PART 1 – Introducing the Area of Study
All religions recognize there are outstanding individuals, whose spiritual insight, presence and power by far surpass those of others. These individuals help create, define, drive, reform and inspire their traditions. They are the models who provide the basis for emulation for others and they are the ideal of the tradition in its concrete manifestation, in the lives of humans.
Historically, most religions have tended to appreciate only those exceptional individuals who have contributed to their own traditions’ formation. The Religious Genius project seeks to consider these special individuals from a perspective that is broader than just the individual faith perspective. In part, this is informed by the recognition that in an interreligious age, we must be open to study and to be inspired by the finest models that other traditions can provide. Without such openness, we are missing out on true appreciation of what other religious traditions are and what they have to offer. From a different perspective, the study of such individuals is important because it allows us to approach them as part of the study of the meaning of the fullness of being human and of human potential. From this perspective we are invited to consider what such unique individuals are, how they function, and what they contribute to society, in a way that cuts across the different religious traditions, and draws on them all. The study of exceptional individuals in the field of religion is important both for purposes of our knowledge and understanding of what it means to be human and for purposes of advancing relations between religions in today’s world.
Throughout history and in the literature, the individuals under discussion have been known by many names and titles, reflecting their various offices, including prophets, founders, mystics, saints, heroes, religious virtuosos and more. Categories vary and are to a large degree a matter of convention. Their significance is ultimately a function of the measure to which they are helpful in enhancing understanding and advancing discussion. The present work seeks to put forth a novel category by means of which to appreciate these individuals: “Religious Genius”. The test for its usefulness will lie in the degree to which it allows us to revisit existing issues, to offer new perspectives and to provide new approaches to problems that have not been dealt with in the past, adequately or at all.
PART 2 – What Is a Religious Genius
We may consider the following a working definition of “Religious Genius”:
Someone who by application of intuition, intellect and a totally engaged or integrated personality brings about new understanding of reality, grounded in awareness of a broader existential dimension, that leads to deep transformation within a religious tradition.
The new understanding offered by the Religious Genius provides creative and constructive solutions for solving religious and spiritual problems, usually within the framework of a particular community or tradition. A Religious Genius will accordingly have high positive output, effectively addressing challenges and issues that are fundamental to a tradition, or more universally, to being religious. A Religious Genius is able to accomplish something, by means of his or her special capacities and may be described as having deep comprehension of a field (reality, God, the spiritual life) that results in a transforming discovery or realization that can be shared with others and that has enduring impact.
The wisdom of a Religious Genius grows out of a totality of being, a total commitment, and a total view of life. A Religious Genius is grounded in a situation of mind and being within broader reality, and may well have contributed to the literary tradition of their religion. The wisdom that comes of it is primarily the outcome of such existential positioning. It is founded upon the ground upon which activities might take place, and when religious geniuses do help grow knowledge, it is colored in a completely different way than it might be without the particular existential grounding of the Religious Genius. If wisdom is founded upon gaining experience, the experience of the Religious Genius grows from the total existential grounding that characterizes him. An important expression of this positioning is the understanding of connections, the view of the whole in relation to details, and the regard of wisdom that ensues from such a view.
The wisdom of the Religious Genius draws heavily on intuition and inspiration. While it may, and frequently does, appeal to reason as it communicates itself and as it checks the validity of its insights and their application, its primary drive often has more to do with other means of knowledge than with reason. It is founded upon attunement to another order of being and the attempt to convey such attunement is the root of wisdom. The intellect provides checks and controls but these often come before or after the core recognition of wisdom: before – in the training that the Religious Genius undergoes as part of his formation, and that becomes an inseparable part of him; after – as a second stage, after the primary revelation, inspiration or intuition have done their work.
A Religious Genius is a sage-saint. Directly or by example, he or she teaches and provides understanding, illumination and wisdom of a high order. This contrasts with more common expectations of the saint. Students of the Religious Genius seek the wisdom; followers of the saint seek the blessings and intercession.
What distinguishes the Religious Genius from the philosopher is the grounding of wisdom and insight in a higher order of reality, a higher state of consciousness. Gaining wisdom is to be distinguished from gaining intellectual information. The Religious Genius has particular character traits or virtues that enable him or her to acquire wisdom. Wisdom is an apprehension of spiritual reality and provides deeper insight into Being itself. Love is a way of knowing; love-wisdom produces a type of knowledge: knowledge grounded in humility, in the transcendence of the self, offers perspectives unlike ego-bound knowledge. The connection of heaven and earth, the connection of individual and cosmos, the relationship of the individual to society – all these are profound realizations that produce a wisdom, or rather – that are themselves the core wisdom of Religious Genius. The genius of religious genius is how to translate these core recognitions in novel ways, how to communicate them, and how to make them acceptable and practicable, the basis for social relations and a program for daily living. The core spiritual recognition undergoes a process of translation, and herein lies the unique genius of each and every Religious Genius, each seeking to articulate his or her vision in conformity with the tools at their disposal and the need they seek to address.
Wisdom is not only the seemingly passive contemplation of eternal truths, but the active application of whatever may be eternal and universal into the concrete and practicable terms of the here and now. Therefore, new social strategies, forms of social organization, action and service in the “real” world, are all manifestations of wisdom. Wisdom recognizes the need and responds to it by providing an appropriate statement, often novel in its application. Therefore in studying religious geniuses we study both the subjective aspects of spiritual excellence and interior achievements and the outward expressions of transformation and creativity within traditions.
The wealth of the spiritual life is such that its various aspects come together in seemingly endless permutations. At every turn, the need arises to state the truths, the vision, the broader meaning, in fresh terms that are suitable either for the audience or the circumstances. The Religious Genius is the person who can offer a new statement of meaning, from the platform of existence to which he has reached. The contribution of the Religious Genius may be a creative presentation of the tradition in ways not previously known, rather than the discovery of a new truth. The creativity of the Religious Genius often comes as a response to something problematic. The problem could be intellectual, emotional or in relation to ritual. When old ways of interpretation no longer work, the Religious Genius will find new means of engaging tradition or the existential issues it addresses.
“Genius” is when there is a creative drive. Though the strength of his or her spiritual cognitions, Religious Genius produces a restatement of the meaning of existence, and how it should be lived in the here and now. The genius’s creative contribution is empowered by the fullness of life and power to which his spiritual life has brought him.
The individuals to whom we refer tell us something about the fullness of living a human life. They speak to our common humanity, even if in order to hear their voices we must enter the specificity of their traditions. They teach us something fundamental about what it means to be human. In so doing, they teach us something fundamental about what it means to be religious.
PART 3 – Why “Religious Genius”? The Category’s Potential and How to Apply it
In putting forth “Religious Genius” as a category by means of which the lives of extraordinary religious men and women can be studied, appreciated and even advocated for, one is making a choice. One uses the category having defined it and agreed upon its use. Speaking naturally, there is no such thing as “Religious Genius”. There is no definition that emerges unequivocally from data across religions, by means of which we could establish what “Religious Genius” is. Not only is “Religious Genius” not a natural category, it is also not one that the subjects would readily identify with. The subjects of our study might not recognize themselves in these terms.
Using a category that is not indigenous to any particular religion could be considered an advantage. The fact that “Religious Genius” does not operate as a natural category makes it more applicable to a new approach, in which we define what we mean by a term. One need not compete with existing definitions of the term. It is recognized that all categories come with some “baggage” and in this case, the “baggage” has positive potential. The roots of the term genius are Roman, where the genius was the guiding spirit or tutelary deity of the person. Achievements of exceptional individuals were taken as indications of the presence of a powerful genius, who provided the inspiration. To speak of “Religious Genius” is therefore in some way to return to the original meaning of the term, recognizing its religious basis. “Genius”, as a category, comes with at least some pseudo-religious valuation, highlighting inspiration.
One of the most challenging issues in using the category “Religious Genius” is the relationship between human effort and divine gift. Concerns may be raised by traditions that see the spiritual figure as an action of God, or divine incarnation. However, it can be argued that precisely the need to capture the two poles of divine initiative and human effort, training and discipline, makes “Religious Genius” an excellent category that can capture a broad range of phenomena. The “genius” component can operate as an indicator of the received and revealed dimension, operating through the genius, rather than the personal talent of the individual. At the same time, the conformity of the individual to spiritual standards, making him a model for emulation by disciples and later generations, is equally captured by the term.
Furthermore, the category may be applied even to individuals who are deemed by their religious communities to be not simply saints but divine incarnations. One can readily speak of “the religious genius of Jesus”. One might even speak of Jesus, or Hindu avataras, as being religious geniuses, in the sense of manifesting the divine and its inspiration, in the framework of a lived human life, with its challenges and the demands it makes on the “Religious Genius” to realize or manifest the divine within the framework of a human life. Similarly, a passive or instrumental view of a founder of a religion, as transmitting a divine message, rather than exerting his own effort or presenting his own teaching, is not incompatible with the use of “Religious Genius.”
If we put to use a new category, it must allow us to do more than what earlier categories made possible. The following list suggests some of the possible benefits of introducing this category:
Benefits for the interreligious context. The recognition that the same characteristics that one appreciates in figures from one’s own tradition can be recognized in figures of other traditions fosters greater respect and invites learning from other traditions and their exemplars. Appreciation of these individuals through the lens of “Religious Genius” would make the testimony of these individuals stand out beyond their specific faith context and thereby allow members of other religions to hear them and be inspired by them. The study of a Religious Genius of another tradition provides access to another community, extending respect and appreciation for its religious life. “Religious Genius” can provide us with a way of sidestepping issue of religious truth. We can appreciate the spiritual greatness of individuals irrespective of the content of their beliefs. It allows us to appreciate not only ideas, but the total, transformative vision and state of being of great individuals, valuable in itself, regardless of its truth status.
Benefits for the Public View of Religion. “Religious Genius” can help us translate in more than one sense. It provides a means for translation between different religious communities, so that they can better listen to each other, due to the appeal to a category that is not colored with the history and preferences of one particular religious tradition. It is also a means of translating between religion and others. The category of genius could be particularly helpful in communicating the spiritual life of these individuals to those who neither share their world-view nor appreciate the special gifts and spiritual realities of these individuals. ‘Genius’ suggests unique capacities that are not equally distributed, thereby opening the possibility for recognition that others may be endowed in ways that the observer may not. Genius is implicitly admirable, though not in a religious way, which is precisely why using it can be beneficial to a discourse on religious figures. Allowing us to engage core theological and religious issues, as refracted through the specific lens of “Religious Genius”, could suggest a way of being religious that is an alternative to much of how religion is commonly perceived. It allows a deeper and more sophisticated approach to being religious. The emphasis on transformation allows us to demonstrate ways in which religion has been transformative for society.
