Monday, September 11, 2023

“YHWH” as (the) Breath (of Life)

This is an excerpt from a talk Fr. Richard Rohr OFM gave at Norwich Cathedral in 2015 titled “Christian Contemplation-Becoming Stillness.” It can be found online at:  / Published on YouTube on: Jan. 18, 2015.

Rohr recounts a conversation he had with a scientist who happened to be a Jewish Rabbi. The Rabbi makes the case that the name of God, sacred to Jews and Christians, YaHWeH, was originally an attempt to replicate breath. Hence, we can conclude, that our very breath is intimately linked with the Greater Reality (some of us call God) and that, with every breath we take throughout our life, we exist within the greater divine reality. [jkk]


He [the rabbi-scientist] said, "Did you know that the consonants used in the spelling of the sacred name, Y-a-H-W-e-H,  are in fact the only consonants that if correctly pronounced do not allow you to use your tongue or close your lips?

In fact we know that the pronouncing of the sacred name was an attempt to imitate and replicate breath, that it was inhalation and exhalation."

And then he began to do it into the microphone and, in a few minutes, tears started being audible in the room [full] of PhDs

I now give this to every crowd I can because it can change your life.

If I would come back here a year from tonight and if some of you hold on to this and begin to live it and to experience it and to practice it, your prayer life will dramatically change. But notice it has nothing to do with thinking.

Here, Rohr reminds us that we should transcend the action of cognitive thinking in order to experience the spirit of contemplation. That, in turn, will change our lives.[jkk]

In fact it moves the entire experience to the cellular body, to the corporeal breath level and it means, wonder of wonders,  that the first word you ever spoke when you came out of your mother's womb was the name of God.

And it will be the last word you'll ever speak. You don't have to try to remember to say a prayer before you die.You're going to anyway: that last breath you take on your death bread will be the name of God

And it's the one thing you've done constantly. You just did it now and you did it again: You're breathing. [52:16]


Being mindful of one’s breathing is a fundamental component of practically all meditation techniques found in the world’s various spiritual-wisdom traditions (the world religions). Here is one way to make breathing exercises explicitly Christian: to understand and practice it as a form of recitation of the sacred name of God. Besides, one does not need to recite it audibly. The very breath is a recitation of the divine name and communing with the divine presence. [jkk]


Friday, August 11, 2023

The Rising “Religion of Life” Today: Philosopher of Religion Don Cupitt's Thoughts on This and My Critical Reactions to It


This blogpost is closely based on a lecture given by David Warden of the “Dorset Humanists” on "The Religion of Life,” (DCRL link below), a way of life advocated by British Philosopher of Religion Don Cupitt

SOURCE:  Don Cupitt and the religion of life – a lecture by David Warden

link: (Hereafter referred to as DCRL)

Note well also the following works as further references:

·         Philosopher-Kings:

·         The Fountain:

·         Cupitt, Don. Turns of Phrase: Radical Theology from A to Z. London: SCM Press, 2011. (Hereafter referred to as TP)

·         See also the overview of Don Cupitt’s thinking at:


Don Cupitt and Religion 

Don Cupitt is a British philosopher of religion and theologian who has reflected deeply and written extensively on the state of religion in the contemporary Western world.

Cupitt thinks that “God” (the image of God) as traditionally conceived of in the West (namely, a supernatural Being who is all-powerful and controls all things) is fundamentally a myth (not an objective reality). However, “religion” which upheld this idea of God in the West for a long time, can still be deeply meaningful. He has called this position “non-realism.”

Besides, Cupitt also teaches that this life is (apparently) all that there is and that there is nothing else beyond this present existence. Hence, our main task is to live this life to the fullest and make the most of our limited existence here on earth.

Here in the West, religion is usually thought of as a belief in and worship of a supernatural God. Let us not forget though that there are other meanings of the word “religion.” For example, in everyday usage, “religion” is sometimes meant as an “all-consuming passion” (such as baseball or football, hence, expressions such as “Hockey is my religion”).

In parts of the East though, religion has often been understood primarily as a practice or applied philosophy that can deliver enlightenment and bliss to those who undertake its practice. In this understanding of religion, “believing” is not too important. Rather, the emphasis is on praxis: practicing and living according to teachings that are immensely practical and are geared to achieving a greater wholeness in the practioner and in the world. These teachings can actually be called—in the words of spirituality teacher Roger Walsh—"psycho-spiritual technologies” that can and do deliver bliss, happiness, and well-being. Spiritual-wisdom traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism (among others) best exemplify this type of religion. There is a tendency in the West though to look down upon such non-theistic forms of religion and consider them as “mere philosophies” (mere human thinking) and not true religions, which are thought of as being directly revealed by the Divine Being. Needless to say, I do not agree with this condescending attitude toward Eastern spiritual-wisdom traditions.

