Tag Archives: Dialogue

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

Sincere thanks to Professor Gregory A. Barker on the following book review.

“Towards A Spiritual Humanism” is as a result of many hours of dialogue sessions between Hasan Askari and Jon Avery in June 1989. Hasan and Jon met one another at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado where Hasan was the Louise Iliff Visiting Professor. Jon writes in the introduction, “Hasan’s openness, warmth and erudition were engaging, especially in his informal discussions with students after class.” It is with the aspiration for that same sense of openness “SpiritualHuman” is proud to present this book review by Professor Gregory A. Barker.

When The Atheist Met The Mystic

A Review of Hasan Askari and Jon Avery’s Towards a Spiritual Humanism: A Muslim-Humanist Dialogue (1991)

Gregory A. Barker. Formerly Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies The University of Wales, Trinity Saint David

A Dialogue Joke?

Did you hear about the Muslim Mystic who found common ground with an American Atheist? That question sounds like the beginning of a joke. It isn’t. 

A very unusual book, first published in 1991, brings us a series of discussions between the celebrated esoteric Muslim scholar Hasan Askari and the American humanist Jon Avery. 

The book is unusual because these dialogue partners are interested in exploring common ground beyond obvious differences toward metaphysical beliefs.

Perhaps what is most striking about the volume Towards a Spiritual Humanism is that it sounds such a different note from the voices we typically hear in our polarized culture.

In popular media, religion and atheism are viewed as locked in debate: religion represents revelation, dogma, and traditional values; atheism champions truth, science, honesty and innovation.  Each charges the other with immorality, violence and repression of the human spirit, with atheism currently gaining the upper hand for many with its “slam-dunk” arguments against traditional belief.

Yet many are currently questioning this simple opposition.  On the religious side, there are reformulations of traditional theological ideas alongside a social justice agenda which views religion as a force of good in a society that can all too easily lose its soul in nationalism, consumerism and cultural fashions.  At the same time a number of atheists are seeking to balance their “no” to traditional beliefs with a “yes” to spiritual values – as the recent book Religion for Atheists (2012) testifies.  Askari and Avery’s volume anticipated this current movement.

Twenty Years Ahead of Its Time

Anyone interested in current rapprochements between religion and atheism will be very interested by this book which was, in some ways, twenty years ahead of its time.

Don’t worry: this volume does not end up as a set of vague platitudes or a mutual admiration of liberal social principles. The encounter between these men produces heat as well as light. 

Askari describes himself as an esoteric Muslim mystic who utterly rejects the dogmatism that holds contemporary Islamic movements in a “collective hypnosis”, blind to the deeper spiritual unity of the human race.  Yet he will not surrender his conviction that there is a transcendent, non-material dimension to the cosmos, a force that unifies and enlightens every human being.

Jon Avery, an atheist, rejects this notion but sees it as a possible corrective to a rationalism that denies the emotional and aesthetic sides to human personality.  He also shares Askari’s view that literalist-traditional theologians have created dogmatic approaches to theology that oppress rather than liberate the human spirit.

Thus, the central disagreement over the non-material transcendent dimension is accompanied by a central agreement over the “sin” of reducing human beings to theological slavery, rationalist one-sidedness or rabid consumers of western products.   The two men bring this agreement and disagreement to a host of vital subjects: religion, psychology, the problem of evil and contemporary challenges such as the environment and the threat of nuclear war. Let’s look at just a few of the central concerns.

A Materialistic Universe?

Askari begins by clarifying the nature of his own adherence to Islam.  He seeks to locate his own position between a thoroughgoing rationalism on the one hand, and a religious literalism on the other.   He has found his own answer in a mystical or esoteric approach witnessed to by a host of thinkers from Plotinus to Carl Jung.  A significant shift on his journey came when he accepted the notion that symbols from various world religions witness to unity and transcendence, a position he calls “poly-symbolism” rather than “polytheism”. This view, he says, mitigates against making absolute any one religion and relativizes any claim to “revelation” in terms of a strict set of doctrines and rules. It also challenges, for Askari, the reduction of life to that which can be seen with the physical eyes.

As one might guess, a chasm opens up between the two men on this final point.

Avery agues, “…only matter exists (as long as this matter is understood as evolving and dynamic) is more conducive to happiness than the language of a soul that is separate from the body.” (30) Avery, rooted in his humanist tradition, wants to see humans freed from superstition and religious fanaticism so that they can live in harmony with their physical environment – something, he says, that religious traditions have not always championed. 