Benefits for the Study of Religion. The personal approach to the study of religion provides a particular gateway to understanding religion. It allows us to study religion through its finest exemplars. It appeals to the notion of greatness and features it as a prism for the study of religion. The concept has great heuristic benefits. It allows us to engage various individuals, through the lens of religious genius, by asking in what ways is a person who is admired as a paragon for a given religious community worthy of such recognition. Beyond academic importance, it is also important for disseminating a more nuanced and potentially self-critical understanding within religious communities.
Beyond Religion. “Religious Genius” could further provide us with criteria by which we would understand and evaluate phenomena that take place outside organized religion, especially in contemporary times. In studying the transformative effects of the Religious Genius on her community, we have the opportunity to study means of communication and producing impact.
Advantages over “Saints” for study across religions.
The problem with existing categories is that they are both descriptive and generative. Once a category exists within a religion, there is a drive to identify individuals as belonging to that category. The internal religious and sociological dynamics push the faithful not only to use categories but to inhabit them, and to identify the categories with individuals known in the past and in the present. This places great pressure on any category – saint, avatar, zaddik, qutb and more. Adopting a new category allows us to approach the study of exceptional religious individuals from a purely descriptive and non-generative platform. “Religious Genius” would function as a descriptive category that is not theologically charged.
Because “Religious Genius” is not a category that currently serves religions, nor does it carry resonances of one particular tradition, it would allow us to approach these individuals in novel ways that are not predetermined by the notion of sanctity, implied by the term “saints.” Appeal to “Religious Genius” would allow us to get past the impasse, according to which some traditions claim they do not have ‘saints’, or that the role of saints in their tradition is secondary. The phenomenon of “Religious Genius”, as it shall be defined, may be identified in all religious cultures, and focusing on it, independently of its sociological and theological context, should be beyond dispute.
The category of “Religious Genius” also allows us to relate more easily to non-theistic traditions, as part of a discussion of exceptional religious individuals. ‘Saints’ is inextricably bound up with God, His gifts and special graces. Adopting a different category makes it easier to include in our purview religions for whom God is not an operational concept. “Religious Genius” might further allow us to approach some wisdom traditions in their fullness, from a purely phenomenological basis, without forcing foreign notions on them. (The attempts to make the Confucian tradition fit a model of ‘sainthood’ show how forced such an attempt is, and how much juggling, or goodwill, it requires. A new conceptual platform might eliminate these difficulties.)
In thinking of “Religious Genius”, one thinks of individuals of very great stature, whose greatness transcends their local context, making them paragons throughout their religion and even beyond it. Most Catholic ‘saints’ seem to have a local quality, having contributed to the life of a group, the development of a region, the advancement of a community, making them the particular instance of broader developments. In thinking of “Religious Genius” we seek novelty, creativity and a restatement of the meaning of a religion. A significant portion of ‘saints’ illustrate existing ideals, rather than helping recreate and redefine them.
One major class of Christian saints is martyrs. Other religions also refer to martyrs as holy people. On the face of it, martyrs have little to do with our discussion of “Religious Genius”. If religious geniuses are creative, identifying new ways of being and providing new ways of stating the meaning of existence, martyrs are anything but that. One may raise the possibility that a martyr, through altruism, self-surrender and sacrifice and offerings made in the name of love, attains the reality known to the Religious Genius. Rather than making a statement of how the experience of the beyond should redefine the meaning of being here, martyrdom makes the statement of why, in light of the ultimate vision, it does not make sense to be here any longer. If martyrdom is not “Religious Genius”, it may nevertheless point to it. Still, if “Religious Genius” is understood in terms of the creative contribution to tradition, martyrs, as saints, belong to a different class of worthy religious individuals.
Saints, geniuses, holiness and perfection. It is worth contrasting the emphasis on sainthood with the emphasis on “Religious Genius”. Sainthood measures holiness, and thus a spiritual state, attained in direct relationship to God (and by extension applied in non- theistic traditions as well). “Religious Genius” measures creativity, transformation, impact and ways in which the spiritual person of great standing is able to impact her community, tradition and environment.
Not all saints are religious geniuses, and we must ask whether all religious geniuses are saints. If the uniqueness of “Religious Genius” lies in the creative and transformative dimension, can there be an imperfect Religious Genius? Can there be partial Religious Genius? Could it be that a Religious Genius might trace a path that others walk with greater perfection than the genius? The tension between the cognitive, on the one hand, and the moral and relational dimensions, on the other, in the person of the Religious Genius, plays itself out in relation to what might be called the “flawed Religious Genius”. Flaws, ostensibly, would not relate to his or her genius, as far as the more cognitive dimensions are concerned, but rather to the relation between these dimensions and aspects of the person typically associated with sainthood. Whether moral or relational imperfections, one would need to consider whether the “flawed Religious Genius” could sustain a greater degree of imperfection than the “flawed saint”. While one could construct a category that assumes a great degree of perfection on both fronts, a broader construction of the category would leave room for the “flawed Religious Genius”. (Examples might include Martin Luther King and Shlomo Carlebach.)
From Religious Genius to Saint. The contribution of the Religious Genius lies in finding a new way of being, whether that new way relates to oneself, to God, to society or to the world. The Religious Genius lives on two planes simultaneously, or at least her horizons are readily and regularly informed by these two realities. From this dual vision, the Religious Genius draws forth a vision for humanity, for society. She announces a new way of being, for others to assume. But how can they, who do not share this dual vision, assume this vision? Is it not largely dependent on the capacity to keep this dual perspective in one’s awareness? Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of “Religious Genius”. The Religious Genius seeks to drive humanity forward, to bring others to share the complex perspectives that the genius has attained, while these others themselves lack that perspective. In the best of cases, the genius aids others to attain self-transformation and to gain the broader vision themselves. In ordinary cases, the visionary will be a teacher, taken by his word, his lessons accepted, at least inasmuch as partial vision allows for their implementation. In the worst case, and this is all too often the case, the genius becomes himself the object of appreciation, unable to communicate to others what he really sees and knows. Here the genius becomes a “saint,” in the popular sense of sharing blessing, receiving adulation.
How is a Religious Genius Unique or Sui Generis?
Our working definition suggests that “Religious Genius” is not like political or musical genius, which connotes someone who is a genius operating in the field of politics or music. Religion is not a field in which a genius works. Rather, “religious” is the way of being, modified by “genius”, suggesting the person is religious in a “genius” way. We ask more of the Religious Genius than brilliant contribution of sorts in the domain of religion and posit significant spiritual attainment, an advanced state of interiority/being, great measure of personal integration, moral excellence and more. A “Religious Genius” is a person whose entire being revolves around the highest spiritual perfection that she either seeks to realize or has realized and is manifesting to others. Behind this definition is the recognition that the field of religion and the spiritual life are qualitatively different than other arenas in which excellence manifests, raising the possibility of the “Religious Genius” being a kind of sui generis genius. A Religious Genius would have habits of heart, mind and will that conform to the broader vision of reality that he/she perceives and that consequently define the manner of being and the contribution of the Religious Genius in an ongoing manner. To simply be a genius theologian does not make one a “Religious Genius”.
The Religious Genius is likely to be engaged in a quest for full conformity of the life of the individual to the divine reality or ultimist concerns. Genius grows in relation to and out of disciplined life, study or practice. The particularity of “Religious Genius” is the type of practice, lifestyle and processes associated with the cultivation and manifestation of genius in the religious field. In studying religious geniuses, we must therefore pay attention to the relationship between the overall discipline of their religious lives and the specific manifestation of genius.
It may be argued that “Religious Genius” is really genius par excellence. Considering the dynamics of discipline, effort, intuition, gift and other dynamics associated with genius, these may find their fullest expression in the field of religion, inasmuch as only in religion is there a conscious and intentional effort to approach the field of the beyond and to integrate it consciously, as something that could produce genius. Thus, rather than concentrating on the various activities or fields of life, wherein genius is manifested, in religion we find concentration on the core processes and orientations that can be said to be operative in other fields.
While the religious dimension of religious genius leads to including in the profile of “Religious Genius” dimensions that are not part of the common definition of ordinary genius (love, altruism, humility etc.), these aspects can also be considered in some way as fundamental to genius itself, and therefore support the argument that Religious Genius is in some ways genius par excellence. The Religious Genius shows an extraordinary capacity for loving and living for others. It would seem this is a particularity of Religious Genius, where a more total demand or achievement is envisioned, compared with other expressions of genius. These special dimensions grow out of a recognition that consciousness and insight are grounded in the fullness of vision of reality and in the overall advancement of the person, in moral and religious terms. Genius is best found within the practice and discipline of the religious or spiritual life.
PART 4 – Who do we Think of as a Religious Genius, and who is Not?
The most obvious candidates for study under the lens of “Religious Genius” are the founders of religions. In terms of innovation they are clearly the ones who have had the most innovative impact on the life of the religious community they founded. Most founders would also be examples of individuals whose interior lives correspond to the model, (following). There is perhaps no greater contribution to the appreciation of another religion and to the improvement of interreligious relations than the positive appreciation of the founder of a religion. Cultivating appreciation by means of a novel and neutral category for the life and accomplishments of a founder of another religion tackles issues of respect and appreciation at their core.
While these considerations are valid on the theoretical plane, one runs up against certain difficulties in the application of this potential. One difficulty is that most founders are beyond the reach of historical memory. The memory that serves their community is, very often, the memory of their constructed persona, and no longer a memory of the historical person. While it will be suggested below that both are significant for the study of “Religious Genius”, it would seem prudent to advance the study of “Religious Genius” in relation to individuals whose lives are in realm of verifiable historical memory.
We note that there is a preponderance of mystics among the candidates for “Religious Genius”. While mystics will certainly constitute a large part of the group of religious geniuses, one rather may speak of individuals with intimate relations with the divine (or with the absolute, teachers, etc., for non-theists). This intimacy may fall short of what some might consider “mysticism”, but may still correspond to some features of the model and may account for their accomplishments and contributions to the transformation of religion. This is related to the question of how broadly or narrowly one may wish to construct the category, and how one might wish to apply it. If the category is to be useful to religious communities as they engage with each other, perhaps one ought not to limit its use only to the greatest or only to mystics. Nevertheless, these do provide a frame of reference for the application of the category, thereby providing an index for the inclusion of others.
As stated, a Religious Genius is not simply a great philosopher or theologian. His or her teaching is grounded in their being and in the spiritual recognition that comes from gaining access to a higher form of reality, understood variously by different traditions. We tend to find the Religious Genius with a transformative personality, showing outstanding capacity for human relationships, in terms such as love, compassion, empathy. Thus, the Religious Genius excels in the “stuff” of religion, or alternatively stated: is a paragon of religious values. Complementing that, he or she has what to teach us. Differently put: the working assumption of the present paper is that the cognition of the Religious Genius is often grounded in a transformed state of awareness. As a function of this broader awareness, the Religious Genius exhibits extraordinary capacity for identifying with others and of loving or otherwise living for others.
