappear,
and this traceless enlightenment is continued on and on endlessly.
(Genjôkan, EB 5/2, 1972)

In a more humorous way the same insight is expressed in the following anecdote from Japan:

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.
Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cress the intersection.
«Come on, girl,» said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did no speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. «We monks don't go near females,» he told Tanzan, «especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?»
«I left the girl there,» said Tanzan. «Are you still carrying her?»

Summing up this point, as a religion of the eye Buddhism is primarily concerned with insight, wisdom, understanding, mental clarity. Seeing is to be present to things without touching them or manipulating them. Particularly in Buddhism seeing requires an emotional withdrawal, a detachment which is possible only with a radical liberation from all disturbing relationships.

From this point of view the relational language of Semitic religions must seem not only strange, but in conflict with the ideal of mental clarity of true insight. How is it possible for one who emphasizes non-attachment and withdrawal to appreciate the passionate commitment in Semitic religions -- with their predilection for personal expressions of faith, their anthropomorphic images of God, and emotional relationships emphasizing obedience, faith, love, and the strong desire to meeting face to face? I raise the question to sharpen our awareness of the gap between us, but I am also convinced that it is possible to speak across the gaps between the symbolic and conceptual worlds, and even to discover that the two worlds may be closer than most of us imagine. For now, however, I let my descriptions stand without further comment.

Energy -- the modern search for empowerment
I have been searching for concepts that convey my intention in postulating energy as one of three central categories in human religiosity. I discovered that our everyday vocabularies -- as well as our religious expressions -- tend to be loose, inconsistent, and without precision. Most of the words we use for power, strength, energy etc. cover a whole range of quite different meanings. Because I wanted to isolate and cultivate power/strength as one separate category, distinct from relationship and insight, I realized that -- at least in our Western context -- our concepts of power and strength tended to be mixed with all sorts of relationships as well. I have therefore chosen the term energy in order to emphasize one aspect of power: the pure aspect of energy, vitality, strength, inner power, life force, etc., without all the connotations of relationships. I realize my lack of precision, but my point may become clearer when I explain my approach.

My interest in the energy aspect of religion was partly prepared during my years in Japan, but was primarily awakened by the preoccupation with spiritual and psychic energy in modern Western alternative spirituality.

In Japan I came across a number of new religious groups and leaders who devoted themselves to the search for supernatural power, and often experimented with occult techniques in order to attain such powers. They often used traditional Japanese expressions, such as chônôryku ...... (supernatural power), jintsûriki ......, shinreiryoku ...... (divine power) and similar terms. But some preferred to speak about enerugî (energy), emphasizing the inexhaustible resources of energy available to those who developed such capacities. Some were particularly involved in healing of various types, often combining traditional folk religious practices of shamanistic character with modern therapeutic techniques. Others were more concerned about developing psychic powers, supernatural physical strength, or intellectual capacities. The last decade has been characterized by an excessive interest in the power of qi (Jap. ki ......), with which you are all well acquainted. The concept is of course a part of traditional Japanese culture inherited from China, almost omnipresent in everyday Japanese language. However, it was not very much in use as a conscious expression of life force or cosmic energy until the late 1980s, when it was imported again from abroad as part of the multinational spiritual business enterprise called New Age. 3

The modern -- or post-modern -- Western preoccupation with energy can be traced from various sources. It is partly a heritage from traditional occult philosophies and practices which in Europe have surfaced in waves of varying intensity since the time of the Renaissance. It is no exaggeration to suggest that occultism in various forms is one of the most important backgrounds for alternative spirituality in the West in recent decades. According to a classical occult manual, an occultist is «one who intelligently and consciously applies himself to the understanding of the hidden forces in nature and to the laws of the interior world, to the end that he may consciously co-operate with nature and the spiritual intelligences in the production of effects of service to himself and to his fellow-beings ......» 4 Knowledge is power, and hidden (occult) knowledge gives access to hidden powers and energies which can be manipulated by the one who understands the hidden correspondences. Even though the occult roots of modern alternative spirituality are often weak, it might be worth while postulating that alternative search has maintained some of the ambitions of the occult magus -- to be initiated into the hidden potentials of human existence.

