Alan Watts' Letter of Resignation to the Episcopal Church

henry1560
—-PORTRAIT: Henry VIII

My dear friends,

After long and careful thought I have had to take a step which will perhaps be most disturbing to many of you, though to others it may come as no surprise. I have come to the conclusion that I cannot remain in either the ministry or the communion of the Episcopal Church.

In retrospect, I believe that I entered the ministry under the influence of a tendency which has become rather widespread – a tendency to seek refuge from the confusion of our times by giving into a kind of nostalgia. In a world where all the traditions in which men have found security are crumbling, the mind seeks peace and sanity in an attempt to return to a former state of faith. It envies the inner calm and certitude of an earlier age, where men could put absolute and childlike trust in the authority of the Church, and in the ordered beauty of an ancient doctrine.

Undoubtedly the form of Christian doctrine and worship contains the most profound truth, but I am afraid that the attempt to maintain and revive it is an ineffectual resistance to inevitable change. For so many people, the forms no longer convey their meaning, and the language they speak is both archaic and cumbersome. Others want to believe, and try to convince themselves that they do so, but their faith has that hollow self-consciousness so characteristic of the modern convert, since the mind is acting a role untrue to its inmost state. You cannot imitate faith, and when forms of belief, like all other finite things, begin to die, the effort to revive them is imitation. It doesn’t ring true. But the forms perish, not only because they are mortal, but also because the Spirit within them is breaking them as a bird breaks from its shell.

We are living in a time of disintegration and iconoclasm which the Hindus call Kali Yuga. It hurts and frightens us, but is not essentially evil. It is rather a universal Passion in which man cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But it is the prelude to a Resurrection, because spiritual growth depends upon ceasing to cling to any form of life for security. Forms are not contrary to the Spirit, but it is their nature to die; their transiency is their very life, and a permanent form would be a monstrosity – a finite thing aping God.

The Spirit uses forms, and reveals itself through them, for which reason they are both wonderful and necessary. But they are not exempt from the simplest law of life – that, life every other living thing, to grasp them is to strangle and kill them. To preserve them in death is to cling to corruption.

He who is, for Christians, the form of God, the “express image of his Person,” did not forget to warn us: “It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Paraclete cannot come to you.” After his Resurrection the same warning was given to Saint Mary Magdalene: “Do not cling to me!” The tragedy of the Church is that in trying to love form, it has denied its image and the words of Christ himself have been corrupted in the very act of giving them permanent and absolute authority. He has been made into an idol which must be destroyed in his own Name.

I do not want anything that I say here to hurt the Church. For the Church is people – people whom I have learned to love. For that very love I cannot be a party to their hurting themselves and others by seeking security from forms which, if understood aright, are crying, “Do not cling to us!” Out of very gratitude for all that the Church has done for me, I must be honest, and say what I see to be true.

Insofar as the Church is committed to a desire for and a clinging to authority, permanence, spiritual safety, and absolute guides of conduct, it is clinging to its own death. By such means, belief in God, the hope of immortality, and the quest for salvation, become only escapes from the inner emptiness and insecurity which most of us feel in the depths of our being when confronted with the loneliness, the transiency, and the uncertainty of human life. But that inner emptiness is not a void to be filled with comforts; it is a window to be looked through. It is not an evil that life – our own life – flows, changes, and passes away. It is a revelation to prevent us from clinging to ourselves, for whoever lets go of himself finds God. The state of eternal life and oneness with God comes to pass – like a miracle – only when we release our grasp on every kind of spiritual security. To cling to security is only to cling to oneself, and perish of strangulation.

It would be a silly kind of pride to pretend that we can surrender this passion for safety just by trying. It is not effort that breaks the vicious circle of self-strangulation; it is an awareness and understanding of its complete futility. To be aware of this futility is to look through the emptiness within – that window into heaven which affords the vision of God.

Much of this has a familiar ring to the Christian. “Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.” But I have found that you cannot make the point clear within the Church as it exists without running into contradictions at every step. The liturgy is cluttered beyond hope with sentiments, prayers, and hymns conceived in the state of anxious grasping to forms. And that is by no means all.

During the past years I have continued my studies of the spiritual teachings of the Orient, alongside with Catholic theology, and, though I have sometimes doubted it, I am now fully persuaded that the Church’s claim to be the best of all ways to God is not only a mistake, but also a symptom of anxiety. Obviously, one who has found a great truth is eager to share it with others. But to insist – often in ignorance of other revelations – that one’s own is supreme argues a certain inferiority complex characteristic of all imperialisms. “Me thinks thou doth protest too much.” This claim of supremacy is, for me, the chiefest sign of how deeply the Church is committed to this self-strangulation, this anxiety for certainty, and I cannot support the proselytism in which it issues.