Askari is concerned that Avery’s view of religion is little more than a superficial ideology, a projection of materialist scholars about the content and direction of religion rather than a serious attempt to reconcile ancient and abiding insights with modern discoveries.  

It is clear, says Askari that our intellectual lives operate on a different level from the material systems governing our physical lives.

Avery insists, however, that there is no need to introduce a dichotomy between the soul and the body – they are the same reality.  The two then move into a complex argument about motion, with Avery arguing that material movement is self-caused and Askari that all motion is, ultimately, caused by non-material forces.  Through this discussion, Avery is concerned that a religious determinism will remove humans from being properly concerned about the material world. Yet Askari argues convincingly that the idea of “self caused motion” is itself a metaphorical interpretation of reality rather than a scientific statement – to which Avery agrees.

Is There A Soul?

Both men use the word “soul” but, predictably, with different meanings. For Jon Avery the soul is a “metaphor for the source of human values” (46); this leads him to define God as the earth and “the soul is the earth in us.” (47). For Askari these definitions are inadequate as they leave humans subject to collective social hypnoses that are destructive to human life; there must be a source beyond ourselves he insists.  

The two men are able to agree on the importance of human responsibility, the danger of the doctrine of “original sin” and the idea that human identity is not exhausted by individual consciousness.

Both men are fascinated by Carl Jung and see much promise in the idea that there is a shared humanity, the collective unconscious that unites humans at a deeper level than ideology.  Yet, Avery contends that there is a rationalistic explanation for Jung’s archetypes: they are a product of a specific functioning of the human mind, rather than stemming from a mystical source. In other words, the fact that similar categories of thought emerge between otherwise disparate cultures is not necessarily an argument for transcendence but may simply be how the human body works.  Still, Avery appreciates the wider view of consciousness provided by a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

At this point Askari passionately declares: 

“We need such a unifying principle (i.e. the soul), which connects matter with man and man with the cosmos, in order to realize that the physical images within man and the physical reality outside constitute one reality.   Perhaps we don’t know what name we should give to it, but it is at that juncture that we stand today.  What can save us from a nuclear holocaust, or a collective destruction of the entire human race, or the destruction of the ecosystem is a glimpse of that unity of the psychic and the physical realms.” (65)

Avery admits that a rationalistic suppression of the emotional and aesthetic dimensions has limited human life and contributed to an exploitation of the earth’s resources.  He accepts that there needs to be a human “integration” that accompanies positive progress.

A Spiritual Government?  

The dialogue takes a fascinating turn when Askari reflects on attempts to fuse or separate spirituality in politics. Bearing witness to Islamist movements, Askari makes the point that the state inevitably is divinized when it is viewed as a necessary arm of religion.  In other words, the state is equated with spirituality and becomes nothing less than an idol that oppresses humanity.

But Askari does not stop here. He believes that America has produced an equally devastating problem through the separation of church and state.  By privatizing spirituality, the state becomes free to create powerful ideologies that are immune to spiritual criticism. Here, too, the state is divinized.

At first, Avery objects to this criticism of the United States and champions the justice that has come from the separation of church and state. However, after some further interchange, he admits that the state needs a corrective from a non-ideological point of view.

Askari accuses America as having fostered nothing less than “schizophrenia” between private spirituality and public ideology which leads to an imbalanced soul.  His solution is that there should be a unity between our private and public lives  — which, for Avery, is best captured by the term “dialectic”.  However, for Avery there are forces other than the state that lead to dehumanization; for example, the uncritical use of technology.

A Good or Bad Dialogue Encounter?

Shining through these pages is the fact that both of these men are “Humanists”: each hold human life to be precious, and are convicted about the need to resist the threat to human welfare that comes from war, inhumane actions and the irresponsible use of the environment.  However, these men are at odds with their definition of the term “evil”.

This critical difference means that they take a different attitude to human suffering.

For Avery, evil is anything that prevents life from flourishing. He identifies with the “meliorism” of William James: our task it so reduce human suffering as much as possible.   However, Askari locates the source of suffering in human ignorance of the underlying unity of life, an ignorance fought against by leading spiritual figures through the ages.

Thus, the book ends with the same tensions introduced at the beginning.  Askari is, ultimately, informed by a religious or spiritual vision of life and Avery tends to think that this vision has done more harm than good for human beings.