Another important factor in alternative spirituality is the fascination with the East. Earlier intellectual and romantic fascination has now been transformed to an existential involvement in and experimentation with Eastern ascetic practices and healing techniques. A few decades ago various types of Hindu gurus and swamis were most popular, teaching Yoga and Deep Meditation. Zen Buddhism and other types of Buddhist meditation added new insights and methods. And in recent years such Chinese traditions as taijiquan, qigong, etc. have become popular. Often these were taken out of their religious and spiritual contexts and presented as techniques for obtaining spiritual and psychological skills.

In addition to Western occultism and Eastern spiritual ways comes a great variety of other traditions: shamanism and witchcraft and other practices inspired by primal religions and pre-Christian traditions, trends in humanistic psychology, natural "new science", insights from anthropology, etc.

One of the unifying tendencies in this bewildering and often contradictory mixture is the search for strength or energy. One expected the various spiritual traditions to offer methods for developing the potentials of the individual. «Potential» comes from the Latin word «posse» which means «to be able to, to have capacity to», and hence potential is the hidden capacity or ability or strength to do things (......). These methods -- whether yoga, meditation, taijiquan or other -- became «psychotechnologies», that is practical techniques for investigating the hidden parts of the human psyche and breaking the barriers of everyday consciousness, aiming at developing hidden energies and capacities.

Even a superficial look at the literature of New Age movements, alternative network magazines, advertisements, workshops, music and films demonstrate an overwhelming preoccupation with energy. It is no coincidence that the main Swedish alternative network magazine is called Energivågen (The Energy Wave), and the most successful alternative book-club in Norway is called Energica (Energetical). Whatever they offer, and whatever they call their methods -- healing, therapy, shamanism, yoga, meditation, hyperventilation, holotropic breathing, qigong, rebirthing, dreamwork, self-help, human growth -- the energy aspect is obvious. The strong appeal of certain forms of yoga is not the religious discipline, but the promises of transforming lower instincts to higher energies. East Asian traditions such as taijichuan, qigong, and aikido promise to open the physical and mental blockages which hinder the free and balanced flow of energy between the individual and the cosmos. Modern Western spirituality -- including a great deal of modern Christian charismatic movements -- seems to be increasingly concerned with energy. «Empowerment» is the point. People search for new strength, dream about the liberation of the hidden potentials, wait for the frozen wellsprings to flow. Find your inner strength; channel in on the right energies; get in touch with the healing powers; be filled with meaning and life force; tune in on the living energies of the universe.5

One important aspect of this energetic understanding of life, is the tendency to prefer to speak also of God -- if that is a concern at all -- in energetic terms. One wants to liberate God from the primitive personal language of traditional religion. God is not a person, but energy. Such personal expressions as lord, king, father, creator, etc. are not only regarded as immature anthropomorfism, but even as oppressive male language. They must be abandoned and replaced by impersonal and neutral categories, such as light, life, energy. Expressed in simple technical terminology: the relational language about God so common in theistic religions are replaced by an energetic language more in tune with pantheistic religions. God is not An Other to be encountered, but a cosmic source of energy identical with the energetic potential in every person.

Separate worlds or complementary categories?
I have tried to cultivate the conceptual worlds that stem from a concentration on three distinct categories -- insight, relationship, and energy -- and the characteristic symbolic languages nurtured by those categories. The initial conclusion seem to be that the three symbolic languages are so different that they represent three world that are not only separate, but even incompatible.

As a religion of the eye Buddhism is primarily concerned with insight and mental understanding. It does away with all attempt to postulate the existence of any permanent entity, divine or human, spiritual or phenomenal. Being directed to the inner dimension, the outside world is only of secondary interest. The main representative is the Awakened one, the sage who has ultimate insight and helps others to open their eyes.

As a religion of the ear Christianity is primarily a religion of community, of speaking and hearing and answering in responsible word and deed. The highest expression of religious search is love, -- love of God and love of the neighbor. Faith in God is expressed in a strongly personal language with exceedingly anthropomorphic symbols. The main representative is the prophet, the one who speaks with God's voice and calls the community to obedience, reconciliation, and love.