It is fair to say that Westerners are generally not used to an understanding of religion that puts great import on practice (praxis) instead of believing. As mentioned above, it is usually thought that monotheistic religions are the only “authentic” forms of religions. Because of the prevalence of this idea in the West, there is still a strong tendency to equate religion with supernatural beliefs or with believing in things that one cannot really prove but have to be, as the popular formula goes, “taken on faith.” Many of these matters that are to be taken on faith have mythological features in common with other ancient myths. Many Westerners find it hard to see that a largely “beliefless” kind of religion that puts the emphasis instead on praxis can be interesting, let alone legitimate (cf. Cupitt, 2000: Philosophy’s Own Religion).

[jkk annotation]

In line with Cupitt, I propose that even in the West, it is high time to understand and practice religion in the abovementioned manner frequently associated with Eastern spiritual-wisdom traditions (Eastern religions). I say this because of my work with young adults at the university, many of whom identify themselves as MRB (‘Multiple Religious Belonging’ people), SBNR (Spiritual but not Religious), Dones (We’re “done” with religion), and/or Nones (We have “no” religion). This may very well be the reason why Buddhism, a tradition that has no explicit belief in God, is so popular in the West today.

Psychiatrist and spirituality teacher Roger Walsh (UC-Irvine) has called an understanding and practice of religion (that emphasizes the practical dimension) “transconventional religion.” This is contrasted with “conventional” Western religion which puts the emphasis on believing on faith (the creed, the Bible, biblical principles, etc.) and linking one’s eternal salvation with such an act of believing.

[end of jkk annotation]

Saturday, May 20, 2023

How to Meditate: My Suggestion - "Life-giving Reading" (Lectio Vitalis)

(this is a revised version of a blogpost that I originally wrote in March 2021)

Why Meditate?

Practically all spiritual teachers in every spiritual-wisdom tradition agree that the spiritual quest (aka, the Hero’s Journey) cannot go far without some form of—what is commonly known as—meditation practice. “Meditation” (here) is known by other names such as: prayer, mindfulness, contemplation, etc. However it is called, meditation is essential to support your own hero’s journey, your own spiritual quest. Why? It is that formal act done regularly of trying to [1] reach your depth and [2] transcend yourself which, as we said, make up the heart of all spirituality and religion.

Besides, meditation has been proven even by numerous scientific studies to have many other benefits for the well-being and health of your mind and body. For example, Jonathan Haidt in his The Happiness Hypothesis, tells us that meditation is something like a magic pill. His words: “Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose, finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it? The pill exists. It’s called meditation.”

[for those taking the course RS2180] An important component of this course on spiritual quests and popular culture is the task of journal writing. I envision journal writing to be a result of your meditation on the different learning materials of the week. Try to practice some kind of meditation before you write your journal entry!)


Meditation Described Briefly 

A simple description: Meditation is a universal practice found in practically all spiritual-wisdom traditions (aka, the world religions). It is basically a concentration technique that has two key elements

1.    First, choosing a focus for attention. This is usually one's breathing (in and out). But it can be extended to: an emotion, a thought, a part of one's body, etc. It can even be applied to a sacred word or mantra (as it is done in the Christian prayer-practice known as "centering prayer"). 

2.    Second, when one notices that one's attention has wandered elsewhere, gently bring it back to the point of focus.

That is meditation in a nutshell! Our minds--as Buddhism often teaches--are like restless, wild monkeys that jump from tree to tree ("the monkey mind"). When one can tame this restless, wandering mind and train it to focus on something, then the spiritual quest can move forward in earnest (see Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality, pp. 155-56).


A Suggestion on How to Meditate - A "Life-Giving Reading" (Lectio Vitalis)

There are many forms of meditation. The following is just my recommendation from my personal practice. For the absolute beginner, I would recommend starting with 10 minutes every day and aim to expand that eventually to 15~20 minutes. For people who are somewhat addicted to being endlessly engaged (often, distracted) with technological gadgets, that can seem daunting. But it is necessary to resolve and set out to "just do it" (as the Nike ad says).

There is a popular spiritual practice in the Catholic Christian tradition called "Lectio Divina." That means "Sacred [or Divine] Reading." It is a time-tested and proven method of reading the scriptures in a prayerful, contemplative manner. It is based on a simple method that can be summarized in the following steps: (1) Read -- (2) Think -- (3) Pray -- (4) Act.

I will adopt and tweak a bit the 'Sacred Reading' method and propose it to beginners or people who want to progress further in their meditation practice. As I said, I'll rename the practice to "Lectio Vitalis" (Latin) which means "a life-giving/life-sustaining reading." The Latin literally means "Vital Reading."  "Vital" here means: "life-giving, life-sustaining, life-affirming," but also "important" (vital!) for cultivating and sustaining one's spiritual quest or hero’s journey.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Main Takeaways from our Study of Spiritual Quests and Popular Culture

Popular Culture is often just thoughtlessly consumed today as entertainment. That is unfortunate because if one looks deeply at many works of popular culture and analyzes them properly with the right tools and background knowledge regarding the sources from which they come, one will realize certain profound and noteworthy things which I will try to summarize below. We have done this by analyzing films such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Harry Potter (and his different adventures), Regarding Henry, etc.

