he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.
In the small Sultanate of Brunei recently the national leader felt the impulse to introduce stronger religious laws for the well being of his people. These included amputation for thieves and stoning to death for homosexuals. I wonder how he would have responded if he had caught the eye of Jesus as he looked up from writing in the dust while the woman caught in adultery was awaiting her fate. Her judges were punishing her by the book. Jesus un-wrote all books when he knelt and wrote his silent words in the dust.
Religion has moral and intellectual dimensions, which bring the benefits of ethical principles and healing symbols for the misfortunes of life. They also help align personal faith and social mental health. But there is a hidden, additional dimension to religion – the mystical – which is ignored at our peril. Without the influence of the contemplative experience, religious belief and behaviour slip into slow decline, becoming either insufferably superficial or moralistic. Or simply monstrous.
When you are convinced God is on your side you start speaking on behalf of God; and then, if others listen to you, before long you come to believe you are God. The paradox of true religious experience is that, when you have faced the infinite difference and distance between God and yourself, you discover that God is closer to you than you are to your self. You are then pulled into a process of transformative union on the other side of ‘identity’. Union differentiates. The distance of this intimacy beyond difference evokes the truth of what Meister Eckhart said: ‘there is no distance between God and me’.
This is less abstract than it may sound. The integrity of religion has to be protected and promoted because religion cannot be eliminated. Like politics it must be continuously purified by truth if it is to avoid corruption. Like music it should be played well. But I am not thinking immediately of the benefits this would bring to the Sultan of Brunei. I am thinking more of all the victims of retarded religion, the women caught in adultery, the homosexuals and robbers, the scapegoats of false religion and those sitting alone in prison cells whose lives have been blighted by the cruel piety of the self-righteous.
The woman caught in adultery strikes a universal chord of sympathy. Like the Golden Rule (treating others as you would like to be treated) it has an irreducible, incontestable simplicity as moral as it is mystical. Yet, so easily, we disconnect from its meaning: which is why we must practice the contemplative dimension and, for this, need both Lent and meditation.