With its emphasis on energy and strength, modern alternative spirituality and many other religious traditions are primarily preoccupied with developing the inner potential of the individual. If God or the divine is taken into consideration at all, it is primarily understood in terms of energy or power, identical with the all-pervading energy of the cosmos and inherent in every human being as well. The main representative is perhaps the magus, the seer who has the secret knowledge and power, and who is able to initiate others into this realm.

This attempt to describe these categories as three distinct symbolic worlds needs some modifications. What follows here is only a few suggestions indicating that they may not be incompatible, but perhaps complementary. At least it is easy to see that most of us mix the categories, and even that one symbolic category may include the other two as important aspects.

Insight and energy in relational religions
Those who are acquainted with religions of the ear, with their emphasis on relationships, will probably insist that they also appreciate the function of the eye -- seeing, insight, and wisdom. A great deal of the Biblical tradition is concerned with wisdom, and even the words and acts of Jesus may be heard as words of a wisdom teacher. Wisdom is the primordial principle according to which God created the world. His creative Word is identified with the wisdom which in the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) is identified with the Torah (Law), in the New Testament revealed in the divine logos (Prov 8; John 1). «Blessed are the pure of heart; for they shall see God,» Jesus said in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:8). Particularly the Gospel of John is concerned about seeing and understanding. Knowledge, light, and truth are among its central concepts, «...you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free» (John 8:32). Paul speaks about the spiritual power of wisdom and vision, by which there comes the knowledge of him (Eph 1:17). One passage in the New Testament which exhorts the readers to heed the prophetic word «like a lamp shining in a murky place, until the day breaks and the morning star rises to illuminate your minds» (2 Pet 1:19). To me it sounds almost as a description of Buddha's awakening.

One could easily multiply such examples, but in most cases even insight, wisdom, understanding are undoubtedly expressions of relationships. Even «seeing God» is not primarily an expression of insight -- even though insight is implied -- but the highest level of relationship.

The energy or power aspect of relationship is also obvious. Even though God is primarily understood in personal categories, the Bible abounds in expressions about God's power, strength, might, glory, etc. Here we might go into an interesting discussion of the meaning of these words. Sometimes the emphasis is on the «raw» power and strength, God's almighty ability to do whatever he wills, sometimes almost a violent strength. At other times the emphasis is on his authority, his position of glory, his right to receive the honor and praise. In Greek the distinction is sometimes made between dunamis and exousia, the first being primarily an energetic aspect of power and ability (Jap. nôryku, zennô ......), the second more relational (Jap. ken'i, kenryoku ......). We all know that the two aspects are often mixed in human affairs, and hence often in divine matters.

One interesting aspect of the power aspect of God is the fact that the Eastern Orthodox Church at an early stage made a distinction between God's transcendent essence (ousia) and his «energies» (energeiai). His essence could never be grasped by human beings, while his energies could be known through his activities in the world.

Another energetic aspect of relationship is experienced in every person's life. The love between two persons or the sense of fellowship is able to mobilize an incredible amount of energy, vitality, and creativity. Trust, friendship, and admiration, likewise, are sources of empowerment. On the contrary, we all know how such negative feelings as hatred and envy drain the sources of vitality and strength. Relationships may be defined in many ways, but somehow energy is an important aspect in all relations.

In a similar way the relationship to God may be experienced in energetic terms. God is not only the powerful Other out there, but is the source of strength and vitality. The faithful waits for power and strength from God, or even says that «God is my strength and my song (or power)» (Ex 15:2; Is 12:2).

My point in this connection is merely to indicate that even though Christianity is primarily concerned about the personal aspect of God, Biblical symbolism opens for a more energetic language about God. There is a potential for a less personally oriented language.

Relationship and energy in insight religions
In the same manner it is easy to observe that Buddhism, with all its emphasis on the eye, seeing, vision, and insight, is not without ears, to speak symbolically. Preaching seemed to be the most prominent part of Buddha's life. His disciples were «hearers» (srâvaka ......). The common opening of the classical sutras were, «Thus I have heard ...» (Jap. nyo ze ga mon ......). I don't think it is arbitrary either that the Buddha is usually depicted with extremely long and large ears. Buddhism is not without ears.