[1] Heroes and Villains |  Works of popular culture generally have “Heroes” and “Villains.” These characters, their respective “journeys” and “adventures/misadventures” usually form the backbone of the stories. The journeys of heroes have been a main focus of this course because they reflect and mirror the real journeys that each of us undertakes in life. Each of us is “the Hero” of our own life. At the same time, we can also potentially become “the Villain” of both our life and the lives of others.

[2] Journeys and Spiritual Quests |  The “journey” itself can be considered a spiritual quest. The essence of the “spiritual quest” can be expressed in this way: We may not be fully aware of it, but all of us are actually seeking (“questing”) in everything we do for a more MEANINGFUL and HAPPY existence. This can only be reached—I’m proposing—by pursuing a more profound “depth in life” and, at the same time, participating in something “bigger” than ourselves. The key words here are “depth” and transcendence.”

[3] Spirituality and Spiritual Quests |  Hence, the (working) definition of the spiritual quest (or of “spirituality” itself) that I have proposed in this course is: The spiritual quest (or spirituality itself) is the human quest for meaning by finding ways to go deeper into oneself and transcend oneself for something bigger. We can shorten that to: Going “Deeper” and “Bigger” as the very essence of the spiritual quest. At their best, the different religions and spiritual traditions of the world try to enhance the development of this spiritual quest/spirituality in their own particular ways. Sometimes they are successful; at other times, they are not. Another main point I’ve emphasized is that spirituality is a basic human dimension. It is not the exclusive domain of institutional religions although the pursuit of spirituality has been predominantly done within religious institutions in the past. Hence, spirituality can be properly pursued within but also outside institutional religion today.

[4] Christianity and Jesus |  We cannot neglect the major role that the Christian tradition and its central figure (Jesus Christ) have played in the history of Western civilization.  For better or worse, Christianity has impacted many aspects of Western culture both in the past and still in our day. Therefore, a knowledge of key aspects of Christianity, particularly, of its central figure—Jesus Christ, is key to understanding Western culture itself and the many pieces of literature and popular culture (among other things) that come from it.

[5] Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth |  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell proposed that stories of heroes around the world follow one basic plot which he outlined in his influential work A Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell called this plot “the monomyth.” It is also popularly known as “The Hero’s Journey.” These stories, which basically follow Campbell’s scheme of the hero’s journey, are found in various mythologies and religious-spiritual traditions. Or course, they are also found in many of the stories and plots of popular culture.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

The “Limit Experience” and the Hero’s Journey (aka, the Spiritual Quest)


I recommend that you view the film Regarding Henry first before reading this blogpost. Available from the Western library system HERE.

Thinking about “Limit” Experiences and Situations

The film Regarding Henry (1991, starring Harrison Ford and Annette Benning) would probably be considered nowadays a rather unremarkable film that is too sappy and corny for an audience composed
of many “jaded” people used to more glitzy films. I consider it though a good chance to reflect on the concept of “limit” and “limit situations/experiences.” “Limit” is a major key for understanding and reflecting about the most important questions of human life and existence, particularly, how these relate with God, spirituality, and religion.

According to theologian David Tracy, a “limit situation” refers “to those human situations wherein a human being ineluctably finds manifest a certain ultimate limit or horizon to his or her existence.” Tracy distinguishes two main kinds of existential situations: “Either those ‘boundary’ situations of guilt, anxiety, sickness and the recognition of death as one's own destiny, or those situations called 'ecstatic experiences'... intense joy, love, reassurance, creation.” (David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, p. 105).

Let me explain “limit” in my words (with my students in mind). A “limit experience or situation” can be described as an intense moment when something major (either positive or negative)—be it an event, an overwhelmingly magnificent or evil person, extraordinary beauty or ugliness, a serious crisis or extraordinarily beautiful moment, or the like—so powerfully discloses the limits of human beings to understand the mysteriousness of human existence. It forces us who experience this event as “a limit” to nevertheless make at least some sense of this event’s mysteriousness that transcends the ordinary limits of human understanding. How to do that? By attempting to do an interpretation of the experience (“interpretive understanding”). That’s just a fancy way to say: When faced with a limit situation, humans try to put forward a possible explanation of the event. Of course, it is obvious that the effort to make sense of limit experiences often takes place in the midst of many strong positive or negative emotions, such as hope, faith, love, anxiety, sadness, anger, fear, despair, etc., elicited by these powerful experiences.

The Limit Situation in Regarding Henry

Let’s go back to Regarding Henry. First point for consideration: At the beginning of the film, we see that New York lawyer Henry Turner is at the top of his game. He is a tremendously successful lawyer who “has everything” in terms of worldly success. At this point, recall that in order to reach such success in one’s career, Henry has had to work and study hard, hone his rhetorical and reasoning skills, have the right connections, and pursue everything with drive and perseverance. Being successful in life (such as having a successful career) is itself an impressive feat that could not be reached without much discipline and sacrifice. Being university students, most of you are in that “struggling” stage now.

