Monday, May 05, 2008

A day in the life of a pastor: conversations with a student of Dharma

One of the pleasures of having Panera Bread as a branch office are the providential encounters that happen there from time to time. Last week, I ran into an old acquaintence whom I hadn't seen in many months or more: Richard Blumberg. When I first met Richard, he was a self-described atheist, though interested in the teachings of Buddhism. Despite this difference (or perhaps because of it), we have great conversations. He's a warm hearted guy with a great sense of humor and and generous spirit.

Richard put up a blog post last week about the comparison of Buddhism and Christianity (in response to a question he'd been asked in one of the classes he teaches), and he asked me for feedback. I'm afraid that my understanding of Buddhism is but rudimentary, though I do know a thing or two about Christianity. So I offer these points just as a matter of clarification about the Christian faith. Richard...I'm looking forward to ongoing discussion on the deep things of faith and life.

Richard summarizes his opening thus: "There are three things, I think, that most clearly distinguish the Buddha’s teachings from the Christian scriptures: the authenticity and coherence of the scriptural documents, the differing natures of Jesus and the Buddha, and the vast differences in the core doctrines. I’ll take these one at a time."

Authenticity and coherence of scriptural documents:
"Almost from the beginning of Christianity, there has been significant dispute about the authenticity of the Gospels; they do, after all, differ considerably in the stories they tell of some of the more significant events in the story of Jesus the Christ; they frequently seem to be promoting a particular doctrinal agenda; and the emphasis each one lays on the events in the life of Jesus and the importance of those events and of his various teachings differs considerably from one Gospel to the next. There is also the nagging question of alternative Gospels, with an equal or greater claim to authenticity than the canonical four, that would have changed the message of the canon considerably had they been included with the others. "

I suppose the matter of believability depends upon the place from which one stands. Needless to say, I find the Gospels to be quite believable. The issue of "alternative gospels" is an interesting one. The debates in the first three centuries of the church seem to demonstrate a strong unity of belief among the majority of Christians ... though there were splinter groups that sought to carve their own way. The most significant debates in the early church were not whether to include "alternative gospels", but rather which of the canonical books of the new testament to include.

I prefer to look at the great unity across the canon of the New Testament. Yes, there are passages that exist in tension with one another (which is why some sects wanted to leave out certain books), but this is not necessarily contradiction. I must guard against my own chronological snobbery in which I assume that I as a rational enlightened 21st century figure can see contradictions that the first and second and third century Christians were blind to. The tensions were quite obvious to them...and they lived with them. This seems to accurately reflect life ... differing perceptions and yet behind them is truth.

So, I'm afraid I just have to disagree on the issue of reliability of the scriptures of Christianity. I, and many others, find them reliable and trustworthy and real. The scriptures of Christianity were recorded within the lifetime of Jesus' disciples and had the opportunity to be corroborated and challenged and cross checked, whereas the Pali Canon was written down 500 years after the Buddha's teaching. I can grant the reliability of the Pali Canon based upon the capacity of oral-based cultures to remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge....however I must also grant that same reliabilty to the Jewish culture of antiquity which shared a similar reverence for oral tradition.

The differing natures of the teachers.
"While it’s possible to take from the Gospels a picture of Jesus that is distinctly human—a smart and charismatic person, standing in radical opposition to the orthodoxy of his day, leader of a small group of revolutionaries focussed on the overthrow of the priestly establishment and of the occupying Romans who supported it—that is not the Jesus on which the religion of Christianity or the Christian Church is based. The Christian Jesus is, above and beyond any other characteristics, a divine Being, Son of God Himself, Who took birth as a man to fulfill His Father’s heavenly purpose, and Who, after His crucifixion, was bodily taken back up to Heaven to sit at His Father’s right hand."

This is very close but not quite on. The Jesus of Christianity is both fully human and fully divine. Indeed, many of the early debates within Christianity were all about working out how does Jesus' human nature relate to Jesus' divine nature. The church very wisely followed the indications in scripture....Jesus is fully human, he suffers, he bleeds, he stands against the powers and principalities, he weeps, he laughs. But scripture also clearly indicates that Jesus is divine. This divinity however doesn't make Jesus some distant iceburg...rather it pushes us into the mystery of God with us. It pushes us to confront the idea that God chooses not to lord power over all of us, but rather becomes one of us to show His identificiation with us. Thus Christianity doesn't just embrace Jesus full humanity, it requires that it always be held side by side with Jesus' full divinity.