For a category to be meaningful, it must exclude, as well as include. Whom might we have thought ought to be a saint that is not a Religious Genius? Whom might we have tended to regard with great esteem, who would nevertheless not meet our criteria for Religious Genius?
For one, the imaginary sadhu who is absorbed in meditation, radiating peace and harmony to the world from the intensity of his absorption in the divine. If such a person does exist, he may be a great holy being, but not a Religious Genius. The same holds true for the adept, like the Greek Orthodox practitioner who practices theosis. Advancing along a prescribed path of spiritual transformation does not require genius, inasmuch as it does not require, and likely does not value, innovation and creativity. Fulfillment of the spiritual goals of the tradition should be kept distinct from “Religious Genius”, with its dynamic and creative character. Our imaginary sadhu might validate tradition for others, but unless he or she is able to restate, update or otherwise make the traditional speak in new ways, should not be considered a Religious Genius. If the imaginary sadhu really has something new, or even meaningful, to say, beyond modelling traditional ideals, we would probably know about it, through the channels of dissemination available in the tradition.
Another figure who would be excluded is the priest. The priest has an important role in maintaining the tradition, performing its rituals and providing a bridge between the community and the absolute. But priests are not geniuses. Priests model religious excellence, when they perform their duties properly. So do scholars. But neither is in and of himself a candidate for “Religious Genius”. Of course, ”Religious Genius” can manifest through either priest or scholar. Consider Padre Pio. Consider Jean Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars. These individuals advance their tradition by helping redefine the vocation of priests. They do not simply model good priesthood, they redefine it precisely because they bring to bear the fullness of the spiritual life. From that platform they restate what it means to be a priest, and what it means to be a Christian. Similarly, the Religious Genius may communicate his genius through scholarship. In fact, scholarship may be one of the most common expressions of “Religious Genius”. But while religious geniuses may express themselves through scholarship, most scholars, important and valuable as they are, are not religious geniuses.
Defining “Religious Genius” in terms of wisdom and cognition implies that under the rubric of “Religious Genius” one would not relate to the long list of messianic leaders who lead revolts against existing orders, even though some aspects of their work and person may be congruent with how we construct the category of “Religious Genius”. If they are suitable at all for inclusion in our discussions, it is on account of other aspects of their person, not on account of their messianic pretenses.
Finally, there is some similarity between possession and “Religious Genius”, inasmuch as both are open to something beyond, and both bring forth some cognition or understanding that may transcend processes of discursive thinking. However, meaningful distinction may be drawn between them. Someone who is possessed is not a “Religious Genius” by virtue of or in the very act of possession. What makes a “Religious Genius” more than a case of possession is the broader framework within which transcending faculties of the person occurs. These include lifestyle, capacity for maintaining or integrating discursive reasoning, the efforts required in the application of the quest for wisdom and above all the long term transformative consequences for the religious tradition. The medium does not qualify as a Religious Genius.
It is postulated that religious geniuses do not exist outside religious traditions. Several reasons may be brought for this:
1. Being a paragon in the field of religion requires association with religion.
2. Only religion provides the consistent discipline that would lead to “Religious Genius”.
3. Religious Genius does not stand in a vacuum, but in relation to canon and community, and therefore belongs properly within religious traditions.
That being said, one must beware of excluding individuals who do not belong to mainstream traditions. The reformer may also be a form of “Religious Genius”, as may be someone who launches a new religion or new religious movement. In fact, new religious movements are a fruitful field for the study of “Religious Genius”. However, discipline seems fundamental to the life of a Religious Genius, and sets him or her apart from other forms of religious or spiritual personalities. Because a Religious Genius is found within tradition, one must be careful about how to present the relationship between tradition and innovation, especially considering the negative valuation of innovation in some religious contexts. In one way, what makes a Religious Genius a genius is the innovative approach or understanding to matters of ultimate importance in the field of religion. The Religious Genius offers a fresh perspective on important aspects of reality. On the other hand, this innovation takes place within tradition and may therefore also be a novel form of communication and articulation of the tradition, rather than a new tradition.
PART 5 – The Model: Developing A Methodology for Studying Religious Genius
The model that follows is an attempt to depict an ideal “Religious Genius”. While it might never fully correspond to reality, it does allow us to develop a better appreciation for what there is in reality. It allows us to identify aspects for which we might look. It is a theoretical construct that shapes discourse and orients a vision.
Fundamental Components of a Model for “Religious Genius”
The model of “Religious Genius” distinguishes between an originary group of six characteristics that approximate “essence” and a further or broader set of characteristics that may be spoken of as “manifestations”. While the distinction between these two groups is interesting, it is not crucial to the future application of “Religious Genius”. All characteristics can be revisited as part of creating an open ended approach to the presentation of religious geniuses across traditions.
With regard to the six “essential” attributes of the model of “Religious Genius”, no claim of hierarchy between the attributes is made. Moreover, the different dimensions also overlap to various degrees. The model thus points to a range, a domain, wherein its different components are interrelated and dependent upon one another.
Some of the early attempts to develop the image of “Religious Genius” have already made us aware of the centrality of love to the ideal of the saint and of the Religious Genius. While the resources and theological framework from which this recognition was offered were Christian, it is appropriate to recognize love as a central defining element in any portrait of “Religious Genius” and as a common denominator that emerges from all religious traditions. Love should be understood broadly. Therefore, if a tradition such as Buddhism couches its primary spiritual recognition in terms of compassion, rather than in terms of love, for our purposes it falls within the broader range of spiritual attitudes and perceptions signalled by the term love. Consequently, love is manifest as altruism, the supreme expression of love offered selflessly in service of the other. It is significant that so much of philosophical appeal to saints focuses on their altruism. It suggests how central love is to the extraordinary religious personality and confirms the recognition that love should be considered one of the primary identifying features of true “Religious Genius”. It may be superfluous to add that love is a reality, a state of being, and that therefore the question of its recipient is almost secondary. A loving heart and presence extends to God, to the fellow person, to the entire world. The more expansive the love, the higher the state of being that is manifested, the greater the expression of “Religious Genius”.
Purity is the core of the struggle that is common to all who are on the spiritual path. It is born of the recognition of a tension, produced by an awareness of multiple realities in which the aspirant dwells. On the one hand is her daily life, earthly reality, bodily existence. On the other is another dimension of reality, a higher order, a divine realm, a vision of truth understood as absolute reality. These are never mere cognitions. They are ways of being, states of awareness, realms of sensitivity, sensibility and greater energetic subtlety. The aspirant is thus torn between multiple realities, multiple states of being and consciousness. What is perceived as the higher order, the ultimate, beckons and invites the individual toward greater conformity with its perspective, with its way of being. To attain that, purity is required. Without exception, all religious traditions, all saints in all religions, have and must undergo a process of purification in order to be able to enter the domain of their destiny, however it is understood in their tradition. Purity is indispensible for the spiritual life and must therefore occupy a prominent position in any description of “Religious Genius”. “Religious Genius” thrives on, aspires to and is ultimately realized through the increase and assimilation of purity into the life of the Religious Genius.
Purity is not to be understood in light of restrictions, such as those associated with ritual purity. “Purity”, in the Hindu tradition, is connected intimately with freedom from greed and there can be no description of religious genius without giving central importance to this quality. It is important to emphasize that purity is here intended in the sense described above, as an internal disposition of gaining greater perfection and conformity with the higher order, rather than in terms of rules and regulations that govern aspects of daily or social life.
There does remain, nevertheless, a possible objection to the inclusion of purity in the portrait of “Religious Genius”. Some devotees regard their great religious figures as perfect from birth, as divine incarnations that do not require purification. If we do not want to superimpose the world-view and understanding of one religious system on another, we must deal with this challenge from the resources of those traditions that might raise such objections. Here, it is helpful to realize that those same traditions also consider spiritual evolution and perfection to extend beyond one lifetime. If so, the place of purification in the process of attaining perfection, of becoming a Religious Genius, is the same. It is only conceived of through a different approach to time and process.( The possibility, always present in Hinduism, of the divine simply taking form and incarnating without having to undertake any human or earthly related process of purification or growth still remains outside our model.)
Asceticism is a method of attaining what aspirants realize is the vital precondition for achieving their goal – purity. Asceticism is almost universal and with that comes the recognition of the universality of the quest for purity as a defining feature of the spiritual life, and an indispensible feature of “Religious Genius”. Thus, anyone who lacks purity, in a meaningful and recognizable fashion, should not be considered a Religious Genius, according to the high benchmark here proposed. He or she may be a leader, teacher, theologian, activist or any other kind of functionary who makes a difference in people’s lives. But he or she would be no different in their spiritual quality than their counterpart who engages in these same activities from a non-religious platform. The uniquely religious dimension of “Religious Genius”, regardless of the form of service or office through which it is expressed, is purity.
While purity is constituted by a variety of virtues that may each be singled out, humility is one that deserves special mention and is accordingly presented as a key feature of “Religious Genius.” Humility may be understood as proper recognition of one’s position in the great scheme of things. Such recognition is quite distinct from the ways in which the ego seeks to assert itself in order to boost one’s sense of personal worth. Humility is thus closely related to de-centering of the self, and its reorientation in a larger view. It is also the basis for continuing self-inspection, leading one to identify faults and to become aware of one’s own imperfection. These in turn drive the quest for purity.
Humility is not to be confused with low self-esteem. It is no accident that the Bible presents Moses as the greatest prophet that ever lived and as the most humble person on the face of the earth (Numbers 12,3 and Deut. 34,10). Many of the figures under discussion had a very developed sense of their worth, value, accomplishment and mission. Humility is a way of contextualizing such self-worth within a broader view of reality, leading to the recognition that it is not the ego, the limited self or its particular accomplishments that are the source of individual pride but rather the fullness of divine (or differently understood metaphysical absolute) reality that makes the person what he is.
Many traditions emphasize the importance of annihilation of the ego for the saint. This is another way of stating what is intended by reference to humility. Thus, to take a current example, if the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of Avalokataishwara, this exalted claim of the tradition need not be understood as contrary to humility. On the contrary, it is the grounds for humility, recognizing that one cannot take credit or recognition for oneself. Of course, the potential for abuse or misapplication is always there. But this is precisely where true “Religious Genius” is measured, in the capacity to self-identify or relate to higher reality in ways that transcend the ego and manifest genuine humility.
If humility situates the self in its proper place, self-surrender defines a particular attitude and relationship of the self to the higher reality that it seeks to identify with. Self- surrender as resulting from awareness of the friendly continuity between the ideal power and our own life. (William James) Self-surrender leads to reorientation of the self. The personal ego decreases in significance, as one increasingly is identified with the greater reality or goal towards which one is making one’s way. Self-surrender may thus be considered a systematic means of self-transcendence. It is also closely related to the capacity to serve others, as one’s view of oneself is transformed, and as one increases in loving capacity.