Askari’s point of view leads him to the striking attitude of questioning that all suffering should be eradicated. Suffering is, he says, a part of the structure of human life.  The main enemy is not physical death but absolutizing our own narrow images and ideas about life and holding these as a sword over the heads of others.   His vision of “poly-symbolic” pan-spirituality rooted in notions of the divine realm testified to by Plotinus is recommended as an antidote to religious sectarianism and the collapse of the human soul into superficial trends.  Scientific reason is not alone going to be able to combat the forces that pull humans into blindness and ignorance, he insists.

But Avery will not so quickly be lured away from his conviction about alleviating all human suffering.  Furthermore he sees dangers in superficial spiritual solutions promoted by New Age approaches. Yet, he acknowledges that the answer to the question, “What is the basis for human rights?” must draw upon a different type of reasoning than that normally provided in the rationalist-humanist tradition and he thanks Askari for helping him to seeing that some thinkers from religious traditions have answers to this question that can complement a humanist perspective.

The Meeting Ground

Despite all of these differences, Avery refers to having broken new ground as a result of this dialogue:

“If human rights are an expression of these higher reaches of humanity beyond the physical and dogmatic level in the creative and trans-human levels, then I would agree with you that human rights have a spiritual foundation.” (121).

The use of the term “spiritual” by an atheist is but one of the many features of this dialogue which puts it decades ahead of its time. 

Anyone who is not satisfied with polarized portrayals of atheists or religionists will find this book to be a rare gem.

-Gregory A Barker

More on the work of Professor Barker: http://gregbarkercoaching.com/

* See also “Human Nature” above for extract from Towards A Spritual Humanism

*See also “Spiritual Humanism” above for speech transcript by Hasan Askari

*See also “InterReligious Dialogue” above an article by Hasan Askari

“Reflections on the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi” by Musa Askari

“Reflections on the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi” by Musa Askari

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen”

It was my late father, Syed Hasan Askari, who introduced me to the prayer of St Francis many years ago. My introduction came in the form of hearing it read aloud. Perhaps to come to a new prayer not by reading it first but by hearing it one is somehow  able to let the prayer rest more gently upon one’s soul. Especially if hearing it read by a person one trusts. Therefore, prayer may also be understood not only as a sign of devotion but also trust between seekers of truth and greater still a sign of Trust in a Higher Power to which the prayer is directed.  

To hear such words of love and devotion for the first time resonated very deeply. In the years to follow the prayer would become one among many of my constant sources of inner support. I would not only read it in silence or remember it during the course of a day but moreso I would make a point of reciting it by whispering it to myself at some late hour of the night. Through this whispering recital the prayer became more real, an experience, not only of emotional support but far beyond that to moments of  experiencing the prayer as a form of being itself. That it almost had a life of its own. A life in which I was hoping to participate if only momentarily due to varying levels of inner intention and alterness.

Over and above the actual form, order and beauty of the words it is worth exploring, if only superficially through this reflection, the manner in which the prayer is working upon our inner being. What is its outer effect and what is its inner influence? What kind of inner preparation is required to utter such words as authentically as possible? If one is an “instrument” it begs the question who is the invisible artist and what is the melody that is being played? In what way, if at all, do the first and second verses talk to one another? Does a prayer stop when we have finished uttering its words of devotion and praise? Or is there a life, above our own embodied life, in which the prayer perpetually participates? Are prayers, in the form presented to us by inspired individuals who first uttered them, an echo of a far greater recital of praise and devotion that goes on above our consciousness?

Where there is an echo there must be a source from which it emanates. Where there is vibration there must be the beat of a drum. Where there is beauty there must also be the eye which recognises it as such. Where there is thought there must a thinker. And where there is a question there must be a clue or the answer complete. Is there such a question and answer present within the prayer of St. Francis? Is there any such dialogue implied between the one who prays and One to whom the prayer is directed?

At first glance perhaps not. However, if one looks more closely, at the first verse in particular, the following may be a clue where there are six question and answers present and not only that but clear intruction or remedy provided.

Take for example the line, “where there is injury,pardon”. By considering it as three lines a dialogue becomes apparent:

We ask, “Where is injury?”

The prayer answers, “There is injury”

Remedied by, “Pardon.”  

Take another line: “where there is despair, hope”: 

We ask, “Where is despair?”

The prayer answers, “There is despair”

Remedied by, “Hope.”

Is it not so that through most of our heartfelt prayers, either handed down by tradition or uttered by oursevles spontaneously, we somehow feel in “conversation” with the Supreme? It is into such a “conversation” the prayer of St Francis invites us to enter. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, the human soul is in constant “communication” with its Source. A Source from which it emanates and to which it longs to return. It is perhaps this “communication”, this greater dialogue, that the prayer somehow lifts the reciter innerly to become more conscious of. All great prayers take us in this direction. The prayer becomes a door into another kind of awareness.