We don't have time to elaborate on this point now, but it is certainly worth while to explore more deeply into the relational aspect of Buddhism. I am particularly thinking of the principle of causality ( pratitya samutpada ......), in English often translated as dependent coorigination or interdependence. As you know, particularly in Mahayana this may be developed into a magnificent understanding of total inter-relatedness. It may be elaborated as a vision of cosmic unity, as a deep sense of solidarity with all suffering life, or as a concern for universal salvation. The religious ideal is not the arhat withdrawn from society in nirvanic harmony, but the bodhisattva who is willing to abandon nirvana and to remain in the world of suffering in order to lead all sentient beings to ultimate redemption. Withdrawal from all relationships that keep the mind in bondage leads to a new freedom and opens the world to new relationships. Insight leads to compassion.

The energetic aspect of Buddhism is seldom described as a primary goal. Those who are familiar with meditation, however, know how the combination of breathing, quiet concentration and mindfulness may energize body and mind. Another aspect is the liberating power of insight and understanding. Buddhism is generally reluctant to speak about spiritual power or supernatural abilities, but the tradition is unanimous in recognizing supernatural powers as a concomitant aspect of Buddha's awakening, and potentially of any real illumination.

Insight and relationship in energy spiritualities
Is there a similar awareness of insight and relationship in spiritual traditions preoccupied with energy? I think so, but perhaps in a more paradoxical way.

I have observed that some of those who approach alternative spirituality in search of energy and inner strength, are in various ways victims of destructive relationships or lack of relationships. Some have experienced oppression and violence, and trust neither themselves nor others. Others suffer from a lack of relationships, and struggle with loneliness and isolation. In some cases such experiences are intensified by images of God as an oppressive and controlling divine authority, or as a power who creates emptiness by his absence. In such cases it is not surprising that they are attracted to a source of strength and energy which is not understood in terms of personal relations. «I will never bow before the god,» writes the Swedish novelist Par Lagerkvist, who was haunted by oppressive images of God from his childhood, «but by the wellspring I will bow down to drink from it, in order to quench my thirst for that which I cannot fathom, but which I know exists» (The Death of Ahasverus).

If one's human dignity is destroyed by negative relationships, it makes sense to search for inner sources rather than relationships. If God is experienced as an oppressive or manipulating or even absent power, it is perhaps more promising to search for an impersonal energy rather than a personal God. In a paradoxical way, however, if one really obtains new strength and vitality through such a search, new types of relationships may follow. A person whose dignity is restored and energized will usually be able to face others with new confidence and openness. In the same manner the attempt to seek the divine as an impersonal source of energy may open for a new appreciation of a personal God, expressed in a relationship of love and trust. New energy tends to restore people to new relationships.

What about insight? Even though the preoccupation with power and energy may suppress the concern for insight, it is fair to say that insight is traditionally implicit in energy spiritualities. Both the occult magus or the modern alternative seeker may be preoccupied with power and experiment with the hidden energies, but the basis for all traditional search for such power is knowledge, insight into the hidden correspondences. Knowledge is power, and without insight experimenting with the energies may even be dangerous.

In sum, I think the various religious traditions tend to cultivate one of the three categories we have discussed, sometimes without much concern about the others. At the same, however, consciously or unconsciously, they give room for them. The categories are not closed systems antagonistic to the others, but rather complementary. As human persons we have a center of identity towards which everything tends to gravitate, but in real life we move from one sphere to the other -- home, school, work, business, shopping, entertainment, friendship -- with changing aspects of our personality and with a variety of languages. In the same manner it is possible to use a variety of languages and categories in our spiritual life. It is possible to appreciate all three categories -- relationship, insight, and energy -- without losing our basic commitment.

Enriched by dialogical search
My conclusions are implicit in what I have already said, but let me finally mention two examples of how Christian theology may profit from a dialogical approach.