Self-surrender assumes growing in awareness of a larger presence, or a larger reality, of which one is but a part. As awareness shifts, the question of the true author of our actions increasingly comes to the forefront. Is it the self or the greater Self, the divine, the absolute, that is the true actor? And what exactly is the nature of the collaboration, the synergy, between the ordinary self and the greater Self? Self- surrender thus points to a fundamental shift in consciousness, wherein the self, its identity and authorship are all realigned, in view of expanded awareness. “Religious Genius” requires just such a broad awareness. Without it, the virtues practiced are moral exercises, stages on the way to perfection. But the perfection of the Religious Genius only comes with the shift of consciousness, wherein one’s self is redefined in relation to the absolute. The capacity to transcend the self and to live from the place to which one is able to surrender would seem to be a universal feature of “Religious Genius”.
Some traditions speak of a notion of grace. It is through grace, an explicit expression of divine activity, that the actions of the person who has attained self-surrender are carried out. While not all traditions share a concept of grace, it is worth asking whether all can share in identifying a stage in which the sense of authorship of action, the definition of who is the actor, is transformed. The self- awareness of passivity and instrumentality- of being a “vessel” – may be considered a coming together of humility, self- surrender and a broader view of reality that leads to the awareness of the Religious Genius being an instrument.
Expanded Awareness of Reality
Reference to self-surrender already implies awareness of the broader reality to which we belong. This seems to be a key element in “Religious Genius” and one of the main features that distinguishes it from ordinary piety and even from many expressions of saintliness. A Religious Genius lives in more than one plane of existence. He or she is simultaneously present to the physical order of life and to the alternative order, to which he or she is increasingly drawn. The latter redefines one’s way of being in the physical plane. It establishes priorities, provides meaning and reorients all of one’s actions. The genius of “Religious Genius” comes from the fact that all actions, engagements, teachings and all expressions of the religious life are experienced from an awareness that transcends the physical plane, even as the individual seeks to transcend his or her sense of limited personal self. What makes “Religious Genius” unique is that it consciously and intentionally seeks to understand and experience this reality in relationship to everyday reality.
“Religious Genius” is founded upon some kind of contact, exposure, and awareness of another dimension of reality. Such awareness may find varying expressions: what is common to all of them is the conscious recognition of the relationship that exists between these two dimensions of reality. A Religious Genius is someone who aids in constructing a conscious bridge between these two dimensions of reality. All religious traditions express their awareness of reality in terms that are dualistic – this reality, the other, even if they go on to affirm the ultimate unity lying behind such duality. The most common way of describing this alternate dimension of reality is to describe it as the heavenly, supernal, world. The broader view of reality is usually expressed also in cosmological terms, situating the genius and her world within a broader scheme of existence. Such cosmological situatedness provides either new information concerning the heavenly or celestial realm or guidance, teaching and information for how to better live on the physical plane.
But broader awareness of reality need not be limited to the celestial sphere. Awareness can be broadened horizontally, with the expansion of awareness to others, to the world’s suffering, to the entire world of social relations that cries out for healing. The altruism of the Religious Genius is neither a mandate, nor simply an expression of love. Rather, it expresses a broader sense of their identity and their own sense of expanded awareness that includes the other, the world at large, as part of their own awareness. Perhaps, in today’s world the broadening of awareness will find further expansion in the ecological domain, extending the sense of self from society to all of life. The increasing engagement of religious leadership in this direction and the way it harnesses traditional theological resources suggests that this too may be featured as a present or future expression of “Religious Genius”.
The Logic of Imitation
Awareness of higher or broader reality does not simply provide meaning and reorientation to physical existence. It leads to an inevitable dynamic wherein one seeks to conform the one reality to the standards, vision or perfection of the other. A constitutive tension ensues, wherein one not only lives in two planes of existence, in two parallel realities, but seeks to imitate the higher reality within the confines of ordinary existence. This is a constitutive dimension of “Religious Genius”. A Religious Genius is the bridge between two realities, and the primary means of constructing this bridge is imitation.
Only those who are aware of the tension implied in living in multiple worlds and the suffering, struggle and continuing effort to harmonize and attune our world to another order of reality truly deserve to be called religious geniuses. Here we have a pinnacle of genius – intuiting another order of reality, seeking to ground it, transforming oneself and the entire world in a movement of totality and harmony toward that higher perceived reality. We go here way beyond faith, understood conventionally, or the practice of virtues. Religious geniuses will emerge as those individuals who are able to maintain this broader awareness and its resultant mandate to imitate, harmonize and conform different orders of reality. Such efforts both require and are made possible through the purity attained, the love offered and the transcendence of self that make up the character of the Religious Genius. However, those virtues alone do not suffice. They produce excellent spiritually oriented characters, perhaps even saints. But “Religious Genius” requires that additional vision and orienting framework that redefines existence and its meaning, seeking to continually elevate and transform it in light of the higher realization.
Understanding the logic of imitation might provide a key to understanding some of the tensions that specific traditions exhibit. For some traditions, the founder or key figure is in a class of his own. Thus, Muhammad is distinct from all other prophets and saints. Jesus, the son of God, is in a class of his own, unlike that of the saints. And yet, Muslim saints are constantly assimilated to the figure of Muhammad, even as Christian saints re-present Christ. At times, this produces theological, as well as social and denominational tensions. The matter is further complicated when we consider that saints are also objects of emulation. It would seem that imitation and emulation are deeply ingrained in religious logic, where one order of life imitates the other, and a chain of imitation is created. Muslim saints are distinct from Muhammad, but they are homologized to him through a process of emulation. The faithful in turn draw inspiration by imitating the example before them, who in turn is imitating the primary religious model. This suggests to us the depth of possibilities contained in the logic of imitation.
The Logic of Emulation
If the “Logic of Imitation” was a way of grasping the interior life of the Religious Genius, lived in relation to a higher ideal recognized within, “The Logic of Emulation” is the outward social manifestation of society’s relationship to the Religious Genius, wherein his or her actions provide a basis for others’ behavior. This is certainly an important aspect in the dynamics of saints and their social environment. Accordingly, I propose the distinction between “The Logic of Imitation”, that relates to the Religious Genius’ interiority and “The Logic of Emulation” that relates to the ways in which others seek to imitate the excellence of the Religious Genius.
Manifestations of “Religious Genius’” Core Traits
The spiritual life is complex and multifaceted, its different facets radiating upon one another. The imposition of structure, where one value or dimension of the spiritual life is considered primary and the others its consequences, is of necessity somewhat arbitrary. Granted the tenuousness and arbitrariness of some of the ways in which we impose order on the spiritual life, I would like to look at some aspects of the spiritual life that seem to me important in the framework of understanding or identifying “Religious Genius”.
Altruism draws together several key dimensions of “Religious Genius”. It is founded upon love. It manifests awareness of a broader sense of being, wherein the identity of the one offering love or sacrifice is expanded to include the other. It implicates one in transcending the self, and is founded on a higher sense of self-surrender to a goal, a vision, a higher spiritual reality. And more often than not it also exemplifies a logic of imitation. Whether it is the imitation of Christ’s supreme sacrifice or the imitation of the Boddhisatva ideal, altruism grounds in a moment of sacrifice a higher spiritual vision.
The life of a Religious Genius is not a casual life. It is a life lived with full intentionality, seeking to integrate all of life’s manifold details into a focused drive for coherence and integration. The very shift of emphasis beyond the self is an act of intention. Moving from caring for the self to caring for others requires, for the most part, some intentional shift of orientation. Reorienting all of life towards a higher vision requires a transformation of the will, and an intentional orientation toward the alternative, absolute reality. Purification is not possible without proper intention. Attention to motivation, to the quiet and hidden desires of the heart, in an attempt to purify them, requires great intentionality. Intention also defines altruism. Were it not for the orientation of intention, we would have no way of knowing whether an act is altruistic or selfish. The epitome of such orienting intention is perhaps the image of the Bodhisattva, whose entire being depends on his intention to live for the sake of others.
Excellence in the Form of the Discipline Practiced
Discipline is fundamental to all forms of genius and is a helpful dimension in thinking of “Religious Genius” as a constructed category. Forms of discipline may vary according to the type of religion practiced. In some it might be more like emptying oneself of intentions and agencies and being open to spontaneous filling (some eastern traditions). Spontaneity itself may function both as a critique of a certain kind of discipline and as a kind of discipline in and of itself. In any event, these various forms may be considered expressions of intentionality, manifesting in a focused process and in some expression of discipline. Even if the notion of grace or gift is recognized as a factor in saint-making, the application of the insight and the practice in the saint’s life that follow require some aspect of discipline.
The centrality of discipline is closely related to processes of purification discussed above, even though the emphasis above was on the state of purity, rather than processes of purification. The notion of discipline and effort could be very much at odds with notions of gift and grace that are applied in several traditions to their religious heroes. Here I would wish to draw a distinction between the practice of discipline and the theory of discipline. Even if discipline and effort occupy a low position in theory, in practice they do occupy an important position, along the way or in the realized life of the Religious Genius. Exceptions and inversions of the rule, such as intentional violation of discipline, are best understood as mirroring the centrality of discipline
There is, however, one class of individuals in relation to whom some might object when it comes to the criterion of discipline. I refer to figures taken as divine (incarnations, avataras, etc.) within their traditions. While “Religious Genius” allows us to engage these figures from a broader, non-faith-committed perspective, for their believers and followers, these individuals are beyond the typical human categories and processes associated with genius. In the context of the present trait, these figures present us with a challenge, as in many instances their lives are not portrayed as the consequence of the application of discipline. Consequently, they are less imitable, inasmuch as imitability relies heavily on the disciplinary dimension of the lives of saints. They represent what we can’t even aspire to become through our disciplined efforts. Nevertheless, even if their lives are not understood by the faithful to be the outcome of the practice of discipline, they typically exhibit a disciplined way f life in their actual lives, thereby making the present question less weighty.
The Totality of Demand, the Quest for Integration
There are no part time saints. “Religious Genius” as well cannot be thought of as a part time vocation. Religious geniuses are individuals for whom the alternative reality, which they share alongside common reality, places a total claim, a claim for conforming their entire life, and reality itself, to what has become known to them. With it often comes a demand for full self-control, in the service of the larger goal. The broader consciousness of which they partake redefines life and radiates to all its expressions; hence, the radicality of the life of the Religious Genius. Nothing is simply permissible, optional. Things and situations either do or do not serve the claims made by the ultimate for a totally dedicated, focused, intentional and sanctified life. This total claim is a powerful unifying force. What this means is that “Religious Genius” is not simply a capacity; it is a way of being.