But Henry’s life and success are obliterated in a single moment because of a seemingly random and senseless shooting that almost kills him and tragically reduces him to the state of a helpless person who has lost even the most basic of human capabilities such as walking or speaking, let alone reading or writing. This is the story’s BIG limit experience and situation. How can a whole life of hard work culminating in great success be gone in a few seconds? Such tragic experiences make us come face to face with our limits to comprehend life’s utter mysteriousness. Henry himself as well as his family and colleagues think of the whole situation as a tragedy. But is it really? (see the Zen story below)

How do you evaluate this tragedy in terms of the Hero’s Journey? How would you apply the Hero’s Journey to the whole life-journey of Henry presented in this film? Reflect on those questions and be prepared to give meaningful responses.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Some “Big Ideas” on Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture

From 'Creative Educator'

Summary of the Most Important Points of a Course that I regularly teach called “Spiritual Quests & Popular Culture” 

[1] “Spiritual Quests” |  Human Life can be described in general as a “quest" or a “journey.” It is a quest and a search for something so precious that is worth the trouble of a difficult journey filled with lots of challenges.

In philosophy & religious studies, it is said that the most important quest or search in life is the one that will lead you to know deeply who you really are and all that you can be – in short, your authentic self. And that “authentic self” is someone who accepts yourself as you are but is, at the same time, connected with others (and the whole universe even!) and also living for a cause that is “bigger than yourself.

To summarize, the spiritual quest is “a quest for your deepest and most authentic self—a self that is connected with the universe and living for something bigger than your small EGO.” The external circumstances will differ from person to person, your life-adventures can bring you to far-away places or be done close to home but no matter where you go or what you face, the goal is the same: to know your authentic self as described above.

[2] “Spirituality” | Spiritualityas I [jkk] understand it—is composed of the following: One, it is a process of going deeper to find out who you really are in the most profound part of your being. Let’s call that “depth.” Two, it also means living for “something bigger than yourself.” A good term for that is “transcendence.” When you’ve begun to know deeply who you really are (depth) and when you’re pursuing something bigger than yourself (transcendence), only then can your life have a deeply satisfying and fulfilling meaning.

[3] Spirituality and Religion |  Spirituality as described above (in #2) is the heart of all religion. A religion is valid only in as much as it can enhance the spirituality of its members. However, spirituality can also be pursued outside of institutional religion. That is a growing trend especially in the West today (and in other parts of the world in which religion is on the decline).

We can make a good case that spirituality itself is the summum bonum (the highest good) for humans whether it is pursued within or outside a religious tradition. In other words, pursuing a spiritual quest (for depth and transcendence) is the greatest and most fulfilling adventure humans can be engaged in. Some will do it within a religious tradition; some others will do it outside the bounds of an institutional religion.

[4] The Hero’s Journey |  In order to accomplish this goal (of knowing deeply who we really are and partaking in something bigger than ourselves), everyone has to go on a QUEST or JOURNEY in life. This is in fact “the spiritual quest.” In the course of this journey, one has the possibility of becoming a HERO. [Note well though: If you allow the journey to embitter and break you, you can end up becoming a villain.] Hence, this spiritual quest has also been frequently expressed as “the Hero’s Journey.”

[5] Joseph Campbell’s Iteration of the Hero’s Journey |  The American mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined this quest well in his teaching on “The Hero’s Journey.” In one of his most well-known books, Campbell referred to “a hero with a thousand faces.” There, he described the Hero’s journey as “the monomyth.” By this, he meant that almost all “hero stories” throughout history and across all cultures seem to follow basically “one mythical plot” (hence, “mono-myth”).

The Hero’s Journey according to Campbell has three main parts: [1] The Departure or Separation: a hero is called to adventure and has to leave “home” (that is, everything familiar to them); [2] Initiation-Adventure: This part of the journey involves all the adventures, trials and defeats, joys and triumphs, etc. that the hero experiences. These experiences in turn forge the person into a genuine hero; [3] The Return: The hero then returns home bringing the fruits of their journey. There they bring about a new and better world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Worldviews and Religions: The Role of Religions-as-Worldviews in Building a Global Community of Justice & Peace

image from

By: Julius-Kei Kato, PhD

I acknowledge my debt to the many thinker-teachers who have taught me precious lessons about the topics I write about here, particularly, Ken Wilber and his iteration of “the Integral Theory.” A full list of references for sources of the content here as well as for further study is found at the end of the article.

Part I

Worldviews and Religion-as-a-Worldview – Attaining a Worldview that Can Help Build a Just and Peaceful World

This essay is principally about the importance of worldviews, especially religious and spiritual worldviews. It describes what worldviews are and how they can impede or contribute to the building of a world in which true justice and peace are present.