It has been my privilege to know priests of the Church who are men of wonderful humility. But, whether they intend it or not, their assumption of that office usually becomes, in the eyes of laymen and the general public, a claim to spiritual authority and moral superiority. Beyond doubt there are priests who speak with true authority and who are morally superior. But to claim such gifts vitiates them, even when the claim is tacit or derivative, and is the stumbling-block to those who mistakenly cling to authority in their quest for security. For true authority says, “Let go. You will only find God if you do not try to possess him.” I must, then, do what lies in my power to renounce even tacit claim to superiority, whether spiritual or moral. For one reason, such a claim would be untrue. For another, the expectation that every clergyman be a moral exemplar is an aspect of that unfortunate moral self-consciousness which has so long afflicted the Western world.

The best Christian thought has always seen that only Pharisaism comes through trying to be good. For sanctity is less in wanting to be moral than in loving God and other men. But the moralism which condemns a man for not loving is simply adding strength to that sense of fear and insecurity which prevents him from loving. You may help him to live neither by condemning nor consoling, but by encouraging him to understand and accept the fear and insecurity which he feels. Yet one who tries to suggest this healing acceptance of fear within the framework of the church is again beset by contradictions, since in all its official formularies and utterances the Church is either threatening with penalties or consoling with promises. The result is to exploit and aggravate man’s fear, to foster a simulated love which is fear in disguise – fear running away from itself – for love will no more grow from such blind fear than the grape from the thorn...


...Am I, in all that has been said here, demanding of the Church a spiritual perfection which cannot be forced – falling into the old heresy of antinomianism, which expects all Christians to be so completely in the Spirit that they need no law? I ask no such thing. Nothing is further from my mind and my meaning than to condemn the Church for falling short of an ideal. My departure from the Church is not a moral protest; it is simply that seeing what I see, I cannot do otherwise. I take no credit for it. My viewpoint is not one of moral judgment and condemnation, but of simple inability to conform to a rule of life based on what I see to be illusions.

What I see is what life has shown me: that in fear I cling to myself, and that such clinging is quite futile. I have found that trying to stop this self-strangulation through discipline, belief in God, prayer, resort to authority, and all the rest, is likewise futile. Trying not to be selfish, trying to realize an ideal, is simply the original selfishness in another form. Worship as an expression of joy or thanksgiving I can understand. But spiritual exercises or moral disciplines undertaken to raise oneself by one’s own spiritual bootstraps are absurd, for they are based on the illusion that the “I” who would improve is different from the “me” who must be improved. And to ask for the grace to be so improved is merely an indirect form of the same thing.

The more clearly I see this, the less choice I have in the matter: I cannot go on doing. The more I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish, or to love where I do not love, I have no choice but to stop it. At a yet deeper level, the more I see the futility of myself for clinging to myself, I have no choice but to stop clinging. In this choiceless bondage one is miraculously free. For where the actual possibility of “I” loving “me” is seen to be an illusion, the vicious circle is broken, and there remains only that outflowing love which is called God.

Much more remains to be said, but in this brief space I can do no more than sketch the point of view on which I must act. But I do want to warn any of you who might want to follow my example and leave the Church likewise. You cannot act rightly by imitating the actions of another. This is to act without understanding, and where there is no understanding the vicious circle goes on. I have no wish to lead a “movement” away from Church. If any leave, let them do so on their own account, not from choice, not because they feel they “should,” but only if understanding makes it clear that, for them, there is no other alternative.

I expect, now, to devote most of my time to writing and lecturing, not because I wish to make converts, but because I love this work more than any other, because it enables me to live and take care of my family, and because I believe I have something to say which is worth saying.

Faithfully yours,
Alan W. Watts
August 1950

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COMMENTARY (BEI KUAN-TU)

Much debate is 
directed at the life and times of Alan Watts.  From "troubadour of liberty", "bridge to the East", "joyous sage", and one who “failed miserably to walk the talk,”  Watts, maybe a tortured soul, in fact blessed his listeners to see beyond the cultural biases of their day   As an old Zen proverb suggests, "the finger that points to the moon is never the moon".  A paramount point! We demand that our way-showers be of such a character what we can certainly trust in their lives and personal integrities — only to find they, like us, are immensely  fragile and woefully flawed Beings.  Remember the Old Testament story of Balaam's talking donkey (Numbers 22:28) “And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam...”  

God Moves in Mysterious Ways
—William Cowper (1731–1800)

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will...


As for Alan Watts, Thomas M. Cushing (Amazon review) insightfully states, “wisdom often is born of failure and struggle, and his loss was our gift. I consider him one of my finest teachers while growing up...  He "played" his part to teach us that the falseness and contradictions of the world can be reconciled in one true spirit.”

—Bei Kuan-tu


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