The consequence of totality is that everything is included. The life of the Religious Genius is therefore a life of integration, or at least it strives to be. Not only their lives are integrated, bringing together their various aspects under the sign of a unifying spiritual vision; they offer a vision of integration to society. Consider further the work of the saints of India, who integrate various dimensions of life, in the pursuit of advancing a spiritual vision in society – integrating languages, caste differences and cultural differences. Consider the power of such religious geniuses as Rabbi Kook, whose entire being of love leads to one dimension of integration after another, integrating law and spirit, philosophy and mysticism, secular and religious, and more.
Such integration does not assume that the person is always perfect, only that the deeper motivation and orientation of the Religious Genius’ entire life is in accordance with the higher goals. If “Religious Genius” is a way of being, rather than a set of capacities or achievements, this would also lead to a specific approach to him or her. John Hawley, in his introduction to Saints and Virtues, quotes the second Vatican Council’s reference to fellowship, as one of the things we seek from saints. The phenomenon is, I believe, universal. The recognition that someone’s being represents another order and offers a harmonious integrative vision for life, will do more than inspire people to accept the vision. It will draw people to that individual’s being, seeking his company, presence and radiation.
The Power of Intuition
Intuition and imagination are significant bridges between the Religious Genius’ interiority and the novel outward transformative vision or contribution made by the genius. Implementing the logic of imitation is an act of intuition. The higher reality cannot be implemented in a facile way in the physical reality. Even something seemingly straightforward like the centrality of love must undergo some translation as it is extended from the region of divine love and its tenderness to the complexities and mandates of human relationships. Such translation processes may have to be reasoned, but before they are reasoned, they are intuited. Religious geniuses are masters of higher intuition.
Closely related to intuition is the power of imagination. Purification of the imagination is part of the overall purification of the person, but its fruits in the Religious Genius are such that they serve as a means of revealing the higher order in everyday consciousness. The capacity to contemplate a higher world, as well as the ability to bring its fruits and testament to the ordinary plane of existence, involve the imagination and the intuition, as these produce creative bridges, through which religious geniuses bridge heaven and earth.
Freedom from Greed
Freedom is suggested as a significant aspect of the Religious Genius’ internal orientation and freedom from greed as a primary expression of such freedom. Considering greed a fundamental expression of desire, that in turn leads to manifold expressions of activity and that interacts with various aspects of the person, freedom from greed emerges as an important attribute of the Religious Genius. Greed includes greed for fame and power. Flawed genius is related to failure to check greed, hence corruption. Expanded awareness is also centerdness in satisfaction, hence overcoming the various forms of greed. Thus, freedom from greed is a hallmark of the Religious Genius, bringing together the traits of purity and expanded awareness.
The Quality of Heart
Different traditions have a way of expressing a particular quality of the saint’s heart. A saint’s heart is like butter (Tulasidasa), liquid (Cure of Ars), open to others, responsive to their suffering, capable of transforming others through the quality of a heart that has transformed a natural hardness, associated with ego boundaries. The deeply cultivated heart is a nurturing presence for others. Here, an interior aspect of the saint or the Religious Genius’ life is viewed as it interacts with others, giving external expression to the unique individual’s interiority. Needless to say, the quality of heart of the saint is a direct expression of the saint’s love, as well as of the impact of the broader existential situatedness captured by the model.
Additional Qualities that may be Included in an Open-Ended List
Is the list above described the core traits, the following attributes suggest themselves for inclusion in an open-ended list of attributes of “Religious Genius”:
1. Freedom. We have already noted the aspect of freedom from greed as representative of the internal reality of the Religious Genius. Freedom as such, as an internal disposition, has been suggested as a feature of “Religious Genius”, bringing into manifestation the core traits of the Religious Genius.
2. Assuming responsibility for all. An important orientation of the Religious Genius, in relation to others, is assuming responsibility for the wellbeing of all. Here love and a broader awareness of reality, suggesting its ultimate unity and interconnectedness, combine to produce this orientation. Another way of referring to this same aspect is inclusivity, wherein the Religious Genius has the capacity to relate to all, without rejection or exclusion.
3. Clarity of vision and perception. Clarity of vision is an expression of a broader view of reality, which provides a context for clarity of vision. It may be considered either in terms of the higher reality or in terms of day to day life and practical reality. Here the spiritual anchoring of the Religious Genius coupled with her own powers of understanding and cognitive faculties produce the kind of practical wisdom that is the hallmark of many saints and religious geniuses.
4. Authenticity. Here we encounter an interesting dimension that allows us to think of religious geniuses in relation to their tradition and in relation to reality. They are not imitators. Their view of reality and how their being is grounded lends them an air of authenticity. This authenticity may be the statement of reality, manifesting that which is to be anchored and imitated or the actual teaching and contribution to tradition they carry. The notion of authenticity bridges internal reality, which itself draws from the ultimately authentic reality, and the outward expressions of activity or teaching that are stamped by the authentic quality that the Religious Genius carries.
How Should the Model be Used?
The above presentation sought to establish a balance between featuring a potentially ever-growing list of attributes by means of which “Religious Genius” can be described and core traits of the model. It was noted that most, perhaps all, additional qualities are actually articulations, variations, combinations, permutations and expressions of the core traits. The core traits may themselves be further distilled, suggesting what might be essential requirements of a Religious Genius.
At a minimum two qualities would be required of any Religious Genius – love and awareness of broader reality. The latter would be the key to attaining the other qualities. A more likely distillation would include purity, humility and self-surrender, or some of them, as attitudinal complements to the qualities of heart and mind contained in the minimal definition. As the qualities overlap, there are various ways of viewing their relationships, making it hard to posit only one or the other as a necessary requirement for “Religious Genius”.
While there is philosophical value in distinguishing core characteristics (essence) from their rich expressions in the life of the individual and their outward expressions and manifestations, the breakdown between primary and secondary qualities, or between essence and manifestations, presented above, is of lesser value. This leads us to consider how the model could be used.
1. By means of the model we seek to attain a greater degree of understanding and precision. Application of the model allows us to identify “Religious Genius” across traditions and to introduce figures of other traditions in such terms. In applying the model, there is room for our intuition, based on our learning. We may say that we have a “learned hunch” that such and such an individual fits the model. Study of a figure in light of our model can legitimately draw on prior knowledge and the intuition that then seeks justification in further study. The model also allows us to exclude from our discussion personalities that lack essential and common attributes, and who are nevertheless held up as models, leaders or sources of influence within individual traditions.
2. In working further with the model and its components, we should include the internal arguments and reasoning of traditions for why the traits of the model are virtues that would lead us to recognize individuals as saints or religious geniuses. The traits and characteristics that make up the model allow us to consider perfection in a theoretical way that transcends legendary and hagiographical aspects, associated with figures of old.
3. In thinking of the different components of the model, we should seek to understand not only the various components of the model, but also their interconnections. Therefore a longer list of characteristics will allow more potential connections and relationships between the various components to emerge.
4. Studies of individual lives will allow us to determine whether there are some minimal characteristics that are essential to “Religious Genius”, while others may be found in relation to some figures, but not others. The presentation above already puts forth one hypothesis, in positing certain core qualities as fundamental to “Religious Genius”. This will also allow us to assess the possibility of a flawed Religious Genius. Does “Religious Genius” assume perfection and what aspects of the model are essential to such perfection?
Beyond these essential aspects, differences between saints, who may be quite dissimilar in character, would be accounted for by means of the Wittgensteinian notion of “family resemblance.” To speak of a family resemblance is to suggest saint-making characteristics. These are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions. What puts someone into the category of a saint or a Religious Genius is that all these people together are distinguishable from those outside.
1. The model allows us to construct what might be thought of as “the varieties of “Religious Genius“, assuming that not all saints or religious geniuses will have all qualities, certainly not in equal force. It allows us to appreciate the greatness of those individuals who combine the different dimensions of the model.
2. The model’s description of the Religious Genius is balanced by an evaluation of the transformative impact of the Religious Genius on her or his community. Accordingly, we are not looking only at how individuals live up to the model fully or counting the number of qualities that a Religious Genius has in relation to the model. Rather, we can identify a cluster of qualities and then relate it to the geniuses’ transformative impact. We should seek to correlate the model’s features to the transformative effects, asking what dimensions of the model bring about transformation. Including in the model qualities that relate to the Religious Genius “in manifestation” could be helpful for understanding such processes of transformation. In this context, we need to also consider theories of multiple intelligences and how the Religious Genius manifests the deeper qualities captured in the model by means of these intelligences.
3. This model can be useful not only for academic study, but also for involving religious communities in naming and accounting for their religious geniuses. The model allows us to notice the varieties of “Religious Genius” across traditions and to reflect on what aspects of the model generate transformation within communities. This is useful for communicating to religious communities the most fundamental message of the project: that figures in other traditions share essential and common characteristics with religious geniuses they themselves admire.
PART 6 – Religious Genius in the Real Life of Community
A Religious Genius’ creativity and genius are made known through his contribution to the community, religion and society to which he belongs. There is value in exploring the various dimensions that relate to the encounter or juxtaposition of the ideal of “Religious Genius” with the concrete reality of a given community, (the term is used loosely,) in a given point in time.
Community serves multiple functions with reference to the Religious Genius. It is the arena wherein the Religious Genius’ contribution is recognized and where we track the transformation brought about by the Religious Genius. It is also what carries, preserves and transforms his memory. The genius’ relationship with community is not simply one of dissemination and expansion. It is often accompanied by tension, in view of novelty and transformation introduced by the Religious Genius. Accordingly, we can expect points of tension and friction, in association with the work of the Religious Genius. This, in fact, provides a methodology for tracing the evolution and impact of the Religious Genius, by noting points of friction and tension, as they yield transformation in the tradition, community and society.
But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of a Religious Genius’ relationship to community is the fact that the genius creates a religious community. One of the constructive tensions of future study of “Religious Genius” is how to highlight ideas, on the one hand, and community, on the other, as the products and creation of the Religious Genius. In one way, it may be argued that a Religious Genius, unlike a philosopher, creates community. In another, it may be posited that the power of ideas generated by the Religious Genius can speak across time and reach members of the same religious community or of other religious communities, independently of the encounter with the person and independently of his community-building efforts. Related to this point is the consideration of the kind of message that creates or shapes community, Here we should consider the distinction between the descriptive and the prescriptive. The descriptive message describes the spiritual realm, in which the Religious Genius is grounded, and bridges in significant ways mysticism/philosophy/theology. The prescriptive message instructs, and gives specific direction in action for the community.
Differently put, we come across different forms of transformation of community. One form highlights the immediate community of the Religious Genius and its creation or transformation. The other highlights the ideas and their ability to speak across time, place and religion, thereby transforming individuals and small communities, without necessarily creating or structuring entire communities. Rather than define the Religious Genius as one or the other, we must remain open to this tension, as we identify religious geniuses and explore further the potential of the category.