Prayer, as both dialogue and a form of worship, is a most peculiar kind of dialogue. We are asking questions and we hear only our voice. A voice that may be frail and shaking, through some traumatic experience, or overjoyed with gratitude for what we have been shown or recevied. The answer to our prayers, however, is heard in silence. The Great Silence of The Supreme Presense, the First and the Last. The Hidden and the Manifest, everywhere and yet nowhere, Immanent and Transcendent. I am reminded of the following from an much earlier piece of writing of mine, “It is in such silence that the Divine Command is uttered perhaps”(The Sound of Silence, 1992) https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-sound-of-silence/

In our corporeal nature we hear corporeal things. How can the physical ear hear an answer from One who is Supremly immaterial and Beyond Being? Therefore, silence and patience become the means through which our inner ear becomes more atuned and there we may wait, atentive, alert, humble and above all listening by stilling all distraction within our lives, touching the fringes of a greater peace. Hearing as it were by another mode.

In the prayer of St. Francis we have a deeply moving dynamic where not only are question and answer co-present but also the remedy or instruction to the question. The prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. There is no delay in compassion. The remedies of love, pardoning, hope, faith, light and joy are instantly provided as soon as the question and answer are complete. Infact, the prayer does not wait to be asked how one corrects the disorder within and without. It rushes the remedy towards us faster than we inhale our next breath. Life before life.

One may choose simply to reflect or meditate upon only one line of the prayer and be moved beyond measure. The question, “where is despair?” may be asked outwardly addressing the world and we are presented with images of oppression between human beings or come across testimonies of those who continue to suffer and through such images and accounts we are told innerly, “look! there is despair”. All one need do is ask the question wholeheartedly, compassionately and sadly too many answers come flooding to our consciousness of lives lived in despair. The prayer challenges to ask and notice the other and by doing so abolish otherness from our being. One need not look far to see despair if one chooses not to walk by on the other side. On the other hand the same question maybe asked about oneself to oneself, “where is despair?”. Here personal courage is needed, for now we are looking into the face of our lives and should we be able to peer with unwavering inner strenth the answer comes, “there is despair”, directing us to some long forgotten memory or unravelling chains of thought which enslave and cripple us mentally, distancing us from the world and from ourselves.

To both outward and inwardly directed questions on despair the answer is the same, “hope”. In other words, do not despair, there is hope. The very question itself is “hope”. The question carrying within itself its own liberating power. The question is hope “embodied” as a thought. The question cannot come from an abyss of utter want or lack, the question must carry with it the source which sent it on its way. As referred to previously; the prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. It can only do so if it is enveloped by an inspired inspiration. In the outer form of one line, the question and answer go hand and hand, as like two hands coming together in prayer.

Further, the first verse gives us another insight. It offers a definition of “peace”. Of what “peace” means when commencng a recital of the prayer. Here peace is to love. It is also to pardon, to have faith which implies to trust, to be hopeful for the Light of the One to whom the prayer is addressed is neverfailing and our overriding inner state of such peace in that moment is to be joyful.

The prayer of St. Francis begins in the name of peace and that is perhaps why it has survived to this day and recited by so many. The human heart in perpetual quest for peace. If humanity’s “humanity” is to mean anything it must surely begin with peace regardless of it being called sacred or secular. The Russell – Einstein Manifesto (1955) sums it up beautifully, “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Would that those who wage war in the name of “peace” remember such qualities of peace as offered by St. Francis. Would that they pause and re-think in “silence” if they truly are bringing peace or the oppositie of peace which the prayer of St. Francis does not shy away from making clear. Namely, hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness.

In my view the first verse is where the inner work is to be done. The first verse prepares the inner ground, turns the soil, so that we may “sow” such seeds as love and hope. Thus making the earth of our being a fertile ground from which may spring, over the ocean of our consciousness, all that the second verse leads us toward. The second verse finally frees us from enslavement to our ego-bound mindlessness. Of collective hypnosis from our exclusive one-sided attitudes to identities of race, ethnicity, culture, creed and ideology (religious or humanist).

We are in a totally new frame not only of mind but consciousness when proceeding through the second verse line by line. When the first verse has “consoled” us, “understood” and “loved” us like a kind friend or beloved. When it has enriched and pardoned us our failings. When we have been transformed within and without through the power of the first verse then, and only then, we may truly mean the words which pass by our lips of surrender from the second verse. We ask nothing for ourselves when we have been given more than could have been asked for. Now, one may recall how the prayer began, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”.