Contrasting Doctrines: The Meaning of Life
And that brings us to the most significant difference between Christianity and Buddhism: the vastly different doctrines at their cores. In what follows, I’m going to focus on two aspects of doctrine: what each religion teaches about the purpose of life and what each presents as the rules for living a good life—essentially, ontology and ethics. And I want to protest in advance that I am not and have never been a Christian; in all of what follows, I am on shaky ground.

The primary ontological focus of Christianity, as I understand it, is soteriological: Christianity is all about sin and salvation. Orthodox Christianity views the original condition of humankind as a state of sin; the role of Jesus as Messiah, Savior, was to redeem that sin and save mankind from the fate that sinners are doomed to suffer. To carry out His mission of redemption, Jesus had to die on the cross and rise from the tomb. To benefit from Jesus’s sacrifice, to participate in Salvation, it is only necessary to believe in Him.

Sadly, this is the impression that we as Christians give, isn't it. That Christianity is nothing more than a "get out of hell free card". That's never been the historic understanding of the Christian purpose of life, but somewhere we've allowed ourselves to get sucked into slick marketing of Jesus as though he were a "7 habits of highly effective gurus" programme.

In my tradition, we have a teaching tool called the Westminster Shorter was authored in the 1600's as a method of transmitting the essentials of faith from one generation to the next. It begins with the basic question "What is the chief end of man?" .... ie, what is our ontology? The answer: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Nothing in that about salvation. The end goal of all of creation is ultimately about reflecting back the innate glory of the Creator. The vastness of space, the intricacy of subatomic structures, the mysterious workings of the forces of physics, the greatest supernova and the smallest protozoa....all of it bears something of the thumbprint of the Creator. In so far as those things draw our breath in awe and wonder, they accomplish something of the purpose of bringing glory to the Creator. And this takes us to the second half "enjoy him forever" -- the Creator created us as personal relational beings that we might eternally be in relationship with him.

It is only upon that understanding that the whole story of sin and redemption operates. Salvation is not the purpose of is the rescue operation from a tragic abberation from our purpose in life.

So here I might nuance your understanding of the difference between Buddhism and Christianity. For as I understand Christianity, our personhood ... our individuality is a key component. We are each as individuals in relationship with the living God. Relationship of course entails the mystery of combining individuality with self-loss for the other in a mutual relationship of love.

Buddhism, as I understand it, teaches that personality itself is illusion...that part of dukkha is the craving to be individuals. My understanding is that Buddhism teaches that personhood is illussion from which we must be freed. To my mind that personhood/non-personhood distinction is the more precise definition of the difference in ontology.

Contrasting Doctrines: Ethics
"Nor do I mean to imply that there is no place for faith in Buddhism. In fact, faith is a core virtue in Buddhism, but it seems to me that it means something different there than it does in Christianity. In Christianity, faith is where it ends; if you have faith, you’re in, you’re saved. In Buddhism, faith is where it begins; we have to have faith that the Buddha was, in fact, awakened, liberated from attachment to transient things and the dukkha that attends such attachment; and we have to have faith that he was being honest about the Path that led to his awakening. Without that measure of faith, we’d have no incentive to undertake the practice of the Path ourselves. But we also need to have faith that the Buddha did all that as a human being and that his accomplishment, awesome as it is, is within our reach as human beings. We must have faith in our own ability to reduce dukkha and, eventually, to bring it to an end."

Again, sadly this reflects how poorly the church communicates who we are called to be. The scriptures do speak of Christianity being rooted in grace, but that the grace is unto something: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9) is a classic statement about grace and salvation, but the statement doesn't end there...the next verse is key "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." They key point here being that it is not sufficient to say "if you have faith, that's it you're saved" b/c that kind of thinking misses the whole point. Being saved isn't just a rescue from perdition, it is also a rescue to living a life of service and love. It means being transformed into a servant who loves his neighbor as himself.

Again, I believe the main difference on this issue of ethics is not so much the content of the ethical's in the power and capacity. Who is empowering the good acts. You make the point that the Buddha was fully human and therefore he shows us that we humans can follow the path too. The idea in Buddhism seems to be that each of us must find that Path for ourselves and we must take responsibility for following that path.

By contrast Christianity emphasizes our inability to follow the path on our own. Our radical dependence upon Christ is what is in mind. Not only are we unable to reconcile ourselves to God, but we are also unable to walk the Path that Christ teaches...thus Christ offers help: " out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13). This truth is tied into the relational nature of Christianity.... we can neither accomplish what we need nor live the way we ought. However we place our faith in Christ's working to accomplish the reconciliation with God that we need....and we trust in the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us to live the way we ought.

Hope these thoughts help....thanks for providing some stimulating food for thought. I'm looking forward to future conversation (online or off).

Soli Deo Gloria