Introducing the “Religious Genius Event”
Almost all of the religious geniuses we encounter, we meet through texts. Texts cannot mediate pure interiority, inasmuch as they are themselves means of mediation, through language, writing, editing and often the perception of the author, if it is not the Religious Genius herself. Complementing the attempt to get at the subjectivity of the Religious Genius is awareness of the impact and transformative power of the Religious Genius. Transformation and impact lead us to a domain that can be more readily measured. To be clear, it is not suggested that the quest for the spiritual reality of the Religious Genius be replaced by a sociological study of the impact of the Religious Genius or how his image is constructed or developed over the ages. Rather, a more delicate balance is suggested, by means of which the subjectivity and the impact are correlated. We seek to study those individuals who brought a depth dimension, grounded in their being, and transformed their communities or tradition in accordance and in resonance with the particularity of their being, in the direction and perspective of ultimate reality.
As a way of referring to the balance that is sought between the subjectivity and the measuring of transformative impact, we refer to the “Religious Genius Event”. The event is constituted both by the person and by the reception and impact within the community. Examining the “Religious Genius Event” allows us to strike a balance between our interest in subjectivity and the recognition that we must not depend exclusively on it for the appreciation of “Religious Genius”. We may not be able to fully capture the interiority of the person, but we can get glimpses of it through the various aspects of the “Religious Genius Event”. The subject’s self-understanding is informed by the perception of the community, and the perception of the community is fed by the awareness, proclamation, being and actions of the subject.
This dialectic points to a methodology that takes both dimensions into account. Community is essential to the definition of “Religious Genius”. If the Religious Genius is not recognized in the here and now of their community, they may be recognized later and across place or tradition. But some dimension of recognition is fundamental to the Religious Genius’ ability to transform. If the Religious Genius were appreciated exclusively in terms of interiority, her interiority might not be relevant for others, subject for admiration, not for emulation. The approach to the Religious Genius by means of impact and transformation on community opens up the interior reality of the Religious Genius to those in the community, creating a web of connections and relations that allows the Religious Genius to touch, transform and bring to light aspects of common existence with those who participate in the “Religious Genius Event”.
Transformation often grows out of a set of historical, sociological and religious circumstances and needs that the Religious Genius addresses. In other instances, the Religious Genius identifies and creates a need, by means of his person or teaching. The totality of the “event” includes the circumstances of appearance and operation of the Religious Genius. Thus, we will encounter different balances between the singular impact of the individual and the needs and circumstances of the hour, and how they come together in the “Religious Genius Event”.
The “Religious Genius Event” – A Source of Transformation
The yardsticks by means of which the impact of the Religious Genius is measured are innovation, creativity, problem solving, but above all transformation. The following points provide further elaboration for considering the transformative impact of the Religious Genius Event.
- Distinguishing between reception and transformation. All religious leaders have reception within the community. In relating to “Religious Genius”, we relate to the ability to transform the community, in light of the particular interior spiritual life of the Religious Genius.
- In thinking of transformation, we wish to be open to multiple dimensions of transformation- personal/internal, societal, ritual, emotional, teaching and more.
- Robert Neville suggests five dimensions of genius, related to different “ultimist concerns.” These are five kinds of engagement, namely: engaging existence, obligation, wholeness, others, and meaning. These dimensions can be considered loci for transformation, wherein new teaching on fundamental aspects of the spiritual life are offered. The transformation of the Religious Genius is not simply a contribution to social organization, legal formulation or theological correctness. Rather, it is bringing about transformation in the direction of ultimacy, in these five areas, in light of the spiritual vision he holds, grounded in his person.
- Recognizing the domains of teaching and innovation of the Religious Genius, we acknowledge that the transformative impact of the Religious Genius need not lead to new metaphysical ideas or theological knowledge. It can be transformative in terms of giving voice to existing ideas. It can also be transformative in terms of religious experience, making it broadly available. Grounding existing knowledge in the depth of personal experience can be the source of bringing about transformation within the tradition, in dimensions such as development of the heart, recognizing new moral situations, or expanding love to a group previously excluded from one’s love.
- While recognizing that transformation addresses both the individual and the community or tradition at large, the means of achieving such transformation are different. For the individual, transformation occurs through contact, as long as the Religious Genius is alive. Broader transformation for the community takes place through teachings or though structures put in place by the Religious Genius.
- The transformative power of the Religious Genius can be conceptual – pertaining to ideas, or mimetic – relating to the behavior of the Religious Genius herself. The more immediate transformation, resulting from encounter with the person of the Religious Genius, has a stronger mimetic dimension. This is also relevant to creating community, which focuses on creating a way of life for it, while stating its unique vision and world-view.
The “Religious Genius Event” – Going Beyond the Life of the Individual
Relating to the “Religious Genius Event” in terms of the transformation it generates allows us to expand the scope of the event. Some great religious geniuses may have a significant message to offer, but are not directly creators of communities. In other cases, the full fledged transformation takes place not only through the person, acts and teachings of the Religious Genius but through a rich network or web of personalities associated with the Religious Genius, as partners or disciples. The Religious Genius “event” may therefore be seen as the coming together of more than one type of person, and the resultant collaboration and complementarity. Consider Jesus and St. Paul, Bahaulla and the Bab, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Nathan of Breslav, and Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Religious geniuses often require an intermediary, a disciple, to translate their vision to a broader audience, and in the process form a community. Considering both personalities as part of the “event” allows us to tie the Religious Genius to community, even if he or she are not engaged directly in creating community.
Let me illustrate by appeal to specific cases. Let us begin by contrasting Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. In terms of spiritual height, saintliness, grounding of presence in an alternative order of being, in short, in terms of all the qualities suggested as defining “Religious Genius”, Ramakrishna would emerge as a prime candidate. Ramakrhishna surely has something novel to teach us, especially as we consider the spiritual life in an interreligious context. But let us also consider the possibility that Vivekananda too manifests “Religious Genius”. His genius is grounded in the same vision of reality as that of his master, and in the sincere attempts of his own person to live to the fullest the qualities and characteristics that we have suggested are proper to a “Religious Genius”. But in terms of genius, Vivekananda may have different or complementary aspects of genius. He has the ability to restate the meaning of his tradition for his day. He has the ability to be creative in teaching and in delivering a message. His creativity finds expression in the realization that structures need to be created, in order to ensure the continuity of the message, and in his ability to successfully create such structures. He is thus a founder of sorts, even if in terms of the rarefied vision and personal spiritual standing, he himself would acknowledge how much more advanced his own master is. That one is viewed as an avatar while the other is viewed as a founding Swami sums the point up adequately. Once we consider “Religious Genius” as an event, integrating the person and the societal context in which he functions, we may be able to include both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda within one perspective, provided by “the Religious Genius Event”. Indeed, while resorting to different language, and while extending the “event” to include Ramakrishna’s wife, Sarada Devi, this is in effect the movement’s theology.
This dynamic may be recognized in other religious movements. Let us take Breslav Hassidism as a case in point. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav is a foremost Religious Genius. He meets all the criteria described above. He brings forth new teachings. He speaks from the exalted heights of his mystical attainment, while addressing a community in the here and now. He is succeeded in leadership by Rabbi Nathan of Breslav/Nemirov. The latter engages in the most brilliant literary activity, drawing forth the implications for daily life of the mystical insights of Rabbi Nachman. He provides structure to the movement, laying foundations for its long-term survival. He so deeply identifies with the message and teaching of Rabbi Nachman that he is able to assimilate it, digest it, and bring it forth in a new manner, creative in all respects. Yet, Rabbi Nathan does not seem to enjoy the same kind of direct experience of the other world that Rabbi Nachman did. It remains an orienting framework for him, but his own emulation is largely that of Rabbi Nachman, and by assimilating his teachings he is constantly oriented in light of our model. How much of the model he has actually attained in his own personal consciousness, we cannot tell; likely much less than the master himself. He is surely a religious leader; he may be the de factor founder of the movement, he may even be considered saintly, perhaps even a saint. What of “Religious Genius”? The present line of argumentation would not only see in Rabbi Nathan another modality of “Religious Genius”, but would suggest going beyond this question by integrating both figures into the “Religious Genius Event”.
This leads to a very charged question, also related to the discussion of “Religious Genius” and power, in the following section: Is “Religious Genius” transferable? Can it be the subject of dynastic continuity? We intuitively think of the Religious Genius as a lone individual, much as we think of the saint in similar terms. The history of religious institutions shows us, however, that with regard to saints, or outstanding religious leaders, some of them are contextually identified within dynasties, that transfer status, and along with it power, knowledge and possibly piety and perhaps even genius, from one generation to another. Religions that do not have monastic traditions develop hereditary lineages, where father transfers to son (or chosen disciple) the mantle of a spiritual life and a form of leadership that could be a contender not only for sainthood but also for “Religious Genius”. Consider the Sikh gurus. Consider the Sufi lineages that are hereditary and produce Sufi masters in successive generations. Consider some of the Hassidic dynasties that have produced towering spiritual figures, generation after generation. Is their greatness only in the eyes of the beholder, their own flock, or is there some greatness or genius that is sown from generation to generation? How, then, are we to think of such phenomena?
There are two possibilities that must be considered. The first relates to the present focus on the “Religious Genius Event”. Perhaps we should think of schools and dynasties in such terms, recognizing the core or root of the “Religious Genius”, as well as its later expansions, articulations and even variations as part of a related event. Another possibility that should be considered is the question of “Religious Genius” and its cultivation. If we are able to recognize “Religious Genius” meaningfully within dynasties, this suggests it can be cultivated and grown. This has huge consequences for the social and educational implications of reference to “Religious Genius”.
This leads to a final consideration of the scope and manifestation of what we call the “Religious Genius Event”. Might we consider “Religious Genius” to be a group phenomenon, and not simply an individual achievement? We might ask what are the conditions under which a group of geniuses might emerge and what external circumstances, environmental pressures and psychological and educational processes could lead to the emergence of such a group.
PART 7 – The “Power” of Religious Genius
The transformation brought about through the “Religious Genius Event” leads us to consider some of the less obvious aspects of the life and work of the Religious Genius. It may be suggested that transformation is effected through power. Power can be the power of learning, social power, the power of ideas, but also an elusive dimension of power that characterizes saints and religious geniuses, to which we presently turn.
Because a Religious Genius is understood here not as a “genius in the domain of religion” but as someone who has attained excellence in himself by achieving the vision and goal of the religion, the person of the Religious Genius plays a crucial role, in ways that it may not in the case of other kinds of geniuses. In this he is like the saint, who is appreciated in his person, rather than only through intellectual or social achievements. Therefore, transformation achieved by the Religious Genius draws on his person, and not only on his ideas. His ability to transform while alive is heavily indebted to his person and hence achieved through contact with the Religious Genius. (Consider, for example, that many may have followed Jesus because of his healing and miracles, but in the long term these became stories that were inseparable from a message and a way of life associated with him.) While broader transformation of the community, as well as continuing transformative work following his death, do occur primarily through teaching, they also remain indebted to his person, whose memory is captured in the testimony of narratives or even in the ideals of hagiography.
