November 27, 2005

Sri Aurobindo and Christianity

Winston Michael R.
Journal of Religious Thought. v51 n1, Summer 1994
One of the first things to be said about Sri Aurobindo is that he recognized what an important advance it would be in our thinking if we could discover the means to connect the personal religious experience--which is self-validating for the individual, though not necessarily for anyone else--to the modern world's larger but inherently non-religious analytical rationality. In the context of India's religious tradition this had implications more alarming for the devout than what may be thought of as similar, and generally unsuccessful, efforts to reconcile Christianity with the claims of the natural sciences.
He rejected the view of those Christians who focus on the promises of the hereafter, on the fulfillment of the individual soul as a reward for renouncing evil and following the positive imperatives of the Gospel. His objection is not based on a conviction that these views are spiritually false, but rather that their truth is partial. The error is not absolute; it is in the exaggeration of a part of the truth into an all-embracing reality. "The ascent of man into heaven is not the key," he wrote, "but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature. For this and not some post-mortem salvation is the real new birth for which humanity waits as the crowning movement of its long, obscure and painful course."[14].
Moreover, in the mystical traditions of Western Christianity, and even in its pagan predecessors, there is extensive witnessing of the "bringing down of the spirit" to the individual. We recognize a dimension of this also in the Holiness and Pentecostal churches of contemporary Christianity. Yet Aurobindo's view is still different in his insistence that the complementary movements of spiritual evolution and involution are not to be thought of as sporadic moments of grace, but a continuing struggle to achieve a higher consciousnes that in fact transforms human nature. That, as he saw it, is the goal.
By positing the plasticity of human nature, not merely human behavior, Aurobindo confronts the contemporary Western Christian with the radical expectation of early Christianity that a new life, transformed by a higher spiritual power, is possible. To follow the implications of his logic, just as Buddhism's triumph placed Indian spirituality on the road to withdrawal from the material world, Christianity's compromise with secular power after the Emperor Constantine's conversion caused it to retreat from the conception that the spiritual imperative conveyed by Jesus of Nazareth was a fundamental call for the transformation of human life. That retreat, combined with the Pauline view of fallen human nature, is basic to the very modest expectations that conventional Western religious opinion has of the possibilities of human life.
Aurobindo's basic claim is that it is possible to break decisively from the compromise with the so-called realities of this world. For him, the achievement of a higher consciousness and human transformation is perfectly consistent with what we know of evolution from a scientific point of view, and equally consistent with what we know from the accumulated spiritual knowledge of mankind. This is not a gift to mankind, but the ultimate result of a progressive struggle between the burdens of what is and the intuition of what might be.

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