Monday, September 2, 2013

Can Christianity Really Be “Lost”? On Re-Reading Jacob Needleman

For a year now, I have been writing a memoir of my journey to the Catholic faith. To recapture my thought process at different stages, I have been re-reading books that moved me when. 

I read . . . Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be—when I was a senior in boarding school, dreaming of a career in the Episcopal ministry. Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity—when I was a college freshman looking Eastward for my spiritual inspiration. Maurice Nicoll, The New Man—when I was a college senior studying alternative traditions but still not far removed from my Christian roots.*

Twenty years further on, I would be reading Vita Sackville West, St. Joan of Arc. That would be a turning point.

The saints, I discovered, were not legends, no one’s rosy fantasy. They lived. Twelve years later, I was a Catholic.

But plumb in the middle of my many years studying the alternative spiritual methodology of George Gurdjieff (1866?–1949), I read another book “about” Christianity: Jacob Needleman’s Lost Christianity. In its own way, this book had every bit as positive an effect on me, in the sense of conversion, as the biography of Joan would. But only after the fact, and in spite of itself. 

Needleman is an esteemed professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, who has written many books about religion. It is a poorly kept secret that he is (or was)** one of the senior leaders in the loose worldwide confederation of Gurdjieff groups, who practice a system of spiritual development sometimes referred to as The Work. Even if I didn’t know this, I would have figured it out.

You see, each of Needleman’s books—at least those I have read—is written with a wink-wink Gurdjieffian perspective. Without ever uttering the name Gurdjieff, he writes as if for a private audience of Work insiders. In “researching” Lost Christianity Needleman neither read theology nor plunged into Christian worship. He went about the world “encountering” Christian leaders and then drawing some very sweeping conclusions.

These conclusions stem from his encounters and his conviction that the men (always men) he meets have something in their eyes, a presence, that convinces him they know something the rest of us Christians don’t. (“There was a steadiness in his eyes that was really quite extraordinary. . . . In some people something is communicated through the eyes that authenticates them.”)

What do these big-eyed men know that we don’t? According to Needleman, they know that the real Christian teaching is a sort of hidden stream that submerged 1700 years ago after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine. That Christianity rightly understood is a path to the development of an inner state of consciousness. That Church, as we know it, is unnecessary, or at least very far wrong.

My view of Needleman’s book has turned 180 degrees in 30 years.

In (about) 1983, when I first read Lost Christianity, I smiled the knowing gnostic smile of the insider, thinking that I had the key to the real Christian teaching. And pity all those millions upon millions of ordinary believers who knelt and prayed for all those centuries, not really understanding what they were doing!

Today, I am appalled at that younger self and maybe no less so at Needleman. Who is he—an academic removed completely not only from Christian observance but, by his own admission, from the temple of his youth—to pronounce judgment on those I see at daily Mass, on my pastor, on my confessor, on my Pope? Today, I see how thin his evidence (those eyes!) and how deep his prejudice.***

But then Needleman is our culture—convinced by New Age spirituality, having given up on Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” Because it was this, more than anything, that converted me—the sickening realization that maybe I just wasn’t smarter, after all, than two thousand years of saints and invisible saintly Catholics who had said the same prayers and been blessed by the same sacraments!

Like, Eureka!

How the hell did I think I was so smart?

Of course, today everyone is so smart, and few smarter than the esteemed Dr. Needleman.

* The book interprets the Gospels in the light of “esoteric teaching.” Don’t get me started on that one today . . .

** I have no inside knowledge of what the Gurdjieff people are doing in 2013.

*** On his first page, there is a reference to the bloody Crusades. It gets worse.

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