The first example deals with the challenge to the Biblical relational and anthropomorphic language about God. To Western Christians it seems to be an indisputable assumption that God is a person and that God is transcendent. Certainly, our faith would be poor without the personal dimension. It would lose direction without the sense of God as a transcendent Other. A massive Eastern reaction -- at least at the intellectual level -- shows that the emphasis on God's personhood and his radical transcendence is one of the main barriers for understanding Christian faith. One tends to prefer non-personal and immanent language concerning the Absolute, such as dharma, universal truth, nature, heaven (...... sometimes with a personal character), light and life, suchness, nothingness, emptiness. Buddhism abounds in divinities and powers and often use strongly personal language, but ultimately these are mere symbolic expressions of a reality that belongs to a sphere which transcends the personal.

But there is room for mutual understanding. Christians are aware that anthropomorphic expressions are symbols pointing toward a divine reality that transcends all human categories. Even when we stubbornly cling to the personal expressions , we know that God is not a person out there in the same sense that we are persons.

We tend to regard non-personal categories as vague and diffuse, or even cold and merciless. How could one possibly devote oneself to a universal law of causality? In the East, however, such impersonal language is rather experienced as a dynamic means of expressing the inexplicable mystery of the absolute. Should we not be inspired by the East to investigate more thoroughly the potential of impersonal god-language?

In a similar way, it should be possible for Christians to speak more boldly about God in immanent categories. Sometimes our emphasis on transcendence reduces God to a power «out there» instead of seeing him as the creator who penetrates the entire cosmos. Eastern though may not always grasp the «transcendent presence» of the divine, but on the other hand our categories are not always able to express the «transcendent presence» in a meaningful way.

My last example is from a discussion in a Norwegian alternative network journal which demonstrates on the one hand the emotional gap between relational and energy languages, and on the other hand shows how impossible it is to isolate them from each other.

The writer describes his own emotional rejection of Christian images of God, which he had experienced as oppressive and debasing. «The grace of God» was to him a message about a Lord who would punish all who were not willing to debase themselves begging for pardon. Relational language had lost meaning, and the only alternative was to resort to energy language. «What if it is simply that the grace of God is merely a universal energy -- just like love?» he asks himself. "What if it is simply that the grace of God is merely a universal energy - just like the Christ energy?» He then shares his own experience of what he calls the «Christ energy», which he had experienced as a universal energy like sunshine, a universal energy no one can claim as their own. «Rich and poor, orthodox or heretics -- we can all go out in the sunshine whenever we want and receive light, refreshment, and warmth.» In his own childhood he had struggled to be «a good boy» in order to be accepted by a demanding God from whom he expected no favor. His mother, likewise, had been agonizing with the fear that she was unworthy and perhaps rejected by God.

On this background it is possible to appreciate the need for speaking about God as a fountain of universal energy. Moreover, his entire understanding of God as energy is permeated with personal and relational language. This energy has «blessed his whole life;» it is accepting and forgiving; it is a light that follows him allows him to be basking in the grace of God; is «just like love.» In fact, it seems as if the «energy» which he has experienced needs strongly emotional and relational expressions to be explained.

Allow me to conclude with a Biblical word of wisdom which somehow seems to hold the three categories together in a unified vision: «God's gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power, and love, and thoughtfulness (sôfrosyné)» (2 Tim 1:7). With some liberty we might interpret these in terms of energy, relation, and wisdom.

end notes:


In Kiplin's words, «But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, / When two strong men stand fact to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!»

Such expressions as «Eastern» and «Western» are to be taken as popular terms, , inaccurate for a critical analysis, but useful as shorthand expressions. In our case the boundary between East and West goes roughly between India and Pakistan.

It is interesting to note that the term qi/ki was introduced as one of the options for rendering the term «spirit/Spirit/Holy Spirit» in the Japanese translation of the Bible in the 1880s, since it has some of the connotations the other alternative rei/ryô ....... failed to have: breath/breathing, wind, energy.

Sepharial, Allmenn Manual of Occultism, London Rider and Company 1973, first published 1910).

An interesting question is whether the emphasis on energy, power, strength, potential in modern alternative spirituality could be interpreted as a symptom of allmenn general suffering in modern societies: the sense of powerlessness, weakness, and lack of vitality; the feeling of being controlled and manipulated by hidden forces (economic, political, social and ideological powers), outside the control of the individual.