[1] Building a Just and Peaceful World |  One of the most important keys to building a just and peaceful world today is to bring people (as individuals and as groups) to truly want to be “global citizens,” in other words, willing participants of—what we shall call here—a “global community.” Let us define “global community” along the lines of the concept of “global citizenship” as a movement of many people throughout our increasingly globalized and interconnected world who value the well-being of others: one’s own insider group of course but, equally, also those outside one’s groups of affiliation (extending this concern to the whole world even). A particularly urgent matter at this juncture in history is for members of this global community to become deeply aware of the precarious ecological situation of our common earth-home and act to improve the situation.

Global citizens (the members of this envisioned global community) commit themselves, first, to refrain from things that harm others and, second, to act in order to realize better the vision of a more peaceful and just world not only for themselves and their in-group members (aka, one’s “tribe”) but for everyone in the world, particularly, those who have been considered “others” by one’s tribe.

[2] What We Mean by “Tribe" |  We will use the word "tribe" or “tribal” frequently here. It is proper, therefore, to describe it further. “My tribe” can mean many things. It’s basically the human group that I consider “my own people” or my “in-group.” Hence, “my tribe” can refer to: my family and extended family, my clan, my village. It can also refer to: my race, my culture, my social and economic class, my gender and gender-orientation. More specifically for our purposes here, we should be aware that “my tribe” has also meant “my religion and my religious community” for many people in past history and continues to mean so in the present.

Note that it is of course natural and good to value one's "tribe." We affirm that. However, we should also remember that if we uncritically overvalue our tribe in a way that excludes others, that unfortunately results in neglecting other groups or, worse yet, it can make us marginalize, discriminate against, and even cause harm to others not included in our tribe.

[3] Worldview and Its Pervasive Character | Our aim in this reflection is to understand better the potential contribution that spiritual-religious traditions can make to the building of a truly just and peaceful global world. To reach that aim, it is important first to recognize the importance of “worldview” and how that is a key to humans becoming active and committed global citizens.

A worldview is, literally speaking, the way by which one views and understands the world. It is a combination of all the influences one has had in one’s life up to this point. One is largely unconscious of it but it informs practically all the areas—big and small—in life: what one believes; what one holds as true or false; how one approaches life; how one relates to others, and so forth. It is like the pond someone is swimming in if they were a fish.

Another useful analogy to understand worldview is this: It’s like someone’s mother language and all the complex grammatical rules that make up that language. One is largely unconscious of this process, but people speak their mother language perfectly, without being aware that they’re actually following all the complex grammatical rules of the language flawlessly as they speak. We only experience how actually complex any language is when we learn a foreign language and, as if for the first time, marvel at how effortlessly native speakers can speak a language that, for us, seems so difficult to learn. Thus, our mother language is an accurate image of the all-pervasive, total character of our keyword here—worldview, in the life of individuals as well as groups of people.

[4] Religion is a Worldview |   It is obvious that religion (or any spiritual tradition for that matter) is definitely a worldview. It is a way of viewing the world which usually involves some “ultimate reality” that is meant to pervade the whole existence of believers, influencing how they understand the world and informing them how they should live their lives if they want to reach the particular religion’s ultimate goal. That goal may be the Christian union with God, Buddhism’s Nirvana, Islam’s total surrender to God or Judaism’s fidelity to the covenant, and so forth. Moreover, it is good to be aware that a religious worldview has an arguably stronger hold on the psyches of those who are living entirely within it because they believe that this particular worldview has been somehow “revealed” and gifted to them by an ultimate or divine Being or Entity, hence, carries with it some kind of absolute character. 

[5] How Worldviews Develop |   There is a basic and foundational principle about worldviews: Worldviews can and do undergo a process of evolution/development from: earlier, basic, (arguably) immature and more selfish stages – to: more advanced, more inclusive, (arguably) more mature stages. Since religions are worldviews, that principle is equally true about religions.

Up until now, the various spiritual-religious traditions of the world have not given much attention to the process of how spiritual-religious worldviews evolve and develop in individuals (as well as in whole groups of people). And this is perhaps one of the major things that religions lack which must definitely be rectified: a lack of knowledge and awareness of developmental processes as explicitly applied to religious faith.

To elaborate on this, various developmental studies have pointed out that humans (across different cultures and historical eras) go through a predictable general pattern of growth or development in their worldviews.

The pattern usually begins with a first level (Stage #1), a stage at the start of life that can be described as Egocentric. This is a stage in which one’s worldview is focused on oneself. Babies and young children are clear evidence of this. From that stage though, if humans would develop properly, they should grow and transcend their natural egocentric worldview and move on to being (2) Ethnocentric, a stage in which the person goes beyond and overcomes the “natural self-centered focus” of life’s initial stages. Instead, the person advances to a stage in which they can include the people closest to them (one's "tribe" or "in-group") as valuable for themselves. In short, the circle of one’s concern is getting bigger as one grows. That is a sign of good human development.