The Religious Genius’ life itself is transformed through his or her spiritual process, but no less significantly, so is the life of those who come into contact with him. Some of the transformation occurs through the example and the extension of the dynamics of imitation to the Religious Genius himself, who is in turn emulated by his followers and community. But there is a dimension of transformation that is beholden to the very being of the great spiritual person, rather than to the teaching or example. It is the experience of followers of all traditions that often the very being in the company of an outstanding spiritual personality is transformative. It allows the partaker to touch a reality that is otherwise not available to her and motivates long term changes, in the direction to which one aspires. The power of the Religious Genius is a purifying power, extending the reality of purity and love that are essential features of the Religious Genius. One dimension of creativity of the genius is his or her capacity to recreate, reshape, purify and transform those who attach themselves to him. Hence, the company of such individuals is sought and the relationship with them becomes far deeper than simply reading their books and benefiting from their teachings. He or she is active in generating some form of power or presence that impacts the lives of others and aids them in their personal transformation.
The question of power provides a far deeper challenge than understanding the dynamics of transformation. It leads us to a topic that is almost completely avoided in serious theological and contemporary philosophical discussion of saints, one that is almost an embarrassment to contemporary sensibilities or to contemporary norms of academic or philosophic discourse. I refer to the special powers associated with people who are often classified as saints and many of whom would fit our own description of “Religious Genius”. Such individuals often have special powers that are considered miraculous, whether they be powers of healing, exorcism, producing changes in nature or defying various rules of nature. Academic discourse on saints relegates these phenomena to the realm of the sociological/anthropological descriptive work. One describes the faith of others in miracles, while distancing oneself from it, in the act of description. There is rarely an attempt to take seriously the miraculous element, associated with the saints. And yet, this is a major aspect of the lives of saints and we cannot overlook it when we set out to describe “Religious Genius”. It is this dimension of power that makes saints more than philosophers or religious social workers.
For traditional theological understanding, the special powers are signs of a special relation with God or a sign of accumulated merit. But special powers are manifest also in exceptional individuals who belong to non-theistic traditions. (The only tradition that seems to lack descriptions of such special powers is the Confucian tradition.) In talking of “Religious Genius” we seek to identify a way to describe the phenomena without appeal to internal theological understanding. At the very least, we ought to be able to state that the Religious Genius has tapped into some other order of being or reality and that the supernatural is in some way indicative of this attainment.
Manifestation of special powers is probably one major difference between ”Religious Genius” and any other kind of genius – “Religious Genius” is often accompanied by signs of power that exceed the manifestations of creativity and inspiration found in other domains. It is cultivated in an intentional way as part of broader religious training. It is total in its demand and in how it implicates the life of the Religious Genius; it approaches the spiritual life in a systematic way, both in terms of the training offered and in terms of its extensivity. And it consciously focuses attention on a realm beyond, however it may be theologically understood. These differences may yield results that are far-reaching.
The power dimension of “Religious Genius” seems to suggest something about human potential and its relation to something beyond the human or natural order. Some of the capacities that religious geniuses and saints manifest are not simply more or enhanced human capacities, such as one normally thinks of genius, but other than human capacities, inasmuch as they go against and transcend ordinary limits of human power and ability, as well as the natural order. Transcending the self might provide a key to understanding how one accesses power, and it may be indeed that the Religious Genius is the only one that intentionally and consciously seeks to go beyond the self. This would lead us to future reflections on the self and beyond, whether in theistic, cosmic or other terms.
One possible dimension with which one might work, and that appears in many traditional accounts of the special powers associated with special religious individuals, is energetic. If we could identify a way of establishing the correlates of levels of existence, either in terms of metaphysics or in terms of consciousness, and their related energy states, we might be able to advance our understanding of how and why religious geniuses manifest special power. Recognizing the energetic dimension of whatever spiritual state a Religious Genius has attained also provides the key to why their presence is transformative and sought after by believers. These seek to be in their energetic field, and not only to benefit from their teachings. That Hindus seek the darshan of the saint and that followers of Zaddikim understand they have an obligation to attach themselves to their masters suggest that being, presence and fellowship may be best understood not simply as important values, but as occurrences that involve an energetic contact or transfer between the saint/genius and his or her community.
Religious Genius and Religio – Cultural Contexts: the Limits of Transformation
Community is not only the arena to which the Religious Genius contributes: it is also what provides the language, context and boundaries for the operations of the Religious Genius and these could, potentially hamper or limit the scope of the genius’ vision or its depth. While outstanding religious geniuses surely have the capacity to take their community beyond its present boundaries, in view of the ideal reality they live, it may be that certain individuals might be described as religious geniuses, while remaining bound by certain conventions that are less than the full realization of the potentialities of our model. The ideal of “Religious Genius” may not manifest itself equally, or freely, under all circumstances, and the tensions between specific religious or historical realities and the ideal model could prove to be a challenge in our ability to recognize “Religious Genius”. What happens when the broad mandate to love is constrained by cultural or historical circumstances? This question arises, for instance, in the case of Judaism. Judaism has produced some great masters of love. One of those is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a Hasidic master of the 18/19th century. He was famous for his loving capacities. A look at his teachings, however, reveals something disturbing. When it comes to non-Jews, the love-talk is often replaced by its opposite. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is not alone in this. The greater part of Jewish mystics, and the greater part of manifestations of literary and spiritual genius of the mystical movements, are quite selective in their world-view. This fact is quite disturbing to contemporary students of Jewish mysticism, who seek at the same time to maintain an open perspective towards the “other”. But in the present context it constitutes a challenge to the notion that “Religious Genius” is characterized by universal love. There are clearly cultural, ideological and historical constraints, that do not allow this quality, and hence the model, to be expressed in its fullness. Does this mean that these individuals are not religious geniuses, or that “Religious Genius” ought to be appreciated while taking into account various contemporary factors and constraints? (The negative attitude towards Jews exhibited by some Christians saints is an illustration of this.) Perhaps we might distinguish between “Religious Genius” that manifests within cultural pressures and norms and such that manifests beyond them. A qualitative distinction between them would allow us to consider differing degrees of “Religious Genius”, corresponding to how close the specific case is to the ideal. If so, the contrast between Rav Kook’s universal love and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s love of Israel could be construed as a contrast between pure “Religious Genius” and “Religious Genius” that is expressed through the limitations and confines of a particular religious culture.
Another illustration of the problem, again taken from Judaism. “Religious Genius”, it has been suggested, has a dimension of novelty, rearticulation and restatement of ultimate truths in new ways, suitable to the times. It is noteworthy that many of those who, from a spiritual perspective i.e. in terms of conformity to our model, would have been considered religious geniuses, have done little by way of advancing a reform or a restatement of Judaism in contemporary terms. The reasons are historical. Reform was undertaken by figures who would not at all qualify, based on our model, as religious geniuses, thereby pushing those whom we would identify as either saints or religious geniuses into a reactionary historical stance. Their contribution to contemporary posturing has been one of preserving the old, rather than offering fresh articulations of Judaism’s core spiritual vision. Does that mean that Judaism has, to a large extent, lost the capacity to produce religious geniuses, due to the historical and cultural factors shaping its history for the past century and more? Perhaps. Alternatively, we would have to take these circumstances into account and seek to identify more limited expressions of “Religious Genius” within these constraints.
Religious Genius and Interreligious Reality
The present study grows out of an interest in exploring how saints might provide a site for interreligious conversation and how “Religious Genius” might allow us to advance our understanding of saints and exceptional religious personalities, in other traditions as well as in our own. From the outset, the category of “Religious Genius” was approached with the hope of identifying a category that is not colored by one particular religion, that could therefore speak across traditions. Thus, if the thesis of the present essay is accepted, we have in “Religious Genius” a category that allows us to speak uniformly and a little more objectively about outstanding religious personalities, as we encounter them across religious traditions. If addressing outstanding religious individuals through the category of “Religious Genius” can advance our ability to draw inspiration from such individuals across religious traditions, then it will have justified the development of this category. In what follows, I shall offer further reflections concerning the potential “Religious Genius” has for advancing interreligious understanding.
Religious Genius as an Inspiration for Other Traditions
In addition to the geniuses given more-than-human minds, God also creates saints and prophets gifted with more-than-human souls. A prophet is a pioneer in the vast uncharted regions of the spirit. For spiritual progress to flourish, do we need to cultivate interest and humility to listen carefully and learn from such people, recognizing their important gifts? (Sir John Templeton )
The challenge to listen and learn from geniuses of the spirit involves more than simply opening “our” minds. For people who come from religious traditions, it involves going beyond the bounds of their tradition, in order to listen deeply to a message that was articulated within the framework of another tradition. This, as history teaches us, is not always easy. It is something that must be cultivated and justified. It is a domain where, for the most part, our religions provide us with very little precedent and at times they even make such listening impossible, either by directly forbidding it, or by creating conditions that are unfavorable to such listening. The present challenge is therefore how to develop an attitude, a theory, a culture of listening to the wisdom of saints, of religious geniuses from other traditions. If we can achieve this, then we have opened the door to significant advances in relations between religions and created wonderful opportunities for spiritual growth for their followers. This then is our task: to try to apply “Religious Genius” not only as a means of understanding or respecting the other, but as a path that might lead to greater sharing, inspiration and shared growth between religions and their practitioners.
It is worth noting that saints have always provided some kind of common ground between traditions. This is particularly true on the level of popular saint worship, though it may be argued that very often the elites too were quite open to receiving influence from others. On the level of popular piety we encounter time and again the phenomenon of common saint worship. Muslims and Hindus share saint shrines in India; Jews and Muslims do so in Morocco and elsewhere; Christians share saint shrines in the various localities in which Christianity has taken hold, in short everywhere. When one seeks blessing and requires intercession, why stop with saints of your own tradition? But when it comes to drawing inspiration or teaching, the situation becomes more complex.
Let us then consider in what way religious geniuses could allow us to receive from another tradition. The notion of the saint as a parable, by means of which we are called to the spiritual life is particularly helpful in an interreligious context. The Religious Genius of one tradition can serve as a parable for the faithful of another. The parable need not be followed in and of itself, but it recalls something for us, that which hides behind the parable. What it recalls is the higher realm of reality of which the Religious Genius partakes. And this realm is common to all. Consequently, the faithful of one tradition can be reminded by means of the parable offered by the genius of the other tradition of that which is common to all, the ultimate quest to position oneself in relation to the highest aspects of reality. The Religious Genius takes one beyond the tradition-specific teaching, through the invitation to imitate and conform to a higher reality, making its transformative power available.