Through the discourse on soul we are told body is the instrument of soul, the material is later to the immaterial. Yet, it is not the body which seems to be the “instrument” implied when we notice how the prayer ends, “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” What other could it be that perishes, passes away, than body? And what other than soul could we speak of when we speak of life eternal? It is soul that has the right to eternal life. Only soul un-embodied remains immortal. Soul, impartible, invisible, indivisible, non-material companion of our self, both one and many at the same time.

The higher levels of the beautfiul prayer of St. Francis may only be reached when perhaps we consider the prayer to a prayer of the soul. An echo of a greater prayer that continues above our consciousness. What the words of that greater recital may be, only as souls shall we come to know. Soul, here and now.  Peaceful greetings to the soul of St. Francis of Assisi.

I conclude this brief reflection with the words of my teacher:

“Pray that you are granted an unbroken awareness of your higher soul, that which is the authentic principle of your being, that un-embodied, immortal, all pervading reality, which is one and entire everywhere, every time; that which is in perpetual contemplation of the Divinity above it, that which remains separate, apart, above all you do, relate, experience and suffer as a…body here. Remember it, for it is the true source of your peace and power. Remember.” (Hasan Askari, “Pray” from his book “Alone to Alone”)

Originally published as guest article http://soul-licious.com/?p=918 Thank you to Mia Caruso for asking me to write about the Prayer of St Francis.

See also: Prayer for my Parents & O Light of Lights

The Dialogical Relationship between Christianity and Islam

By Professor Hasan Askari (published 1972 Journal of Ecumenical Stidies)

“It is sometimes easier to reflect with the aid of poetic metaphors, particularly when one has to tread the difficult space between two massive traditions. Where the conceptual finds the door solidly barred against all entry, the symbolic carves its way in. Where the theologian is confident within his boundaries, the poet takes the risk and leaps beyond. Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet, once said: 

“O for a friend to know the sign, And mingle all his soul with mine.”

“With the help of these two line, let us reflect on the “friend,” the “sign,” and the mingling of “all his soul with mine.” Is there any common sign between Christians and Muslims? Would they become friends? And would their souls mingle?”

“There are certain difficulties in the way. Dialogue is sometimes misunderstood by Muslims as a masked attempt at syncretism. The suspicion is not always without basis. The Muslim immediately becomes self-conscious of the differences that lie between Christianity and Islam. He often fails to notice the deep and vast changes the Christian faith, in its interpretation and expression, has been undergoing in almost every century. The notion of an evolving and expanding faith is somehow alien to the Muslim mind. It is however strange that evolution is often considered as betrayal and perversion of the original dogma. Herein lies, I suppose, that most serious disparity between the Christian and Muslim attitudes to questions of faith. Secondly, the political experience of Christianity, recently in the form of imperialism, hampers on both sides the openness and trust necessary for an informal encounter. Thirdly, the cultural experience of Christianity, particularly in the shape of science and technology, is usually looked upon as a threat to Islamic civilization. The Christian-Western influence is held responsible for secularization of culture and institutions. The intermingling of academic and religious traditions by Muslims is another aggravating factor. One often comes across an intriguing mixture of fantasy with fact, inquiry with apology. It appears that, more than the primary and fundamental differences in the dogmatic frame, the differences in historical experience and cultural development are responsible for incommunication and mistrust among Christians and Muslims.” 

“But equally grave are certain features in the Christian situation. Many a complex issue owe their origin to the scientific traditions as well. The speech of religion is being determined after the model of the speech of science. The process of secularization has already taken command paving the way for the priority of “word of man’ over “Word of God.” Above all, the entire theory of communication on which most of the theologians and philosophers rely is a historicist theory through and through. We are told that the first revolution in communication was brought about by scientific invention and mechanical engineering, and the heroes of this revolution were Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. At the heels of this revolution came another, the consequence of the theory of cybernetics headed by Norbert Wiener and Dichter. It was the discovery of the unity of communication and control. All communication to the giant computers seems to take place in an imperative mood. Wiener is afraid that this process might be reversed with immense consequences for the human civilization: The process of from man to machine might soon become from machine to man. A corrective against the cybernetic threat becomes imperative. The foundations of a third revolution have to be explored.”

Continue reading at http://www.sierraf.org/articles/Askarieh.pdf