[6] Moving Beyond Ethnocentricity in a Global Community |  Today, in our more interconnected, diverse, and globalized world, it is more urgent that one should not stop at the ethnocentric stage unlike in the past. From an exclusive focus on one's "tribe" or “in-group” (ethnocentric stage), people in a globalized, interdependent world, as an ideal, should grow further into higher worldview stages, that is, (Stage #3) Worldcentric, a stage in which we acknowledge that those who, up to this point, were considered "Others" (by our “in-group”)  are deserving of the following things: at the basic level, a just and humane treatment and, if possible, also friendship and care. The highest level of development would be becoming more (4) Cosmocentric, a stage in which we consider not only humans but also other living and non-living things (our whole cosmos even!) as the objects of our concern and care. This cosmocentric dimension is in the forefront today in our globalized world as we become more aware of the precarious situation in which the ecological order of our earth finds itself.

Monday, January 31, 2022

Scripture is, first and foremost, an Art Form, not a “Rule Book”!


Citation: Armstrong, Karen. The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. London: The Bodley Head, 2019.


(Here are some of my [jkk's] initial personal takeaways from watching some video clips of Karen Armstrong lecturing about the book and a quick browsing of the book itself. Hopefully, it will urge people to go and read the book itself. See below for links to some public lectures by Armstrong on youtube.)


"The Bible" (and sacred scripture in general) is frequently thought at least in the West to be writings where one can find eternal, immutable, and foundational truths that people have to consult or should learn and put into practice in order to attain an ultimate goal which, in traditional Christianity, meant “being saved” or "getting to heaven." 

Karen Armstrong in her book The Lost Art of Scripture (2019) seeks to correct that common misunderstanding and set the record straight about what might be the true purpose of "scripture" in a spiritual tradition.

And what would that be? She insists that "scripture" is an "art form" (p. 7). Being an art form ... it is the product of and is concerned primarily with touching the right-brain human functionalities of intuition and artistic sense, rather than the left-brain characteristics of rationality and logic. Unfortunately, in the West, since the Enlightenment, scholarship has sort of imposed many left-brain functionalities upon the scriptures. That has in turn resulted in our missing and losing its original identity of being an art form.

The following are noteworthy points that I randomly picked up from listening to Armstrong's online lectures and browsing through the book. They contain some insights about some essential ways by which—Armstrong thinks—scripture functions.

Lesson #1: Scripture Invites Us to Enter Mystery

The notion <that scripture tells us what we must believe; that it gives us truths we must accept> is not really correct! (Library of Congress lecture: timestamp 13:00)  Instead, there is a deliberate vagueness about even some important matters throughout the Bible. That is an invitation for us to plunge deeper into mystery and not fool ourselves into thinking that we have received a quick and complete answer to our perplexing questions by consulting the book like a manual.

This deliberate vagueness that acts as an invitation to enter mystery is symbolized by the name of God in Hebrew:

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה ... The word was possibly read as "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" meaning "I am that I am." Another possible, perhaps better translation might be: I will be who I will be. That phrase is intentional in suggesting deliberate vagueness. For example, if someone asks you where some friends of yours went and you answer, “they went where they went,” you are basically saying, “I don't know where they went.” When God, therefore, tells Moses that his name is YHWH (with the above-mentioned vague meaning), that basically means that God doesn’t want to box the divine identity in some fixed category, hence, God will be who God wants to be. To be curt about it, God was in effect telling Moses and the people, “Mind your own business” “Don’t think that you know who I am or who I will be.”

Examples from other religious traditions: Way back in the 10th century BCE, in India, they developed a form of religious discourse known as the brahmodya competition (See: The Great Transformation, p. 127). It was a competition among priests about who could discourse on sacred mysteries best. It was carried out by having a series of profound reflections from different priests about the nature of the sacred. The priest who won the competition would be the one who reduced everyone to silence because everyone would be at a loss for words to express the sacred mystery. And in that silence—it was recognized—the Brahman (the ultimate reality) was present. 

Tao Te Ching of Confucianism declares: The Dao (the Way, the Ultimate Principle) that can be named is not the Dao'   

Hence, scripture does not really tell us what we have to believe. Rather, it opens us up to the reality that when we speak about God, we actually don't know what we're talking about. It's a limit concept - shows us our limitation!  cf. again the Brahmodya competition.

Lesson #2: Scripture is Primarily Forward-Looking

[Scripture (as a community’s spiritual-religious text) does not primarily expect us to go back to the original meaning of the text. This is the opposite of what modern scholarship does because scholars want to go as close as possible to the original texts and study them. But this scholarly project is a post-enlightenment quest. That’s not how many believers treated their scriptures in the beginning: they used scripture to engage life in the present so that the future could be better

If there’s one thing we can say about the nature of these ancient texts, it would be: It's actually impossible for us to go back perfectly in time. Scholarly efforts to reconstruct the past based on scripture will always be incomplete and imperfect. (As a scholar I would add though: scholarship is of course important to make us understand better what scripture meant in the past and how we can correctly apply it to the present!)