If one considers not the specifically moral teaching, but the overall message of the Religious Genius or saint, one would have to draw a distinction between witnessing and sharing faith. With members of his own faith community, the genius shares his faith. To members of other communities, he offers a testimony of what it means to be religious, what it is like to be planted in two worlds simultaneously, how the perfection of the qualities associated with “Religious Genius” can lead to another way of being. He thereby inspires seekers of other traditions to identify how, within their own traditions, they might attain similar heights.
Reaching Across Traditions as a Yardstick for Religious Genius
Let us take the argument one step further. Having suggested that religious geniuses can inspire across traditions, we can advance the argument by suggesting that the capacity to inspire across traditions be considered a feature of “Religious Genius”. As it is acknowledged that reference to “Religious Genius” in the present study assumes an agreed upon meaning that is constructed by consensus, this consensus may be expanded to include within the framework of “Religious Genius” also the capacity to inspire across traditions. Recognizing the transformative power of “Religious Genius” and given the stated interest in applying the category in a cross-religious context, we recommend for consideration the following framework (not definition) for appreciating the Religious Genius: A person whose religious persona and religious transformative contributions to a tradition are of such magnitude to have the potential to reach beyond the home tradition to make him or her enduringly inspiring across religious traditions.
Various nuances and implications emerge from closer scrutiny of this formulation and its subject matter:
- If the concept of “Religious Genius” developed here has a dimension of advocacy to it, then it would be advocating not simply for the existence of religious geniuses or for the category as a means of appreciating them, but for the ability of religious geniuses to inspire across traditions as a fundamental aspect, associated with the individuals or with our ability to appreciate them.
- Note the reference to persona, rather than personality, in the phrase under discussion. This suggests that the persona as it has developed beyond the historical personality is not without interest to the continuing evolution of the image of the Religious Genius. This points once again to the dynamics of the individual and the community that preserves and recasts his memory.
- Note further the dual emphasis on religious persona and on transformative contributions, each of which can serve as a basis for inspiration for other traditions.
- While the actual innovation or transformation within tradition cannot be translated across traditions, the interplay between the qualities of the Religious Genius and the transformation she effects can serve as a lesson that can be implemented across cultures, religions and time periods.
- It is recognized that the Religious Genius’ impact within the community is of a different magnitude than beyond her community. Within the community, the Religious Genius creates community and shapes it. Beyond her community, the Religious Genius is a source of inspiration, a model, a teacher. But she will rarely, if ever, recreate a community, beyond the interest of those, often only individuals, who draw inspiration from the example of her person, accomplishments and deeds.
- Transformation requires a shared religious language with the community, based upon which transformation can be effected. Finding such common language across traditions is harder. Consequently, the inspiration of the Religious Genius across traditions will be largely in the domain of ideas that resonate against a common conceptual background.
- The capacity to speak across traditions is related to the Religious Genius’ attitude to tradition itself. Typically, or commonly, the Religious Genius brings to tradition broader spiritual or visionary horizons that in some way contextualize the tradition in ways that allow it to speak beyond its native community.
- In presenting religious geniuses across traditions we would readily present those dimensions of the Religious Genius that are translatable, hence germane to our understanding of “Religious Genius”. At the same time, it is also important to preserve and present those aspects that are unique and not readily translatable. One should avoid a reduction of “Religious Genius” to broad commonalities. Even if the model of “Religious Genius” does assume such broad commonalities of spiritual experience, nevertheless the traditions transformed by the Religious Genius and the genius’ contribution to them do bear marks of uniqueness and untranslatability.
- In referring to the capacity to inspire beyond traditions, one must consider the complex interaction of factors: the person, the teaching, and changing circumstances and opportunities that make such learning and inspiration possible. Awareness of these multiple dimensions will orient future study of these individuals and their potential impact across traditions.
- Awareness of the interreligious potential of religious geniuses raises the question of what are the most useful materials to be studied and presented to broader audiences. Narrowly legal or particularistic theological emphases would likely not capture the genius quality in ways that another community can appreciate. Poetry or narrative of a life have greater likelihood of being appreciated across traditions.
- One might consider what the medium by means of which the Religious Genius impacted her own community is, as a basis for suggesting what media might communicate best across traditions. Without excluding theological expressions of “Religious Genius”, one recognizes that many religious geniuses also had the ability to communicate to broader publics, in less theological or technical ways, thereby allowing such communication to extend beyond their original community or traditions. This might hold the key to understanding what can translate or reverberate beyond the narrowness or particularity of a tradition.
The notion of “interreligious geniuses” is not as novel as it might seem. The tradition that is most comfortable with drawing from the testimony and experience of other traditions is the Sikh tradition. Its scriptures are thus constructed, drawing on saints of other traditions, and taking great pride in the fact.
Some have suggested that the model for a modern paradigm of being inspired by saints of other traditions is Gandhi. Interestingly, many have considered Gandhi himself a saint, though Indians have resisted this, possibly accepting Gandhi’s own protestations on the matter. Indeed, Gandhi might be an interesting test case for our thesis of “Religious Genius”. Even if one has trouble calling him “Saint Gandhi” , as some might have liked, would he qualify as a Religious Genius? Gandhi was discussed by our scholars as a test case for “Religious Genius”. While some advocated considering him a Religious Genius, the majority opinion seems to have been that his genius was not in the specifically religious field. While drawing on religious resources, Gandhi did not meet the criteria we have posited for “Religious Genius”, in terms of bringing transformation to a religious tradition and possibly in terms of the more subjective or interior aspects of our model. Thus, the argument for “Saint Gandhi” might actually work better than the argument for Gandhi the Religious Genius. But Gandhi is even more important in the fact that within his own spiritual universe he constructed an international saintly community. It includes such figures as Jesus, St. Francis and Tolstoy. Gandhi’s approach to saints was eclectic, and his eclecticism puts him in the company of many saints, whose mission is to break through some of the boundaries and structures of everyday existence. In this, Gandhi may be truly modern, pointing to one of the great challenges, and promises, that faces us.
Sainthood is in crisis. Few appeal to it; few think seriously in terms of sainthood. It is thus of particular note that those saints that have captured the global mind have done so precisely by going beyond the boundaries of their own tradition. Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, some might add the Dalai Lama or Pope John Paul, are all figures who bore a testimony of significance that went beyond the confines of their own religious community. With the obvious popularity they enjoyed in the media, they became global saints, interreligious saints.
There is an even more far-reaching phenomenon when it comes to interreligious saints. There may be more to the notion of an “interreligious saint” or “Religious Genius” than the capacity of inspiring across traditions. Some contemporary spiritual teachers, especially in the Hindu context, seem to be redefining or restating the meaning, teaching and practices of their religion so that it is not defined in a narrow way, specific to the religious roots of the tradition, but in a more global and universal way, that can speak beyond the tradition, and to other traditions as well. Some contemporary religious leaders, while drawing from their traditions and in some way maintaining continuity with it, also offer their teachings in a new global context in ways that are detached from those roots. If we recognize such individuals as religious geniuses, their reaching across religious traditions is built into the construction of a teaching or a religious movement. (The question of proximity in time and the need for historical distance in evaluating a person’s lasting contribution to a tradition and his genius status is one of the methodological challenges of study of religious geniuses.) Recent or contemporary examples are Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Sankar and Amrtanandamayi. Universalizing a religious tradition thus emerges as one possible significant innovation of religious geniuses.
Legitimating Otherness, Confronting the Challenge of Truth
One of the biggest challenges in contemporary thought is the status of the Other. This challenge informs much of contemporary reflection on interreligious relations. Saints and religious geniuses have a contribution to make here. Edith Wyschogrod sums up her argument in Saints and Postmodernism as follows:
I have argued that desire for the Other imposes a responsibility for the Other that is especially strong in the lives of saints. I maintained (with Levinas) that the face is the an-iconic material expression of the Other that provides the warranty for language and that saints’ lives, far more than others, respond to the impingement of alterity.
If saints respond to alterity, does that not lead us to seek those saints and to cultivate the very notion of sainthood for our day so that it addresses directly the greatest challenge of otherness that pertains directly to the realm of the saint – the otherness of the other religion and its saints? “Religious Genius”, then, must be able to contain religious otherness as a feature of the times. Whatever historical, political and social circumstances may have prevented saints of the past from affording full recognition to the saints of the other, the Religious Genius of today must practice the depth of universal love and union in such a way that it includes the greatest alterity, the religious other, within the sphere of the one integrated reality of which he is a symbol.
It is not only the Religious Genius who must accommodate, address and in some way transcend or incorporate alterity. It is also the receiving tradition, the one that is inspired by the Religious Genius that must find ways of justifying and legitimating its openness to and capacity to be inspired by the saints and geniuses of another tradition. The idea of deriving inspiration from saints and geniuses of another tradition requires establishing or identifying theological mechanisms, by means of which such inspiration might be justified.
A “Religious Genius”, as we know, presents a statement of spiritual reality and spells out its implications for a tradition. How can such a statement be appreciated while bracketing the implied truth-claims of the knowledge shared? One strategy has already been suggested – appreciation of the spiritual and existential posture, while bracketing engagement with its truth-content. Such a strategy opens the door to appreciation and in turn to respect for the other. Accordingly, we could ascertain that someone belongs to the category of “Religious Genius”, having identified significant presence of the various markers and criteria by which ”Religious Genius” is recognized or defined. Following such recognition, we would be led to recognize in a body of teaching or a revelation a genuine expression of ”Religious Genius”. This does not mean we will necessarily adopt it or accept its content as “truth”, at least not for ourselves. But if we concluded that the founder of a religious tradition outside our own showed various signs of being a “Religious Genius”, this would certainly change our attitude to the religion itself, enhancing respect for it, while leaving open the question of truth.
Thus, knowledge of the instrument of the revelation and recognition of those attributes by means of which we recognize “Religious Genius” would lead to attitudinal change. At the very least it would allow us to recognize its sacred text/s an expression of “Religious Genius”. This would be more objective than the claims of revelation, based purely on faith. If the instrument of revelation could be presented in terms of the lifestyle, moral attainment and overall degree of human caliber that could provide a framework for the activation of intuition and vision, yielding a new religious expression, legitimacy of that revelation would be enhanced. The fruits of such recognition would surely be greater respect. Conversely, agents that do not manifest the characteristics of “Religious Genius” would be more readily considered as having produced works of their own imagination.
We do well to recall the different kinds of information and teaching for which the Religious Genius is an agent. These include teachings concerning the supernal world and metaphysical reality, means of addressing contemporary challenges and affirmation of classical teachings of the correct way of living. The challenge of truth differs in relation to each of these forms of knowledge or wisdom. Opening ourselves up to the inspiration of religious geniuses of another tradition and the challenges it presents should be considered separately for each of the bodies of knowledge related by the Religious Genius. Certainly, recognition of the “Religious Genius” status of an individual makes it easier to open up and to receive inspiration and even to accept as true the second and third type of knowledge. This itself is no small achievement.