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June 09, 2006


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John Hill

An interesting read for me, let me thank you kindly.

I am also grateful for the provision of an author moderated comment section that I might write a kind of Watts-Apologist essay in, for catharsis sake. For though I look sympathetically on all of the authors points, I can't resist saying, that I find it not a little outrageous how easily he swept aside the protestant-catholic dimension that divides Watts' background from Merton's, under today's contemporary idealistic cloak of a world-wide "Christian Spirituality."

And I do understand: no one should, or wants to, bring up this prickly subject, but in ignoring it, I feel strongly that Alan Watts and the subject of Christian Spirituality is treated quite unjustly. We should always remember that readily lumping the plurality of Catholic and Protestant sects under one Christian label in speech would have got you very strange looks indeed, even as late as the Sixties, especially in the United States. Even if we, quite rightly, don't want such divides in Christendom to be apparent now, they were most certainly apparent then.

Within the Anglican political seen, Alan Watts was and remained a devout Anglo-Catholic, who for the sake of his sedentary academic career as a writer and lecturer on spirituality, relocated to a very Anglo-Protestant America. His frustration with the American Protestant mindset of that time runs persistently throughout his more personal writing and lecturing on Christianity.

Watts' resumption of his Anglican roots early on his career, after a remarkably protestant upbringing he got from his mother's family (Canterbury Cathedral aside), was entirely thanks to his encountering of the greatest Ancient and Medieval Catholic theologians; the Alexandrian Saints, and of course the Medieval mystical texts, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart. Watts was an astute scholar of Saint Thomas Aquinas, as any thinking Christian philosopher more or less has to be. Watts actually wrote his own translation of Theologia Mystica. It is obvious reading from his autobiography that had he not encountered this textual tradition, he wouldn't of asked to become an Anglican priest in the first place.

Furthermore, Watts more or less spells out numerous times in his recorded lectures, that his growing cynicism of the, mark my words, specifically American Protestant Christian scene, was precisely because of how neglected this theological tradition was, quoth the philosopher, "...only you won't hear that today from the pulpit."

Furthermore still, I believe Watts progressively came to be utterly daunted and defeated by just how divorced the everyday metaphysics of a 20th century Protestant American was [as you'll find implicit in the grammar and vocabulary of our English language] from the metaphysical outlook that's derived from the language and culture of the Ancient Graeco-Roman and Hebrew world, upon which Christianity is fundamentally based.

It was perfectly obvious to Watts that Bible-based Christianity just couldn't function as a religion until the more unconscious philosophical assumptions about reality in which it was subsumed were addressed. Herein explains Watts notorious advocacy for (reverently) burning the King James Bible (a dangerous book, he called it), and for completely unintelligible church-ceremonies in Latin; utterly outrageous statements to make in protestant America at that time, but that's just how against protestant mores Watts was. He was, quite literally, by Second Vatican Council, more Catholic than the Pope, yet he remained an Episcopalian living in Protestant America.

For Watts, evangelising perennial philosophy and Chinese and Indian metaphysical culture was the only way that Christendom, as he knew it in his time and place, could be redeemed, especially for the intellectual and scholarly Anglo-community, which is almost entirely and proudly Atheistic today; a thousand times, let us not forget that!

It wouldn't be going too far to say that Alan Watts had only re-embraced Christendom in the first place because of Christians exemplified in Thomas Merton and his tradition, and he only neglected Christendom later on in his career because of his complete envelopment among Christians and a Christian philosophy that belonged to the other side of the spectrum.

I ask myself, how would Merton have fared in Watts' cultural situation over the decades?

andrew jones

great article btw. i have been reading merton and was just reading Watts and decided to look for a comparison of the two. Thanks for that!!!

Eric H Janzen

It seems to me from reading your article that Watts got pulled into the spiritual trends of his time and culture. In this sense he may have been an able and brilliant thinker, but perhaps in his rejection of the only true mystical centre in Jesus Christ, he lost the ability to both think and see clearly into the complex world of comparative spirituality. I think Merton's deep rooted love for Jesus is what preserved him from the same fate, though I have heard it said that he too, towards the end of his life, was straying into some shaky ground (from the Christian point of view). I don't know whether this is true or not, for I haven't read enough of his later works. Perhaps you could speak to that issue in another article Ron.

By the way I love Thomas Merton. Every book that I have ever read by him has absolutely gripped and fascinated me.



watts is a light on the path away from christian dogma and one`s attempt to escape the grips of sin consciousness. the mysticism at the core of all great religions must remain hidden but to the scolars and intellectuals. the divinity that lies within us all is the forbidden fruit. whoever the serpent was, he failed miserably.

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