So, it is again clear that Scripture is an innovative art; it is creative; it insists that you move forward by applying scripture’s lessons to the present. The Jewish practice of midrash (creative interpretation of tradition to make it applicable to present realities) wonderfully illustrates this character of scripture.

Lesson #3: Scripture Invites Us to Transcend Ourselves

Scripture is not about me. Scripture is not meant to just tell us about our own private spirituality but must rather issue in practical action. Scripture tells us to act! It seeks to conquer EGO in concrete ways.

Illustrative here is the story of Buddha. After he attained enlightenment, he was resistant to the idea of teaching it to others because that would hold many challenges. In the end, however, he had to share and teach his enlightenment with the whole world in order to help people to find a solution to the problem of suffering.

This quality is also illustrated in the Confucian teaching of compassion that forms the heart of the Golden Rule = shu (in Japanese 思いやりomoiyari). This virtue urges us to discover what gives us pain, and resolve not to inflict that on others. Moreover, according to Confucius, this has to be practiced all day and every day. If done so, it will give the practitioner enlightenment. 


There are various youtube videos of Karen Armstrong talking about the central points of the book and they're useful if one wants to gain a bird's eye view of the essential points of this voluminous work:

A talk she gave in Huston, TX on the book divided into three parts:

Part 1: 

Part 2:

Part 3 (Q&A):

Lecture at the Library of Congress:

Lecture at the Toronto Public Library:


Friday, December 31, 2021

How We’re Swimming in a “Christian Fishpond” in the West

-- Historian Tom Holland on the Christian Roots of the West --

I’ve been studying the theme of ancestry (particularly spiritual ancestry) for a while now and reflecting on what our ancestry here in the West consists in. My conclusion at this point is reflected in the title above: The Christian heritage is such a fundamental part of our cultural and spiritual ancestry that—to put it metaphorically—whether we like it or not, we are swimming in—what was once—an originally Christian fishpond! Hence, if we really want to understand well this place where we are, we’ll have to understand Christianity to a certain extent. I’ll have to unpack more what I mean by that but, at this point, I think it’s better to refer first of all to people who have thought longer and harder about this topic than I.


     Thus, in this blogpost, I’ll introduce parts of an online lecture of British historian Tom Holland. Holland wrote a book titled Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.


Holland, Tom. Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. London: Little-Brown, 2019. (references will be to this originally British hardcover edition)


The North American edition’s sub-title is more explicitly Christian and religious:

Holland, Tom. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. New York: Basic Books, 2019.


There he makes the argument that the history of the so-called West has been so crucially and irrevocably influenced by Christianity that, although the West has become generally doubtful of religion
nowadays in this secular age, its basic “instincts –for good and ill—remain thoroughly Christian” (p. xxix). That is what I mean when I say above that anyone who has been or is influenced by “western” ideas can be compared to fish swimming in an originally Christian fishpond. Thus, if we want to understand our western culture and civilization or, to use the metaphor again, the fishpond-habitat in which we swim, we’ll have to face its Christian heritage and ancestry. Holland bluntly puts it this way: “To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions” (p. xxv).


     To take Holland’s last quoted point further, this means that although many parts of the West now are societies characterized by great diversity in terms of culture and ethnicity, being and living in the West still means to be swimming in a fishpond that is full of Christian influence even though many are not aware of it.


     The text of Holland’s lecture follows below. The parts in blue are my own annotations. Sub-headings are not part of the original lecture. Special thanks to my research assistant Danielle Rivest-Durand for helping me with this project.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

"Sealed for Service" - From When I Became a Deacon


My Pre-Diaconate Exam

I was ordained a deacon in Rome in June of 1994. I was then a member of a religious order, the Salesians of Don Bosco, and I became a deacon as part of my ministry as a Salesian. Rome is a special place to be ordained a deacon obviously because it’s the pope's very own diocese. We candidates had to take a special oral interview-exam for the diaconate conducted by professors coming from different Roman pontifical universities. This was the last hoop to be cleared before one was ordained in the pope's diocese. The exam was to take place at the Lateran University because that is the university of the local church of Rome. So we prepared for the exam and went to the Lateran University bright and early on the specified date.

When my turn to be examined came, I was directed to the exam room. There was a priest-professor waiting for me. I found out later that he was the rector of the North American College in Rome. I don't remember his name but, looking at the list of rectors online, he must have been then-Fr. Edwin O'Brien (later archbishop of Baltimore). His first question to me was a totally unexpected one: What is ontology?

I was blindsided by the question because, to my mind, it apparently had nothing to do with being ordained a deacon. But I duly answered him and explained what I thought ontology was: that it was examining the nature of reality and the totality of things in existence. I think I also went on about ontology as the study of 'being' and what constitutes a being as the word "ontology" comes from the Latin "ens" which means precisely "being."

Having listened patiently to my explanation, he proceeded to his second question which was even more baffling to me. He asked , "What’s the connection between ontology and being a deacon?"

The So-Called "Ontological Change"

As soon as I heard that, I immediately grasped what he was getting at. So, I calmed down and started to explain that being ordained a deacon means having, as it were, a spiritual "seal" seared into your very being, because standard Roman Catholic sacramental theology  teaches that the sacrament of ordination effects a character upon the people who receive them. To use a fancy yet traditional expression, the sacrament of holy orders effects--what Roman Catholic theology calls--an "ontological change" (a transformation in the person's very being) whereby the person is given an ontological character which changes them into the very thing that the sacrament signifies.

Baptism is another of these "character-giving" sacraments because it bestows an irrevocable seal, a mark on your soul that transforms you into a child of God. After all, baptism is the sacrament of initiation which transforms people--it is believed--into children of God. When you receive the sacrament of ordination (and there are three kinds: diaconal, presbyteral [priestly], and episcopal), Roman Catholic theology teaches that you are given the "ontological character" (a character that constitutes your very being) of what the particular sacrament signifies.

The Heart of Becoming a Deacon - Becoming a Servant Forever

In the case of the ordination to the diaconate, the ordinand is, therefore, marked with the "ontological character" of a deacon. And what is that character, one may ask? It is to be a servant, one who devotes oneself to the service of the Christian community, particularly in the service of proclaiming the word and offering a few sacraments and ministries that would serve the community.

As I went on explaining the connection between "ontology" and "ordination" along those lines, it seemed that the good father realized that I knew my theology and so he stopped me and said in a solemn yet calm voice,  "Do you know why I asked you those questions?"

Without waiting for my answer, he proceeded to answer his own rhetorical question. What he said struck me powerfully and I have never forgotten it to this day. He said that many candidates for ordination think that being ordained a deacon is just the penultimate stage on their path to being ordained a priest because the diaconate in the Catholic Church is still generally a "transitional" stage. That means: it is mostly conferred on men who are eventually going to be ordained as priests. My priest-examiner said that this lack of mindfulness about the diaconate is a lamentable fact because very few priests remember that, when they were ordained deacons, they were in fact given a character which remains irrevocably embedded in their souls for life. And that character is, as I said, to be a diakonos, a servant. In short, when one is ordained a deacon, one is transformed irrevocably into a servant forever because the sacrament effected this so-called "ontological" change! Hence, even if one does become a priest one day, one should never forget that one is and should always and in all cirumstances be, first and foremost, a servant.

Reflections in Retrospect

I remember quite clearly those memorable words of the priest-examiner before my ordination to the diaconate as if they were uttered yesterday. I did get ordained to the diaconate shortly after that at the Sacred Heart Basilica just beside Rome's central train station Termini. It was a joyous and memorable occasion particularly because my father flew all the way from Asia to attend it. I was surrounded by dear friends who wished me well. I served as a deacon for a whole year, most of the time at the very basilica where I was ordained a deacon. A year later in 1995, I was ordained a presbyter (priest)  this time in--what was then my home base--Tokyo, Japan.

Fast forward now some 25 years later to myself in 2021. I no longer have the official "faculties" (a kind of a "license") to practice formally as a deacon or a priest at present due to circumstances that I will not bore you with now.  I still do remember though with a grateful heart what the priest examiner told me before I was to be ordained a deacon. I don't think that the "ontological change" language is helpful anymore though. It kind of sounds arrogant and narcissistic to me. However, if you describe the diaconate as being "sealed with a character of service," I still find that symbolic language quite powerful. I have always striven to be true to that mission and that character which I gratefully received then and continue to cherish even now.

In the final analysis, what is ordination anyway? It is a sacrament conferred on a select few in order to symbolize more intensely the true nature of the Christian community and of every member thereof: a servant, a minister, a mediator like Jesus between God and one's fellow humans, a shepherd like Jesus who takes care of those under one's charge to the point of being willing to offer one's life for them. 

The nature and mission of the so-called "ordained" state therefore are not the exclusive property of ordinands, some of whom like to strut around like peacocks because of their different so-called "ontological" state. I find that attitude quite silly. They belong rather to the whole body of Christ and they ought to be conferred--I firmly think--on any Christian, irregardless of sex or marital status, who is willing and qualified. That's what I honestly think today and, in large part, that is in line with the practice of the early Church. 

The ultimate argument though for me is this: If someone can bear the image of God and of Christ (and that again is not dependent on sex or marital status), they can be rightfully empowered to represent God-Christ in a more intense way through ordination to the munus triplex (the threefold role) of "prophet, priest, and servant-king." Any quibbling about that is--I think--nothing but attachment to a patriarchal past rather than genuine openness both to tradition and to the "spirit at work in the world" today.